Last week, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro and politically amorphous intellectual Jordan Peterson appeared together in Jerusalem. I have always had a soft spot for Peterson, and was interested in what he might have to say about Judaism and Israel. He did not disappoint, calling Israel the “cardinal model of the nation-state” and wondering if “as Jews in Israel, are you telling the greatest story ever told?”
The latter statement put me in mind of non-Jewish historian Paul Johnson’s remark that he had written a history of the Jews in order to answer the question “what are we on earth for?” The Jews, he said, “stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of purpose.”
All of this is hefty stuff, and placing the burden of “the greatest story ever told” and the meaning of life on our shoulders is, to some extent, a bit much. No people is capable of carrying that much weight. Still, Peterson’s and Johnson’s remarks illustrate a fascinating if often overlooked phenomenon—that of philo-Semitism.
It is natural for the Jews to pay far more attention to anti-Semitism than philo-Semitism. Dealing with hate always feels more urgent than dealing with love. Nonetheless, there have always been those who loved the Jews. Converts, for example, go back at least to the Book of Ruth, and some—such as Onkelos—proved essential to Judaism’s development. Even during the Middle Ages, there was a certain unnamed fascination with the Jews, especially among Christian mystics, who were obsessed with the Kabbalah and the Hebrew language.
There is also the bizarre philo-Semitism that could be called a “philo-Semitism of death,” described best in the remark that people often love dead Jews but can’t stand living ones. People who loathe Israel, for example, often revere the victims of the Holocaust. Once the Jews have been gotten rid of, it seems, it is safe to love them.
Today, anti-Semitism may be back in vogue, but so is philo-Semitism, whether expressed by the intense Zionism of evangelical Christians, the widespread affection for Israel in the United States or even global popular culture’s affinity for Jewish humor and Israeli television shows. The world may love or hate the Jews, but it is rarely uninterested.
For the Jews, however, philo-Semitism is in some ways more difficult to deal with than anti-Semitism. We know what to do with people who hate the Jews, but we often have no idea what to do with people who love the Jews. Especially when they seem to love us beyond all reason, when they come to believe that we are a kind of skeleton key to human existence itself.
Not everyone who loves the Jews does so out of a mysterious obsession, of course. My best friend in the United States is a believing Christian who grew up in a heavily Jewish suburb and has probably attended as many Passover seders as Christmas parties. He loves Jews because he knows us intimately and, as a result, does not suffer from the prejudices and stereotypes that others do. In the same way, many non-Jews simply admire us for our intellectual and cultural achievements.
This, however, is not really “philo-Semitism” in the formal sense. Any “ism” is a systematic ideology, a way of being in the world. The belief that the Jews somehow hold the secret of human existence is more than simple affection. It comes from somewhere else.
It probably comes from the same place as anti-Semitism: a certain anxiety of influence. Whatever one thinks of the Jews or Judaism, it is an indisputable fact that we are the co-founders of Western civilization. Moreover, our partners in this inadvertent endeavor—the ancient Greeks—have long since passed into history. We, however, are still around, and this has serious implications. It means that Jews and Judaism are, in a sense, the surviving fathers of Western civilization. And as a Viennese Jew once pointed out, sons often hate their fathers.
However, sons always love their fathers as well. The anxiety of influence cuts both ways. But the emotions it conjures are always, to some degree, excessive—excessive love and/or excessive hate. The former is, of course, preferable to the latter, but the Jews are right to remain cautious in the face of such extremities, whether positive or negative.
There are some who disagree with this. They believe that the Jews ought to forgo our age-old ambivalence and embrace philo-Semites without reservation. Our failure to do so—such as the suspicion with which liberal Jews tend to view Christian Zionists—mystifies these philo-philo-Semites, and they often regard it as a pathology born of centuries of trauma during which the Jews could not trust anyone.
It is only fair to say that there is a great deal of truth in this. The Jews are an abused people and behave accordingly. Still, we are not entirely wrong to do so. We know better than anyone what people are capable of, including—perhaps especially—those who love you. Our suspicions are understandable.
But perhaps the most problematic aspect of philo-Semitism is that, ultimately, it views the Jews as somewhat more than human. This is better than viewing us as less than human, but it is no more realistic. Yes, the Jews are a unique people. Yes, our achievements are legion. But on the most basic level, we are no different from anybody else.
Philo-Semitism, unlike anti-Semitism, does not violently deny this fact. As such, it is far more benign than its sinister counterpart. Nonetheless, it is prone to ecstatic fantasies that can be just as unrealistic. Yes, the Jews should acknowledge and embrace our friends, but we are entitled, I think, to caution.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.
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