Michael Phillips revisits an old post about self defense in the context of Israel and anti-Semitism mumblemouthed as “anti-Zionism”, and Gerard van der Leun takes notice in his sidebar. Phillips’s thesis is that Jews have historically been pacifists and passivists, retreating, appeasing, and compromising when attacked, and much of modern anti-Semitism is excited by the fact that Israel does not continue that policy. The reaction among Europeans, especially the Left, approximates O s*t, the damn Jews are shooting back! What the f*k is this?

There is much to be said in favor of the notion. It’s a matter of record that Jews, especially European Jews of the Diaspora, routinely yielded in the face of oppression, going along with (or even promoting) ghettoization and not responding violently to pogroms and lesser attacks. They saw this policy as a matter of survival that fitted with their teachings and traditions, and adhered to it even when horribly attacked. They did, in fact, survive, and that tended to validate the policy on both sides. Jews saw that pacifism resulting in preserving their society and traditions, and the Princes of Europe saw that Jews were people who could be beat upon with impunity. Israel discards that policy; American Jews, largely immigrants from Europe steeped in the former tradition, find the change unnervingly discordant, and the successors to the European nobility discover with alarm that their former whipping-boy is no longer so submissive.

But it would be a mistake to see that as the only explanation. Anti-Semitism has a long and dishonorable history throughout the world, predating by centuries or millenia the establishment of a modern Jewish State. Alarm and resentment when Jews are so uppity as to defend themselves goes a long way toward explaining modern attitudes, but doesn’t explain historical events.

Societies evolve just as species do, and by similar or analogous mechanisms. Species evolution proceeds on Darwinian principles — one or more individuals acquire a new characteristic or trait, by chance mutation; if that new trait allows the individual to reproduce more successfully than the others of the species do, that individual’s offspring will be numerous, and will share the new characteristic; over (extended) time the new trait becomes dominant. Societal evolution is more nearly Lamarckian. New procedures arise by innovation, whether chance or reasoning; if they are “better” in the sense that they promote survival and reproduction of the individual, they are transmitted and become the norm. The difference is the transmission method. Acquisition of the new trait is not confined to the offspring of the innovator, because it can be transmitted to others by teaching based on language.

Species compete with one another in two ways. New traits may evolve to give the species a reproductive advantage, allowing them to become more numerous and “crowd out” competitors; new traits may evolve to give the species an advantage in either predation or defense against neighboring species, again allowing them to survive and gain in numbers. It’s a mistake to reduce Darwinian evolution to “survival of the fittest”. The species we see today are those whose evolution made them fit enough to survive in the environment they encountered over the æons, including other species which also evolved traits sufficient for their survival.

Societies compete in the same two ways. Human societies have only been around for a few tens of millenia, rather than the millions of years in which species evolved, but that is offset by the enormously faster rate of transmission of new traits by teaching using language. Societies which develop societal traits that result in better nutrition and/or reproduction grow; societies which adopt procedures that make them either better able to predate upon neighboring societies or to mount an effective defense against such predation survive and prosper. Human societies also have a means of expansion not available to species: accretion. A society which observes an effective procedure or trait in its neighbors may adopt it, and over time become more similar than not to the neighbor, sometimes to the point of absorption. Just as with species, the societies we observe today are the ones that adopted customs and procedures that made them fit enough to survive in the environment they encountered; societies which did not adopt behaviors promoting survival did not survive and are not present now.

Jewish society long ago adopted customs and procedures which we see, today, as strongly promoting its survival. It would be otiose (and probably misguided) to recite the list, but one that contributes strongly to the modern situation is exclusiveness. Wherever they go, Jews form communities within which they preserve their customs and procedures and avoid adopting those of the society or societies they neighbor or in which they find themselves embedded. This choice is validated the way any other evolutionary happenstance is validated: Jewish society is always a clearly identifiable subset of the general society, and survives and prospers while remaining cohesive. In almost every case, it can be also noted that the other (here unenumerated) traits of Jewish society result in its also becoming more prosperous, healthy, and generally stronger than the surrounding societies — strong enough, in fact, to withstand the most appalling attacks while remaining substantially intact as a society, though individuals may suffer grievously.

One of the bedrock traits of human beings and human societies is envy, jealousy, and general resentment of the more successful. This, again, is conserved by evolution — healthy animals are targets for predation because it is more cost-effective in terms of return (food gained) on investment (the effort of hunting and killing prey); prosperous societies control resources that a successful attacker can take and distribute, making the attacking society stronger. Covetousness is the societal analogue of hunger, the mechanism by which human societies inspire themselves to attack their fat, rich neighbors, thereby improving their own chances.

Species and societies both develop defense mechanisms against predation, but they always concentrate on increasing the cost of predation rather than reductions in their own attractiveness as prey, because competition between species or societies is secondary to health and prosperity within the group. Defenses may take the form of armor (increasing the effort required to kill), speed (forcing the predator to expend energy in pursuit), or active defense (making the attacker absorb “hit points”), among others. Prey may also adopt a passive defense, at the extreme the R-strategy of reproduction, producing so many individuals that the species as a whole will survive regardless of the level of predation.

Jewish customs and procedures are simply better than those of most competing societies, as is visible in the fact that Jewish societies are almost invariably healthier and more prosperous than their neighbors. This quite naturally inspires those neighbors to predation, expressed as covetous resentment. Jewish societies to date have primarily defended themselves by passive means, including the fact that their prosperity is based on “economics”, that is, their prosperity is an effect of their customs; an invader come to take their stuff finds himself empty-handed. This turns out to be an excellent fit with industrial civilization, in which a predator desirous of the factory’s output finds himself having to destroy the factory in order to sequester it; at the same time, the increasing deadliness of weapons (and of large populations wielding them) makes passive, “absorb the hit” survival strategies less and less tenable. Jewish society therefore begins to adopt other defensive methods, including armor (walls and blast deflectors), flight (emigrating to places with less-dangerous societies), and now active defense — shooting back when shot at. Predatory societies are thereby discomfited. Foxes might well be surprised and resentful if chickens adopted firearms to defend the coop.