Antisemitism and Relating to Others: Why Tolerance Isn’t Enough

Photograph Source: David Shinbone – CC BY-SA 3.0

Although the focus of this essay is on Jewish experiences and Jewish responses, other religious and secular readers concerned about responding to so much hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, exploitation, and injustice today can easily transform my wordings into their own contextualized terms. Most of our responses to hatred, bigotry, antisemitism (also spelled anti-Semitism, anti-semitism), racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other forms of intolerance toward others consists in strong affirmations of the need for greater tolerance. Why is this not enough?

Union, New Jersey: Three Background Items on Antisemitism

My family moved to Union (Union Township), New Jersey in 1945 when I was four years old. During the postwar period, Union, once known as Connecticut Farms, grew rapidly and became a suburban community of nearly 60,000 citizens. Three historical background items may shed light on my early experiences and the focus of this essay on tolerance.

First, I was aware of a “bund” in Union where German Americans gathered for social, cultural, recreational, and other activities. In more specific and restricted references, the “German-American Bund” was launched nationally in 1936, peaked in the late 1930s, and was outlawed by the US. Government after the U.S. entered the war against fascist Germany and Japan in December 1941.

German-American Bunds existed throughout the United States and often held gatherings in which members identified with traditional German clothes, recreation, and ritualized behavior; were sometimes sympathetic to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and supported the rise of fascism in the U.S.; sometimes embraced the view that the true cultural, racial, and political ally of the U.S. was fascist Germany; and embraced America First isolationism and lobbied against the U.S entering the war against Nazism and other forms of fascism.

Of course, many of the characteristics of the German-American Bund existed before 1936 and continued long after the end of World War II. In alarming ways, they continue in the present.

Second, I later became aware of a publication, Common Sense, based in Union, New Jersey. Itbears no relation toTom Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense” published in 1776 that called for independence from British colonial rule. Common Sensewas a semi-monthly paper founded and edited by a hate-monger named Conde McGinley that developed a national following. The overwhelming focus was virulently antisemitic, with Jews as the wealthy and powerful source of evil in the U.S. and throughout the world. Feeding into the frenzy of Cold War anticommunism, Common Senseidentified communism as really Judaism. I also recall that this white-supremacist paper repeatedly attacked Negroes (Blacks) as inferior and as pawns of the powerful Jews. It often published articles by blatant fascists, some of whom had supported the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and who supported contemporary fascism in the U.S.

Third, the well-known writer Philip Roth, born and raised in the Jewish section of Newark, authored his novel, The Plot Against America, published in 2004. In many ways, Roth’s book is in the tradition of the famous alarming novel, It Can’t Happen Here, authored by Sinclair Lewis in 1935.In his novel, Lewis warned of the rise of rightwing fascism, not only in Germany but also in many other countries and especially in the U.S. “It Can’t Happen Here” became a kind of slogan warning that “It Can Happen Here” and is happening here, in ways that address what is happening throughout the world and in the United States today.

Roth’s book is set in Newark and its Jewish community in the early 1940s. In this alternate history, Charles Lindbergh, the aviator hero who visited Germany in the 1930s, was sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazis, and was a leader in the America First Committee and Party, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940. What follows is widespread persecution of American Jews who live in extreme fear.

With Trump’s America First hate and policies, the white nationalist and other loyal followers in his base, and the dramatic rise of American fascism and antisemitism, as most dramatized in the mass shootings of congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 and most recently at the Chabad of Powar Synagogue near San Diego on April 27, 2019, some have argued that Roth’s alternative history has become alarmingly true in the contemporary U.S.

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth describes my town of Union, New Jersey. He refers to the German-American Bund of Union with its identification with some traditional German practices, including festive gatherings with beer steins, accordion music, and wearing German folk clothes. At the German-American Bund there was widespread sympathy for Germany, for Hitler and the Nazis, and for the embrace of fascistic and antisemitic values.

There were other influences in Union that led to positive formative experiences. Many resisted antisemitism, racism, and other forms of oppression and injustice. My most exceptional experiences during my high school years involved being a leader in a very progressive Jewish youth movement on the local, state, and national levels. I had many meaningful experiences with black youth in Union. And the German-American mayor of Union, F. Edward Biertuempfel, who served from 1939 to 1973, serving 34 consecutive terms and sometimes identified as the longest serving mayor in the U.S., was considered a friend and supporter of local Jews.

Antisemitism, a term that gained widespread usage in Germany in the 19thcentury mainly as an anti-Jewish racial term, can be a vague word. Some claim that it expresses an attitude directed at all “Semites,” including Arabs and others. Some claim that it is a linguistic term referring to a language group that includes Hebrew, but also Arabic and other languages. As I use the term, “antisemitism” has religious, racial, political, cultural, and other ideological meanings and refers to hostility, hatred, prejudice, and discrimination directed toward Jews. In current contexts, the frequent attacks that any criticisms of several powerful Jewish lobbying groups, of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli policies toward Palestinians, and of Trump, Kushner, and others in their approaches to Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East are necessarily antisemitic are overwhelmingly false.

Traumatic Childhood Experiences

Many of my most vivid memories are traumatic and involve experiences of extreme hostility directed at me and other Jewish classmates. Although I always attended public schools, in the 1940s and 1950s, I did not experience the separation of church and state, of the Christian religion and public education, that students today may find in public schools.

Every school day began with religious content, including reciting Biblical passages and a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer which each young student was expected to recite. Christmas time was a period of extreme discomfort and even terror. In daily homeroom periods, we were expected to sing Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and other hymns proclaiming faith that Jesus Christ was our savior. I vividly recall Christian classmates yelling to the teacher that I was not singing the words and how I and other Jewish students would often mutter under our breath that we did not really believe what was being forced on us.

The yearly Christmas pageant was not a joyful event featuring I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Jingle Bells, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It featured reenactment of the religious Nativity scene with Christian symbols and rituals. It took me many years to realize that the Cross could be a symbol of peace and love and was not always a threatening symbol of negative judgment, violence, and terror directed against Jews.

These traumatic childhood experiences were experienced on many interconnected, and mutually reinforcing levels. I vividly recall running for my life through the streets of Union being chased by older bullies yelling their ugly antisemitic threats. Later, I spent many years running track races, but I never had such a motivation of fear to run faster.

I also recall when I first learned of the Holocaust, especially when seeing photos and film footage of the stacked piles of the slaughtered bodies at Auschwitz and other death camps. This also led to early religious questioning. How could the God I had been taught—so good, all-knowing, a force for justice, and a protector of the Jewish people—have allowed the Holocaust with the slaughter of millions of Jews and other innocent people? In terms of my traumatic youthful anti-Jewish experiences and awareness of the Holocaust, I would certainly have embraced the position that greater tolerance is exactly what was needed.

Growing out of these youthful experiences, I gradually began to develop an awareness of pervasive racism: the history of American slavery with its terror, trauma, and inhumanity; the history of lynchings and other forms of violence; the history of white-supremacist legalized segregation; and the existence of de facto segregation and racism in my own community. Similarly, I began to develop an awareness of how the Cowboys-and-Indians Western movies and the John Wayne movies that I watched were racist and falsified U.S. history. Christopher Columbus did not “discover America.” Native Americans lived on this continent for many centuries. To understand U.S. history and the present, one needed to understand how white conquerors, missionaries, and the creators of our dominant ideologies and cultures had inflicted unspeakable violence, horror, and trauma in the genocide of Native American peoples, their languages, and their cultures.

In these and other related illustrations of antisemitism and extreme intolerance toward “the other,” I would have accepted the position that greater tolerance is just what is needed. Why is this not enough?

The Need to Go Beyond “Tolerance”

Usually affirmation of tolerance of values, views, and actions of individuals and groups that we find most objectionable is much better than intolerance. Nevertheless, this modern liberal approach is often weak, disturbing, and inadequate. Once again, a dramatic example from my life illustrates this analysis.

The Skokie, Illinois events in 1977-78 could form the basis for an entire article. On a personal level, I’ll only note two pieces of information.  The founder of the new American Nazi party was a student at Southern Illinois University while I was on the faculty. He was probably responsible for a Nazi life-threatening experience directed at me in which my students came to class and found flyers on every desk with large swastikas and a message to kill me. In addition, my American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in a successful suit in federal court was a modern liberal, incidentally Jewish, ACLU lawyer in Chicago, who also represented the same Nazi who announced plans for “the swastika march” in Skokie. For the ACLU, this seemed to be a routine First Amendment free speech issue: We must tolerate and uphold the right of free speech for these Nazis.

At the time of the planned 1977 march, Skokie, a Chicago suburb, had a population of 70,000, and 40,000 of them were Jewish. It was estimated that 5,000-7,000 of these Jews were Holocaust survivors, the largest number in the U.S. The Nazis could have marched elsewhere, but they intentionally planned their march with flags with swastikas in a Jewish area with many traumatized Holocaust survivors. Their clear intention was to give the small group of marching Nazis publicity, force the “liberal” ACLU to defend their free speech of hatred, white-supremacy and antisemitism, and foment the kinds of violence and divisiveness so prevalent today.

What was especially disturbing to so many of us who were members of the ACLU and resulted in a major blowback against the ACLU case was a position upholding the absolute right of free speech without acknowledging the devastating effects and contextualized limits of “free speech” that is blatantly hateful, antisemitic, genocidal, incites violence, and promotes injustice.

The dominant, Western, liberal framework promoting tolerance usually embraces varieties of modern skepticism and is an attractive position. It seems to be self-critical and rational, modest in its claims to truth, and justified in its skeptical critiques of many dominant premodern religious, political, and other authoritarian positions that dogmatically claim that they and they alone possess the exclusive absolute truth.

Nevertheless, modern liberal positions are insufficiently limited and weak, usually rather indifferent and uninvolved in ignoring and “tolerating” injustice imposed on the others, and often part of the problem of intolerance toward others. The need to go beyond “tolerance” is consistent with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful critique of “the white moderate” in his 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” I’ll present only two of my many reasons justifying the need to go beyond “tolerance.”

First, many positions urging greater tolerance express alarming indifference toward those experiencing oppression, exploitation, violence, torture, injustice, and all kinds of humanly-created and maintained suffering. In these approaches, such pervasive suffering is unfortunate. I wish that the world were not so unjust, but I have my life to live and such suffering of others is not my problem or personal responsibility. Others, who have a conscience and urge much greater tolerance toward others, have weak, “safe,” minimal, individual, voluntary responses that often perpetuate, even when unintentionally, the violent, oppressive, and unjust relations of the power-defined status quo. For example, I may relate to the others through charity, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and even rallies in which speakers assert that we individually and as a community oppose hate, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry and dehumanization of the diverse others.

There is nothing wrong with well-intentioned small-scale and immediate calls for greater tolerance. Where such expressions are too limited, “safe,” and weak is that they usually fail to move beyond such calls for greater tolerance and for meeting immediate needs. They usually don’t ask the stronger questions and provide the stronger responses of a more progressive Jewish and other approaches. Why in the wealthiest country in the world is there such extreme inequality with the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few? Why in a country with food surplus do so many go hungry? Why in a country where everyone could have access to good affordable healthcare do so many have no healthcare or inadequate healthcare and suffer greatly, often dying preventable deaths? Why in a country where every student could have a good affordable education are so many burdened by student debt and so many prevented from experiencing a good education? In asking such questions, attempting to get at root causes and systemic structures of unjust power and emphasizing that such unjust relations to others are intolerable, one risks challenging and alienating many invested in the status quo who easily approve calls for greater tolerance, charity, and service efforts.

Second, even more significantly from the perspective of a progressive approach to the others, the above positions calling for greater tolerance are insufficient because they lack what most allows for authentic human relations, for human development and flourishing, the moral imperative and demand for active transformative engagement. This is not something viewed as completely voluntary, a matter of individual choice, in which one may choose to care about the others and may choose to do charity and service work, which are then seen as admirable and as expressions of greater tolerance. Instead, this transformative engagement is not a matter of voluntary choice, in which you are understandably and justifiably free to choose not to be involved. There is an unconditional demand on us, an unconditional obligation, that we be actively and forcefully engaged in relating to others, especially to those who are suffering, oppressed, unfree, and treated unjustly. Such an active, forceful, engaged position is qualitatively different from and takes us far beyond most positions that only embrace the need for greater tolerance.

Today, in a United States (and world) in which Trump, the government, corporate CEOs, those controlling the financial capital, military planners, those controlling the advertising and the media dehumanize, demonize, oppress, and destroy the lives of millions of others, it is always important for us to present our alternative approaches rationally. However, this is necessary but far from sufficient in how we relate to others and struggle to resist and overcome injustice. This is how I regard not only what is best in the Jewish Prophetic tradition, but also in Karl Marx. The most authentic response to antisemitism, racism, inequality, humanly-caused suffering and death, and blatant injustice is not calm, political, “rational” (really irrational), promoting “civil” (really inhumane and uncivil) discourse that is easily assimilated in furthering limited “tolerance.” It is highly emotional, extremely passionate, full of outrage that does not promote tolerating injustice and that challenges us to relate to ourselves and to others in more engaged, courageous, risk-taking, transformative ways. Such an approach to antisemitism and to others, in which self-transformation and world-transportation are integral relational dimensions of the dialectical process of human and world development and flourishing, takes us well beyond the need for greater “tolerance.”

Doug Allen is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine. He is the author of Gandhi After 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability published by Oxford University Press (2019).