On social media, Sally Hunt’s handle is “Sally Hates Capitalism.” According to her X bio, she is a “Marxist-Leninist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist (& ethnically Jewish), pro-LGBTQ, pro-indigenous, intersectional feminist.” She is not only a paradigmatic figure of our time—the far-left “influencer”—but a perfect example of the phenomenon I call the “AsAJew.”
Since October 7, Hunt’s TikToks and YouTube clips have featured her accusing pro-Israel Jews of supporting genocide, while asserting the rights of Palestinians to resist occupation. “I refuse to condemn Hamas,” she says as she preens for the camera. She is a textbook AsAJew.
The AsAJew is a man wearing a tallis in a crowd of kaffiyeh-clad protestors trying to block traffic at JFK. She is the Brooklyn editor who has written a 7,000-word personal essay for her Substack on how her Birthright trip to Israel scarred her for life by forcing Zionist propaganda down her throat. Or it’s the literally bearded Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, who confronted President Biden in Minnesota in November. To boos and hisses in the audience, Rosenberg said, “Mr. President, if you care about Jewish people, as a rabbi, I need you to call for a cease-fire right now.”
The AsAJews get their name because they are addicted to that very phrase. We’ve heard it for years. As a Jew, I don’t think AIPAC should dominate American foreign policy. As a Jew, I stand against the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. Now, of course, it’s fair to criticize Israel. Arguing that Israel should do more to avoid civilian casualties while also acknowledging that Hamas started a war with a grotesque act of savagery and hides among Gaza’s civilians is a criticism that has to be counted as legitimate even if you disagree. But when Jews target Israel as a moral obscenity, a singular geopolitical evil, critique curdles into defamation.
And these new defamers are not exactly trying to persuade. They have the zeal of the convert. Many AsAJews were at one point Zionists. But over time, they “did the work,” they saw that Israel was no David. It was Goliath.
Consider Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that embodies the ethos of the AsAJew in its deceptive name. As if the Zionists are voices for war. In a 2018 video called “Wrestling with Zionism,” Jews of all ages provide testimonials about how they came to abandon the Jewish state and embrace its negation. One young woman tells of her first day of college. Her roommate put up a “Free Gaza” poster. “Something inside of me agreed,” she says as she chokes up. “Because all human beings deserve like freedom and dignity, and I started questioning what was my people’s role in not making it free.”
The AsAJews after October 7 are almost exclusively a Diaspora phenomenon. What remains of the Israeli left supports the war in Gaza and its goal of extirpating the Hamas demons who raped, mutilated, and abducted Jewish toddlers, grandmothers, and teenagers in the name of resistance. The AsAJews in the West, though, have not been stirred out of their dogma by October 7. They still pressure the West to break ties with Israel.
Consider, if you must, Peter Beinart, a former liberal interventionist who committed the worst sin of his generation’s Democratic Party by once supporting the Iraq War. Don’t worry. He has apologized. Several times. When he began separating himself from Israel back in the mid-2000s, he wanted only to boycott Jewish-made goods produced on the West Bank. Now, he wants one state and is unconcerned if that state is no longer Jewish. He wears a yarmulke and attends a Modern Orthodox synagogue.
Peter Beinart, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jessica Rosenberg, and their fellow travelers are not sending rockets to Hamas. They are not volunteering to fight the occupation in any physical way. But they are fighting on the side of those who seek to destroy Israel. They participate in this struggle with their words and not their arms, so to speak. Their boycotts, lectures, podcast appearances, and testimonial videos are part of an information war to make Israel as it currently exists a pariah. A Jewish Voice for Peace press release issued after the beginning of the trial against Israel for genocide at the International Court of Justice makes this explicit. It reads: “If the ICJ determines that Israel is committing genocide, it would help us further escalate our organizing for Palestinian liberation, giving us even greater opportunity to pressure governments around the world to end their support for the Israeli government—not only during this genocide, but for as long as the apartheid regime continues to exist.”
This is not the first time that prominent Jews have used their words to advance the aims of the enemies of our people. It is, sadly, a long tradition. Centuries ago, when there was no Jewish state, the AsAJews of their day lobbied their hosts in the Diaspora to banish or convert the Jewish people to Christianity and to confiscate and burn the Talmud. There are many examples of this kind of treachery, but there is one episode from the 16th century that truly illuminates our current moment.
August 13, 1509. That is the date on which Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire issued the infamous Padua Mandate, ordering all Jewish books, with the exception of the Old Testament, to be confiscated and destroyed.
By 1509, this kind of edict was not unusual in Europe. The Middle Ages saw a succession of libels proliferated against the Jews. We were accused of stealing or desecrating the substantiation of Christ in the ritual wafer. Of using the blood of Christian children in secret rituals. We were condemned as sorcerers, alchemists, necromancers, heretics, and blasphemers. And even though these tales were fictions, the punishments were very real. When a Jew was accused of defiling the wafer in the German town of Belitz in the 13th century, all the Jews there were burned at the stake. The blood libel of 1475, which claimed that Jews kidnapped, tortured, and killed a boy known as Simon of Trent, resulted in a similar pogrom.
Jewish books in particular were a target for the Medieval anti-Semites who believed that the Talmud contained in its pages knowledge of magic that gave Jews special powers. They also thought that the Talmud encouraged heresies against the Church and taught Jews to hate Catholics. In this respect the German-born Maximilian was part of a long tradition that sought to abolish Jewish learning. By the time of the Padua Mandate, he had already expelled the Jews living in three of the Holy Roman Empire’s German territories.
Still, by the standards of European leaders of the day, Maximilian was by no means the worst. Despite his expulsions, there were prominent Jewish families throughout Germany that prospered. He was hostile to the Jews, but he was not a fanatic. What led him to issue the Padua Mandate was a man who had the zeal of the convert, an AsAJew named Johannes Pfefferkorn.
Born in Nuremberg in 1469, Pfefferkorn was a mediocrity. He was a vagabond who wandered medieval Germany before ending up in Cologne. In 1505, he was convicted and imprisoned for robbing a butcher. But by the next year he was free. He announced he’d had an epiphany in prison, and, in 1506, Pfefferkorn converted to Catholicism and was baptized by Dominican friars along with his wife and children.
A little background on the Dominicans, who were among the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition: We remember that first effort at eliminating Jewry in Europe because of its expulsion of Jewish citizens, horrific forced conversions, and monstrous acts of mass torture. But a major component of the Inquisition was a war on Jewish texts. By the time of the Inquisition, the targeting of Jewish books had been going on for at least 100 years. The first major burnings and confiscations of the Talmud happened in the 13th century at the urgings of both popes and kings. And even though the Jews formally appealed to the Vatican, their protests fell on deaf ears.
One instigator of all this was an earlier Jewish convert to Catholicism. His name was Nicholas Donin. He persuaded Pope Gregory IX that the Jewish Talmud was a vicious slander against Christ and his followers. And it was Gregory who ordered the confiscation and burnings of the Talmud during the Inquisition.
So when Pfefferkorn wandered out of jail back in 1505, the Dominicans believed they had found their next Donin, an ex-Jew who could persuade the Church and the emperor to round up all the Talmuds in Germany.
In Donin’s age, there was no printing press. Copies of the Bible were still transcribed by hand. In the Jewish community, the brightest students were tasked with memorizing the Talmud because these scrolls were so expensive and labor-intensive to produce. But by the 16th century, Europe had gone wild for the printed page. All kinds of pamphlets and books were produced at a fraction of what it would have cost in the pre-Gutenberg era.
With the advent of the printing press, the Church had a renewed interest in regulating and banning books. The old slanders that the Talmud teaches Jews to hate their host nations, that it teaches sorcery and magic, that it reveals barbaric secret rituals, were revived.
In this respect, Pfefferkorn came along at just the right moment. The Dominicans set him up for a second career as a pamphleteer. His first works were, by the standards of the era, moderate. For example, Pfefferkorn said the blood libel—that Jews need the blood of Christian children to make matzoh for secret rituals—was not true. He stressed in these early pamphlets that he wanted to save his former co-religionists from the heresy in their sacred texts. So he proposed forcing Jews to attend Catholic sermons. He urged Jews to get out of the money-lending business and asked the Church to allow them to practice other professions.
Still, even by the standards of his time, Pfefferkorn was a pernicious liar. In his pamphlet Judenbeicht, or “Jewish Confession,” Pfefferkorn argues falsely that the ritual of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, was an invention of wicked rabbis and not a reflection of the Judaism of the Torah (in which, in fact, God instructs Moses to set aside a day for atonement). This was a recurring theme for Pfefferkorn. The Jewish religion as it was practiced in the early 1500s was a deviation that had led his people astray. He urges his readers to consider “the shameful and evil deeds of the Jews, who curse and desecrate the almighty God, Mary who has given us Jesus Christ, and all the heavenly host and the whole of Christendom, and commit other evil deeds.”
All of this was leading up to Pfefferkorn’s campaign to confiscate Europe’s Talmuds.
So how does a convicted thief and recent convert get his ideas put into practice? Pfefferkorn was a charmer, and he worked on befriending Maximilian’s sister, Kunigunde von Bayern, the widowed duchess of Bavaria. She loved Pfefferkorn’s anti-Jewish writings and arranged an audience with her brother. The meeting was a success, and the Padua Mandate was issued.
For Pfefferkorn, this was life-changing. He not only persuaded the emperor to ban the Talmud and other Jewish books, but Maximilian placed Pfefferkorn in charge of enforcing his decree. And here we once again see another example of his low character, because while collecting the holy books, he also offered wealthier Jewish communities an opportunity to pay him off to spare them. So Pfefferkorn profited from his campaign of persecution.
All was going according to plan for Pfefferkorn and the Dominicans, but there was a hitch. The German Jewish community petitioned their representative in the Church, the archbishop of Meines, Uriel von Gemmingen, who then persuaded Maximilian to appoint a special committee to study Pfefferkorn’s charges.
Despite the long tradition of anti-Semitism in this period of European history, there was another, far more intellectually distinguished tradition as well when it came to the Jews. It derives from the work of Saint Augustine in the fifth century. The jurists who followed Augustinian thinking argued that Judaism was an earlier version of Christianity and acknowledged that Jesus himself had been a Jew. In this understanding, the persecution of Jews was not only wrong, it was unnecessary—because when Jesus returned, the Jews would see the error of their ways.
Maximilian rejected this kind of thinking. But a brilliant German jurist and theologian named Johannes Reuchlin was about to join the battle. Reuchlin was one of the experts assigned to evaluate Pfefferkorn’s claims. Initially, Pfefferkorn hoped he could enlist Reuchlin in his cause, but he was soon disappointed.
Reuchlin ended up being the lone dissenter on this committee of sages. But he was a powerful thinker and writer and managed to get Maximilian to rescind his edict nonetheless. He argued in the Augustinian tradition that Jews living in the empire were subject to the same protections as any other citizen. And he argued that Germany in particular had much to gain from Jewish texts. He advised that every German university include two professors of Hebrew. Reuchlin was speaking from experience. He had learned Hebrew from one of the great rabbis of Rome and had pursued a lifelong obsession with Kabbalah.
Reuchlin was appalled at Pfefferkorn’s ignorance, and understandably. Pfefferkorn was not a rabbi or a theologian. He was a prop, really, a clever man with a good instinct for court politics. But he was no match for Reuchlin or any other serious scholar.
At this point, Pfefferkorn was brought low. He not only had his policy reversed, but he also lost a key source of income in his Talmud extortion racket. And in this dawn of the printed page, Pfefferkorn dashed off the first pamphlet in what would be known as the “war of the books.”
His first, Handspiegel (or “hand mirror”), assassinated Reuchlin’s character. He accused Reuchlin of being in the pay of the powerful Jewish community, claimed that Reuchlin was a fraud who didn’t really know Hebrew, and that he had pursued a heresy by defending the Talmud.
Reuchlin clapped back with the Augenspiegel, which translates into “reading glasses.” Henry Abramson of Touro College says this title was intended to taunt Pfefferkorn: You think I need a mirror? Well, you need reading glasses. For example, Reuchlin wrote: “The Talmud was not composed for every blackguard to trample with unwashed feet and then to say that he knew all of it.”
This back-and-forth continued until 1521. At one point, Reuchlin’s followers released a satiric book of fake epistles supposedly by Pfefferkorn and his Dominican patrons called Letters from Obscure Men, which brutally mocked the anti-Talmud movement. It accused various theologians and priests of visiting prostitutes, being unable to control their bowels, and being ignorant of the Bible.
The battle of the books was not limited to words. There were physical clashes between supporters of Pfefferkorn and Reuchlin. Reuchlin himself was driven from his home. Pfefferkorn’s last pamphlet urged the Church to expel Jews entirely from the Holy Roman Empire. But by this time, he had lost favor with the elites. Reuchlin died in 1521, and Pfefferkorn expired the following year.
Today, there is no serious threat to Jewish texts. But there is a threat to the Jewish state. In the Middle Ages, AsAJew converts were pawns the Church used to spread lies about the Talmud. In 2024, the AsAJews are not converts to Christianity. They are instead converts to the false prophecy of left-wing social-justice activism.
Consider another Jewish Voice for Peace testimonial that features activist Maya Edery explaining how her commitment to anti-colonialism made her an anti-Zionist. She tells the camera: “Studying women and gender studies and sociology, I had all these professors who taught us about anti-colonial resistance, professors who taught us about U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico, professors who taught us about Western Sahara and Kashmir and Puerto Rico and made the connection to Palestine. And it was crystal-clear that you couldn’t oppose colonialism, racism, and imperialism only in some places but be OK with it in Palestine.”
The intellectual godfather of the AsAJews is a former professor named Norman Finkelstein. In the 2009 documentary American Radical, Finkelstein says he was proud of the sign he waved at a protest of the Israeli consulate in New York at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War. It read: “This son of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Auschwitz, Maijdenek will not be silent. Israeli Nazis Stop the Holocaust in Lebanon.”
One hears this atrocious equation of the Jewish state to the Third Reich all the time today. Forty years ago, though, Finkelstein was a pioneer. Comparing Israel to the Nazis was something one might hear at a Weather Underground meeting or on Egyptian state radio, but not inside the corridors of power. Today, this defamation is a core part of Finkelstein’s performance.
A clip of Finkelstein addressing college students who asked why he compared Zionist students to the architects of the Holocaust has gone viral since October 7. With the pitch of his voice rising into a fury of indignation, he tells a student who is in tears: “Both of my parents were in the Warsaw uprising, and it is precisely because of the lessons they taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silent as Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians.”
In November 2023, when I debated Finkelstein, he was more subdued. But he still repeatedly referred to the Gaza before October 7 as a concentration camp and said he could not bring himself to condemn Hamas’s massacre for the same reason that many abolitionists would not condemn the Nat Turner slave rebellion before the Civil War.
On the substance, Finkelstein is, of course, dead wrong. There are shopping malls and luxury hotels in Gaza. Billions in humanitarian aid have poured into the Strip since before Israel forcibly withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the land in 2005. And much of that aid has been stolen by Hamas for its war machine. To compare the conditions of Gaza to Auschwitz or Dachau or for that matter a plantation is an act of moral and historical illiteracy.
But leaving these facts aside, we should say that Finkelstein is a gift to the enemies of the Jewish people. After all, a Gentile who traffics in such toxic analogies would be instantly labeled an anti-Semite. But a child of Holocaust survivors? That is something entirely different. What’s more, if Israel is the Nazi state that Finkelstein claims, can you really blame the Palestinians for their blood lust on October 7?
In this sense, Finkelstein is following in the footsteps of Pfefferkorn, who brandished his credential as a former Jew to slander the Talmud, just as Finkelstein brandishes his credential as the son of survivors to slander Israel.
These libels matter. They justify, rationalize, and incite atrocities large and small. Jews do not learn black magic from the study of Talmud, but millions of Europeans believed this lie for centuries. Israel does not target Palestinian children; rather, Hamas endangers them by shooting rockets from schools and mosques. But millions of people around the world believe that Israel does.
The anti-Semites of the Middle Ages needed AsAJews to provide credentials for the lies that justified their pogroms and expulsions. Today, Hamas and its allies in Iran need the AsAJews to persuade the Hague, European governments, and the White House to delegitimize Israel’s right to self-defense.
The silver lining is that, just as in Pfefferkorn’s time, there are righteous Gentiles like Reuchlin. The honor roll includes New York Representative Ritchie Torres, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, and many others. But the biggest surprise since October 7 has been Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. He ran as a left-wing populist in 2022 and managed to win his race despite suffering a stroke that diminished his brain’s speech functions. As he has recovered, Fetterman has emerged defiant of the pro-Palestinian activists in his party. In January, he walked past a group of them with a wide grin as he waved a small Israeli flag. When South Africa began its prosecution of Israel in the show trial at the Hague, he told the Orthodox Union, “South Africa oughta sit this one out.”
It is important to know that there is a long tradition of converts who work hard to credential the libels of the enemies of the Jews. But we must also acknowledge the tradition of righteous Gentiles who have debunked them—even if those who advance these slanders testify to these lies “as a Jew.”
Photo: AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson
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