Jews exemplify counterculture, author says

Jews are different, critical, subversive. Jews themselves help spur anti-Semitism. And Jews won't disappear.

These aren't the thoughts of a Jew-hater. They are the words of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, one of America's elder Jewish statesmen.

"We've been very busy for the past 200 years saying that the Jew is really not different, so that the anti-Semite shouldn't hate us," he said in a phone interview last week from his New Jersey home.

"I'm saying: `Of course, we're different. We're a critical people. We are a people with ideas of our own.' Of course, we're disliked for that."

Hertzberg will come to the Bay Area next week to repeat this declaration, which underscores his new book. He co-authored "Jews: The Essence and Character of a People" with Aron Hirt-Manheimer, editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

Though Hertzberg acknowledges that the book's premise is "scandalous," he feels compelled to expose a definable Jewish character. In fact, he hopes Jews will revel in this difference and see it as a reason to remain Jewish.

"I have a responsibility to speak my piece before I pack it in," the 76-year-old said bluntly.

Similarly blunt is his contention that Jews' insistence on dissent has spawned anti-Semitism.

Hatred of Jews, he said, is sparked in part by Jews' own decision to remain different, whether in their religious or political beliefs.

"Essentially in culture after culture, we represent a criticism of what is," he said.

Anti-Semitism has also arisen when Jews have tried to assimilate into the majority culture, he asserted, because they try to change or reform that culture even as they're joining it.

"Jews can be regarded as people who want something other than the encrusted tradition."

He pointed to iconoclastic European Jews such as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and author Franz Kafka. The same holds true for Jews in the United States, he said.

"The Norman Rockwell America is not our America."

For example, Hertzberg said, most Americans favor prayer in school. But the vast majority of Jews oppose the practice. "We know it will be Christian prayer; therefore we don't want it…We're subversive."

He sees the Jewish character starting all the way back with Abraham, the first Jew. Abraham could have lived a comfortable life working in his father's idol shop. Instead, he smashed his father's idols and proclaimed monotheism.

"The lasting character of the Jew is that we are the breakers of idols," Hertzberg said.

Hertzberg has spent his life thinking about Jews and their place in the world.

Born in Poland in 1921, he immigrated to Baltimore with his Chassidic family when he was 5. Hertzberg was ordained an Orthodox rabbi and went on to receive a second ordination at the Conservative movement's seminary.

He is ex-president of the American Jewish Congress and former vice president of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of nine books, including "The Zionist Idea" and "Being Jewish in America."

A scholar of Jewish history and Zionism, he has taught at Oxford, the Sorbonne, Hebrew University and Dartmouth. He still leads one seminar per semester at New York University.

Not only do Jews characteristically find themselves outside the mainstream culture, Hertzberg said, but they also see themselves as a "chosen people."

"I know people will say this is chauvinism." But, he claimed, these are the same people who marvel at the fact that Jews have won one of every seven Nobel prizes.

Whether others accept the concept of chosenness as God-driven, sociological or cultural is irrelevant to him, although Hertzberg himself believes that God chose "this obscure clan for some unknown reason and set them into motion to make a difference in the world."

He also sees Jews as the ultimate optimists, who have started again, tragedy after tragedy.

"We are the only people really in human history that after the volcano erupts on us and the lava burns most of us up, we still build and we rebuild," he said.

For those who worry that intermarriage and assimilation will destroy any definable Jewish character, Hertzberg offers reassurance.

"The hysterics are shallow," he said.

"Judaism has always been preserved by a passionate minority…The notion that Judaism is carried by a majority is not true."

Harking back to the Bible, he noted that only 7,000 Jews refused to bow down to foreign gods when King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled over a couple million Israelites in the eighth century BCE.

And in 1492, the majority of Jews became Christians when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered them to either convert or leave Spain.

"Never mind what you learned in Sunday school," the author said.

Instead of trying to draw in every Jew, Hertzberg said, Judaism should try to deepen the passion among an extra 10 percent of Jews in each generation.

In the end, Hertzberg wants the world to accept differences among all peoples.

"The future of the world isn't pretending that a Muslim is like a Croat. It's to stop thinking that because this person is different, we can kill them," he said.

"The cure to anti-Semitism is not to pretend that we are dancing to other people's tunes, that we are making ourselves over. They will never like us if we play amateur gentile or amateur black or amateur anything."