A Jeffersonian Conversation on Antisemitism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Anyone who detected the slight look of relief on Benjamin Netanyahu’s face during his address on the evening of October 7th knew two things were about to happen: a great many innocent Palestinians were going to die, and both the Congress of the United States and American news organizations would do all within their power to justify the carnage.

For those who knew those things, the most essential act we could perform right now would be to engage in a genuine conversation about Gaza and antisemitism and the chaos on college campuses. A conversation in the style of the Founders, filled with reason and analysis and rumination. A Jeffersonian argument (much more on Jefferson later) that honestly looks at the foundational aspects of every view.

All of which is utterly impossible. For America is a scandalously lazy and uninformed land which prefers a sense of decorum to a sense of history.

The elected imbeciles strolling the halls of government. The platitudes with which they perfume their genocidal hypocrisy regarding bombed children. The Congressional committees which conduct themselves as a grotesque amalgam of the Sanhedrin and the Council Of Trent. All are a direct result of a citizenry with a limitless inability to fathom.

As for me, while I know what antisemitism is I readily admit that I don’t know what it isn’t. Unfortunately, no leading Jewish organization seems to know either. Their current definitions conflate religion, ethnicity, and nationhood into an amorphous trinity apparently intended to stigmatize any act or utterance which hinders arms shipments.

But I do know that saying God gave this to us can not continue to be proffered as a valid argument for treating Palestinians as human-adjacent. I do know that if Israel is “a light unto the nations” the primary glow is coming from incendiary fires caused by American 2000 pound bombs. I do know that certain members of Congress would need to exhibit even a passing interest in the international status of the United States before they could be credibly accused of dual loyalty.

And I know one thing more. America is NOT a Judeo-Christian nation and it was never intended to be.  So it would be useful if the American people bestirred themselves to know a few essential facts regarding the faiths they claim to espouse.

The fact that Jesus spent his life as a reforming Rabbi and all his apostles died considering themselves Jews. The fact that Christianity was invented by Paul Of Tarsus, who never met Jesus, and whose tenuous qualification for inventing a religion was that he persecuted Jesus’ followers. The fact that Christianity was consolidated by the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. in order to unify the Roman Empire, after which he called together the First Council of Nicaea to literally decide, by majority vote, what was or wasn’t the word of god.

And as useful conversations go, oh how I wish manic Elice Stefanik and those question hurling Congressional antisemitism experts would be able to call on that noted college administrator Thomas Jefferson.

Because while Jefferson, as I hope a majority of graduating high school seniors know, wrote The Declaration Of Independence, he was prouder of having founded the University Of Virginia. And while neither his racism nor his sexism would be a problem for any modern Republican, there was one issue where his views would’ve provoked theatrically bipartisan outrage and earned UVA an F- on Jonathan Grenblatt’s campus report card: Thomas Jefferson considered Judaism to be depraved.

That is not something I feel he felt. Depraved is his actual word. And therein lies the problem. Jefferson held an Enlightenment view of Judaism as a barbaric religion which valued rules over humanity, or as his frequent pen pal John Adams put it, “the principle of the Hebrew is fear.” In today’s hyper-sensitive climate, tenure would not be in his future.

And if the expression of that Enlightenment thought causes your pillars of Judeo-Christian certitude to go all atremble it may be best not to inquire as to our third President’s view of Jesus.

As surprising as it may sound, the Jefferson Bible was not on sale in the lobby at Monticello. It did not include a gold leaf reprint of The Articles Of Confederation and the lyrics to “Proud To Own An African” by a progenitor of Lee Greenwood.

With scissors and paste, Jefferson assembled versions of The Bible in Greek, Latin, French and English that contained only the words of Jesus the man. No mention of the Hebrew Bible. No Adam & Eve. No original sin. No virgin birth. No miracles. No transubstantiation. And no resurrection.

One can only imagine the spit-take of vintage wine which would’ve ensued when asked if he was familiar with Yahweh’s pact with the Israelites and if he wanted his University to be cursed by God.

Fortunately, less loquacious gentiles than Tom and me find it easy not to express an honest opinion about such matters for the simple reason that most Jews seldom solicit one. When it comes to a discussion of Israel, Zionism, and the Middle East, if two Jews three opinions is the norm, one gentile no opinion germane has been the decades-long codicil.

Throughout my adult lifetime, where the “self-hating” Jew had a range of options regarding how to talk about Israel, the self-censoring gentile, fearing allegations of antisemitism, permitted himself only two: Love it or fund it.

Which is what makes our current moment of greater conversational freedom both wondrous and treacherous.
Treacherous because ours is an age which refuses to see irony. An age where wars between faiths and certainties rage in bottomless valleys of death while sanity, not wishing to offend, meekly gestures at its TV screen.

Above all, an age which actively seeks to ban books while the three most destructive ever written by man are used to justify everything from murdering to starvation to flying planes into buildings to legislating that life begins at erection.

Joe Biden’s position on Israel’s merciless butchering of Gaza has always been clear. He intends to wait until there is no one left for Netanyahu to destroy. One look into his milky eyes should confirm that ossified certainty which has spanned his political career.

And it is fitting that Biden self-identifies as a Zionist. Zionists are Libertarians with a predilection for violence. Smug adherents of a movement incapable of surviving the first practical followup question. I often try imagining their acceptable parameters of debate if Theodore Herzl had settled for Kenya (it’s a misnomer that the British offered Uganda) as the location for a homeland. How many indigenous residents of downtown Nairobi would need to be re-classified terrorists? How many UN resolutions opposing illegal settlements around Lake Victoria would need to be vetoed by the American ambassador?

For non-Zionists who believe, as I do, that Israel has an absolute right to exist with defined borders and a constitution, the fact that a “Greater Israel” lasted no more than 80 years and ended around 920 B.C. is a relevant thing.

It is also relevant that the Diaspora is not some Dantean level of hell. It is a flawed yet accepting place where the unjust horrors inflicted on Alfred Dreyfus did not preclude Lloyd Blankfein from flourishing. Furthermore, in this fetid time of Trump and Biden, for anyone lacking wealth and power the Diaspora embraces Jew and gentile alike in an ever tightening caress of hopelessness.

In the end, perhaps a Jeffersonian conversation on antisemitism will prove impossible. For it cannot begin until the Holocaust is seen for what it was: a rancid and unspeakably obscene chapter in a 20th-century book of depravity that includes Armenians, Cambodians, Rwandans and Kulaks – and not an Accountability E-ZPass for defenders of Israel to view its policies as somehow beyond criticism.

Regardless, every Jew and gentile in the United States is answerable for what Israel is doing with our tax money. Every Jew and gentile in the United States is answerable for the militaristic terrorism by which our government attempts to govern the world.

And if we are incapable of agreeing on even those facts, let us agree that tribalism on a finite planet is madness.

You don’t need to be Thomas Jefferson to hold that truth self-evident.

Jerry Long is a writer, actor, podcaster and political satirist who, with his brother Joe, has worked with Adam McKay on numerous projects. He can also be reached at jlbeggar@gmail.com