December 12, 2018

Charlottesville and the Jews: The peril of cognitive dissonance

What did we learn from Charlottesville that we did not know?

That there are Nazis in America? We knew that.

That Nazis, and their white supremacist bedfellows, are bad people? We knew that, too.

That when such people have grievances they always find reasons to implicate the Jews in some twisted way? No news there.

That most of America neither identifies with nor supports these bigots, their views and their actions? We hope this is still true – there are many signs it is.

There are many explanations for Jew-hatred, and a hefty number of them focus on its psychological roots. I deal with these in a chapter of my latest book (in Hebrew), “The Jews: 7 Frequently Asked Questions.” The chapter begins with a story from about a thousand years ago and goes on to remind readers that due to the Nazi persecution Sigmund Freud was forced to leave his home in Vienna and move to London, where he died a year later.

In Freud’s book “Moses and Monotheism,” this great Jewish revolutionary offers an interpretation of Jew-hatred, claiming that Christians have an Oedipal relationship with Jews. Judaism is the father religion, and Christianity is the rebellious son. Since then, many non-Freudian explanations have also viewed the psyche and human consciousness as key to understanding the hatred of Jews. Many of them highlight how Jews have always played into the hands of people who have a hard time deciphering the meaning of a puzzling and erratic world, especially in times of crisis.

Anti-Semitism becomes deadly “when a culture, nation or faith suffers from a cognitive dissonance so profound that it becomes unbearable,” wrote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in “The Return of Anti-Semitism,” his January 2015 essay in The Wall Street Journal. He was referring to societies that cannot quite figure out the changing world around them.

When you ask what happened in Charlottesville, why they “go after Jews” (as Yair Rosenberg puts it) or why the Jews were targeted in Virginia, there is your answer. Not necessarily a new or surprising answer, but an answer nonetheless.

“A cognitive dissonance that becomes unbearable” is a fair description of how more than a few Americans feel today. This cognitive dissonance led to the election victory of Donald Trump, a perplexing yet tolerable political outcome. This cognitive dissonance, when it gets more severe, can lead to much more dangerous outcomes.

So, what did we learn that is new?

We learned — yet again — that President Trump was unable to condemn such bad people in the harshest terms possible (and not because of his tendency for politeness) — at least until the firestorm in reaction to his initial remarks became so strong that he had to issue a second, more-reasoned statement. Erick-Woods Erickson, the conservative blogger, made this point succinctly in his call for moral clarity: “This is the same president who routinely mocked and attacked Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for failing to call Islamic radicalism by its name. In Charlottesville, evil has a name, and it is white supremacy.”

This is not the first time I write such a thing, and I have the feeling it will not be the last. It is not wise for Jewish institutions, organizations and leaders to paint President Trump as an ally of anti-Semitism because it is very unlikely he is anti-Semitic and such accusations, when repeatedly hurled at people, tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

A few months ago, when Trump erupted after he was asked a question about anti-Semitism, I wrote: “In Trump’s view, a lot of the growing level of talk about anti-Semitism is no more than a political strategy to destroy his credibility.” When college campuses in several states (anyone here from California?) became an intimidating setting for Jewish students because of attacks from the left, the Jewish establishment did not unite to blame President Obama and his confrontational approach toward Israel. But now, when vile attacks on Jews come from the right, many Jewish leaders are ready to point a finger at the White House.

Trump is a divisive figure in a divided and confused world. He has many deficiencies as a leader, some of which were in display when he meekly condemned the violence in Charlottesville. Jews will gain nothing from portraying him as their foe.

My first visit to Charlottesville was about eight years ago, to meet Prof. Vanessa Ochs and learn about the invention of new Jewish rituals. Ochs has studied and written about this issue, and in one of her books she explained that “two forces have influenced the abundance of ritual innovation. The first is the spiritual stance shaped by democracy and open access, and the second is the dramatic change brought by Jewish feminism.”

The story I wrote about Ochs focused more on the feminist aspect. But thinking about recent events in Charlottesville has made me ponder the “democracy and open access” aspect of her theory and how far we have come from the old to the new: From anti-Semitism to inventing Jewish ritual; from hatred of Jews to America’s love of Jews; and from Jewish fears (read Ron Kampeas’ “The Day the Nazi Called Me Shlomo”) to Jews having the confidence to protest and respond without mincing words.