Jonathan Rosen

The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism

VTR Date: December 5, 2001

Guest: Rosen, Jonathan


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Jonathan Rosen
Title: The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism
VTR: 12/05/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Jonathan Rose, who two months after the infamous September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington raised what his provocative November 2001 New York Times Sunday Magazine article called “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism.”

The paperback edition of Mr. Rosen’s truly wonderful meditation, “The Talmud and the Internet” had just been published. It gave little hint of such concerns. But now in the Times my guest wrote that he has “awakened to anti-Semitism. I’m not being chased down alleyways and called a Christ killer,” he assures us. “I do not feel that prejudicial hiring practices will keep me out of a job, and I am not afraid that the police will come and take away my family.”

Well, what, then I would ask Mr. Rosen, does he fear? Fair question?

ROSEN: Fair question. I … fear is maybe not the wrong word, but the wrong way for me to go about answering it. Because I’m not predicting any one specific terrible thing happening. What I really wanted to do in that piece was, I guess, two things. One of them was to just come to terms with the torrent of anti-Semitism that was coming out of the Arab world particularly and the non-Arab Islamic world in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center. The fact that 48% of Pakistanis, one learned in a recent Newsweek poll, believed that Jews were responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. The Syrian Foreign Minister assured a group of British visiting students that this was an international Zionist conspiracy. Egypt, the same thing. Repeated over and over again. And I wanted to acknowledge this strange fact of anti-Semitism the way Jews function in the fantasy life of the world. How is it that a very, very small group of people, there are some 13 million Jews in the world, loom so large in the minds of the Islamic world … over a billion Muslims. And how is it that Jews had become somehow identified with cosmic evil. And that was one thing that I wanted to just reckon, just to identify it. And then I wanted to write, in a personal way, I suppose, about a change in my own mood. Anti-Semitism isn’t new to me. I haven’t experienced it directly, but my father’s parents were killed in the Holocaust. And so I was always aware of it. But I always saw it as something that had shaped my father’s life, and my father’s world, and that I was born into a different, luckier time. And that it wasn’t connected to who I am. Then suddenly there was this sense of being kidnapped by history. Of something old and pernicious, still functioning in the culture, and I wanted to identify that.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that way even more now?

ROSEN: Even more now than when I wrote the piece? Or …

HEFFNER: Just before you wrote the piece. I mean, do you feel even more now this strange place that we have in the fantasies of the rest of the world, one might possibly say.

ROSEN: Yes. I suppose I do. I suppose I had an ongoing sense of it, but then it’s possible to wake up, to have a revelation inside of knowledge. That you can know things in degrees, and suddenly I knew it very powerfully and very clearly. There’s an interview with the Imam of a local mosque, the largest mosque, I think, in New York, who has since gone back to Egypt. It’s on the Upper East Side. And in this interview he actually says not only that Jews are responsible, but that if it was known, if the American people knew that Jews were responsible, they would do to American Jews what Hitler did to the Jews of Europe. And he also said Muslims are not sending their children to hospitals in New York because Jewish doctors have been poisoning and killing Islamic children. This was not some fringe group; he came from AlAzhar University in Cairo, a very respected center of religious learning. And he was, he had this very, very important role here in New York City. He lived on the Upper West of Manhattan. So it was impossible for me to dismiss these things as fringe groups. Do I feel threatened in America? I cannot say that I do. I think something more complicated is happening, though, and it has to do with the role of Israel, as well as the role of American Jews.

HEFFNER: Something more complicated?


HEFFNER: Explain that.

ROSEN: It’s difficult for me to explain, although I try to, try to lay it out in my piece. There’s a way in which Israel has gone from being a modern, political nation, which does the things that modern nations do to … it has been … it is now seen by the Arab world as an outpost of world Jewry. And world Jewry itself is seen as an evil force that would like to conquer the world. So, political grievances have been grafted on to ancient European calumnies … Things like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” appear regularly in a State sponsored newspapers of , say, Egypt. Or of the Palestinian authority. And they filter into the culture. Egypt … the editor of the Egyptian daily newspaper is appointed by, or vetted by Mubark, and yet they allude to Jews killing Palestinian children in order to make matzo. So what’s happened is that the kind of anti-Semitism that made the Holocaust possible is now shaping, not so much a political response to Israel, but something deeper, almost a metaphysical response to Israel. And that, of course, fills me with despair, because it’s very difficult to make peace with people who, who see you as emblems of cosmic evil, instead of people inside of a country working out your, your, you know, to your right of self determination.

HEFFNER: But they see the West as cosmically evil. They see America, not just Jewry, as cosmically evil. And I wonder whether that doesn’t relieve you, in a sense, of some of that burden.

ROSEN: I don’t know. It’s a good question. I’m not sure how to respond to that. I think there’s something about being singled out inside of a singled out country that’s particularly disconcerting. After all, the United States is a huge, powerful country, it’s a globalizing force in the world, and it’s … you know, its impulses toward modernism do impinge on the Muslim world and on the Arab world. They cannot help but feel America’s might. It’s a huge country. Jews are this tiny minority, and so it’s clear that there is no physical basis, not real basis. It has its roots in something much older and much deeper.

HEFFNER: But it seems to me to be so strange and so difficult and so dangerous that in the months since the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, September 11th, in the months since that time we have changed. I think American Jewry has changed and has come to accept … too many people have come to accept the idea that essentially it was Israel, when at the beginning we knew that it wasn’t essentially Israel; it was a religious war. Yes, indeed. But it was fanaticism on one side against the rest of the world. Have we now moved back? When … before, when you say you’ve “awakened” to these thoughts, I was thinking back to how, as a young man … a very, very young man … I felt that I had become a Jew because of Hitler. That it was Hitler who had made me Jewish. And I wondered whether you were saying it was Bin Laden who had revived in you, or had built into you considerations and concerns that perhaps hadn’t been there before. Not being a Jew. Obviously you were …

ROSEN: Right.

HEFFNER: … raised better than I was.

ROSEN: I don’t feel that way. And maybe that’s just because I don’t want to attribute my identity to outside enemies. And, in fact, I was at great pains in my piece to point out at the end … to tell a little story, that Bernard Lewis, who’s this great Islamic scholar tells in a wonderful little book called “Conflicts and Culture” about how, when the Christians re-conquered Spain in the 15th Century, they expelled the Jews first. And the reason they did that, although the Jews did not pose a political threat, and they did not pose a military threat, they had no army … certainly not as much of a threat as the Arab army or the Arab political threat who they were really conquering Spain from. But they kicked out the Jews first because the Jews posed a theological threat. And the theological threat was this. Jews believe, there’s a famous rabbinic dictum that the righteous of the peoples of all the earth have a share in the world to come. Which is to say there is an element almost of religious relativism build into Judaism, and that is what was seen as so threatening. That’s a positive aspect of Judaism, of which I am very proud. And I see elements of it echoed in American democracy. Which to my mind, in some sense, actually derives from an aspect of Jewish monotheism. Since, if everyone is created equally … as if everyone’s created in the image of a single God, everyone has the potential of being equal. Which is a radical idea that ultimately seems to me to have made this kind of open society possible. I hope this is an answer to your question. The reason I’m telling it is because I didn’t … I don’t feel I was simply identifying myself in defiance of hatred. But holding on to positive principles inside of my religion that I understand are anathema to America’s enemies.

HEFFNER: Oh, no. I didn’t … wasn’t saying I was saying … comparing my identification as Jew …

ROSEN: Right.

HEFFNER: … back in the late 1930’s, thanks to Adolph Hitler, as comparing that to your awareness, suddenly …

ROSEN: Right.

HEFFNER: … of anti-Semitism. You remembered your father going to bed every night with that little radio next to his side. As if he were going to hear, again, something like what he knew of when he was a young man.

ROSEN: Right.

HEFFNER: And it was that comparison. But, more important, I wonder, particularly in terms of this wonderful little book of yours, “The Talmud and the Internet” whether … what role you, as a writer … what role the fact that you are a writer played in this awareness, suddenly, this awareness of anti-Semitism.

ROSEN: Right. I guess I feel like the fact that I’m a writer plays a role in everything. And that’s probably why it’s a personal essay. Because it’s … and why my book, even though it’s called “The Talmud and the Internet,” which is this kind of lofty, impersonal title, is really build out of stories, many of which are personal, because you test your ideas on your, on yourself.

And my defense of that is that that’s not necessarily a grand narcissistic thing to do. But actually a kind of … I hope, maybe a humble thing to do because you’re wondering if it’s true for you. You know, it’s like a doctor injecting himself with his inoculation first, to see if it, if it works.

And I think that I was telling … I begin with a story. I begin my piece with a story about my father, and the two personal stories that kind of frame “The Talmud and the Internet” are the stories of my two grandmothers. My mother was born in this country, and so was her mother. She lived a long and prosperous and lucky American life. And she’s the grandmother I knew very well, and it was actually her death that set in motion my book. She died when she was almost 95. And the book was kind of an elegy for her, in some sense.

And then I, I suppose, pit against her my father’s mother, this kind of ghost figure, because she was murdered by the Nazis, and I never had a chance to know her. And the question in the book, I guess, is, how do I incorporate my murdered grandmother’s experience, this sense of European calamity, this sense of tragedy, into my life. I don’t want to be shaped by an experience, a tragic experience that isn’t actually mine, that belongs to somebody else. On the other hand, I don’t want to lose myself in American prosperity and grow deaf to the suffering to which I am also heir and also shaped by. I’m the grandchild of both these women. And the problem in the book almost was, “How do I toggle between these two realities? Can I integrate them?” Or really the book was just an attempt to create a space in which they could live side by side, which is a very Talmudic notion. A point and a counterpoint.

After September 11th, that division became much more difficult to maintain. Or I’d say it became more crowded, because instead of having the European world of tragedy and calamity, and the American world of prosperity that stands almost outside of history, the two worlds overlapped. But I still feel that the challenge is there. You know, how do I still lay claim to my American optimism, my lucky sense of being born in this country, and to these dark undercurrents that do not seem to have died. That ultimately led to the murder of my grandmother and to six million Jews. That seems to me the
great … that’s the challenge in the book, is still the challenge for my own personal life. It’s almost become more intense, I suppose, because everything is now on American soil.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “everything is now on American soil?”

ROSEN: It’s not … America isn’t the realm that stands outside of history.

HEFFNER: You mean we’re part of that struggle, too.

ROSEN: We’re part …

HEFFNER: … it’s being waged here.

ROSEN: … it’s being waged here. And the destruction of the World Trade Center was … that finally that missile of hatred found American soil. And cannot be dismissed as something that simply lives “over there,” elsewhere. A place you … you don’t go visit, calamity, calamity comes and visits you. I mean, I should quickly point out, having a point and counterpoint kind of personality, that I don’t …

HEFFNER: Talmudic again.

ROSEN: … yeah, Talmudic … that I don’t believe that America ever really stood outside of history. And I don’t believe my American born grandmother was just an emblem of, of prosperity and freedom. She had her own sorrows, just as my murdered grandmother had her own … had her joys.

HEFFNER: But this matter of standing outside of history … we, we were history. We were not only history, we were “it,” the world was becoming more
America … the world was certainly becoming Americanized. And, to some considerable degree, the fanaticism that has been aimed at us … it seems to me is … a function of the recognition that the world has become Americanized. We are the giant, not only the giant Satan, the Great Satan, but we are everywhere. I wonder how people can tolerate that notion.

ROSEN: Well, obviously some people don’t, don’t tolerate it very well. I, I think, though, what you say is completely true about America and history. But I suppose in this case, I’m speaking as an American Jew. Because for so long, and this is one of the things that’s awkward about the conversation about anti-Semitism … because it requires you to talk about other people’s religions.

Since Christianity emerged, in some sense, out of Judaism, Judaism plays a role in Christianity. And we did for 2,000 years. We were present at … and we rejected Christ. We rejected the new dispensation. And if we were allowed to live normal lives, and yet seen as having rejected the new religious truth, then we, in a sense, called into question the validity of that truth. And so the one thing Jews were deprived of in their long … in our long sojourn in Europe, let’s say, was the freedom to live a normal life. We were cast in a role of villain. And that ultimately had fatal consequences for Jews.

Much Jewish life thrived in exile, much Jewish life thrived in Europe. But that strange relationship between Judaism and the religion that came after it, which needed to demonize Judaism in order to be itself, doomed Judaism in a … for a long time … or an aspect of Judaism, and locked us in this kind of fatal embrace. Jews didn’t need Christianity to go on being Jews. We had the oral law, which was a kind of New Testament. We had the Hebrew Bible; we had a complete culture. But that in itself was an affront to Christian culture. What I see being recapitulated now is that the very existence of Jews, especially in the Middle East, in Israel, is somehow a blot on the desires of the culture around it. And that sense of not being “normal,” not allowed to be “normal.” Not being seen as simply a country, a nation … I’m speaking now of Israel … is for me … harks back to that state of Jews in New York.

HEFFNER: But, you know, when I think back to the ’30’s .., I guess I thought, too, that the presence of Jews in Germany was a blot, was an affront, and it never occurred to me that my presence, or the presence of my family here in this country was similarly so. Now, just the opposite is the case. And I thought that’s what you meant when you “awakened to the sense of anti-Semitism” …

ROSEN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: It was here now. It was here, it was there … but there is here and there is no escaping. There was escaping … your father escaped. His family did not.

ROSEN: Right.

HEFFNER: My family was here and never had to deal with that, and now I have that terrible sense, and that sense from my children and my grandchildren, that there is no escape. There’s no place for me to go. No place for me to take them.

ROSEN: Right.

HEFFNER: So that’s how I, I understood what you wrote in the Times.

ROSEN: Yes, I think that that’s, I think that that’s true. But, but for me it has particular force when I think about Israel, because Israel, as a country, is not wholly unlike the Jew in Europe who was not allowed to simply be. And I see this even in the European coverage of Israel. And a lot of the coverage in European papers, they do not write about Israel in neutral terms. I mean, some of the things I mentioned in my
piece … this BBC reporter who said, “You’d have to go back to Herod’s massacre of the innocents in order to do justice to the Israeli murder of Palestinian children.” Not simply saying that the Israeli murder of Palestinian children is a disturbing element of the occupation. But that you have, you have to go back to this archetypal moment in the New Testament, actually, when Herod was killing all these babies because he was afraid Christ was going to be born. And actually that’s often cited as the first instance of the blood libel. Or, in a, I quote a Spanish cartoon which described the building the Jewish museum of the … the Museum of the Jewish Holocaust and behind it the Museum of the Palestinian Holocaust. To describe the treatment by Israel of the Palestinians as a Holocaust is to automatically do something that completely betrays the reality of the situation. That casts Jews in the role of Nazis, which is to say the reviled enemy of the civilized world.

HEFFNER: You know, when I read “The Talmud and the Internet,” I, I had such a feeling that you must take so much pleasure in, as a writer, because books play such a large role in the Jewish experience, and there was a quotation here I thought was beautiful. You wrote, “But there was no Talmud on my parents’ bookshelves for all the groaning Judaica. Perhaps its spirit was there murmuring behind the books, whispering behind Alfred Kazan and Lionel Trilling and Proust and Montaigne, all in their way wayward children of the Rabbis. Surely traces of the Talmud were scattered among the pages of the Jewish histories; perhaps its influence could be detected in the household belief that books are not merely ornamental, but are as necessary for food, for life as food.” So as a writer you must be so pleased to be providing that food.

ROSEN: You mean to be writing books myself?


ROSEN: You know, I am very pleased. I’m about to give another Talmudic point and counterpoint. Nothing is more wonderful, in a sense. But for me there’s always a little bit of an element of sadness attached to writing as well. When you’re writing …

HEFFNER: Because you’re Jewish.

ROSEN: Well, or because you feel that words can do everything. But there are always those moments when you understand that words can do nothing at all. My book began as an elegy for my grandmother. And I was desperate to recover this diary I’d been keeping while she was dying, and my computer crashed after she died, so I’d lost this diary, and I was desperate to get it back. And I finally do get it back, only to discover how paltry my own words are. Because life, the mystery of near physical being stands beyond words in a sense. That’s the paradox that I talk about when I talk about the Talmud. And in fact I feel it when I talk about the Internet, too. The Talmud is this magnificent construction that linked Jews together through space, through time … you argue with the dead in the Talmud. Words do everything. We practically lived inside words; we packed our culture into words and fled after the temple was destroyed. And after, we lost our homeland, which is a kind of a body. So we were a disembodied people, but a people rich in words. And … but at the center of all this greatness, which the Talmud represents for me, there was always that little note of loss, of sadness. That we had lost our home, that we were living inside of language, and in a sense, the great translation back into the land is this, was this incredibly painful one, and a still traumatic one … not just for the Arab neighbors of Israel, but even for many Jews who, I think, are shocked by what it means to become a land and a people and a body again because we fell so in love with the world of, of language, which has an abstract element to it.

But I want to say one more thing, because I do think words are, are obviously, are great. That in a sense, though, because the Talmud grew out of the destruction of the temple and was an attempt to create a kind of virtual world, it built into the Talmud all these multiple voices that kept growing as we wandered through history. And that, for me, adapted Jews to something that the Internet also represents, which is a multiplicity of voices. It’s almost anti-fundamentalist in a sense, and it says something, to me, again, about why the Jews were kicked out of Spain when they were. And about why America, itself, is hated. If the Talmud is a vehicle for Jewish culture, in a way, the Internet may be a vehicle for America and for democratic culture … a multiplicity of voices, and it gives everyone who has a modem, for example, the chance to go out on his own and find an answer. It may be the wrong answer, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. But the … it creates a culture of inquiry, and that seems to me a deeply healthy minded thing. Although the other side of that is that you’re kind of nowhere because you’re on line.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s what concerns me when you, when you say what you do, because you are nowhere, and I would assume that there is nowhere in the Talmud … I would think that you would think … nowhere in the Talmud the kind of
irresponsibility … conflict, yes. Contradiction from the same page to the next, from one page to the next, but responsibility, always.

ROSEN: You mean … well, yes, I mean, the Internet is not shaped by a group of people who are trying to understand the unfolding word of God.


ROSEN: There’s no morality in the Internet. Absolutely, I’d be the last person to want to say that the Internet IS the Talmud. But I would say that there is … it may … it creates a culture that is, in itself, connected to something very important and very good about American life and society.

HEFFNER: I wonder why I find it so difficult to, to accept that, because, I guess, because the, the Internet is so, so modern.

ROSEN: But for me, if you look at a page of Talmud and you see just little pieces of text, they’re kind of hyperlinks, just a little bit of Mishnah, a little bit of Gemara, a little of Rashi. In a sense, wholeness ceases to be the virtue, and there’s something, for me, healthy minded about understanding that. You know, I quote T.S. Eliot, who was always lamenting that the world he loved had fallen into fragments. But frankly, the Talmud understood that the world was built out of fragments 2,000 years ago, and in a sense, it takes away that fundamentalist character … the illusion that there was this perfect world, this perfect garden that you need to return to. There was an understanding that you actually live inside of brokenness, which seems to me to be a healthy way of looking at the world. A way of anchoring people in reality.

HEFFNER: “Living inside of brokenness” …

ROSEN: Yes. There’s this wonderful mid-rush that, after Moses smashed the Ten Commandments, he went up and got a new set. But the broken tablets were put in the Ark and carried around as well. As a kind of reminder of brokenness. And if you have an expectation that brokenness may be the way things are, then that rage, that tyranny against real life, which is flawed, diminishes.

HEFFNER: Jonathan Rosen, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind. I’ll be that flawed. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.