By Gerard Leval
There is a great deal of agonizing going on among many in the Jewish community regarding the alarming increase in antisemitism. Indeed, antisemitic acts are on the increase, with attacks on Jews and the Jewish community becoming more and more frequent.
The leaders of many Jewish organizations intended to combat antisemitism appear befuddled as to the cause of this proliferation. Instinctively, many in the Jewish community resort to reflexive responses, and purport to note the growth of nationalist groups and related fringe organizations who spout traditional antisemitic mantras.
But today’s antisemitism is actually emerging from a quite different phenomenon. It is not due to any single ideology. Both the extreme right and the extreme left seem very comfortable with their attacks on Jews (although the left is more subtle and favors attacks against Israel).
An honest analysis suggests that this resurgence has less to do with ideology and more with human nature and the provocations to that nature that are becoming a way of life in America.
For the last few years, the old “melting pot” symbol by which we tended for generations to define the coalescing of dramatically diverse population groups into “Americans,” has been set aside. Today, references to the melting pot analogy of American coalescence are invariably met with ridicule.
The old concept has been dramatically discarded. Now, instead of seeking to achieve the lofty goal articulated by the great American motto of E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), we glorify differences and divisiveness. Effectively, the new American motto is “Diversity Defines Us,” with an additional tag line of “the greater our differences, the better.”
Every difference that can be identified is lauded as a defining characteristic. First among those are racial differences. If you can describe yourself in terms of the color of your skin, then you have a difference that has become fundamental, accented and elevated. If you have different sexual preferences, then those preferences have become another important identifying marker. Your ethnic or national origins can readily constitute grounds for differentiation. So can girth and many handicaps. Even encounters with the criminal justice system can provide a distinction deemed worthy of note (i.e. unfair victimization).
Effectively, for many Americans, the preferred form of identity relates, not to a common national denominator, but rather to some anomalous characteristic. This is sadly demonstrated by the growing tendency of American athletes to kneel or engage in other disrespectful behavior during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, as a means of actually denigrating and rejecting national identity.
While this new approach to identity may seem harmless or even vaguely humorous, it has a much more ominous side. Identifying individuals by dint of their differences can be deemed a kind of meritorious diversity. But, the emphasis on our differences can also be an invitation to discriminate and to hate and even to harm.
As human beings we are instinctively distrustful of those who are different from ourselves. The greater the differences, the larger the chasm that exists between ourselves and those around us, with a consequent sense of alienation and fear. Thus it would seem logical to seek to deemphasize differences and to accentuate similarities.
In fact, for several generations and until recently, this is precisely what Jews have sought to accomplish. By blending into the fabric of middle America, it seemed as though Jews were no longer deemed pariahs to be loathed, but rather were more or less accepted into society at large. No one seemed to care very much about Jews as Jews.
No one seemed to care, that is, until the new identity politics sprang into high gear. Suddenly, as differences of race, color, gender, sexual preference, religion etc. has surged to the fore, Jews have become more noticeable.
That visibility has been accompanied by a perception that is as old as the Jewish people itself, that Jews represent a threat, which is naturally accompanied by fear, by resentment, by jealousy and, only too frequently, by violence. It is those tendencies, not politics or ideology, that have been generating resurgent antisemitism.
Sadly, history teaches us that when people are defined in terms of differences, no group is more likely to be viewed as different and threatening than Jews. Our successes cease being considered beneficial; they become a sign of our unmerited supremacy. Our achievements are no longer lauded as the accomplishments that they are; they are viewed as a threat. Our adherence to our traditions is no longer viewed as an enduring tribute to faith and family; rather it is considered as an attempt to appear better than our neighbors. Our faithfulness to our religion is no longer considered a virtue, but rather appears as a throwback, characterized in some quarters as barbaric (think of comments about the laws of kashrut and circumcision).
If our leaders, both secular and religious, really want to stop the resurgence of antisemitism, they must join in an effort to stop the emphasis on identity politics. We need to end the move toward “diversity, equity and inclusion,” which highlights differences and, even if it is not intended to do so, inevitably demeans and dehumanizes the other.
We must revert to the notion of the melting pot, whose heat diminishes the importance of differences and reduces the accompanying hatreds and distrust. The seemingly bland product of the melting pot is actually the precious quality of unity which can provide national cohesiveness, with an accompanying diminution of antisemitism. Let us pray that the melting pot still has a role to play in our great nation. ■
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of a national law firm.