By Scott A. Shay
Anti-Semitism is frequently viewed as “the canary in the coal mine.” It signals a more general climate of prejudice that manifests with an increasing hatred of Jews. In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, many articles have made this point. They focused on the extent of anti-Semitism in the U.S., and its relationship to other forms of ethnic, religious, and even gender-based prejudice. While the “canary in the coal mine” viewpoint is important, the questions about anti-Semitism are far broader. To address them, we need a clear understanding of anti-Semitism itself. I stand with those who think anti-Semitism is a distinct form of prejudice – not because the degree of its cruelty (for the damage done by other prejudices has been no less deadly) but because of its nature. By understanding anti-Semitism, we can defeat much more than hatred of Jews and other peoples.
Anti-Semitism is about power. It is distinct from other prejudices by its obsession with perceived malevolent Jewish power and by its pervasiveness among disparate societies, political and ideological groups, and eras. From Nazism and Communism, from most streams of Christianity until the last century, to present day Islamism, from the hallowed halls of Harvard University to back water towns, from an ancient Pharaoh to a current Malaysian prime minister, anti-Semites have accused the Jews of all manners of conspiracies to rule the world and destroy other peoples. This is not the case with racism against African peoples or Native Americans, for example, who are accused by racists of many heinous things, but not of world domination.
To understand anti-Semitism, we need to understand malevolent power more generally. The Bible continues to offer the most sophisticated intellectual and moral contribution to the nature of malevolent power we have through its discussion of idolatry.
Unfortunately, most modern folk view idolatry as irrelevant. They think idolatry is about worshiping stones or spirits. This is a grave misunderstanding. While power is a natural phenomenon involving many facets, such as resources, strength, strategy, or information, the Bible defines idolatry as a set of lies about power and authority. Idolatry is the process of attributing of superior and inexplicable power and authority to finite people, animals and natural processes. Since finite beings are limited by nature, which also limits all forms of power, idolatry is by definition a lie. Yet this lie is the basis for much human injustice, just as the Bible explains. From Pharaoh in Egypt to Senacharib in Assyria, idolaters built temples, ran pageants and wrote poems and epics to exult their “supernatural” power and authority. These lies justified their selfish oppression of the masses and their greedy conquests of other peoples. Idolatry underpins all genuinely malevolent power.
The Bible also describes how idolatry is always vulnerable to the truth. Neither Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar or Sanacharib were the gods or demi-gods they pretended to be. They could all be, and were all, toppled. Not that this is easy, nor without many casualties for they had natural power: military might and resources. But, their supposed supernatural power and authority was exposed as a lie. As the biblical texts describe, the only God worth worshipping is above nature and incorruptible. No person is or can ever be divine; no person can ever have power or authority beyond nature, even though, as the Bible explains, we all carry a spark of divinity in ourselves, a soul. Based on this fundamental axiom, the Bible mandates us to treat each other equally, for example, by loving our brothers and sisters in humanity as ourselves (Leviticus 19: 17-18) or by not doing unto others what we don’t wish done to ourselves (Talmud Shabbat 31a). These axioms are the root of justice and have come to be known as the Golden Rule. Justice is the opposite of malevolent power. Idolatry destroys the conceptual foundations of justice. You don’t need to believe in God or in the soul to reject idolatry.
Sadly, the 20th century provided a catalogue of idolaters, who not only promoted their power but tried to avoid being exposed. Dictators like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jun-il on the left and Hitler and Saddam Hussein on the right, relied on idolatry. Whether they claimed to be atheistic or religious, they turned to Pharaoh’s playbook building statutes of themselves, they promoted songs, stories and pageants about their greatness, and they demanded complete obedience to their worldview. Stalin famously ordered the Soviet space agency to project his face into the sky. Yet fearing they would be exposed, 20th century idolatrous leaders turned lies into the truth and evil into good. Idolaters called themselves the victims and their victims the perpetrators. While the Nazis rounded up and murdered the Jews and conquered most of Europe, Hitler claimed he was defending the world from “Jewish evil and world domination.” In the name of “progress,” Pol Pot murdered Cambodian citizens with eyeglasses because they might “mislead” others. This subversive dynamic of idolatry underpins all anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is the projection of idolatry onto Jews. Anti-Semites are not people who criticize or debate specific Jewish viewpoints or communal decisions in a spirit of mutual respect. They are people who themselves harbor projects of domination and exploitation, but who fearing to be exposed, project their own malevolent intentions onto Jews. In Charlottesville, anti-Semitic marchers who genuinely seek white supremacy shouted, “Jews won’t replace us.” Khomeini who wished to bring the entire world under Islamist control, regularly accused the Jews of seeking world domination. Hitler, railed against a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany, when he wanted to destroy the Jews! Anti-Semites say the Jews control the media, the Jews control the banks, the Jews control the Congress and so on all for their own benefit, when this is actually what they themselves wish to do. Still you might ask, why single out the Jews?
It is not the Jews’ success, nor their actual power that is the source of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has often proliferated at times when the Jews were poor and powerless. Jews who tried returning to their home towns in Europe after surviving the concentration camps could certainly attest to that. Rather, it is the Jews’ historic connection with monotheism that has made them the central target of this projected idolatry. This has been true even when many Jews are neither religious nor conversant in the texts. By accusing Jews of malevolent and demonic control over organs of power (media, Congress, banks, etc.), true idolaters (whatever their specific ideology) project their own idolatry onto the Jews and thereby maintain their own delusions. Every idolater fears that their lies about power could be exposed. Yet since they refuse to reject their own injustice and lies, idolaters must eliminate the Jews who are connected to a God who upholds universal justice. Then “their god” that is to say, they win. The fact that so many anti-Semitic attacks occur at synagogues or in Jewish community centers, cemeteries, rather than at the other places Jews supposedly control, speaks to this connection.
This dynamic is also apparent in the anti-Semitic rants of a small minority of purportedly Christians or Muslims, who supposedly worship the same omnibenevolent God. The Bible anticipates this problem. While the first two commandments prohibit idolatry, the third commandment (according to the Christian count, the second commandment), prohibits oppression under the false guise of acting as God’s sole spokesperson or attributing to God ideas that are not in the Scriptures. This third commandment is too often trivialized as to merely prohibiting pronouncing God’s name in vain. However, if that is all there is to this commandment, it would not have been in the top ten. It is, further, the only commandment in the Ten for which there is no atonement. That tells the reader to take close notice. This commandment follows the first two on idolatry because it is simply another form of idolatry except under the hijacked guise of monotheism. The Bible warns against this phenomena of idolaters in monotheistic garb on multiple occasions. And for this reason, the Bible is accessible to everyone. Moreover, it was ordained to be read by everyone, as we are each responsible for understanding the dangers of idolatry.
Anti-Semitism is “the canary in the coal mine,” but not just for the rise of prejudice. Anti-Semitism is the sign of widespread idolatry and when idolatry takes hold in a society the real horrors begin. The greatest anti-Semites not only victimized other groups they destroyed the moral fabric of their own societies. Nazis not only hated and murdered the Gypsies and Slavs; they turned many ordinary Germans into liars, snitches, thieves and murderers. By uniting to combat anti-Semitism, people of all stripes can join together in combating idolatry which is the fundamental corrupting influence on society.
Scott A. Shay is the author of “In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism” (Post Hill Press, September, 2018) and chairman and co-founder of Signature Bank of New York.
Originally publised in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; reposted with permission.