On Anti-Semitism

On Anti-Semitism: Turning Walter Benjamin’s Angel Towards the Future
By Nina Spieler, AJC Action Reconciliation Service for Peace Fellow


Before moving to America I thought anti-Semitism was a European thing. Indeed, living mostly in protected and tolerant circles, I even allowed myself to hope that it would soon be a thing of the past. But a couple of months into my volunteer work, I was surprised to discover myself wrong on both counts.

Since the beginning of the year numerous Jewish community centers and schools have received bomb threats, and Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia have been desecrated and vandalized. Clearly, anti-Semitism is neither only European nor a thing of the past: it is global, and happening before our eyes.

And that makes me feel honored and privileged to be working as a volunteer for the American Jewish Committee. AJC’s fight against anti-Semitism is one of its priorities. In 2016, an AJC delegation briefed the EU Commission about anti-Semitism to raise awareness of the many forms it can take both in speech and in deed.

What I love about the AJC is that we are strategizing about fighting anti-Semitism right now, not sitting back waiting for a presidential plan of action.

And we are not having the conversation about anti-Semitism only with ourselves, but with partners and allies, both Jewish and non-Jewish, American and non-American. In November 2016, AJC, together with Muslim partners, launched the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council that openly condemns anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and all other forms of discrimination.

Like many other Europeans, I had viewed American society as the realization of a dream of freedom and prosperity. In fact, living and working here has become a many-faceted and many-layered experience. Jewish life flourishes in America and its future looks bright, and yet ethnic hatred seems to be growing.

AJC has a slogan: “No one is born hating.“ Hatred, hate speech, hate crimes – all are toxic, all dehumanize the other. When we stand up against hatred we not only affirm human dignity, but also declare that the dignity of others makes a claim on us. Jews and non-Jews must unite against anti-Semitism. As AJC has learned from history, what starts with the Jews does not end with the Jews. The hate will be directed at other communities as well—Muslims, Latinos, and other minorities.

During the UN Holocaust Memorial ceremony on January 27, 2017, a French Jew told me that “the origin of hatred is the hatred of origin,” a remark that still resonates in my mind. A look at the incomparably beautiful beginning of the Bible shows that every element of creation is of equal value, and that each has its place and its own existential dignity:

Genesis: 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. 3 And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light ... 11 Let the earth sprout … fruit trees of every kind 21 God created the great sea creatures, and all the living creatures of every kind ... And God saw that this was good 26 And God said: 'Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness’ 27 And God created Humanity, in the image of God created humankind.

If we share one origin, and all of humanity reflects the image of God, there can be no justification for hatred—nor any excuse for not standing up to it.

Walter Benjamin, who lived through the human catastrophe of European fascism, left us the “angel of history” as a haunting image. With his back turned towards the future, the angel is nevertheless racing into that future while looking into the past, where ruins of destruction pile up before his feet. He cannot pause to rebuild them because his wings are caught up in a storm that keeps driving him into the future that he does not face. Benjamin was a Marxist, and in his reading of history this storm is progress. Today, his image takes on a different significance, depicting what can happen when societies get overwhelmed by their own contradictions and react catastrophically—with arrogance, indifference, hate, and criminal violence.

It is a dystopian model, distant indeed from the aspirations of pluralistic liberals. Too much is at stake for democratic, peace-loving societies of the kind that Benjamin's angel did not dare dream of.

In German, we have the adjective zukunftsfähig – capable, or viable, for the future. Today, I am not certain that American society and its European counterparts are really zukunftsfähig. Our societies are deeply divided over how its members are to live alongside one another. The rise of alt-right and the proliferation of hate crimes threaten the very values on which many of us base our hopes—safety for all groups, and the dignity of difference between religions, ethnicities, and cultures.

Although the rule of law and constitutional checks and balances on political power are supposed to prevent polarization and extreme policies, there can and should be more active responses and cooperation with affected communities to address discrimination and disadvantages based on gender, religion or cultural tradition.

All of us must make a choice now. When Prague was trying to liberate itself from communism and transition to democracy, not everyone rallied behind the humanism that Vaclav Havel personified. Those who didn’t later felt a strange kind of guilt for not having faced the future they had hoped for.

We must all grow more confident in the values we hold dear. Even though they may seem self-evident, we cannot take them for granted or delegate our personal responsibility to the authorities. If proof is needed, just look at the strange reluctance of the new American president to explicitly and forcefully denounce anti-Semitism.

We can all afford to speak up a little louder about such matters, and I invite you to be inspired by the work of AJC and join in its mission.

As CEO David Harris said to the AJC team this week, our responsibility is to model the kind of relationships that we want to see in society at large—to respect and value the dignity of one another. That’s the only way to turn Benjamin’s image around and make us zukunftsfähig.