Among other things, Hanukkah is about bringing light into the darkness. There is plenty of darkness in the world and a vast range of concerns calling for radiance.
Mainstream media seem to have taken the cue that Hanukkah is the moment to discuss the alarming and rising phenomenon of antisemitism. Time magazine declares: “Amid antisemitism, Hanukkah celebrations carry new weight.” USA Today explained a new tradition: “On Hanukkah, the ninth candle reflects how anyone can fight antisemitism by sharing truth.” Here in Canada, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre highlighted antisemitism in their annual Hanukkah messages. Expect to see similar expressions of concern in a few days, as the end-of-2022 reflections on the good and bad of the year just passed and hopes for the fresh new year fill pages and airtime during the slow news days of the winter holidays.
We are not complaining. This issue needs thorough and ongoing coverage. It just seems, somehow, that writing and talking about what is often called the world’s oldest bigotry lacks new insights. Many agree that this is a problem. Few, though, have solutions beyond platitudes.
Finding innovative ways to think and talk about “the world’s oldest” anything is, by definition, a challenge. Some of the greatest scholars in the world have studied the problem, vast networks of activist organizations and Jewish communal agencies devote themselves to defeating it, and still it grows. If we had the definitive explanation or the silver bullet to solve it, you would not be reading it here – we would be sharing our wisdom from the dais of the Nobel Prize ceremony and as the lead story on the world’s media. Undaunted, a few thoughts:
The very phrase “antisemitism” may be problematic. The term was invented in the late 1800s by a proud antisemite to describe his orientation. But while there is a great deal of conscious and visible antisemitism in the world today that rightly raises alarms, there has always been an equally, perhaps more, worrying phenomenon in the form of unconscious bias about Jews that permeates many societies and individuals. This is more insidious and, therefore, more difficult to challenge.
It is worth noting that antisemitism is often most prevalent where no or few Jews exist, making it easier to project onto a largely imaginary enemy the fears and hatreds carried by the individual or the society. Similarly, we see a projection of Jewishness onto any unpopular phenomenon, an example being the “Great Replacement” theory, a paranoid fantasy in which whatever the perpetrator despises (in this case immigration) is cast as a problem with Jewish roots.
Both of these phenomena touch on what we suspect is the nut of antisemitism: it is a problem that affects Jews but it is not a problem of Jews. That is, if Jews did not exist, the antisemites would have to invent them – which is, in essence, precisely what they have done with the caricatured “Jew” that is demonized by antisemites.
This understanding, of course, does nothing to resolve the problem. And, again, a problem known as “the world’s oldest hatred” is not going to be solved in one generation with one easy antidote. It is encouraging, though, to see the range of responses to the problem, from more in-depth coverage in mainstream media to the statements of top leaders in Canada, as well as in the United States, where a major presidential effort against antisemitism is being led by Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman of the United States, who recently led a roundtable of leading thinkers, and in a host of other undertakings worldwide.
As is said in a different context, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. As a society, we have a consensus that antisemitism is a growing problem. As we approach 2023, we hope those thoughts will turn to even more action in confronting this confounding blight.