The Korea Herald


[Kenneth Seeskin] Who do the Jewish people elicit so much hatred?

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 6, 2023 - 05:31

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The rise in antisemitic incidents in the US should concern all of us because it is rarely an isolated phenomenon. According to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League, the number of antisemitic incidents in the US increased by 36 percent from 2021 to 2022, when it reached the staggering total of 3,697. The war in the Middle East is certain to make the numbers this year even worse.

What causes this? Why do a people who constitute 0.2 percent of the world’s population elicit so much hatred? Why does a country that occupies 0.1 percent of the land mass in the Middle East get blamed for most of its problems?

I have long asked myself these questions. As a Jewish kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the aftermath of World War II, my experience of antisemitism was limited. I remember being called a “dirty Jew” on the playground and knew that there were neighborhoods where Jews were not welcome. Although I learned from books about the massacres, expulsions and pogroms the Jewish people had suffered, and had images of Nazi death camps etched in my memory, I was convinced that the future held out greater promise.

In 1947, the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish homeland. A rabbi gave the benediction at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to restrictive real estate clauses and discrimination at restaurants and hotels. Northwestern University, where I studied as an undergraduate, ended its quota on Jewish students.

It was not until I visited the great synagogue in Rome and saw soldiers guarding the entrances with submachine guns that I confronted antisemitism in its raw form. The soldiers were there to guard against people who wanted to kill me not for anything I had said or done but simply for what I was. Today, my own synagogue in Chicago hires armed guards for the same reason.

As things stand, hatred of the Jewish people is one of the few things the radical right and the radical left can agree on. If Adolf Hitler thought Jews were the epitome of communism, Karl Marx, who was of Jewish ancestry, thought they were the epitome of capitalism. Following the barbarism and ferocity of Hamas’ invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, 34 student organizations at Harvard University signed a letter holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence. Alternatively, the leader of a far-right group praised Hamas with the words, “Come on, guys, it’s time to dance! Get those Jews!”

Antisemitism is of course a complex phenomenon. The simple answer for what lies behind it is that Jews are a religious and cultural minority who insist on maintaining their own identity. Given the possibility of converting to Christianity or Islam, they chose to remain Jewish. Given the possibility of assimilating into a modern, secular culture, they chose to retain their ancient customs. To some, their stubbornness is profoundly insulting: “How dare they not believe what I believe, eat what I eat or celebrate what I do? They must think they are better than I am, and therefore I hate them.”

The sad truth is that when hatred becomes part of a person’s worldview, it tends to dominate everything else. While Jews were the primary victims of the Nazi atrocities, we should not forget that the Roma people, political dissidents, members of the LGBTQ community and those with mental illness and physical disabilities were also targeted. In our own time, when you see groups calling for the complete destruction of Israel or proudly displaying Nazi insignia, you can be pretty sure that Jews are the tip of an iceberg of resentment.

It is also worth mentioning that if you find the mere fact of Jewish existence insulting, the chances are that you are trying to cover up your own limitations. A person who is secure in their religious convictions should not have to worry that someone else does not share them. A government that cares for its own people, abides by the rule of law and does its best to eliminate corruption does not need to look for scapegoats. I submit that if you do need to look for scapegoats to maintain your position, your position is not worth maintaining to begin with.

As I write this, the situation in the Middle East is volatile and unpredictable.

Hamas has introduced a new round of violence and recrimination to a region that has seen much too much of both. I don’t know what a “proportionate” response to its savagery would be or how an army seeking to respond to it can avoid killing innocent people used as human shields.

What I do know is that innocent people on both sides of the conflict have died as a result and that more deaths and dislocation are bound to come. Although antisemitism is hatred directed at Jews, the simple fact is that when hatred carries the day, everyone loses.

Kenneth Seeskin

Kenneth Seeskin is an emeritus professor of philosophy and the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick professor of Jewish civilization at Northwestern University. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)