Jackson Doughart
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On Philo-Semitism
A few reasons for prejudice that is pro-Jewish

Prince Arthur Herald, 15 July 2013

Almost any feeling of animus toward an ethnic or religious group requires immediate social justification, and few reasons are accepted by the mass of society as legitimate. Unless, of course, this animus is directed from a person of a perceived and materially disadvantaged background toward someone of an advantaged background, in which case our natural sympathy for the underdog takes over and our intolerance for bigotry collapses. Yet a far less common occurrence is for someone to have to explain why he or she exhibits a liking or philia for a particular group of people. In fact, this very idea seems to contradict our cultural taboo of prejudice. But without any qualification, this prohibition amounts to tossing the baby away with the bathwater, in much the way that my own affinity for Judaism and Jewish culture is both a pre-judgment, as well as a rational and deserved one.

The basis for this affection is above all theological. Namely, it is the cultural aspects emanating from Judaism, and contrasting in some cases from the secularized Christian culture that surrounds us, which is most respectable. The first of these is ethical, in that the emphasis of Jewish ethics — from Rabbinical Judaism — has what I think to be the proper place for moral imperatives within a communal system of belief. That is to say, the primary place. After all, Judaism is a religion of good works, not of faith, so non-Jews are not commanded as a condition of salvation to believe in such propositions as divine providence, vicarious atonement, and the power of intercessory prayer. (Instructively, many traditional Jewish prayers such as the Kaddish are not appeals for forgiveness or salvation but doxologies — i.e., praises of God).

And more impressively, Judaism does not even require that one be Jewish in order that he or she be deemed a fundamentally good person, even in the eyes of a God that made an apparent covenant exclusively with their group. Again, this is because of the ethical primacy of Judaism and the nature of the foundational moral instructions contained in the Noahide Laws, such as prohibitions on theft, murder, and idolatry, to which all persons are enjoined. What matters, in other words, is not who someone is or what someone believes, but how someone behaves. This is a distinction that would be a humane introduction to any system of thought or belief, and which guarantees a form of religious tolerance by Jews toward other groups, some of which are openly hostile to them. And Judaism has the twin advantages of being a religion which anyone can join but which does not proselytize.

Now, it is worth noting that there are indeed religious requirements of observant Jews, some of which are not as encouraging. The practice of ritually circumcising male infants, seemingly for the purpose of giving them an indelible mark of group membership, is of questionable moral standing to say the least. But these are theologicial, rather than strictly moral requirements, the latter of which are, as I’ve mentioned, remarkably universal. There is also something to be said about the content of those preachments themselves, which have something of a common-sensical air. The notion that one could commit adultery “in one’s heart” by thinking unpure thoughts (an involuntary act) would be incomprehensible to anyone committed to following the dictates of truly natural law or the aforementioned Laws of Noah, which have considerable overlap.

Another impressive aspect of Jewish culture is its respect for intellectual pursuits. Though this may have once had (and certainly still has) instrumental justifications, I perceive a prevailing sense among Jews that the life of the mind has intrinsic value. This is exhibited quite well in the Israeli film Footnote (2011), where Professor Shkolnik’s life efforts as a philologist are pursued in the interest of exploring and preserving “knowledge for future generations”, without any need to justify the endeavour in terms of material utility. This point is of particular interest because attempts to kindle support for similar efforts among the contemporary mass population of Gentiles is akin to drawing blood from a stone. Perhaps due to the fact that Christendom’s intellectual activities have effectively ceased to be guided by any religious purpose — until the last century, almost all universities and colleges had a denominational affiliation — any scholarly inquiry today seems to have to be “for” something, meaning tangible and quantifiable results. This is a phenomenon which emaciates the very idea of knowledge, turning it from a robust and substantive cultivation of humanity’s collective intellectual capacity into a vapid analogue unbecoming of any potential. For Jews meanwhile, respect for learning is practically constitutional, hardly requiring of instrumental justification. (A neat side note here is that one of the reasons for which Jewish women have enjoyed substantially higher status than their Gentile counterparts is due to the role that they have historically played in breadwinning, arising from the Orthodox requirement that the study of Torah be done by men. And the value put on learning also has a religious connection: almost all Jewish males were literate even in premodern times because literacy is a necessity for prayer; meanwhile, almost all Christian males before Protestantism were illiterate.)

Putting the above two qualities together results in the cultural and intellectual production of Jewish writers, scholars, and philosophers. Many of my favourite books, essays, and films are written by Jews. (Interestingly, two of my favourite non-Jewish authors, Albert Camus and Peter de Vries — the former being of French pied-noirdescent and the latter of Dutch Calvinist background — exhibit many of the characteristics that I have identified above.) Finally, a couple of other traits that I find admirable in many of the Jews that I have met include their willingness to stick together and their apparent intolerance for the petty and the unserious. In concert with their ethical seriousness and their respect for intellectual inquiry, these are aspects of Jewish culture that the rest of us would do well to admire and to emulate.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com