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On the Hatred of Jews

Rabbi David J. Wolpe, is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School.
Rabbi David J. Wolpe, is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School. By Truong L. Nguyen
By David J. Wolpe, Contributing Opinion Writer
Rabbi David J. Wolpe is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School. He served on Harvard’s antisemitism advisory group before stepping down in December.

This op-ed is part of a special opinion package, “Antisemitism at Harvard, According to Seven Jewish Affiliates.” View the full package here.

“An antisemite is someone who hated me before I was born,” Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, said.

Antisemitism is a denial of humanity of the Jew. The reactions that occurred at Harvard in the wake of Oct. 7 considered Jews oppressors and, in some way, unworthy of human consideration.

In the calculus of an antisemite, Jews are both subhuman and superhuman – vermin who control the world. Common antisemitic rhetoric places Jews at the center of conspiracies, secretly controlling anything and everything: America, the banks, the Middle East, a vast colonialist enterprise, immigration, the Federal Reserve, NATO, and even Taylor Swift’s concert tour schedule.

People hate Jews because they are communists, capitalists, foreigners, residents, immigrants, elitists, have strange ways, are unassimilated, too assimilated, bankroll the left (like George Soros) or bankroll the right (like Sheldon Adelson). People hate Jews because they are weak and stateless, or because they are Zionists and defend Israel.

This hate is justified in a number of ways, and it is never just because someone is Jewish.

One ideology common at Harvard is the colonialist settler ideology. Colonialists are people who come from one place, take a land, and now have two.

But, Jews are far from being colonialists. Jews come from Israel. In this ideology, the colonialists are almost always white, but the Jews in Israel are quite diverse. Colonialists do not share the land, but Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt and has made many separate offers to share their land with Palestinians — which the Palestinians rejected. Further, Jews were kicked out of Israel by one colonial power — Rome — and returned by overthrowing the rule of another — Britain.

Much of Harvard is captured by an ideology that centers oppression, but dividing all of the world into oppressor and oppressed is dangerous. Once you divide humanity by race or creed or nation into two camps — the good and the evil — you have adopted the mentality of the despot. This is bad for society, as well as for Jews.

Although many do so in ignorance, when people chant “from the river to the sea” the most natural interpretation of their calls is advocacy for territory without Israel, without Jews.

Israel is the only country in the world that is routinely and widely targeted for eradication. So is anti-Zionism synonymous with antisemitism?

There are exceptions, but the overlap is striking. I have never heard of activists who are angry with China targeting Chinese restaurants in Paris, but when Hamas terrorists were recently arrested in Europe with plans to blow up Jewish institutions, they were not targeting Israel, but Jews. If someone is angry at Israel, they target Jewish synagogues, businesses, and restaurants — anything associated with Jews, anywhere in the world — no matter their relationship to Israel.

This enmity has deep roots.

I have a position at the Harvard Divinity School, and I often wonder whether we teach students that both the New Testament, and to a lesser extent the Koran, contain messages hostile to Jews. Do the students learn that Martin Luther said Jews “are a serpent’s brood” and their synagogues should be burned, or how during periods like the Almohad persecution, Jews could accept Islam, flee, or die? How Christians persecuted and periodically murdered Jews for some 1,500 years?

Jews experienced more acceptance in Muslim lands, yet still were labeled impure, subjugated, and were often persecuted. Many of my congregants in Los Angeles were forced to flee Iran when the Shah fell in 1979 — their property confiscated, the leader of the community executed, and the Khomeini regime making clear they were unwelcome in the new Islamic republic. Having lost everything and escaping with their lives, years later, they still have nightmares.

Why all this hatred against one small people? We remained different, distinct. We would not become Christian or Muslim. We were outsiders, others, champions of diversity.

Moreover, Jewish culture — portable, book-focused, and one that venerates scholarship and learning — primes us for economies where information and mental agility lead to success. When you don’t like someone, seeing them succeed magnifies the antipathy.

Finally, Jews introduced the idea of ethical monotheism — the moral demands that one God makes on human beings — to the western tradition. As Jewish essayist Maurice Samuel said, “no one likes an alarm clock”; Jews represent conscience and conscience is a disruptive and painful partner in our lives.

The energy and outrage Jews generate — making up 0.2 percent of the world population — is oddly disproportionate. Antisemitism is a wild, irrational eruption.

Harvard has a long and ignoble history of antisemitism, as Harvard President Claudine Gay said in her remarks to Harvard Hillel in October. It is time to admit it, confront it and overcome it. One can criticize policies without calling for the end to the only homeland Jews have ever known. One can demand a Palestinian state without globalizing the intifada — the term for a protest that previously resulted in over 110 suicide bombings that targeted buses, cafes, and malls.

If we cannot learn to argue civilly at Harvard, how can we have hope for the civility of other places in the world?

Jews gave the world a precious gift: the idea that each human being is an image of God. I pray that we all remember and honor that gift.

Rabbi David J. Wolpe is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School. He served on Harvard’s antisemitism advisory group before stepping down in early December.

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