A strange kind of antisemitism
July 13, 2012 | Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Antisemitism is like cancer; it crops up in people whom you’d least expect to get sick.
Recently, Alice Walker, the famous civil rights activist and author of the popular novel, The Color Purple, refused to allow Israeli publisher Yediot Books to translate her work into Hebrew. Her reason? She objects to the way Israel has treated the Palestinians. She believes Israel is an apartheid state and oppresses Palestinians far worse than blacks were treated in the South of the U.S. and South Africa. As an ardent activist, she was part of a flotilla last year that unsuccessfully tried to break Israel’s alleged “blockade” of Gaza (the idea of a blockade is patently false; Israel is happy to deliver all humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza, provided that shipments first dock in Ashkelon so that inspectors can make sure that no bombs or weaponry is included in the shipment - far from unreasonable when dealing with a regime that has sworn to destroy you).
Walker intrigued me, not because I’m so shocked that a minority who knows what it feels like to be a persecuted class would turn against the Jewish people, the most persecuted nation in world history. We’ve seen that happen time and again, and sadly, on a disproportionate level from the African-American community, from Louis Farakhan to Jesse Jackson to Jeremiah Wright.
No, what intrigued me were the extremes that Walker has taken, going out of her way to publicize her great disdain for the Jewish State and to distort beyond all reasonability the level of discrimination against Palestinians. Seeing her photo in front of a placard, 'End the Siege of Gaza' arouses so many questions that I wish I could ask her: Why are you so passionate about the Palestinians, when they are part of the Arab nations who so savagely persecute blacks on the African continent? Why aren’t you lobbying for the end of genocide in Darfur and Somalia? Where’s your compassion for the people of Syria? Moreover, Ms Walker, I have no doubt that The Color Purple is available to be translated into Arabic. I don’t, however, think it likely that you’ll be barraged with requests. Your novel contains a lesbian relationship, which we all know is an affront to the Koran and the Islamic faith.
Then I read Alice Walker’s bio. Turns out that one of her great influences in the early civil rights movement was her professor from Spelman College in Atlanta, Howard Zinn, a nice Yid from Brooklyn. Like so many Jews of the '60s who couldn’t stand idly by seeing how blacks were being mistreated, Zinn was at the forefront of the movement in the South.
But it gets better. In 1967, Walker married Melvyn Leventhal (sound Jewish?). They had a daughter, Rebecca, who would later write a book, Black, White, and Jewish, about the conflicts and lack of acceptance she encountered from all sectors of her diverse family. Walker and Leventhal divorced in 1976.
Ah, mentored by a Jew, married to a Jew. It started to make sense, and she started to fit into a pattern of rabid antisemites who at one point in their lives worked hand in hand with Jews, experienced some negativity, perhaps even an uncomfortable sense of inferiority, and then harbored deep-seated resentments that would emerge years later in the form of an idealistic desire to defend the alleged victims of those very same Jews who had once been their partners, friends are allies.
We saw it with Haman, who had once lived as a humble barber, and who counted Mordechai as one of his customers. After rising to such power, Haman couldn’t stand that fact that Mordechai the Jew remembered him as a lowly hairdresser, and thus began his crusade against the Jews of Persia.
We saw it with the founder of Islam, Muhammad, who, in 627 CE, massacred an entire tribe of Jews, hundreds of men, women and children of the Banu Qurayza in Medina, because he harbored a latent resentment against the Jews of his community who extended friendship to young Muhammad but who couldn’t accept him as their religious peer and equal.
It’s happened timeless times throughout history when antisemitic persecutions were leveled at Jews who at one time were their neighbours and friends, often extending kindness to their persecutors.
It’s no different from what we read in the Torah about Biblical antisemites. As recorded in the book of Numbers, Balak the Moabite king had a seething hatred for the Jews. According to the Midrash, he was a descendant of Lot, Abraham’s nephew who could never match up to his uncle’s piety. Despite the fact that Abraham saved his life, Lot’s resentment would manifest in his great-grandson years later.
Balak hired a man named Balaam to curse the Jews. Here, too, the Midrash observes that Balaam was a grandson of Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, a man whose household empire had been greatly enhanced through Jacob’s dedicated work in his home for 20 years. Laban openly resented Jacob’s success, claiming that Jacob had really done nothing to enhance his wealth, and that it was rather Jacob who had exploited his father-in-law’s estate.
When we see someone who is extreme in their desire to right all of Israel’s wrongs, all we have to do is look into their history and find some Jew who showed them kindness, and then we’ll know why. Truly, when it comes to our people, no good deed goes unpunished.
What we need to learn from the Alice Walkers of the world is how not to behave. This isn’t just a lesson in antisemitism, but also at a lesson in human nature. There’s sometimes a tendency to resent those very people who extend to us kindness and favour. We resent having to be reminded every time we see them that we relied on their kindness. Resentment often and easily turns into hatred.
Especially at this time of year, the period before Tish’a B’Av when we are called to suppress and eradicate sinat chinam (baseless hatred) from our midst, we’d do well to remember how hatred of the other sometimes is born. Our resentments of others’ successes are a product of Balaam, of Haman, and of Alice Walker. The choice is ours to either be humble, charitable and genuinely happy for others’ successes, or to go down that dark path of resentment and malice.
May the darkness hiding within our hearts quickly be eradicated.