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Call it a public service. When National Review devoted almost an entire issue to William F. Buckley’s In Search of Anti-Semitism, an unsettled and unsettling set of questions was once again brought to the fore. That has to be done from time to time. One may be inclined to think that there is nothing new to be said about anti-Semitism, and there is something to that. Many Americans, Jews and Christians alike, are weary of the subject, and that, too, is understandable, in part. Nonetheless, unsettled and unsettling questions need a careful public airing on occasion, or else they fester in the shadowed corners of our culture, breeding resentments and suspicions that corrode our common life.

Mr. Buckley’s reflections on contemporary anti-Semitism are excruciatingly careful, and his conclusions meticulously firm. Most news reports focused on his criticisms of Patrick Buchanan, media commentator and presidential candidate. That is not surprising in an election year. Buckley pays equal attention, however, to Joseph Sobran, former senior editor of National Review, James Freedman, the president of Dartmouth College, and novelist Gore Vidal, who vents his blatantly anti-Semitic fevers in the pages of the Nation, flagscow magazine of the left. Buckley’s conclusions, in sum, are: Sobran is so “obsessed” with Jews and Israel that he cannot write on these subjects except in a manner that reasonable people could describe as anti-Semitic; Buchanan, while not an anti-Semite, has given frequent voice to sentiments that reasonable people must describe as anti-Semitic; Freedman, in his war against the conservative Dartmouth Review, is a demagogue who has shamelessly used the charge of anti-Semitism to enforce conformity to political correctness; and Vidal, well, when it comes to Gore Vidal Mr. Buckley is manifestly exercising heroic restraint. (He notes that Vidal complains that he has been lied about, that people have misrepresented his views. Buckley observes, “Anyone who lies about Mr. Vidal is doing him a kindness.”)

Our purpose is not to review Mr. Buckley’s essay, which readers can readily obtain for themselves. It is indeed a public service and will, in our judgment, deservedly become an important reference in a discussion that will not be settled any time soon. Our purpose, rather, is to inquire into some of the issues raised by the discussion of anti-Semitism. These are concerns that go to the heart of the raison d’etre of this journal and its publisher, the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Ours is a determinedly Christian-Jewish enterprise.

That is so because our constituting purpose—to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for a society of freedom and virtue—requires a secure partnership between Christians and Jews. (There are many reasons—frequently discussed in these pages—why such a partnership is required. Suffice it for the present that we are convinced that it is so.) Even more important, ours is a Christian-Jewish enterprise because we believe that, in ways that elude our complete understanding, God has covenantally entangled Jews and Christians. That entanglement, and the imperatives that it entails, will, it seems, continue until the final consummation of messianic promise. Happily, the resulting partnership is not only a matter of duty but also of delight in a company of Christians and Jews joined by common resolve.

To say that ours is a Christian-Jewish enterprise does not mean that it is some hybrid “third way” called Christian-Jewish, distinct from the ways of Judaism and Christianity. As we understand it, the Christian-Jewish partnership requires that Jews be Jews and Christians be Christians. It is precisely as Jews that Jews are, at the most serious level, entangled with Christians, and vice versa. True pluralism, as we intend never to tire of saying, is not pretending that our differences make no difference. True pluralism is honestly engaging the differences that make a very great difference in this world, and perhaps in the next. In full awareness of the differences, we do believe that it is appropriate, indeed necessary, to speak of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

A common Judeo-Christian tradition is not a common faith. To be sure, Christian faith is inexplicable apart from Judaism, and a growing number of Jewish thinkers are convinced that Jewish self-understanding must encompass an understanding of Christianity in the divinely ordered scheme of history. It is at this level of discerning God’s intention that Jews and Christians are most inescapably and intensively entangled with one another. Neither among Christians nor among Jews is there any settled consensus about the nature and outcome of that entanglement. The joint exploration of these questions is still a relatively new thing, and the future of this new thing rests almost entirely with Jews and Christians in America. That is why the Jewish-Christian dialogue, as it is called, comes in for regular attention in this journal.

When we speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, the reference is usually to matters moral rather than theological, although the two are not easily separable. Christians embrace the “moral law” (as in, for instance, the Ten Commandments) revealed by the God of Abraham, who is also the One whom Jesus called Father. Jew and Christian alike can affirm that this moral law is consonant with morality constructed on the basis of natural law, general revelation, or even studiously “secular” reasoning. While similar moral conclusions can be reached by taking different routes, most Americans (more than 90 percent) claim to reach their moral conclusions by a route that they identify as religious. Of course there is no numerical balance between the Judeo and the Christian, since only a little over 2 percent of Americans identify themselves as Jews. Moreover, the imbalance is accentuated by the fact that 60 percent of Jews do not belong or contribute to any Jewish organizations, religious or otherwise, whereas well over 60 percent of non-Jews are church members.

These factors further underscore the importance of affirming a Judeo-Christian tradition. The phrase reminds Christians of their dependence upon Judaism and the respect they owe its living representatives. It reminds Jews of the religious foundations of their security in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish society, and of the need to cultivate moral commonalities. Regrettably and dangerously, many Jews believe that their safety in this society is secured exclusively by positive law and secular reason, even when these are posited against the moral sensibilities of the Christian majority. Equally regrettable and dangerous, many Christians believe that this is a “Christian nation” in which the presence of Jews can be dismissed as an anomaly or, when it cannot be so easily dismissed, is resented as an intrusion. Against both errors, it is important to insist that our public moral order rests upon a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Those who care about that tradition must give sustained attention to the evil of anti-Semitism. Some Christians immediately respond that too much attention is already given anti-Semitism. What, they ask, about Jewish anti-Christianism? There is no denying that some Jews give every appearance of being anti-Christian, or at least of wanting to expunge every evidence of Christianity from our public life. The propensities of the dominantly Jewish leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union come immediately to mind. At the same time, a growing number of Jewish thinkers are arguing, not least of all in the pages of this journal, that the posture of groups such as the ACLU is misguided, dangerous, and just plain dumb. In any event—given the numerical imbalance between Jews and Christians in this society, and given the still recent horrors experienced by Jews in other societies where the majority claimed to be Christian—it should not be necessary to persuade Christians that there is not a moral or consequential equivalence between anti-Semitism and anti-Christianism.

As aforesaid, the question of anti-Semitism must be revisited from time to time. It is a salutary exercise for Christians and Jews to better understand one of the more loathsome diseases of the modern era. In addition, the forms and motor forces of anti-Semitism are not stable but assume at times new configurations. Ours is such a time, as we shall see. Admittedly, it is frustratingly difficult to define anti-Semitism, and the very term has been recklessly debased by its facile use in order to silence critics (see the reference above to Freedman of Dartmouth). It is not anti-Semitism if one, all in all, does not like Jews very much, just as there is no moral culpability if, all in all, one has a dislike for Italians. To eliminate from human society generalized distastes and preferences—including those that engage ethnicity, religion, nation, language, and race—is neither possible nor desirable, although there is a style of liberalism that erroneously insists that it is both.

A person who, all in all, does not like Jews raises a reasonable suspicion of anti-Semitism if he makes a public point of it. (If some of his best friends are Jews, it counts in his favor, although it may simply indicate that he is confused about his prejudices.) And if he makes a public point of it in a way that suggests that Jews are a public problem and that something should be done about them, he is almost demanding that he be viewed as an anti-Semite. After innumerable unsuccessful tries by others, we do not entertain the conceit that we will come up with a definition of anti-Semitism that will meet with universal agreement. But, for what it is worth, we propose this: An anti-Semite is someone who declares that certain vices and character flaws are specifically Jewish, and who would deny to Jews rights and privileges readily accorded to others.

It is always appropriate to ask whether anti-Semitism so defined is on the rise in our society. If we consult the polls and other survey research data, the answer is that anti-Semitism has steadily and dramatically declined. In the modern era, and perhaps in all of history, Jews have never been so secure as they are at present in the United States of America. (They are certainly not so secure in the Middle East.) And yet Mr. Buckley opines that the likes of Pat Buchanan and Gore Vidal would have been more severely and generally censured for their anti-Semitic delinquencies, say, ten years ago. He may well be right.

This does not necessarily indicate an increase of anti-Semitism. Recent years have witnessed a general assault upon, and consequent weakening of, societal taboos. There was no reason to expect that the taboo against anti-Semitism, backed by the now-fading memory of the Holocaust, would be spared. The defiance of taboos is deemed to be liberating, and a certain cachet of daring is attached to the speaking of the unspeakable. Liberation and liberalism are related more than phonetically, which is one reason why anti-Semitism is increasingly more evident on the left rather than the right. While the public expression of anti-Semitism need not indicate an increase of anti-Semitism, it could, if it goes unchecked, create a climate conducive to such an increase. It must not, therefore, go unchecked.

Restoring the taboo against anti-Semitism is made more difficult precisely because Jews are so very much part of American life. Most Americans—and it is well to remember that most Americans have no more than a passing acquaintance with any Jews—are puzzled by the suggestion that Jews are to be viewed as somehow endangered. For the next generation—if not for young people today—Auschwitz will be invoked with all the historical resonance of Appomattox. In short, Jews less and less possess that moral attribute so treasured in our culture, victim status. On the contrary, they are viewed as a particularly prominent part of “the establishment” that it is the duty of the right-minded, meaning the left-minded, to excoriate. Nobody advocates quotas or affirmative action for Jews, unless it be to limit their access to positions of influence. Although they are only a little more than 2 percent of the population, Jews are no longer a certified “minority.”

Inveterate anti-Semites have long treated the disproportionate influence of Jews—especially in the academy, journalism, and entertainment—as a dirty little secret to which it is their duty to alert an unsuspecting public. The assumption is that numerically disproportionate means inordinate, as in excessive and dangerously out of control. It is self-defeating and simply silly to pretend that Jews are not disproportionately represented in many sectors of societal leadership. One may attribute this to various factors: superior intelligence and energy, habits of diligence and enterprise, or maybe having something to do with being chosen by God. Anti-Semites attribute it to a Jewish conspiracy. Their claims to the contrary, anti-Semites are not distinguished by their candor in recognizing the influence of Jews. Their deplorable distinction is in the reason they give to explain that influence, and the consequent threat they perceive in it.

The disproportionate influence of Jews is not without problems. The chief problem is that most Jews are not very Jewish. Or, as a number of Jewish observers have put it, those Jews who are Jewish are interested in Jewishness but not in Judaism. In other words, they affirm Jewishness as ethnicity or folkway but have no use for Judaism as religion. One result is that Jews tend to have a disproportionate and, yes, inordinate secularizing influence in our culture. In addition, some religious Jews join the secularists in subscribing to the doctrine that the more secular the culture is the safer it will be for Jews. Not surprisingly, this leads—as in the instances of the ACLU and the American Jewish Congress—to an extremist notion of the separation of church and state that is tantamount to the separation of religion from public life.

As becomes increasingly obvious, that notion is not democratically sustainable. And a good thing, too, for a public square that is devoid of religiously grounded imperatives and inhibitions is a very dangerous place for a very small and very prominent population that is very importantly different. The questions of secularization and the Judeo-Christian tradition have everything to do with the culture wars in which our society is embroiled. The conflict has produced tacit alliances on some public issues between, on the one hand. Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews who are religiously conservative and, on the other, culturally assertive Christians, notably Roman Catholics and evangelicals. Especially encouraging is the renewed Christian urgency in reappropriating the Jewish shape of Christianity and the emergence of a new generation of Jewish intellectual leadership prepared to argue for a culture firmly secured by the Judeo-Christian tradition. (On the latter see the March 1991 First Things symposium, “Judaism and American Public Life,” soon to be expanded into a major book.)

And now we have come so far with nary a mention of the State of Israel. The anti-Semitism that occasioned the Buckley discussion that occasioned this discussion has everything to do with Israel. In the Christian-Jewish enterprise of which this journal is part, Israel matters and matters enormously. A few brief observations are in order. American support for Israel is coming under growing attack from isolationists on both the left and the right of our political culture. The attack from the left, representing itself as anti-Zionism or pro-Palestinianism, is the more virulent. In the view from the left, Israel, which has won too many wars, has become the Goliath oppressing the Palestinian David, and, in addition, bears the onus of being backed by the necessarily oppressive power of the United States. Israel is depicted as a garrison state, it being conveniently forgotten that one rational response to being surrounded by declared enemies is to become a garrison state.

Other dynamics contribute to the enervating of American commitment to Israel. The idea of a Jewish homeland as a partial reparation for an unspeakable injustice ineluctably loses its force as the immediacy of the Holocaust recedes into the past. The end of the Cold War nullifies Israel’s role as an ally in the contest against Communism. A greater awareness of the political culture of the Middle East makes less plausible the claim that Israel serves as :he vanguard of democracy in that part of the world. These previously persuasive reasons for backing Israel will no longer work. Like it or not, the special relationship with Israel increasingly depends upon the strength of the Jewish-Christian entanglement we discussed at the beginning. The deluded ideologists of Realpolitik notwithstanding, the “hard” realities of American-Israel relations are ideas about chosenness, destiny, messianic promise, and a people that, however imperfectly, participates in the holiness of the land that Christians call holy.

To care about Jews and Judaism is to care about Israel. That is because to care about others is to participate in what they care about. That is because the communal, psychological, and spiritual consequences of the demise of Israel are too ghastly to contemplate. To care about Israel is to take care not only that Israel survive but that Israel flourish. Caring about Israel does not preclude disagreements about Israel. We may even disagree over whether the establishment of the state in 1948 was just or justly done, never mind divinely ordained. The infrangible fact is that it is there, adamantly, relentlessly, steadfastly there—and with it is invested a large part of the biblical mystery that is Judaism. We may certainly disagree over policies and actions of the Israeli government, not least its control and treatment of people it has conquered, albeit in a defensive war. And there is sure to be continuing disagreement over what the U.S. can or should do to secure a greater measure of peace in that region of the world.

But at the end of the day, when all the arguments have been made, those involved in the Christian-Jewish effort to restore moral sanity to a world manifestly going mad will be able to tell the difference between those who do and those who do not care whether Israel will survive and flourish. And from there it is not a long step to understanding who does and who does not care about Jews and Judaism. And that being determined, we will likely have a firmer fix on what is and what is not anti-Semitism in our time.

Photo by Zachi Evenor via Creative Commons. Image cropped.