Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The antisemitic email I just got and my response to it.

So, here's a problem: what image do I use here that doesn't make things worse? What can I do that doesn't exploit the history of antisemitism just to get attention? I don't want to equate this email to any real atrocity, but I'm backed into a corner. I have to have some kind of illustration here.  This is another way in which antisemitism traps Jews. Even the mere act of deciding what picture to use to begin a blog post is fraught with danger. Whatever I use, I can be accused of taking advantage of other people's suffering for my own personal publicity. 

This past weekend we broadcasted a Why? Radio rerun, an interview with Danial Jonah Goldhagen called “How to think about antisemitism.” I had my reservations about running it again because the first time we did, we lost a bunch of listeners. People who regularly wrote to the show sent emails in advance, asking why Israel was evil and other questions that were, at minimum, phrased problematically. The guest and I discussed them, addressing, in particular, the accusation that Jews all think that criticizing Israel is itself anti-Semitic. (Goldhagen’s answer was, first, that most Jews do not think this and second, that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. What is, he argued, is holding Israel to a different standard than anyone else. We’ll come back to that at the end of this discussion.)

During the show I mentions that as a host, I was scared because although I wanted to address listeners’ questions, some of the replies were going to be critical and I didn’t want to alienate a loyal audience. This turned out to be prescient. I never heard from some of them again.

But, politics being what it is, I thought it was an important episode to rebroadcast. Plus, I think it’s a really good episode, one of our best, most compelling, and most sophisticated ones. So I reran it and, predictably, today (11/16/2016) at 7:12 pm, I got the following message via my personal website.

Name: Douglas Sczygelski
Comment: Look at Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion, and go to the index and look up Maimonides, and you will see that Maimonides thought it was no sin to murder gentiles. This is why there was so much anti-Semitism in Europe for centuries. Would you want to live next door to people who openly teach their children that it is not immoral to break into your house in the middle of the night and cut your throat?
You can read more stuff like this in the book "Jewish History, Jewish Religion" by the famous Israeli human rights activist Israel Shahak. Or you can look up Shahak in Wikipedia.
And why didn't you point out that Goldhagen was lying when he said the Jewish authorities didn't kill Jesus? In the Babylonian Talmud, the Jews openly admit they killed Jewish, and say they were right to do so, and that he is now in Hell. If you haven't got time to read the Babylonian Talmud, you can read about this on pages 15-16, 63-65, 75-77, and 85 of the book "Jesus in the Talmud" by Peter Schafer, published by Princeton University Press.
Antisemitism was also caused by the fact that so many Jews were prominent in organized crime. Look at Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and so on. Because of the Mafia there is anti-Italian sentiment, so why would there not be anti-Jewish sentiment because of Rothstein, Siegel and Lansky? Did you ever hear of any Norwegians in the Mafia? I haven't. Any Swedes, Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans? I haven't. Dutch Schultz was a Jew. His real name was Arthur Flegenheimer. You can read about this in Rich Cohen's book "Tough Jews."
Saul Friedlander admits on page 109 of his book "The Years of Extermination" that Jewish swindles in France in the 1930s greatly increased anti-Semitism. Unsophisticated people keep reading in the newspapers about Jewish swindles, so they jump to the conclusion that all Jews are crooks.
So why are you and that idiot Goldhagen surprised by anti-Semitism? It is easy to explain.

First off, I don’t know for certain that the name and email attached to the message are the author, but when I searched for them, I got an article about someone by that name being fired for sending racist letters (notice that he lives in my town, and now I have to worry about dealing with him in person), and a site advertising reactionary ramblings lending credence to the signature. I'm pretty confident it is him.

I rebroadcast a discussion of antisemitism and I got an antisemitic attack in response. This is not surprising to anyone who follows this sort of thing. But this is not what I wanted to talk about here. Instead, I wanted to answer the email directly, not to the author, but to my audience who actually matters to me. I want people to see what a Jewish public figure (and not even a famous one) has to do to counter such attacks.

Why is this email anti-Semitic?

There are many reasons why what he wrote is antisemitic, here are the main ones:

It claims that all the hatred, violence, and oppression against the Jews are their own fault. If they had been better people, it says, they would have been fine. This is a very common mode of attack.

It claims that all Jews are identical—that one Jew should be held accountable for the crimes of all other Jews, as if their Jewishness unites them above all else. Charles Manson was a mass murderer. Should I imprison my white neighbor because of it? If not, why should I hold one Jew accountable for something another Jew did.

It claims that the Jews killed Jesus. This is a position that even the Catholic Church has repudiated. If you take the Gospels as historical truth, something you have to do to even make the accusation, it is still the case that the Romans, not the Jews, killed Jesus, even if some Jews approved of it. Pontius Pilate made the decision, regardless of his self-deceiving desire to wash his hands of it.

But let’s pretend for a second that Jews of the time did collectively kill Jesus (which, again, they didn’t). What does a a murder in 33 CE have to do with Jews who were born in Germany in 1900? Again, this only makes sense if every Jew, in every place, at every time in history, is morally and metaphysically interchangeable.

It claims that the mafia was actually made up of Jews who framed Italians. Sure, there were Jewish gangsters, the email names the most famous ones. But there were Italian ones too, as well as Japanese ones, Mexican ones, Russian ones, and lots of others ethnic and nationally affiliated syndicates. Why should Jewish actions be the only ones that inspired hatred? And how can it possibly be believable that all the history books about organized crime are deceived enough to focus on the Italian mafia? I assume the emails author would claim it is the result of a Jewish media conspiracy. It must not be much of a conspiracy if it doesn’t stop continuous attacks on Jews and if it is so obvious that even the author of the email knows about it. This is another common antisemitic claim:

It assumes that all Jews together are engaged in a conspiracy of lies.The only way most of his claims could actually be true is if every Jew was "in on it." This would involve every rabbi, every Jewish   child, school teacher, butcher, brewer, baker, steel worker, and prostitute. Is that in any way credible? Is it even imaginable?

It calls Goldhagen an idiot. This, in itself need not be antisemitic, but it certainly reveals a personal and unjustified hostility that hints at the author's own personal antisemitism. For what it’s worth, Daniel Goldhagen is a brilliant scholar who profoundly affected his discipline. His entire career is dedicated to stopping all genocide. He taught at Harvard, has won great accolades and, not for nothing, I have gotten to know him as a friend since the interview and he is a wonderful person. Maybe he is wrong in some of his interpretations, but no scholar is completely right. Maybe he made mistakes in some conclusions, but no one is perfect. He is not an idiot and calling him one contributes nothing to the discussion. It betrays that the author of the email has no grounds upon which to stand.

So, the whole thing is antisemitic, but are its accusations true?

I checked my copy of The God Delusion and Dawkins does, in fact, cite both contemporary author Shahak and the medieval philosopher Maimonides. Dawkins's book is problematic in many ways and he cherry picks from the history of religion. However, my main criticism of his book has always been that since Dawkins thinks like a practicing scientist, he only values the latest best-knowledge so far. He doesn’t understand the concept of an intellectual tradition and gives no credence to the fact that morality evolves over time. More on this is a minute.

Now, the Talmud, which is where Dawkins and Shahak’s claims ultimately originate, is not the bible. It is a history of scholarly disagreements—a list of different rabbi’s interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures that stops at 500 CE. It is not internally consistent. If one part claims that it is okay to kill gentiles, it does not mean that another part of it will say it’s not okay. That’s just not how the book works.

In other words, in attacking Judaism, the author cites Dawkins, citing Shahak, citing a medieval Jewish philosopher, who is himself citing the Talmud, a book that cites many different rabbis who themselves cite and interpret the bible. And on the basis of this, the emails claims that it’s the Jews’ own fault that they are hated and massacred? When put that way, it’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?

Does Maimonides actually say, in a book published in 1190 CE, that it is okay to kill the gentiles? There seems to be debate about this. One site I found argues that what Maimonides was actually arguing is that Jewish laws only apply to Jews, not to gentiles. Other sites suggest differently, but pretty much every one of them quotes Shahak, the person whose claims we are trying to investigate in the first place. He cannot be used as evidence of his own accuracy. I will pursue this with historians of religion in the next few days, but I wanted to get this off my chest today, and I didn’t want to wait. I will post an update if I get an answer.

But again, let’s pretend that Maimonides did say that it was okay to kill non-Jews and that the Talmud did actually support it. The fact of the matter is that virtually every moral tradition goes through a period in which moral rules apply only to insiders and not to outsiders. The classical Greeks thought that other Greeks should be treated humanely, but that non-Greeks—Barbarians—were exempt from this consideration. Christians were permitted to do horrendous things to non-Christians, sometimes in war and sometimes to save the heathens souls, as they did during the Spanish Inquisition. Muslims had similar periods, so did the Samurai, so did early 20th century Germans, and, frankly, so did George W. Bush and four Supreme Court justices including Antonin Scalia. We house people in Guantanamo Bay because the Bush administration believed that US law allows the government to treat non-Americans outside of America much worse than they are allowed to treat Americans themselves. This is straight out of the Classical Greek playbook.

So if everyone does it, why just attack the Jews for it? As “that idiot Goldhagen” said about Israel, there is nothing wrong with being critical of Judaism or individual Jews. The problem arises when you hold them to unique standards that no one else has to live up to. In its history of moral development, Judaism has many of the same faults as any other group.

Again, moralities evolve. We learn things. This is what Dawkins doesn’t understand. “An eye for an eye” feels evil to most people now, but when it was first introduced, it was a moral breakthrough. During a time when, in response to one murder, an entire family would be slaughtered, and during a period in which if one woman was raped, a whole town was brutalized in retaliation, a law against escalation is a glorious revelation.

What “an eye for an eye” asserts is: it is immoral to do more evil than has been brought against the original victim; one can’t cause more harm through retribution than one experiences. This is an imperfect principle, no doubt, but it is a hell of a lot better than what happened before. If Jews or Greeks or Christians didn’t understand this two millennia ago, they learned it eventually, and we should celebrate the discovery, not condemn an entire people for something one person allegedly said long before Europe even existed.

Reflecting on the response itself.

So that’s my rebuttal to the antisemitic email, but please notice something. This guy’s email was four short paragraphs without any context or explanation. It probably took him five minutes of breathless ham-fisted thumping on his keyboard to put it together. My response is more than least three times as long and, as I edit this document for clarity and errors, I have already devoted two hours to this post.

This is the why it is so hard to fight antisemitism and why it was hard to defend against populists like Trump. The truth always takes longer to explain than convenient fictions. “Jews are evil” and “antisemitism is the Jews’ own fault” are pithy slogans that cater to fear and ignorance, just like “immigrants take our jobs” or “all Muslims want to kill you” are. It takes a lot longer to explain the reality of Jewish history just like it takes a lot longer to show that economies actually do much better during period of mass immigration. It takes even longer than that to explain that there are Arab, Persian, African, Asian, European, and American Muslims, all of whom have radically different cultures, beliefs and practices, and that even among Arab Muslims, there is significant cultural variation and most are too busy with their own lives to even want to harm anyone, let alone actively pursue violence.

Lies are easy to tell. Truth is long, complex, and tiring. So the demagogues and propagandists always win. The Trumps and the Douglas Sczygelskis (the author of the email) have a tremendous advantage, even though they know nothing. They hide behind their accusations and bluster while I am going to get a lot of “too long/didn’t read” in response to this post. But what else can I do? Do I just stay silent? Do I let the bigots have their say? This quandary has been the great American question since 1776 and it has never been more relevant than now.

Finally, on a personal note, just two hours before I got this hostile, disquieting, and ignorant email, I posted the following tweet linking to a wonderful BB King performance:

I was trying to center myself after the election and a week of argument, hostility, anger, and fear. I was trying to transition to a more reflective mode and remember that many people whom I was fighting with on Facebook were actually my friends. I was trying to reaffirm beauty in the world.

Thanks to Douglas Sczygelski and his delusional rant, it didn’t work. And to add insult to injury, when he finds out, it will just make him happier because as far as he's concerned, I'm just a Jew and I don't deserve anything but the history of violence so far.

Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein

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  1. As a first-generation American of Irish descent, I feel pretty comfortable noting that the Irish Mob is credited with being the oldest organized crime organization in the United States. Irish mobsters in various American cities have a long and brutal history. But when do you ever hear people running down the Irish because of mobsters like Mickey Spillane or Whitey Bulger? The correct answer is "Never." Must be the "luck o' the Irish."

    1. Thank you Tony. I had never heard the claim that Jews framed all the other mafias before. I guess you learn something new everyday.

    2. Jack, I agree with nearly everything you say, but I don't see where Sczygelski claims that we framed the other mafias. He says that Italians in the mafia elicit anti-Italian sentiment, so why shouldn't Jews in the mafia elicit anti-Semitism. Am I missing something?

    3. Elliot, actually, I think you are right. I think I read that incorrectly and combined the sentence after it listing all the nationalities that he claims don't have organized crime. If I were to rewrite my response, I would likely rephrase that section. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. Anti Semitism is a sin in my church (Catholic), as Pope John Paul II made clear, in addition to the person's email being full of inaccuracies. And Jesus was Jewish and so were the first apostles. He worshiped in the temple, practiced Jewish rituals, and cited the Torah frequently. Good response, Jack.

    1. Thank you Marina. I think the Church is a really powerful example of an institution that has worked incredibly hard in recent years to confront these and related issues. It is not easy for anyone, but with so much history and so much complexity, it is particularly admirable that both the laity and the clergy don't seem to be giving up in their search for solutions.

  3. I've been doing a lot of reading and soul searching since 11/9. I've turned over the Echo Effect, the Backlash Effect, the Dangers of PC, the Suppression of White Suffering, the Disinformation Campaign, etc. Reading your heartfelt message one thing struck me that you said:

    "Lies are easy to tell. Truth is long, complex, and tiring."

    I fear this is a type of 'story' that may not be valuable. I've been discussing things with conservative acquaintances and my focus has been to try to reduce the bubbles that folks have been building around themselves with an eye towards helping folks understand the complexities.

    After a week of very limited success I realized suddenly that we are really Story Telling Creatures, and we each need a compelling story and our best leaders are Heroes of a Compelling story. There is a very insightful article I read (in Cracked of all places) that clearly outlined the Story that Trump was able to embody.
    The challenge in the difficult days to come is for the Left/Liberal leaning folks to develop and unite under a powerful story that speaks to those who are dissatisfied with the world. The Left has tried for many years to ‘educate folks’ via politics, but that’s not a functional approach. Education is vital in a democracy, but it can’t be done directly from the politicians. They need to be good salesmen with good stories that foster a better tomorrow.

    1. Humans as story-telling creatures is a central theme in one of my favorite philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre, a catholic virtue ethicist. He has tried to identify the rationality implicit in these stories. "After Virtue" is a wonderful read. As you say, and as I'm sure he would agree, soul searching is a major part of that process. Thank you for sharing and your support.

  4. I am an historian of Medieval philosophy, though not a scholar of Maimonides, but wanted to comment, first, on the injustice and abhorrent character of the content of this Anti-Semitic email. I do not know if the sentence the writer of this email alludes to is found anywhere in the vast corpus of Maimonides works, but I do know that the main thrust of Maimonides' philosophy is tolerant and focussed on finding a rational basis for belief, and also on knowing the limits to reason are, such that one does not claim certainty for one's view of God, for example, because our language and ways of seeing God clearly come from our own earthly and anthropomorphic categories. And of course, there are passages where Plato says that disabled children should be left outside the city to die, St. Augustine says that people can be forcibly converted to Christianity (a theoretical position put into practice, of course, in the Inquisition, along with torture), St. Thomas Aquinas says that slavery is acceptable and that governments can justify confiscating property from non-believers. A long list of atrocious things can be laid out about many thinkers in the past, and gleaned from many revered documents. That is not a reason to wholly reject those thinkers (though one must not ignore but confront all they said), nor, certainly, all who are related to them by religion or ethnicity. What is disturbing is to have to use good arguments against statements which are so clearly lies or distortions so complete as to be the same as a lie. And maybe we miss the point if we try to argue against blatant falsehoods as if they should be taken seriously. Thank you for expressing so simply and beautifully our present problem, from Facebook up to the now president-elect: lies are easy to tell and the truth is "long, complex, and tiring." Read the stories on the fate of truth and lies on Facebook not just before, but even since the election. Sorry this is of the 'too long to read' kind of response.

    1. Eileen, Thank you for this. It is really helpful and I wish that I had included an answer in these terms. You are right. Individual philosophers all have their dark moments, but we have to understand them as a whole. I always enjoined teaching Medieval--I liked seeing the great pivots in the tradition--but I was always a journeyman. I never had the expertise.

      Thanks for contributing. It is nice to have someone who actually knows what she is talking about.

  5. Jack, you are a gift to all that know you.

    1. You are very kind, Katie. As you well know, I think the same of you.

  6. "Lies are easy to tell. Truth is long, complex, and tiring."



  7. I just happen to catch the last part of the Goldhagen interview rebroadcast on Dec 11. I was engaged by the broadcast and did a little searching about the author. Then I found this blog. Thanks for taking the time to refute the email point by point. I love to learn the historical facts. This is a disheartening time. Thanks for responding as you did.

  8. Thank you for the point by point refutation of the email. I find the historical facts fascinating. These are difficult times. I'm becoming disillusioned. But these places of knowledge are a bit of hope.