Did you know that a 2020 poll found that more Americans believe in Satan (56%) than in God (51%)? Given the world’s recent troubles – pandemic, wildfires, floods, economic hardship, social unrest – a bias toward unseen dark forces is perhaps not surprising. But surely from another perspective it is: this is an era of phenomenal scientific advance—in space exploration, computer technology, and most relevantly, medicine; which promises to move us past COVID-19 in record time.
The Jewish religion, in which I was raised, does not place emphasis on the devil. A 2013 YouGov poll, which drills down further, put belief among American Jews at 17%, which was surprisingly high, but lower than for every other religious group including “no religion.” (Incidentally, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all had belief levels over fifty percent.) My intent here is not to argue for any particular worldview. However, a correlation emerges that is worth contemplating: throughout history, the fantastical claims of evil made by others about Jews, Jews have not made about others. Even the most “anti-gentile” Talmud quote that an antisemite might allege or the most alarmist rhetoric about Iran does not run to supernatural extremes. Regardless of how threatening were Nazis, Muslim aggressors, or even biblical adversaries, they were never viewed by Jews as anything other than biological humans.
Jew-hate, by contrast, has often been termed “hallucinatory” (most anti-Zionism also fits the bill, but that’s an argument for another day). It does not limit itself to mundane accusations—stinginess, clannishness, pushiness—as do other prejudices, but goes fully off the rails. Jews are associated with shape-shifting, being descended from either apes and pigs or the devil (complete with horns and tails), causing the bubonic plague and COVID-19 (though both killed many Jews!), burning down California forests for profit using space lasers (though many Jews live nearby!), and controlling the world despite comprising only 0.2 percent of its population.
Putting the data together, I cannot help but theorize that if someone accepts evil forces in concept, whether from theology or culture, then believing fellow humans are agents of such forces is not a far leap. To be clear, I am not asserting that all people who believe in the devil also believe that Jews, a.k.a. Zionists, are similarly evil and paranormally empowered. But surely if one doesn’t believe in evil forces in the first place, the latter idea is moot. And when it comes to evil, eradication is the appropriate response – indeed, never resting till the job is done. Annihilationist antisemitism and also anti-Zionism (which is annihilationist by definition) have this very quality to them.
It is admittedly true that devil ideation notwithstanding, Hebrew scripture is filled with “non-scientific” accountings, so to speak. Plus, Kabbalah, the Dybbuk, the evil eye, and other such mystical beliefs do exist on the fringes. But if most Jews are inoculated against “going off the rails” with fantasies of evil, perhaps this owes to a fundamental credo of Judaism; namely, that God is one – and also that God is good. No powers besides God are acknowledged, whether good or evil, god or demi-god. Hence, in Judaism, when misfortune occurs, it cannot be ascribed to an evil competitor of God because there are none. It is due instead to lack of adherence to God’s laws as explicitly transmitted, or else to divine will that must be accepted albeit not understood, as exemplified by the biblical story of Job (whose testing “devil”-angel is under control of God).
As a contrast, the dominant religion of the West, Christianity, though it has its roots in Judaism, incorporated much from the pagan world. This is often acknowledged and is also apparent. For example, the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) is inconsistent with Judaism’s strict monotheism but instead resembles the Trinitarian gods found throughout the ancient world. Likewise, the Catholic veneration of numerous saints (moreover via graven images), while not polytheism, does have echoes of this form of worship to an extent that would not be tolerated in Judaism.
Judaism also parts company from other religions with respect to its creation narrative. Instead of the more common mythos of a cosmic battle between good and evil, with perhaps no clear victor, Judaism puts a stake in the ground on the side of positivity: all creation is God’s work and is good. Each day of creation in Genesis includes, “And God saw that it was good.” Most importantly, Isaiah 45:7 states, “I am YHVH, unrivalled: I form the light and create the dark. I make good fortune and create calamity, it is I, YHVH, who do all this.”
Christianity does include Genesis in its scripture, but if one regards the creation narrative of Christianity as marked by the birth of Jesus, it is more consistent with the good-evil clash model. The Christian bible states, “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Christianity also imposes new interpretations on the Hebrew bible to infer a devil who is ever-menacing. For example, following the Serpent’s temptation of Eve, Genesis 3:15 is interpreted to prophesy the virgin birth of Jesus and Jesus’ defeat of the devil through the Resurrection (explained here and here; all absent in the Jewish understanding). Christianity also entails a final war waged by Satan against Jesus. Most strikingly, given that Jesus and authors of the Gospels were Jewish, is that their recorded concept of the devil as free agent of cosmic evil is alien to Judaism. This depiction is rather thought to derive from Zoroastrianism of Persia, which posited an evil god who squares off with a good god. And sadly, some verses in the Christian bible have been historically interpreted (and occasionally still) as linking this newly-styled evil god who is destined for destruction with the Jews. In any case, the fearsome devil that we in the West envisage is not in fact a Judeo-Christian product.
To the extent that Islam drew not only from Judaism, but also Christianity, it too accepts certain thinking that Judaism would reject; e.g., belief in the virgin birth of Jesus (albeit not his divinity), a type of anti-Christ who plays a role in end times, and a view of the Prophet Muhammad as human perfection (in Judaism, prophets are fallible).
Clearly, different theologies dictate different ways of looking at the world. For Jews, a tree is a tree and not a forest spirit, a woman as a woman and not a witch who serves Satan, and an ethnic group is an ethnic group and not a demonic fleshly force. The lack of belief in an operant evil principle automatically checks fantasies of evil. For example, traditional Jews feel assured that, if nothing else, their enemy is a human being and not a vampire who can only be vanquished by extra-human means or “overkill.”
As an aside, going to extremes would be a violation in any case of an “eye-for-an-eye.” This principle gets portrayed as Jewish blood lust, but in fact, it ensures that retribution have a limit. It implies, among other things, that annihilating a people in toto, babies included, because it contains numerous wrong-doers (or because wrong-doers might emerge, which was Hitler’s pitch to the hesitant) is disallowed. Only God may elect to take such measures, as was done with Sodom and Gomorrah. Hence, punishing individual Nazi criminals is conceivable; massacring all Germans is not.
Often Jews are amused by the hallucinatory antisemitic claims made against them, such as the Hamas allegation of a spying dolphin who reported back to Mossad, or more recently, space laser shenanigans. But today’s incremental antisemitism is no laughing matter. If it is to be confronted in a sophisticated way, perhaps Jews would do well to drop their own delusions that antisemitism can’t possibly be this durable and instead focus on trying to understand it.