The Crusades were bad for the Jews. Vast armies on a mission to liberate the holy land from Islam first sharpened their blades against their non-believing neighbors. Whole Jewish communities were slaughtered; some by sword, some by fire. The cruelty was such that some rabbis advocated mass suicide as the only way to avoid the coming devastation.
The survivors tried to understand their suffering, given their belief in a protective, loving God. It had to be their fault, they concluded; they suffered on account of failing to live up to their religious ethics. Ironically, their Christian persecutors felt the same way about their victims.
It’s a trauma, a model that didn’t go away as Jews took on western values. Assimilated Jews were able to retain spiritual self-respect by converting Judaism into ethics, honoring what they considered core ideals. But that came with its own set of demands. More so than keeping the Sabbath and observing dietary laws, it was important for modern Jews to be ethical, and it was sacrilege when the most visible, the most concrete expression of Judaism, the State of Israel, was accused of acting wrongly. In keeping with ancient tradition, many of the westernized, assimilated Jews blamed the Jews.
The liberation of the Jew from his ancient religion enabled him to disavow the ethically problematic features of his past. His pious secular ethic allowed him to condemn the Jewish present. In the past the sins were setting themselves apart, (alleged) narrow-minded dogmatism, and if we go back far enough, living in a land claimed by someone else. Contemporary sins include resistance to modern social values, narrow-minded dogmatism, and living in a land claimed by someone else.
In many ways, holding themselves responsible for their fate has served the Jews well. Rather than sink into the comfort of victimhood, people and communities took action to improve themselves. But when ethics become pious dogma, it leads to a loving embrace of every slander. The result is hyper-sensitivity to any accusation that demeans the ethical purity of the assimilated Jew.
A charge of promoting hatred is thus taken very seriously. Loathing evil is not acceptable in the modern world of relative values. So Brandeis University canceled the award of an honorary degree to the heroic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, because it would breach assimilated ethical purity. Brandeis describes itself as “the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university in the country.” It’s a non-Jewish Jewish institution, whose logo incorporates the Hebrew word “emet,” (truth). One would expect it to be proud to honor someone who puts herself at considerable risk to promote truth.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s truth shreds the ideal that ethnic identity, that religion is insignificant. She destroys the messianic
landscape in which all people should love each other because at heart, we’re all the same. Her attacks on Islamic violence and misogyny have the collateral damage of un-assimilating the Jew. And so when Muslims attack Brandeis for wanting to honor her, peace must be restored.
It’s a peace that can best be maintained by denouncing the embodiment of alleged sinfulness, i.e. the State of Israel. Secular Jewish ethical purity is what allows Jews to invite anti-Israel groups to take part in a parade celebrating Israel. It’s what causes Hillel, the Jewish student campus organization to increasingly accept anti-Israel programming, what allows a Jewish academic to unfavorably compare Israel to Iran.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, assimilated Jews adopted Protestant values. The philosopher Edmund Husserl had himself baptized, in the hope of being accepted. He was shocked when his favorite student, Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party.
In the twenty-first century, assimilated Jews proclaim their secular, faith, hugging and protecting the people whose holy book calls for their death. Will it lead to the same result as for the earlier generation who tried to shed their identity?