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Explaining Jews, Part III: A very insecure people

Tuesday, Feb 21, 2006

On Jan. 21 in Paris, a gang of Muslims intent on kidnapping Jews kidnapped 23-year-old Ilan Halimi. Reciting verses from the Koran in phone conversations demanding money from the family, they ultimately rejected the money and tortured Halimi to death. They kept him naked for weeks while they cut him up and finally poured flammable liquid over his skin and burned him alive.

When Jews read this story, they see themselves as Halimi and think that such a thing could happen to them somewhere in the world today and somewhere in the world at any time in the past.

If you want to understand how Jews think and behave, you must first understand how large antisemitism and the Holocaust loom in the psyche, emotions and minds of the vast majority of Jews.

It could not be otherwise.

While ethnic, racial, religious and national hatreds are as old as mankind, none has been as universal and as deep as hatred of Jews.

Jew-hatred was given the name "anti-Semitism" only in 1879 by a German anti-Semite named Wilhelm Marr. The term is entirely misleading since it has nothing to do with "Semites." Jews may be Semites, but so are Arabs, and antisemitism never meant hatred of Arabs, only of Jews. That is why many contemporary writers, including my coauthor (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin) and I in our book "Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism," do not spell the word "anti-Semite," but rather as one word without a hyphen — "antisemite."

Jew-hatred or antisemitism has been so deep that tens of millions of people have equated the Jews with the devil and many more have desired that the Jews be erased from the Earth. Such an attempt was made only one generation ago in what is called the Holocaust (or Shoah, the Hebrew term). This was the German Nazi attempt to murder every Jewish man, woman and child, which resulted in the murder of two out of every three Jews in Europe.

To give an idea of how many Jews have been murdered for being Jews, all one needs to do is look at population statistics. Scholars estimate the population of the Roman Empire at about 60 million at the time of Jesus. According to the dean of Jewish historians, Professor Salo Baron, at that time Jews comprised about 10 percent of the population. That means that 2,000 years ago there were about 6 million Jews. It is also estimated that at that time, the world’s population was about 200 million.

Today the world’s population is over 6 billion. While the world’s population is about 30 times larger than 2,000 years ago, the Jewish population has barely doubled. Had Jews been left alone to procreate at the same rate as others, there would be about 180 million Jews in the world today. Moreover, even the 6 million number for the Roman empire represented a huge loss of population due to extensive killing of Jews in the 12 centuries from their inception.

It is true that Jewish population losses have been also due to assimilation, but this assimilation was itself overwhelmingly a result of persecution — forced conversions, desire to lead a far safer life as part of the majority culture, etc. In fact, because of the Holocaust, there are fewer Jews today than there were 100 years ago.

One can now understand why the Passover Haggadah — the special prayer book for the Passover Seder meal, first written about 2,000 years ago — contains this famous statement: "In every generation there are those who rise against us to annihilate us . . . "

As a result, Jews are probably the most insecure group in the world. This may come as a surprise to most non-Jews since Jews are widely regarded as particularly powerful. But Jews’ power and Jews’ insecurity are not mutually contradictory. In fact, Jews’ power derives in large measure from their insecurity. The stronger the Jews’ influence, Jews believe, the less likely they are to be hurt again.

Fear of being hurt again is the major reason most identifying Jews are so protective of Israel. First, they fear that without Israel, Jews are far more vulnerable to another outburst of antisemitic violence. And this has been true. Israel, for example, was Soviet Jewry’s great defender (along with America and Diaspora Jewry) and the place to escape to. Only a very strong Israel, Jews believe, can prevent another Holocaust. Second, Jews believe that Arabs and other Muslims want to do to Israel and its Jewish inhabitants what the Nazis did to the Jews. And given the Palestinians’ desire to destroy Israel, the Iranian regime’s repeated calls for the annihilation of Israel, and the number of Muslims who chant, "Death to Israel," this fear is entirely warranted.

Fear of being persecuted and even murdered solely for being a Jew resides in just about every Jew’s psyche. It helps to explain Jews’ preoccupation with Israel; Jews’ preoccupation with teaching the world about the Holocaust; Jews’ fear of Christianity — most Jews are taught about European Christian antisemitism at a very young age and link Christianity to the Holocaust; and even Jews’ near-religious commitment to liberalism, which most Jews see as the best guarantor against antisemitism. An increasing number of Jews are rethinking the latter two conclusions as a result of Christian treatment of Jews in America and Christian support for Israel and because of the lack of such support on the Left. But whatever one’s position on these matters, the fact remains that fear of pogroms, torture, expulsions and mass murder shapes most Jews’ psyches and politics.

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