In My Own Words: Debating antisemitism

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman 

I would love to organize a discussion between Dara Horn and Philip Slayton. For those who don’t know, Horn is an American novelist who also wrote a book of essays called “People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Past,” which I wrote about in this column because I felt my comments were more political than literary. (You can read the column here.) Slayton is a Canadian lawyer and the author of several books, including “Antisemitism: An ancient hatred in the age of identity politics” (Sutherland House), and my thoughts about that work also struck me as more political than literary. 

First, I don’t think either author is wrong in their approach because there are many different ways to think about antisemitism. Horn is far more worried about the problem because a) she is deeply involved with the Jewish community, b) is worried about her children’s future and c) lives near where the Jersey City antisemitic shootings took place. Slayton is Jewish by patrilineal descent, and admits that “I have never been immersed in the Jewish world.” He thinks that allows him to be impartial, while Horn makes no pretense that her emotions aren’t involved. 

While Slayton’s ideas about identity politics are interesting and worth reading, it’s his thoughts on antisemitism that prompted the idea of the discussion between the two writers. I agree with him that there is a difference between antisemitism and criticism of the government of Israel. (Note, please, I didn’t write Zionism, although he does believe people can disagree with that concept – true of some Jews before and after the state of Israel was established.) Unfortunately, too many people on both sides conflate the two. On one side, there are those who believe any negative comment about Israel qualifies as antisemitic. On the other side are those who condemn all Jews – whether or not they support a particular Israeli government policy – for anything they dislike about Israel. Unfortunately, when this is taken to the extreme, it means condemning all Jews and is less about Israel than about the hatred of all Jews. 

“Antisemitism” is interesting because Slayton also writes about the horrific things done to Jews over time and across the world. But he does not see the same kind of threat in contemporary times. While he writes that many Jewish communities feel that antisemitism is becoming worse in their country and they would be safer somewhere else, he finds it ironic that, for example, French Jews think Britain is safer than France, while British Jews think about moving because they don’t consider their country safe. The problem is, of course, that no one knows whether this is overreacting (as is true in many cases) or underreacting (which some would say happened under the Nazis). Many post-Holocaust Jews worry about the future because they are worried about a repeat not only of what occurred in Germany, but in many other areas of the world. 

Slayton offers a new approach to antisemitism by dividing it into different types and offers suggestions on how to handle each type: 

Degradation antisemitism, basically graffiti and insults yelled at someone on the street, which he feels should be ignored because they don’t cause physical danger. He sees the attention paid to them as not helping the community, but rather creating hysteria. Slayton doesn’t minimize how this can affect people, but only worries when it encourages people to be violent.
Violent antisemitism, which he feels is a matter for government action because this is a matter of law enforcement, noting that all citizens should be protected by their government.

Private antisemitism, when Jews are forbidden to join clubs or be hired by a corporation, something he thinks requires “a public policy response.” That means passing laws that make this discrimination illegal. Non-Jewish members of the community can also help by offering their opposition to these rules. 

Organized public antisemitism, which he believes must be attacked politically and publicly opposed by all citizens, who should, as he notes, “use all tools available including civil disobedience, no matter the risk.

I agree with Slayton that our reactions to some incidents of antisemitism – particularly degradation antisemitism – have been overblown. But I would bet Horn would note how our reaction depends on the country and the government. So many in Europe before and after World War II were happy to adopt organized public antisemitism. All you have to do is look at the web to find examples of those in the U.S. who have no problem attacking Jews. Perhaps part of the difference between Slayton and Horn is based on how much antisemitism they’ve personally experienced. 

What Slayton desires is for us to recognize each other’s humanity and learn how to disagree without violence: he writes that disagreements “must be done with integrity, respect, restraint, discipline, and with full recognition that on almost every issue there can be more than one reasonable point of view.” I can’t speak for the tenor of the times in Canada, but, unfortunately, reasonable disagreement seems to have disappeared in the United States. So many disagreements have led to personal attacks: there seems to be little room for “let’s agree to disagree as long as you don’t actively limit my right to live my life as I choose.” I’m not sure how we can change that except through good leadership on all sides.

Is Horn right in her fears? Does Slayton offer a way to help us reduce antisemitism? I have no idea who is correct. If you ask me for my emotional response, my hope is that Slayton’s ideas offer us a way forward, but I fear that Horn is right to be worried about our country and the world.