A Hatred That Resists Exorcism

Is there anything left to be said about anti-Semitism? By now surely the outline is clear: how hatred of Jews grew out of early Christianity’s attempts to supplant Judaism; how the demonization of Jews in the Middle Ages turned violent; how the hatred was given its name by a 19th-century German journalist; and how it reached cataclysmic fulfillment in the Holocaust.

A Hatred That Resists Exorcism
Published: July 5, 2010

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Is there anything left to be said about anti-Semitism? By now surely the outline is clear: how hatred of Jews grew out of early Christianity’s attempts to supplant Judaism; how the demonization of Jews in the Middle Ages turned violent; how the hatred was given its name by a 19th-century German journalist; and how it reached cataclysmic fulfillment in the Holocaust.
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Special Collection and Rare Books/Mu Libraries, University of Missouri

A George Cruikshank illustration of Fagin for “Oliver Twist.”

Sunday Book Review: ‘Trials of the Diaspora’ by Anthony Julius (May 9, 2010)

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Al-Dustour, Jordan

“The Blood of a Palestinian Child, a Gift for Mother’s Day,” a 1994 cartoon in a Jordanian newspaper.

There are other landmarks: the expulsion of the Jews from England, Spain and Portugal; intermittent massacres in Muslim lands; the construction of European ghettos; the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe; the Dreyfus Affair; the Nazification of Europe; Stalin’s purges and show trials.

And then, of course, there are the triumphs that act as a kind of remonstrance: the Enlightenment success of Jews in secular European societies, the myriad opportunities in the United States, the birth of modern Hebrew and, after a half-century of settlement, land purchases and institution building, the creation of Israel, whose founding principles incorporated both democratic and Judaic ideals.

Why then during the last six months have new tomes been published devoted to the hatred of Jews? “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (Random House) weighs in at about 1,200 pages, a compendium of a career’s research by Robert S. Wistrich, professor of modern Jewish history at Hebrew University in Israel. And more than 800 pages are devoted just to British anti-Semitic history in “Trials of the Diaspora” (Oxford) by Anthony Julius, a learned British lawyer whose clients included Diana, Princess of Wales, and whose book on T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism was widely praised for its supple understanding.

Surely this attention is a bit overwrought? Aren’t we in an age that must be “post” all such sentiments — postmodern, post-Auschwitz and post-anti-Semitic? Haven’t many anti-Semitic doctrines (or their consequences) been largely overturned? How many people today would advocate ghettos or extermination? Who still believes that Jews bake Christian children’s blood into matzo? Many countries have forbidden hate speech; hasn’t that enforced a decorous social tact? And while it is difficult to ignore the vulgar hatreds expressed by Muslim protestors or in the newspapers of the Arab world or even among Westerners, aren’t those just frustrated expressions of justifiable political grievances?

Besides, anti-Semitism, we now understand, is a form of racism. Like all forms of group hatred, it is subject to reform and to the modern cure of sensitivity training. We learn about such hatreds in order to exorcise them. It seems every museum exhibition, textbook and children’s story about racism provides a similar moral prescription: tolerance.

So isn’t there something a little tasteless about bringing up anti-Semitism all the time, let alone drumming its theme page after page? Sure, racism may still flourish, but given the modern success of Jews, hasn’t this particular form of it become an anomaly? Or worse, hasn’t the term become a manipulative attempt to deflect judgment? As is often pointed out, criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic any more than criticism of any particular Jew is.

But spend some time submerged in these books — by no means a pleasant or an easy task — and these notions recede into irrelevance. Mr. Wistrich’s volume presents itself as an encyclopedic history, and is so full of details and citations, it overwhelms. We hear from a 17th-century Viennese preacher (“After Satan Christians have no greater enemies than the Jews”), Karl Marx (“What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money”) and the Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah (“If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew”).

Mr. Wistrich offers less a history, though, than a contemporary indictment with historical background. This makes his book difficult to read. Its approach is one of cumulative examples culminating in jihadists and their apologists. Its rosterlike style can become tedious but the examples are powerfully dispiriting.

“Trials of the Diaspora” has a similar effect, though Mr. Julius is more focused and analytical, dissecting types of enmity, the nature of anti-Semitic myth and its influence on the greatest examples of English literature. From his analysis, we begin to see too just how different anti-Semitism is from other forms of racism.

Racism attaches negative attributes onto people bearing a particular biological heritage. Such characteristics are passed on; they are inherited. The hatred is focused; the perceived threat can be excised. In a way, racism is a materialist or physical passion: the problem and the solution are concrete.

While anti-Semitism has tapped into racial hatreds in modern times, Mr. Julius and Mr. Wistrich highlight its traditional reliance on conspiracy: the hidden plot. Anti-Semitism isn’t just a matter of asserting unpleasant or reprehensible attributes. It sees the Jew as an antinomian threat, overturning all ethical laws. The Jew works in secret, creating invisible alliances, pulling elaborate strings, undermining society’s foundations. This is why the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has found such a fertile international ground. That 19th-century document purports to be the secret minutes of such a plotting ensemble of Jews. It is the counterfeit confirmation of a long-held belief.

Anti-Semitism is a metaphysical passion, not a materialist one. It doesn’t even require a Jewish presence.

One reason anti-Semites have been so obsessed with the issue of finance in the modern world is that money is the circulatory system of capitalist society. It is mysterious, manipulable: the Jew’s perfect instrument. The Jew, first seen as a theological spoiler, becomes a metaphysical and monetary spoiler. The medieval image of the Jew was related to the vampire, Mr. Julius shows; the modern anti-Semitic vision sees the Jew as a guzzler of a society’s lifeblood.

This amplifies virulence as well: the Jew, for the anti-Semite, is not just a danger, but the greatest danger exerting the greatest powers. In current paradoxical parlance, the Jew is, in essence, a Nazi. The Jew does not just devour a Christian child’s blood, but the blood of all innocent children, and more completely, the blood of all innocents.

Is any evidence needed? Appearances are irrelevant; argument is illusion. What use is visible fact when the power of the Jew is in the web woven below the surface? Jewish autonomy is itself evidence of Jewish threat. Moreover, confrontation requires courage. Anti-Semitism never sees itself as a hatred; it views itself as a revelation. An attack on the Jew is never offensive; it is always defensive. This is precisely how the Nazis portrayed it. It is precisely how Islamist ideology does as well, evident, for example, in the principles and founding documents of Hamas and Hezbollah.

In a recent book, “Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World” (Yale), the historian Jeffrey Herf shows how Nazi propagandists literally taught Arab audiences the language of anti-Semitism through popular radio programs in Arabic. Nazi ideology bears many resemblances to that of contemporary Islamic extremism, some the consequence of careful teaching. That teaching is still present in the Arab world, amplified by political leaders and imams, often annexed to denigrations of Jews taken from Islamic sources

The result, Mr. Julius and Mr. Wistrich recognize, has been one of the most historically noxious forms of anti-Semitic mythology, which has also fed into political debates in the West and cannot be overlooked or easily dismissed. It is easy enough to discern when responsible criticisms of Israel veer into something reprehensible: the structure of anti-Semitic belief is not subtle. There is a wildly exaggerated scale of condemnation, in which extremes of contempt confront a country caricatured as the world’s worst enemy of peace; such attacks (and the use of Nazi analogies) are beyond evidence and beyond pragmatic political debate or protest. Israel’s autonomy — it’s very presence — is the problem. Mr. Julius writes, “Israel is the only state in the world whose legitimacy is widely denied and whose destruction is publicly advocated and threatened; Israelis are the only citizens of a state whose indiscriminate murder is widely considered justifiable.”

But even if we leave aside such manifestations, it is clear enough that anti-Semitism requires much deeper understanding than it usually gets. Last week, for example, Hannah Rosenthal, the United States’ special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, spoke in Kazakhstan, asserting the similarity of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

This is not an uncommon assertion (and cases of unwarranted discrimination are always similar) but Islamophobia is a concept developed within the last two decades by those who wish to elevate Islam’s reputation in the West; anti-Semitism was a concept eagerly embraced and expanded by haters of Jews. One was constructed by a group’s supporters, the other by a group’s enemies.

Moreover, much of what is characterized as Islamophobia today arises out of taking seriously the impassioned claims of doctrinal allegiance made by Islamic terrorist groups and their supporters. Anti-Semitism, though, has nothing to do with any claims at all.
(Tags: Anti-Semitism, History, Evolution, Modern Day)


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