Joseph Sobran, Anti-Semites All.

Few things have stunned me as much as a Jewish friend, whom I'd known for several years, saying, "I've always thought the Catholic Church was anti-Semitic." A chasm opened.

It comes as a shock to be bitterly accused of hating Jews. It comes as a worse shock to be calmly accused of hating Jews. For many Jews it is an article of faith that all Gentiles - not just Christians - hate them. "Let's face it," a reader recently wrote to the New York Daily News, "there's a little bit of Hitler inside every Gentile."

After a while the Gentiles may begin to suspect that charges of anti-Semitism, like those of racism and sexism and homophobia, are manipulative devices to keep Gentiles twitching defensively. They do have that function sometimes, but the real motive, I suspect, is deeper: Such charges enable one to dismiss, in advance, all opposition.

Since Jews have preferred to blame all anti-Semitism specifically on Christianity. This is a frequent theme even in such sober Jewish publications as Commentary. It has the advantage of removing all intergroup friction from the level of experience to that of theology: Gentile hostility becomes pure prejudice, not conclusion. It also capitalizes on the Christian conscience. It has the disadvantage of failing to account for the common hostility of pagans and Moslems to Jews.

Here is a book by two very bright young Jews that attempts to cope with all the difficulties while retaining almost all the these at once. Why the Jews: The Reason for Anti-Semitism explains that Jews are hated for their Judaism. "The higher quality of Jewish life is objectively verifiable," say Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin and it produces envy in Gentiles of all kinds. "To put it another way, the Jews' belief in Jewish chosenness has provoked hostility because the quality of Jewish life has made Jews seem as if they really were chosen."

The authors go on to say that "treatment of the Jews has served as one of humanity's moral barometers. Watch how a nation, religion, or political movement treats Jews, and you have an early and deadly accurate picture of that group's intentions toward others." So anti-Semitism is akin to racism? No, it is "unique." Judaism poses a "moral challenge." But don't people often hate Jews because they find many of them - leftists, pornographers, reductionist intellectuals - morally repellent? No, these are "non-Jewish Jews."

Prager and Telushkin distinguish several kinds of anti-Semitism: ancient, Christian, Islamic, Enlightenment, leftist, Nazi, and anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism? Yes. Then if someone simply doubts Israel's claim to Palestine, he is an anti-Semite? Yes. Even if he doesn't doubt the general virtues of the Jews? I guess so.

Here the thesis becomes highly suspicious. It sounds pretty self-serving to treat all adverse reaction as a single entity, for one thing. Two men dislike Brown for two different or even opposite reasons; it would be a mistake for Brown to posit a universal tendency called "anti-Brownism," let alone to suspect "polite anti-Brownism" or "latent anti-Brownism" behind the smiling face of civility.

To Prager and Telushkin, all Gentiles past a certain point seem to look alike. Enlightenment anti-Semitism wanted to include Jews, not shut them out. It attacked their particularism for its own reasons; wrongly, perhaps, but still not out of a consistent value-system, and not because it resented what it saw as the "higher quality of Jewish life."

In fact, most people in the West have tended to look on Jews as backward, not superior. The popular sociology that made "jew" and "gyp" slang terms for sharp dealing may have been crude and cruel, but it hardly expressed a sense that Jewish and Gypsy life were worthy of envy. Prager and Telushkin overlook the sheer ethnocentrism of other cultures, because they are possessed by an ethnocentrism of their own.

The very things that Jews take a just pride in have, by the same token, gone unappreciated and unnoticed by most other people. Every nation flatters itself that its own specialties are the central measure of excellence, and accordingly trivializes the excellences of its neighbors. Ironically, for a people so talented, many Jews now specialize in being hated, and willfully interpret anti-Semitism as an inverted acknowledgement of chosenness. Why the Jews? Assumes that Jewish self-absorption is matched by a Gentile absorption with Jews.

In fact it fairly demands such absorption. It implicitly shows how to use the charge of anti-Semitism as a club with which to extort support for Israel. To the extent that its mindset prevails - and it is very widespread nowadays - it becomes impossible to treat Jews as a normal part of the world, subject to the same standards as everyone else. This book insists that Jews are the standard, and that to criticize them by any other standard is to fall short of the only one that really counts.

But far from being anti-American, as this account might suggest, Prager and Telushkin are at pains to link Israel and America. "Almost as consistently as Jew-hatred, America-hatred has become a moral litmus test of nations, regimes, and individuals. America represents freedom, a higher quality of life, and a willingness to fight for its values." Pardon me, but, patriotic though I like to think I am, America is something more complex and slightly less pure than these distilled virtues. And rightly or wrongly, many people do dislike us for what they sincerely see as our vices. Khomeini would mention our materialism, even he may have a point.

Others don't meet us in the church or synagogue, where we are something like our ideal selves; they judge us by marketplace encounters, by what Prager and Telushkin would dismiss as "non-Jewish" traits, and usually don't even know what we think we are, let alone see and appraise us as we see and appraise ourselves.

Finally, Why the Jews? Is an ingenious attempt to sustain a na´ve self-image. In its conceptual framework, catch-all terms like "anti-Semitism" and even "Gentile" serve to make all non-Jews suspect. They can prove themselves non-anti-Semitic by paying a small price: simply sacrificing their own perceptions whenever these conflict with the Jewish self-image. I wonder if the authors realize what they are asking.