The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism

By David WolpeDecember 21, 2015

The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism

Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction by Steven Beller

THE MOST TELLING passage on anti-Semitism I have ever read was a short comment from Polish literary critic Konstanty Jeleński, first published in Kultura, Paris, 1968, reprinted several years ago in The New York Review of Books:

Poles have never come out against Jews “because they are Jews” but because Jews are dirty, greedy, mendacious, because they wear earlocks, speak jargon, do not want to assimilate, and also because they do assimilate, cease using their jargon, are nattily dressed, and want to be regarded as Poles. Because they lack culture and because they are overly cultured. Because they are superstitious, backward and ignorant, and because they are damnably capable, progressive and ambitious. Because they have long, hooked noses, and because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them from “pure Poles.” Because they crucified Christ and practice ritual murder and pore over the Talmud, and because they disdain their own religion and are atheists. Because they look wretched and sickly, and because they are tough and have their own fighting units and are full of khutspah. Because they are bankers and capitalists and because they are Communists and agitators. But in no case because they are Jews.

Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction brings this passage repeatedly to mind. Everywhere one looks, there are corners of contempt, and every possible reason given to justify it. In his short survey of what has been called “the longest hatred,” Beller starts with the Roman empire (although some scholars would argue cogently that Antiochus in the third century BCE already qualifies.) When Christianity broke with its Jewish roots, a family quarrel was frozen in theological amber, with disastrous consequences.

Beller skips quickly over the ancient and medieval worlds, the blood libel and synagogue burnings, giving only one paragraph to the Spanish Inquisition. He rightly sees the Islamic world as more tolerant in the Middle Ages than the Jewish world, although such notable exceptions as the Almohad persecution go unmentioned. Moreover, the daily petty humiliations and depredations may not make the pages of a short history, but they have surely embittered countless Jewish lives.

Beller notes, “There is good reason why ‘Muslim antisemitism’ was absent from most general works on antisemitism and has only recently been added to the main narrative: antisemitism is not an Arab or Muslim creation, but a Christian and European one.” The sad and shocking shift in focus reminds us that anti-Semitism is hardly a historical curiosity; it continues to be of enduring relevance.

After reminding us how appallingly cruel the medieval Christian world was to Jews, Beller turns to his principal focus, modernity. He retells the sordid history of hope and catastrophe that marked the Jewish journey in the post-Napoleonic world. There were signs of progress in the move toward emancipation that we tend to forget today. For example, two trials that are often invoked in the chronicle of modern anti-Semitism, Menahem Mendel Beilis in Russia and Alfred Dreyfus in France, while revealing of deep undercurrents of hostility, both eventually resulted in acquittal of the Jewish defendants. Alongside old hatreds were modern commitments to ideals like equal justice before the law.

Yet as we approach World War II, repeatedly on view is the extent to which ancient hatreds were more dormant than erased. In the Nazi era, the complicity of local populations, the way Jews were treated even after the war, the endless stories of gratuitous cruelty inflicted by people who had been neighbors and friends, the eager collaboration, all remind us that the Holocaust was not a slaughter imposed on a resisting Christian Europe.

Beller adds up the varieties of Jew-hatred, and summarizes them as follows: religious anti-Semitism, racial anti-Semitism, economic anti-Semitism, cultural anti-Semitism, and also a certain paranoid strain of “Jews control the world” anti-Semitism. How can all of these differing, seemingly contradictory venoms coalesce against one people? The British scholar Hyam Maccoby, who is not cited by Beller, noted the paradoxical nature of Jew-hatred. Jews are simultaneously thought to be subhuman and superhuman — vermin who control the world. His explanation goes back to the old Christian charge of deicide. Any people who killed god must be both uniquely evil and uniquely powerful.

As a result, Maccoby believed, anti-Semitism is unique. It is not like other hatreds and the normal categories cannot capture its unique virulence and endurance.

Beller offers a concise and helpful tour of the modern history of Jew-hatred and how it took hold in different countries. Then in conclusion he writes, inexplicably, “What should be clear is that antisemitism is not a unique phenomenon any more, if it ever was, but is rather at base an extreme form of modern exclusivist thinking, with a logic shared by fundamentalisms and nationalisms that do not have Jews as their main targets.”

This appears to me exactly wrong. A people that is 0.2 percent of the world population, sometimes hated even in places where there are no Jews (as Beller notes about Japan), suspected of running the world in places as disparate as Kiev and Sun Valley, the survivors of a recent gargantuan effort to wipe them out because they exist, who today are targets of a worldwide campaign by jihadists, are indeed in a unique position. This hatred cannot be tamed by analysis or lassoed by reason. Anti-Semitism is the wild, irrational eruption of the world’s dark collective unconscious.

Today we see movement in both directions. While the rapprochement between Christians and Jews — such as decrees by the Catholic Church and the warm relations between Christians and Jews in America — would have been unthinkable in an earlier age, it is also true that a mere 30 years ago, few could have anticipated the surge of anti-Semitism we are seeing on both the left and the right in today’s Europe.

Beller should have looked for the proof of the protean nature of anti-Semitism on his own title page. Of what other hatred, thousands of years old, would one publish a book in 2007 and need an “updated” version only eight years later? For demagogues, unscrupulous populists, religious fanatics, and conspiracy mongers, anti-Semitism remains a convenient and apparently ineradicable resource. America has been largely spared this scourge because, unlike Europe, America is an amalgam of minorities so there is no distinct “other.” Let us hope that America's tolerance inspires the world, and not the reverse.


Rabbi David Wolpe is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Rabbi David Wolpe is a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School and Max Webb Emeritus Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.


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