It’s no secret that Orthodox Jews are the targets in a brutal game of whack-a-mole. Many antisemitic incidents involve non-Jews preying on Jews, but there are also an unfortunate number of incidents which are instigated by Jews upon other Jews and are often quite eloquent or media-centric. For example, within the past several months there have been eighteen exposes in the New York Times about the Hasidic community, all written by secular Jews, the most recent one came out this week.
Another example of Jew-on-Jew antisemitism that has caused nearly the entire Jewish community to rise as one is the backlash of Jonah Hill’s movie, You People. Hill’s lack of pride – or rather, his utter contempt — in his heritage shone through in this film, sparking outrage and continued public discussion.
While Jewish unity is so important, there is a robust history of Jews who sided with their oppressors, either as an act of revenge on the community or in order to achieve favor compared to the persecution of their more Jewishly-cultured brethren. Yet antisemitism ultimately comes for all Jews: none of us are safe, not even if some might denounce their identity. This has been a pattern throughout Jewish history. As a society that considers our history a living part of us, and a never-ending cycle of experience, understanding our past will help us understand our present.
We recently sat down with Dr. Joshua Karlip, the Associate Professor of Jewish History and Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, and spoke about the history of Jew-on-Jew hatred. Karlip explained that the earliest example of Jews taking down other Jews takes place in the Torah. In Parshat Shemot, Moshe strikes down the Egyptian who was beating a Jewish slave. A short while after, he came across two Jews fighting, and attempted to make peace; he was met with a scalding, “What? Will you kill me the same way you killed that Egyptian?” It was at this moment that, after all of his life, Moshe realized that he was in danger specifically because he was a Jew. The Medrash identifies these two men as Dasan and Aviram, who were informats at this time, and they were sure to tell Pharaoh about the incident with the Egyptian. Dasan and Aviram continue to make appearances in the Torah, and are notorious for attempting to sabotage the Jewish people in various ways.
While this pattern of action continued to exist throughout Jewish history – that of collaborating with non-Jews against the rest of the nation for the sake of their own short- or long-term gain – the most famous example of this is part of the Chanukah story. The Greek Hellenists, in the time of Antiochus, introduced the nude Olympics to Judea and even tried to hide their circumcisions from the Greeks. Once the Greeks codified laws that forbade the learning of Torah and observance of certain mitzvot, the Hellentists acted as informants when other Jews attempted to keep practicing their faith. What makes the Chanukah story unique, however, is that the ensuing Maccabean Revolt was partially a civil war. Not only did the Maccabees fight to push out the Greek oppressors, they fought to take their culture back from the Hellenists who had tried to drag the entire nation down the path of forced assimilation.
Sometimes Jewish traitors act out of revenge, as opposed to self-preservation. The Talmud tells the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. There was a wealthy man who lived in the 1st century C.E. For an upcoming party he sent his servant to deliver an invitation to his friend Kamsa. However, the servant accidentally delivered then invitation to Bar Kamsa, an enemy of the wealthy man. Upon seeing his enemy at his party, the host ordered Bar Kamsa to leave. Bar Kamsa, attempting to save face, tried to bargain and beg and find a way not to be thrown out. First he offered to pay for the food he ate, then for half of the expenses of the party, and then for the entire party. Each request was rebuffed by the angry host. Finally, the host forcibly removed Bar Kamsa, in the presence of the communal leaders who didn’t have the courage to protest the shameful actions of a wealthy and powerful member of their community. Bar Kamsa vowed revenge against the rabbis who sat idly by as he was publicly humiliated embarrassed. He visited the Roman Caesar, who controlled the region and told him the Jews were inciting to revolt against the Roman Empire. The Caesar, unsure of whether to believe Bar Kamsa, sent an animal to be sacrificed as a peace offering in the Temple in Jerusalem along with Bar Kamsa. On the way, Bar Kamsa made a small incision in the animal’s lip which disqualified it for a Jewish sacrifice. The rabbis refused the offering which incensed the Caesar and led him to believe that the Jews were planning to revolt. He then sent an army to lay siege to Jerusalem, eventually leading to its downfall.
Through the medieval period to the late nineteenth century, Jews were encouraged by their respective diasporic governments to convert to Christianity or otherwise erase their Jewishness for national citizenship. Those Christian regimes enjoyed trying to beat the Jews at the game of debate, with the intent to both proselytize Christianity and to use a win as an excuse to proceed with antisemitic decrees. The most famous interfaith disputations in the Medieval period pitted Jews who’d converted to Christianity against Jewish scholars, lauding those like Nicholas Donin and Pablo Christiani as the best of their (abandoned) people.
Enlightenment-era Germany, however, gave Jews “rights for regeneration.” The Germans considered Jews degenerate for speaking Yiddish, being moneylenders and peddlers, living in ghettos, and even for being “ugly.” They “supported” secular education for the Jews in order to get them to speak and act like “proper Europeans” before considering giving them rights. German Jewry as a whole was greatly affected by this movement, from the leadership level to the individual level. Moses Mendelssohn, the famed philosopher, theologian, and father of the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement, said, “This jargon [Yiddish] has contributed not little to the immorality of the common man [among the Jews].”
As antisemitism increased, many German Jews blamed that on Jewish immigrants who came from further east and hadn’t yet succumbed to that assimilation. Heinrich Graetz, a famous German Jewish historian, blamed the Polish Jews for continued degeneration of German Jewry:
“To their care, or rather to their neglect, we entrusted the Jewish youth who as soon as they could talk were introduced to the Talmud, after the sophistical, artificial method. Through this perversity the language of the German Jews, like that of the Poles, degenerated into a repulsive stammer, and their manner of thinking and love of disputation into crabbed dogmatism that defied all logic.”
While German antisemitism was initiated by non-Jews, clearly it was absorbed by the Jewish community, sparking the Haskalah and the burning desire to rid themselves of the above characteristics. Eastern European Jewry was bombarded with this philosophy on all sides, and with their nationalization held hostage, they many chose to let go of their heritage in favor of supposed respect.
There is yet another conflict that non-Jews love to highlight negatively: that of the State of Israel. Anti-Orthodox and anti-Israel sentiments are linked. Both groups are visibly proud of their Jewishness, and as such are often put under attack by the outside world. Israel, however, was historically an internal matter of contention in certain Orthodox Jewish circles. The Satmar Rebbe, for example, was famously anti-Zionist and wrote many texts on the subject. Despite his strong views, however, he simultaneously held this firm belief: any criticism his community had of the State, he said, must remain internal so as not to publicly delegitimize Israel. Doing so would put millions of Jews, especially in the postwar period as Holocaust survivors fled Eurasia, at risk. Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henken spoke similarly, amending some of the statements he’d made before the signing of Israel’s declaration of independence. While he too continued to be anti-Zionist, he announced that anyone who puts the State of Israel at risk and goes to the non-Jewish world to participate in the war against Israel is a rodef (one who pursues another Jew to murder them).
“When a Jew today demonizes Israel or the Orthodox community in a public forum,” Dr Karlip says, “they are consciously joining the many against the few. And they are consciously joining a community that will cheer them as a good Jew for joining their side, as they know deep down that these are communities that just want to live in peace.”
There is nothing that Jews want more than shalom: within the community, and within the wider world. There are always those who will attempt to counteract this desire: non-Jews continue to oppress us, and assimilated Jews attempt to find their own safety in separation from the whole. But in this recent spike in antisemitism, we may have found a unified voice loud enough to speak against it. There will always be those who try to acculturate us or do us bodily harm, but peace, for Jews, begins with unity.
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