It’s an inflammatory question. When attacks against Jews occur, as they are in increasing and alarming numbers in North America – including an incident of hateful graffiti at Camp Miriam on Gabriola Island recently – people ask why. Why Jews?
The problem with the formulation is that it suggests there is a justifiable answer to that question. It would be akin to asking, upon seeing statistics of domestic violence, why women?
Throughout the ages, scholars, pundits and philosophers have listed factors in Jewish theology and culture that confound, scare or irk others and contribute to antisemitic ideas and acts. The steadfast refusal to accept more dominant “successor” religions invites theological reactions. Adherence to cultural practices make Jews outsiders, to varying degrees, in every society. Jewish success in a range of fields invites envy.
But these explanations are all largely nonsense when it comes to the sorts of antisemitic acts we are seeing today. The primary explanation why, for so many people, it is all about Jews is counterintuitive – it is not about Jews at all.
For the most part, probably, the core motivation for engaging in racist and antisemitic acts has less to do with the victims than it does with the perpetrators. The definition of scapegoating is the assignment of sin or guilt onto an empty vessel that is then sacrificed. The hate and violence we are witnessing are almost certainly acts of scapegoating that reflect something amiss in the worldview of the perpetrators. These are people who identify problems in their lives or their world and seek an external entity to blame. Jews are history’s greatest scapegoat, regardless of our actual presence in any particular place. Notably, studies indicate that antisemitism is greatest in places where there are no Jews and it has perhaps always been thus. Shakespeare created the character Shylock hundreds of years after Jews were expelled from England, for example.
This is not comforting. If there were something more discrete motivating these incidents, perhaps they could be rationally contested. That the motivations are based on irrational projections makes them difficult to fight.
It is routinely said that Jews are the canaries in the coal mine of a society. The dehumanizing imagery this employs aside, it is undeniable that Western society today is experiencing some deeply troubling trends, from the emergence of “illiberal democracy” in the erstwhile democracies of Eastern Europe and Turkey to the stark chasms between partisans in still-healthy democracies. Rapid economic changes spark social and political reactions. The greatest migration of people on the planet in generations causes real or perceived threats to the status quo in the countries where these migrants are headed. And this is to leave aside the geopolitical dangers we face in relations with Iran, North Korea and many other flashpoints, as well as from decentralized terror groups that defy international boundaries. We are perhaps more surprised than we should be that, in the face of these developments and uncertainties, a number of people seek out that scapegoat of first resort: Jews.
As a result, stories are emerging of Jews going “undercover,” of being less inclined to be identified as Jewish in places like New York. There are other stories of Jews increasingly learning self-defence skills. Self-protection is primary in any situation and no one should be condemned for taking short-term measures in the midst of danger.
In the longer-term, though, there is an alternative to being (or appearing) “less Jewish.” If the root of this problem is not Jews, but disordered responses to a troubled world, then the answer, while not easy and most certainly idealistic, would be to be more Jewish, to embrace even more energetically a Jewish way of being and doing. We may not be able to change the distorted perspective of an antisemitic individual. But if, through our agency, we can promote fairness, tzedek (justice) and chesed (lovingkindness), we will advance a world in which people will not need to seek scapegoats.
Is it a fair burden that this labour should fall to Jews? Perhaps not. But maybe this is what we have been chosen to do in this moment in history.