Not Your Father’s Anti­semitism: Hatred of the Jews in the 21st Century

Michael Beren­baum, ed.
  • Review
By – January 5, 2012
Anti-Semi­tism may be the old­est and most per­sis­tent social pathol­o­gy, what his­to­ri­an Robert Wistrich calls the longest hatred.” There is a ready mar­ket for anti-Semi­tism, reli­gious and social, ancient, medieval, mod­ern, and now post­mod­ern. Cul­tur­al and lit­er­ary crit­ic George Stein­er attrib­ut­es this per­pet­u­al hatred of the Jews to their inven­tion of con­science.” That is how he char­ac­ter­izes Moses’ demand for obe­di­ence to law, Jesus’ demand for love and sac­ri­fice, Marx’s demand for per­fect jus­tice and Freud’s demand for hon­est self-knowl­edge. That these stan­dards for per­fec­tion are unfull­fil­l­able is the source of deep and bit­ter resent­ment of the peo­ple who devised” them. Oth­ers say it is because Jews have cho­sen to be a peo­ple who dwells apart,” as the Bib­li­cal pagan prophet Bal­aam pro­claimed, unwill­ing to assim­i­late or sub­merge their iden­ti­ty. From ancient times through the cen­turies of Chris­t­ian hege­mo­ny in Europe, and Mus­lim hege­mo­ny in the Mid­dle East, resent­ment and even hatred of the Jews grew out of their com­mit­ment to their own reli­gion and their rejec­tion of two of the major world reli­gions, Chris­tian­i­ty and Islam. Wal­ter Laque­ur, for thir­ty years the direc­tor of the Wiener Library in Lon­don, the lead­ing insti­tute for the study of anti-Semi­tism, pro­vides a suc­cinct and cohe­sive his­tor­i­cal account of this phe­nom­e­non. In The Chang­ing Face of Anti-Semi­tism he argues that dur­ing the 1500 years of Chris­t­ian hege­mo­ny in Europe, the roots of that hatred were reli­gious and the­o­log­i­cal. In the mod­ern era, the hatred sprang from reli­gious roots sec­u­lar­ized, with the Jew­ish dif­fer­ence being more and more attrib­uted to race and ide­ol­o­gy. He skill­ful­ly demon­strates the unique tenac­i­ty of anti-Semi­tism with an endur­ing and his­tor­i­cal reach that even affect­ed democ­ra­cies in Europe and the Unit­ed States. 

Com­mon to both reli­gious and sec­u­lar forms of anti-Semi­tism is the per­sis­tence of cer­tain myths that over the cen­turies demo­nized and dehu­man­ized the Jew­ish peo­ple. No mat­ter how absurd and irra­tional, these myths, which por­tray the Jews as the source of evil and cor­rup­tion, attract­ed many believ­ers even among the edu­cat­ed, and pro­voked and jus­ti­fied per­se­cu­tion, expul­sion, mas­sacre, and geno­cide. Mar­vin Per­ry and Fred­er­ick M. Schweitzer in Anti­se­mit­ic Myths col­lect over nine­ty doc­u­ments that focus on the nature, evo­lu­tion, and mean­ing of the prin­ci­pal myths that have made anti-Semi­tism such a lethal force in his­to­ry: Jews as dei­cides, rit­u­al mur­der­ers, agents of the dev­il, inter­na­tion­al con­spir­a­tors, and mate­ri­al­is­tic, unscrupu­lous Shy­locks. In their com­pre­hen­sive and invalu­able col­lec­tion of pri­ma­ry sources, they demon­strate that anti-Semi­tism is one of the great con­stants of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. The oppo­nents of nation­al­ism saw Jews as uncom­pro­mis­ing nation­al­ists, with a nation­al­ist God and a nation­al­ist Torah; the nation­al­ists saw Jews as inter­na­tion­al­ists with alle­giance to no coun­try. Polit­i­cal lib­er­als denounced the Jews as an instru­ment of reac­tionary and Phar­i­sa­ic author­i­ty; polit­i­cal reac­tionar­ies denounced them as agents of change. Reli­gious Chris­tians blamed Jews for killing Jesus and for their inter­est in rea­son, sci­ence, and inquiry; and the free thinkers accused them of super­sti­tious and reli­gious fanati­cism. Some writ­ers saw the Jew as the root of anar­chy, Marx­ism, immoral­i­ty, and sub­ver­sion, while some rad­i­cals and social reform­ers described the Jew as char­ac­ter­ized by self­in­ter­est, mate­ri­al­ism, and greed. What strikes the read­er of these doc­u­ments is the unique inten­si­ty of Jew hatred, the irra­tional fear of the Jews and the almost lim­it­less alle­ga­tions of Jew­ish evil­do­ing and capac­i­ty for crime and destruc­tion. Even after the Holo­caust, these myths con­tin­ue to cir­cu­late, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Mus­lim world, which has enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly embraced medieval Chris­t­ian, mod­ern Euro­pean, and Nazi anti- Semit­ic myths. In a world in which dif­fer­ence is increas­ing­ly a source of con­flict, the oth­er­ness of the Jew, so ably doc­u­ment­ed in this book, appears salient and pernicious. 

Both Laque­ur and Per­ry and Schweitzer extend their treat­ments of the evo­lu­tion of anti-Semit­ic his­to­ry and myths to include the cur­rent resur­gence of anti-Semi­tism on a glob­al scale and often in unabashed­ly open forms. That such vir­u­lent hatred per­sists today, six­ty years after the Shoah, is quite dis­turb­ing and is the focus of Michael Berenbaum’s edit­ed book, Not Your Father’s Anti­semitism: Hatred of the Jews in the 21st Cen­tu­ry and Avn­er Falk’s Anti-Semi­tism: A His­to­ry and Psy­cho­analy­sis of Con­tem­po­rary Hatred. They explore the rea­sons why anti-Semi­tism is flour­ish­ing today. Berenbaum’s book, result­ing from a con­fer­ence spon­sored by the Sigi Zier­ing Insti­tute Explor­ing the Reli­gious and Eth­i­cal Impli­ca­tions of the Holo­caust held at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Uni­ver­si­ty, is uneven in qual­i­ty and in the­mat­ic coher­ence. Some of the book’s weak­er and idio­syn­crat­ic con­tri­bu­tions are, in fact, authored by the edi­tor. Notwith­stand­ing these defi­cien­cies, the read­er will find in many of the chap­ters inter­est­ing descrip­tions and­analy­sis of con­tem­po­rary anti-Semi­tism in Europe, the Unit­ed States, on the polit­i­cal right and on the left; reflec­tions on the grow­ing crescen­do of voic­es ques­tion­ing Israel’s very right to exist; on the re-appear­ance and pro­lif­er­a­tion of medieval blood libels in the main­stream Mus­lim press; on the phys­i­cal attacks on rab­bis and school chil­dren in France and Cana­da; on the con­fla­tion in the Euro­pean press and in polit­i­cal rhetoric equat­ing Israelis and Nazis; and on the growth of Holo­caust denial and Holo­caust triv­i­al­iza­tion. The book’s strongest chap­ters deal with anti-Semi­tism in Islam and Israel and con­tem­po­rary anti-Semi­tism. There are very sug­ges­tive pieces by Richard L. Ruben­stein, John Roth, Reuven Fire­stone, and Man­fred Ger­sten­feld, among oth­ers. The book’s authors gen­er­al­ly argue that con­tem­po­rary hatred of the Jews is not linked to the 1930’s but is a unique man­i­fes­ta­tion of the 21st cen­tu­ry post-mod­ernist cri­sis. This leads many of the sev­en­teen con­trib­u­tors to con­clude that the new anti-Semi­tism presents, for the first time since the Shoah, an exis­ten­tial threat to the Jew­ish people. 

Avn­er Falk in Anti-Semi­tism: A His­to­ry and Psy­cho­analy­sis of Con­tem­po­rary Hatred, agrees with this wor­ri­some con­clu­sion in his com­pre­hen­sive and quite eclec­tic exam­i­na­tion of this world­wide phe­nom­e­non. Falk delves deeply into the his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture of anti-Semi­tism, as well as cur­rent events, inte­grat­ing insights from psy­chol­o­gy, soci­ol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, polit­i­cal the­o­ry, and psy­cho­analy­sis. Falk brings to the top­ic both a broad and deep knowl­edge and appre­ci­a­tion of what these dis­ci­plines can con­tribute to the top­ic. His knowl­edge and insights are impres­sive and quite sug­ges­tive. The result is a rich and impor­tant explo­ration of what he believes are the irra­tional and uncon­scious caus­es of anti-Semi­tism. These are revealed in fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ters on the psy­cho­dy­nam­ics of racism, fas­cism, Nazism and the dark, uncon­scious process­es, both indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive, that led to the Shoah. He extends this analy­sis to include a dis­cus­sion of the psy­cho­log­i­cal motives behind Holo­caust denial as well as insights into the sur­vival strate­gies of Holo­caust survivors. 

The cur­rent growth of anti-Semi­tism is fueled by the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli con­flict and the trans­for­ma­tion of that essen­tial­ly polit­i­cal con­flict into some­thing more sin­is­ter and even reli­gious in nature; by the growth and migra­tion of Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions in Europe; by the inse­cu­ri­ty of the post-Cold War inter­na­tion­al era; by the region­al inequities cre­at­ed by glob­al­iza­tion; by a fal­ter­ing world econ­o­my; and by the rise of rad­i­cal Islam that has defined the prin­ci­pal ene­my of Islam to be the Satan­ic” Unit­ed States and its lit­tle Satan” part­ner, the con­spir­a­to­r­i­al Zion­ists who are blamed for the suf­fer­ing in the Mus­lim world. Once again, the pow­er of the irra­tional rears its ugly head. 

The longest hatred,” sad­ly, is alive and well. Any­one want­i­ng to under­stand its his­to­ry and per­sis­tence, its con­ti­nu­ities and changes, would do well to read these books. They pro­vide, to vary­ing degrees, sober, pen­e­trat­ing, and com­pelling analy­sis and the hope that a solu­tion to this phe­nom­e­non is not beyond our will­ing­ness to con­front it bold­ly and with knowledge.

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Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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