Denying Jewish Peoplehood-and Reality
To the Editor:
Robert S. Wistrich’s essay on “The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism” [March] is both concise and comprehensive. But the unstated question of the piece is this: Are the Jews a people or a religion? The academic answer is: both. But the practical answer is: whichever is most disadvantageous to Jews. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was dangerous—often fatal—for Jews to be a people. To the racist Nazis, the Jews were a people. A person with one Jewish grandparent went to the death camps, regardless of that person’s religion or lack thereof. Now it is dangerous—sometimes fatal—for Jews to identify as a religious category. Jews are ruthlessly persecuted in Muslim lands. And liberal (former) friends of mine declared that the Jews were not entitled to a homeland because they constitute a religion, a notion echoed by many Muslims and neo-Nazis.
In my lifetime, one-third of all Jews were murdered because they were a people. Now, a diverse group of anti-Semites proclaim that Israel is illegitimate because the Jews are not a people. Similarly, when it was advantageous to be white, the Jews were not considered non-white. Now that it is disadvantageous to be white, the Jews are considered white. Whatever group is in favor, the Jews are considered members of the other group. And so it goes.
David C. Stolinsky, MD
Los Angeles, California
Robert S. Wistrich writes:
David C. Stolinsky correctly observes that anti-Semites through the ages seek to maximize their effectiveness by adapting to the prevailing trends of the time. However, in the 1930s, Nazi hatred of the Jews was directed at their alleged “racial inferiority,” “oriental,” and “subversive” character rather than at their claim to be a people. These descriptions were widely accepted by many non-Jews who were not remotely anti-Semitic. Today, on the other hand, this Jewish peoplehood is fiercely contested by many leftists and liberals (some of them Jews) and completely negated by most Arabs and many Muslims. In particular, in defiance of all the evidence, they ignore the 3,500-year-old historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.
Since Israel as a Jewish nation-state has become such a central expression of Jewish self-definition, it should come as no surprise that it serves as a lightning rod for anti-Semites around the world. The core narrative of the Jewish people is the passage from slavery to freedom—a universal value that it bequeathed to Western civilization. Anti-Semitism through the ages has always sought to negate or subvert that message.