Since no Jewish organization is ever going to hold an essay-writing competition on this subject, we are going to have to do it here.
The last time I sat for a written test was 16 years ago, so I took my time answering the question put to British high-school students in a national exam last month: “Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews.” This question, which appeared in a religious studies examination taken by about 1,000 students, many of them at Jewish schools, has since been the subject of a mini-storm.
Jewish leaders attacked it as “insensitive” and Britain’s education secretary, Michael Gove, said to the Jewish Chronicle, which broke the story, that “to suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre.”
Of course, I can understand why politicians and community worthies feel they have to condemn the very idea that high-schoolers be asked to exercise their minds and try to answer one of history’s most fascinating questions. If they start thinking for themselves and asking difficult questions at school, what will happen when they are of voting age?
The explanation of the board that prepared the exam paper that “the question concerned acknowledges that some people are prejudiced, but we did not intend to imply in any way that prejudice is justified,” seems totally plausible. I expect nearly all the students who answered the question understood it in that light, and unlike the politicians and machers, went on to write intelligent answers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at least one Jewish organization in London, instead of acting all offended, would have welcomed the question in the spirit of the eternal Jewish quest for understanding and knowledge and sponsored a competition for teenagers, Jewish and non-Jewish, to write an essay on exactly that topic?
The issue is too important to be left to academics and politicians; let’s have some fresh thinking from young minds – they are the ones who will have to face these prejudices as they embark on their grown-up lives and careers; indeed they already are. But for some reason, this question is so toxic that no one can ask it without getting burned. Henry Blodget, a respected American financial analyst, broadcaster and blogger, read about the exam question in the British media and was intrigued. He wrote a blog post on his website, Business Insider, describing the anti-Semitic comments sometimes written by visitors to the site and his personal perplexity at them.
Mystified and curious
“Why?” he asked, “What is the source of this animosity? Why does it perpetuate itself? Where did this prejudice come from?” And he opened it up to his readers, emphasizing that he was “asking this question seriously” because he was “genuinely mystified and curious” and promised that he would immediately remove any anti-Semitic comments. He was prepared for a spirited debate but the level of emotions his question generated surprised him.
“Lots of the feedback, believe it or not, was positive,” he wrote in a subsequent post. “I was praised for starting a discussion on a sensitive topic. But lots of the response was also negative – as in, “What kind of an insensitive rockhead would ever ask a question like that?” He concluded the debate by apologizing after “some people I like and respect told me they felt insulted by and uncomfortable with the post. That did it. Whatever interesting responses came from the post, I now regret writing it. (I’m okay making people feel uncomfortable about some topics, but not this one. ) I am very sorry to anyone I offended. I sincerely apologize.”
Blodget has nothing to apologize for. The roots of anti-Semitism, both in its historic form and in the current manifestations of the varied prejudices against Jews, are something we all, Jews and non-Jews, have to be aware of. Whether they are unique to the specific condition of the Jewish people living among the nations, or prime examples of xenophobia, racism, discrimination and scapegoating that can be directed at other groups as well.
Christians should ask themselves this question for a better understanding of their own history; Muslims should do so to get a grasp on their current predicament. Jews, especially Israelis, have to dwell on it to improve the deplorable way we are now treating minorities in Israel, most recently the campaign of hatred being waged against African migrants.
This question is too important to be left to historians and sociologists who write long books that few will read on the subject. While many of these tomes are worthy and important, offering valuable insight and context, there is need of a more accessible perspective. And we certainly can’t allow politicians or lobbying groups and anti-anti-Semitism leagues to monopolize the issue and grant them the right to decide who and who is not a Jew-hater.
Too often, bona fide racists are let off the hook, their prejudices excused and explained away, because their prominence and views on other subjects, or their fundraising prowess and political connections, make them too valuable to the left- or right-wing camps. Still others are too easily tainted by the stain of anti-Semitism as a way of fending off their legitimate criticism. And once again, both the right and the left are guilty, being too quick in using this defensive tactic against attacks on Israeli policies, or against valid skepticism of multi-culturalism and political correctness.
I have only one problem with the British exam question. How can I possibly answer that question “briefly”? Of all the issues I have written about in this column in its nearly five years of existence, anti-Semitism is the one that I find myself returning to again and again, with a feeling that I just can’t nail it down. But that only proves that it is a question we have to continue asking, and it can’t be the private preserve of newspaper columnists either.
And since no Jewish organization is ever going to hold an essay-writing competition on this subject, we are going to have to do it here. A decent bottle of wine (kosher of course ) will go to the best reader’s answer to the question: “Why are some people prejudiced against Jews” The two runners-up will get honorable mentions in a future column.
This is a no-holds-barred contest, so feel free to write whatever you really think. The only rule is that you answer “briefly” – in less than 100 words. Have fun.