Response to Anti-Semitism: strengthening of Jewish identity and universal education

Friday, 22 September, 2023 - 10:36 am



One of the oldest hatreds in the world is Anti-Semitism. This has taken on many forms, from ancient times until today, giving rise to countless books and articles on its causes and ways to counter it. Leon Poliakov writes in his foreword to The History of Anti-Semitism: there are two hypotheses on the origin of modern Anti-Semitism: Anti-Semitism that arises out of Christendom, and the supernatural explanation: ‘by virtue of the mysterious design of Providence, the Jews having been assigned a special role among the nations, playing it first among the so-called Noachian peoples – those practicing a religion that derives from the Hebrew Bible.’ This is reflected in an interpretation of the statement in the Talmud (Pesachim 87b): ‘G-d performed a charitable deed toward Israel in that He scattered them [pizran] among the nations.’ This Divine plan, either to assist in their survival or to be a light unto the nations, has been a cause of ancient and modern Anti-Semitism. In this essay, I would like to present approaches how to respond, in particular, to modern Anti-Semitism, from a traditional Jewish perspective, that recognizes its existence, identifies a cause, and ideas how to respond to it.


Jewish life at Oxford during WWII


A case study is the city of Oxford, before and during the Second World War, in light of an increase in size of the Jewish community in the city. Anti-Semitism in Oxford took two forms: relating to Jewish academics seeking a university position, as in the case of Isaiah Berlin’s appointment to All Souls, Albert Einstein to Christ Church and Hans Krebs’ admission into a Common Room. The second form was a popular negative attitude towards Jewish refugees. The Jewish population of Oxford had risen noticeably during the Second World War, as a result of the evacuation of Jewish mothers and children, blind persons, hospital patients and others from London. Reflecting the growth, instead of approximately 30 families before the war, over 200 people attended synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1939.


In the same year, it was believed there were some 200 London children in Oxford and more in the surrounding districts. During this time, numerous organisations were founded and flourished, including Oxford University Jewish Society (OUJS); Oxford Zionist Society (formed in 1939); Oxford Women’s Zionist Society (November, 1940); Theodor Herzl society; Federation of Women Zionists (FWZ); Jewish National Fund (JNF); The Jufra Club, which served during the war as rallying point for German-Jewish women and girls, chaired for its first two years, until April, 1941, by Mrs. Ettinghausen; Oxford Jewish Youth Club (November 1940); and The Jewish Religious Union (January, 1941). In December, 1939, the local branch of FWZ merged with the Oxford Zionist Society.


A Jewish Voluntary Choir was formed in Oxford in December 1940, conducted by Mr S. Alman, the Musical Director of the Hampstead Synagogue. Other groups formed within the community, including a knitting party, organised by Mrs J.J. Marks in April, 1941, which met every Monday evening. In January 1940, Rev J. Weinberg formed a Young People’s Social Circle, which met every Sunday evening in the Vestry Room of the synagogue. Aware of the difficulties facing Jews in Europe, a Sefer Torah, rescued from Germany, was deposited at the Oxford synagogue in November 1939, was used for the first time during a special service to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht.


Anti-Semitism in Oxford during WWII

This increase in the presence of Jews to Oxford led to an increase in Anti-Semitism. This occurred, most conspicuously, surrounding the circumstances related to obtaining kosher meat and its distribution. In the beginning of December, 1939, a committee was appointed by the community to examine the question of the supply of kosher meat. This was still an issue in November 1940, reflected in a notice in the Jewish Chronicle: Letter from ’Oxford Evacuee’ re kasher meat. Better than merely ’discussing’ the matter, could have invited a kasher butcher to open a shop. Orthodox Jews have to await parcels of meat from Birmingham and it is distressing to find Jewish women having to buy ‘trefa.’ In March 1941, the Oxford community was thought to number 5,000 and was assured of a supply of kosher meat. Thanks to Jewish Chronicle for the publicity, one of Oxford’s leading non-Jewish butchers, Mr R.A. Butterfield, had arranged for official consent for shochetim to slaughter at the Oxford City abattoir. Around a thousand registrations at Mr Butterfield’s establishment at the Central Market, a figure more or less maintained throughout the war, saw part of the market portioned off as a kosher meat shop with Jewish supervision. About 150 fowls were sold every week. By May, due to difficulty in obtaining live fowls, the figure had reduced by more than half. On 3 October 1941, it was reported that good relations with the Town Hall authorities was shown by the opening of the Market on Sunday, the eve of the New Year, for the first time in the history of the Market, so that Jews could have access to the butcher shop. The request was made by the local minister.


On 10 October 1941, it was reported by a letter from ‘Oxford Evacuee’ that there are queues for kosher meat but under control. On 17 October 1941, a letter from ‘Another Customer’ says that the ‘scenes at the kosher butchers are causing anti-Semitism. Obviously, it continued, it has been difficult for a community of 30 souls to be swollen suddenly to 2,000.’ On 24 October 1941, once again, a letter from Joseh Hirsch reported that as a member of the Oxford Jewish Congregation he wrote to the Committee on July 28 pointing out the unsatisfactory state of meat distribution. The letter was not acknowledged, however, nor a second letter to the wardens. He writes: ‘some people are buying trefa meat because of difficulty of buying kosher meat. He has been informed that some are buying trefa meat and koshering it.’On 31 October 1941, it was reported in a letter to the Jewish Chronicle regarding the growth of anti-Semitism in Oxford, referred to in sermon in synagogue during Kol Nidrei. It stated that scenes at the kosher butcher are a cause and reflected in advertisement columns of the local press. In Jews of Oxford, on this subject, it omits the subject of Anti-Semitism in this regard, saying rather: ‘There were public relation problems, gradually solved, in the large Jewish queues in the narrow alleys of the Covered Market, and the customers themselves complained that the shop was not kept in a clean state and that fowls were killed in the shop in the presence of women and children.’


Anti-Semitism in England during the war


In Jews of Oxford, it records there was a great deal of Anti-Semitism in England during the war. A few factors played a role in this: firstly, the press reported more in black market cases involving Jews than Jewish servicemen and deaths in service. These cases were reported also in the Oxford press. A further cause appears to have been the internment of enemy aliens in summer 1940, even though the Oxford Times was retrospectively hostile to many aspects of the mass internments. In August 1940, a lorry driver was charged with creating disaffection by telling soldiers: ‘You are mugs to fight for two bob a day, while enemy aliens are living in luxury in the Isle of Man.’


This spilled over into Oxford: In January, 1941, the Mass Observation Unit reported ‘there is a lot of Anti-Semitic feelings in Oxford, particularly towards the middle-class refugees, but not the working class.’ Hostility facing Jews in Oxford involved also classic Anti-Semitic motifs. In October, a prominent Zionist official claimed to have been lured into a field by a soldier and told: ‘You are a Jew and you and your like will be turned out of Oxford. Now hand over all the money you have.’ A factor was housing shortage. Working class people were losing their accommodation to better paying middle class refugees. The issue was the influx of refugees, mostly Jews, but others also, to Oxford, doubling between December, 1939 and December, 1940 to 2,000, of whom 275 males and 702 females were enemy aliens. This led to the problem of overcrowding and tension. As a response to Anti-Semitism, in July 1943, a conference on anti-Semitism was held at Oxford Union Society’s Hall on Saturday. Forty delegates represented trade unions and other organisations, though no Jewish organisations were invited. The Very Rev Dean of Christ Church presided. Speeches were made by Rev R.R. Martin, Rural Dean of Oxford, Mr Bellinger, Chairman of the Oxford Trades & Labour Council, and Mrs Corbett-Ashby, Vice-president of the Liberal Party. Anti-Semitism was predicted by the Mass Observation Unit reports during the war that admittance of too many Jews will trigger Anti Semitism, playing a role in limiting immigration.




There are two classic approaches to respond to Anti-Semitism: the first, make oneself less noticeable through assimilation; a second approach, to enclave. This may mitigate potential friction, but does not deal with the issue: the inability for society to embrace the other. A third approach is to remain steadfast of one’s identity in the face of opposition. A fourth approach is education. The latter two approaches may be found in the work of R. Menachem M. Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, who lived through Soviet Russia, losing his father, R. Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, to ill health in forced exile in Kazakhstan in 1939, and witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933, and invasion of Paris in 1940. He fled, first to Vichy, then Lisbon, from where he sailed to America, in June, 1941. His wife’s sister and husband perished in the Holocaust. His life’s work was to rebuild Jewish life.


Strengthening Jewish identity


The first approach - strengthening Jewish identity – can be found in two correspondences. In 1969, opposing the flight of the Jewish community from a neighborhood in Brooklyn, he wrote: ‘should a Jew feel so insecure in the presence of a non-Jew and have an inferiority complex?’ In 1970, regarding the struggle for Soviet Jewry, he wrote: the antidote is for the strengthening of the principle that Jews are responsible for one another in a positive way. Every extra effort in observing Judaism on behalf of our unfortunate brethren who are not free to observe, will directly benefit them, in precisely the same way as any benefit to one part of the body benefits the whole body. In 1977, to a Ukrainian Jewish socialist, he wrote: ‘since we cannot rely on the kindness of nations, it is vitally necessary that Jews everywhere should turn their hearts and minds inwardly, and strengthen their identification with our great historic spiritual heritage, which has been the real unifying force of our Jewish people and has preserved our people through the ages - a tiny minority in a hostile world.’ Similarly, in 1982, regarding Terezin Requiem, he wrote: ‘There is no need to point out to you that anti-Jewish feeling has recently grown worse and there seems little Jews can do to improve that feeling. What is important, however, is to remember that the best memorial for our Martyrs, who died because of their Jewishness in the sanctification of G-d’s name, is the strengthening and spreading of Yiddishkeit everywhere.’




The second approach is education about universal ethics and morality. In 1973, in a letter to Mr. Z. Jaffe, the Rebbe suggested: ‘the reason for Anti-Semitism - and indifference during the Holocaust - is the inability for nations to be altruistic.’ In 1975, however, he reflected on the potential of education: ‘Jews have a duty to encourage and help every person to abide by the Divine commandments which have been given to all mankind, namely, the so-called Seven Precepts Given to the Children of Noah, which are the minimum standards of universal ethics and morality, law and order, without which no human society can long survive.’ In 1982, he further argued, in relation to opposition to public Menorah lightings: discrimination against minorities is a reflection of a society that does not live up to the Divine moral precepts, which G-d ordained for the descendants of Noah, i.e. all humanity, as stated in Genesis 9:1-17. Education as a way to respond to Anti-Semitism was raised also in public addresses. On 19th October, 1981, in an address to women, the Rebbe argued the mission of the Jewish people, in addition to observing Torah and mitzvot, to make the world an abode for the Divine, is to illuminate the world, regardless of the dense darkness that exists. There is possibility to educate the nations of the world to observe the precepts stated in the seven Noahide laws, so their behaviour is with true humanity (anushiyuot amitit).[1]


Belief in G-d


A key aspect of the Seven Noahide Laws is the belief in G-d. The idea that belief in G-d is a basis for morality is the basis for many of the narratives in the Torah, including the story of the flood (Genesis 6:11), Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4), Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20), as well as the Book of Jonah, where it states (Jonah 3:5): ‘The people of Nineveh believed G-d. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.’ The argument for education is twofold: belief in G-d as the foundation to morality, and the moral precepts themselves. Both are referred to when Maimonides, laws of kings (8:10) writes: ‘Moses was commanded by the Almighty to compel all the inhabitants of the world to accept the commandments given to Noah's descendants.’ Applying this teaching, on 13 Tammuz, 1962,[2] the Rebbe argued to support prayer in non-Jewish public schools, as it fulfils a key aspect of the Seven Noahide Laws: belief in one G-d. In 1963 (Shavuot),[3] he placed these laws for non-Jews on par with Jewish law from Sinai.


In December, 1980 (19 Kislev),[4] the Rebbe argued that education about belief in G-d as part of Seven Noahide Laws can also serve to combat Anti-Semitism and prevent another Holocaust. The rationale is, as German philosopher Karl Lowith, student of Heidegger, argued, that 20th century philosophy viewed itself as a secular break with theology but in fact retained the religious idea that history is moving towards a messianic concept of perfection. This ‘secularisation of history’ led to the horrors of the Holocaust. The Rebbe argued, accordingly, restoring western civilisation on a theological foundation can prevent further tragedies to occur. In April, 1983 (end of Passover),[5] he argued once more that education of society to believe in G-d and uphold the Noahide moral principles: charity, oppose theft and murder is beneficial to prevent another Holocaust.[6]




We presented Anti-Semitism as a phenomenon that exists in a world where Jews live among the nations, compared, in Jewish teaching, to a lamb among seventy wolves (Tanchuma, Toldot 5). Despite the belief that G-d protects the Jews in a time of exile, Anti-Semitism has always existed and has been manifest in various forms and to different degrees of intensity. We presented, as a case study, the experience of the Jewish community in Oxford during the Second World War. There are four responses to Anti-Semitism: assimilation, enclave, defiance and education. The approach we presented from the thought of the Rebbe relates to the latter two: initially, resigning to the former, emphasising the importance of strengthening Jewish identity, while in the 1980s focusing primarily on the importance of education as a way to make the world a more moral, tolerant and altruistic place.





[1] Hitva’adiyot 5743, vol. 1, p. 392.

[2] Torah Menachem 34:152.

[3] Likkutei Sichot 4:1094: The discussion takes place on the subject of the decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:19, where it states: ‘a might voice, and He did not cease.’ The idea of the unceasing word of G-d at Sinai, firstly, relates to the idea that the Divine voice continues in the learning of the Torah of each individual, and secondly, the voice heard at Mount Sinai was heard in seventy languages. The latter is manifest in the study of the Torah for Jews and the seven Noahide laws for non-Jews. The universal relevance of the Torah and mitzvot was further developed in a discourse on Simchat Torah, 1969, where a distinction was made between the transcendent nature of the mitzvot and their universal aspect: to refine the human being (Genesis Rabba 44:1). The latter is relevant to every human being through the Seven Noahide Laws that should be upheld as Divine ordinances from Sinai, just as the many additional laws given to Jews at Sinai.


[4] Sichot Kodesh 5741, vol. 1, p. 553-554: This is in the context of a question posed on the focus of a letter written by the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe (1745-1813), upon his release from Tsarist prison in 1798, in which he wrote to R. Levi Yitzchak Barditchev that: ‘unfathomable and marvelous (Isaiah 28:29) is the great and holy name of G-d that it became great and sanctified in public, especially in the eyes of all the ministers and the nations that are in all the provinces of the king (Esther 1:16).’ The Rebbe found perplexing that the Alter Rebbe spoke about the matter of his release in relation to the non-Jew, as opposed to the internal spiritual lesson that may be derived from his release, namely a renewed effort to strengthening the dissemination of the teachings of Chassidut, for which reason it was perceived he had been imprisoned. The answer he gives is that the concept found in this letter – moral behaviour of the non-Jewish officials to release the Alter Rebbe predicated on an acknowledgement of the Divine as the source of moral conduct - is based on the teaching of Maimonides in the laws of kings (8:11): the following of the seven laws of Noah must be based, not on logic, but G-d, since it is only this foundation that guarantees the moral purpose of existence, as mentioned in Isaiah 45:18: ‘G-d did not create the world a waste, but formed it for habitation.’ Drawing on the 12th century work of Maimonides and its 19th century application in the letter of the Alter Rebbe upon his release from Tsarist prison, the Rebbe reapplied this concept as a response to European Anti-Semitism in the 20th century and its tragic consequences in the Holocaust. He argued that the cause of 20th century Anti-Semitism was different than classic Anti-Semitism, namely Christian intolerance of the Jew. It was inspired by ideas found in the works of German philosophy (KantHegelSchelling, Nietzsche, and Heidegger), that thought human beings are autonomous, rational and ethical individuals, while the Jewish religion and the Jewish nation is heteronomous, i.e. acting in accordance with one's desires rather than reason. This belief led to them being excluded from the body politic of society as the Other.  ( The teachings of the Seven Noahide Laws, as presented by Maimonides, predicated on belief in G-d as the ultimate authority for a human being’s morality, then, opposes German idealism, and would thus also eliminate modern Anti-Semitism.

[5] Torat Menachem Hitvaduyot 5743, vol. 3, p. 1326-1343. On p. 1334 (section 40), it discusses the importance of promoting the Seven Noahide Laws among the nations for the benefit of the Jews, while living in exile, as was the case during the Holocaust, when there were righteous gentiles – not most or even half of the population – but they nevertheless saved tens of thousands of Jews, because they knew of the concept of charity, and opposed theft and murder.

[6] Yitshak Krauss argued that the motive of the Rebbe was part of a messianic theme. Naftali Loewenthal (Hasidism Beyond Modernity, p. 121-2) argued that, additionally, with the spread of Chabad chassidim and emissaries worldwide, there was a desire to create a ‘universe of discourse to share perspectives and communicate with the gentiles with whom they came in contact.’ I would like to argue that an important aspect of this was for the Rebbe, as a leader of world Jewry, witnessing the unceasing and even increasing phenomenon of Anti-Semitism in America and worldwide, forty years after the decimation of a third of Jewry in the Holocaust, and the inability of all previous ideas to eradicate it, a new and more effective method should be employed.


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