Anti-semitism might be defined as the generality of historic forms taken by Jew-hatred throughout recorded history. They include the beliefs, the passions and anti-Jewish behavior leading to both physical and symbolic violence against Jews over the centuries. The word is German in origin, coined in 1879 by an anti-clerical German radical Wilhelm Marr, who wished to mark himself off from rivals like Court-preacher Adolf Stoecker who had invoked a more traditional Jew-hatred rooted in Lutheran Christian theology.
Antisemitism was from the outset aimed at Jews rather than “Semites,” despite the new terminology. Edouard Drumont’s best-selling La France Juive (1886) was, for example, full of admiration for the Arab rebels who had risen against French colonial rule in Algeria in 1871. But he exuded hatred against the unscrupulous Jewish “Semites” who were allegedly conquering France by stealthy immigration from the East and whom he blamed for the insurrection in Algeria.
The term “antisemitism” was undoubtedly a misnomer. It was never really a combat against “Semites” or “Semitism” at all. But its modern perpetrators did not wish to be branded as old-fashioned Jew-baiters in the relatively liberal Europe of the 1870s. In that positivist era the newly minted coinage of “anti-Semite” sounded more enlightened. Race terminology at that time seemed more respectable and “scientific,” especially to academic contemporaries.
As French Orientalist scholars like Ernst Renan pointed out, the word “Semite” had a philological and linguistic meaning. But Renan himself contributed in the 1850s to the confusion of language and race, secularizing well-known topoi from the history of Christian anti-semitism. Indeed, racial ant-isemitism could be described as a secularized 19th-century version of “anti-Judaism” – the modern mutation of a social and ideological pathology which could not have existed without its Christian predecessors.
Europe Still Hates – Just Carefully
Racist anti-semitism culminated in the Shoah and has never fully recovered from the stigma attached to the Hitlerian genocide. Nevertheless, it still survives among neo-Nazis, white supremacist and skinhead groups, on extremist websites around the world and in far right movements in many European countries like Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Italy, Belgium, France, Germany and Poland. It is part of a more generalized racism and xenophobia that is growing in Europe as the economic crisis deepens, as resentment towards minorities in Europe increases, along with fear of Islam and a broad popular opposition to further immigration – especially from the less developed Third World.
It is significant, however, that while Jews are still perceived as ideological enemies in many of the more hard-core fascist or ultra-nationalist movements, when radical Right organizations seek to play a significant role in electoral politics, they usually try to downplay their endemic anti-semitism or else mask it as “anti-Zionism.” Hungary is an exception in the sheer brazenness shown by the Jobbik party (the third largest in the country with 47 parliamentary seats) which is blatantly anti-semitic and violently “anti-Zionist” as well as being fanatically anti-Roma. In Hungary, the tradition of pre-Shoah organic nationalism and anti-semitic racism on the German model lives on. This is also true to a certain extent in Greece with the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” party and in the Ukraine – with the rise of Svoboda (Freedom) and now the so-called Pravye Sektor (Right Sector) – a fact cynically exploited by Russia in its recent annexation of the Crimea.
It is nonetheless crucial to understand that post-1945 anti-semitism long ago ceased to be a preserve of the far Right despite the efforts of liberal and leftist commentators to straitjacket Jew-hatred into this narrow focus. Already in the late 1940s it was Stalinist Communism which took over the Nazi legacy of attacking Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” and which resurrected the myth of a world-wide “Jewish-masonic-imperialist” conspiracy – now conveniently relabeled as “Zionist fascism.” Indeed, the ideologically most influential versions of post-war European anti-semitism would henceforth come more frequently from the totalitarian Left than from the radical Right.
Though the USSR and the Soviet bloc recognized and supported the creation of Israel in 1948, within four years Communists had turned the word “Zionist” into a term of ultimate opprobrium and anathema serving much the same scapegoat role as it had in classic anti-semitic rhetoric. Contemporary Trotskyite anti-Zionism has proved itself to be no less virulent in its demonization of Israel and Zionism, despite the presence of a number of “internationalist” Jews among its leading theoreticians.
Anti-Zionist vituperation on the radical Left has gradually emerged as the functional equivalent of the prevailing Nazi-fascist anti-semitism of the 1930s. The main difference is that today it is theIsraeli State as the “collective Jew” which finds itself in the dock as the “war-mongering enemy of humanity” even as the Arab world implodes amidst bloody conflicts, massacres, atrocities, civil wars and revolutions wholly unrelated to Israel.
Too Eastern, Too Western
It is revealing to recall that 19th- and 20th-century antisemitism had generally operated, at least until 1945, with a negative image of Jews as “Orientals,” “Semites,” or “Asiatics.” Jews were still considered a non-European, non-Western people – belonging to a backward, inferior and alien culture. The vehemence of the Western response to the influx of Ostjuden (internalized by a significant number of assimilated Jews) in the United States, Argentina, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France and Germany was a reflection of this kneejerk reaction.
When the Berlin historian Heinrich von Treitschke spoke of the Jews as “our misfortune” in 1879 he evoked above all the specter of trouser-selling Judenjungen (Jew-boys) from neighboring Poland who, he feared, would one day swarm across the Eastern border to take over the liberal press and stock-exchange. For the former liberal turned pro-Prussian nationalist von Treitschke, the nightmare was that the “Asiatic” Ostjuden would one day transform German culture into an eclectic mish-mash – a fear shared by many of his colleagues on the conservative Right.
Today, Israelis are rarely accused of being too “Semitic” but they are commonly attacked by liberals and leftists for their Western orientation. The Jewish State is seen as being too pro-American in its outlook and often execrated as an outpost of “colonial” oppression, domination, and racism. Israel’s “original sin” in the eyes of the Left is its presumed expansionist colonial character, equated with trampling on a supposedly “indigenous” [Palestinian] people. This is the basis for much of the “new” anti-semitism that has prospered during the last forty years, since the stunning victory of the Six Day War when Israel acquired possession of previously Arab-annexed “occupied” territories.
During these four decades there has been a gradual (and at times uneasy) convergence of “anti-imperialist” Zionophobia from the Left with a proto-fascist Jihadi Judeophobia. Both ideologies are violently anti-Western, “anti-imperialist,” anti-Zionist and either implicitly or explicitly antisemitic. Each regards the creation of Israel as totally illegitimate – the result of a diabolical “imperialist conspiracy.” While the highly artificial construct of Palestinian Arab nationalism has rarely if ever been critically examined by the radical Left, the 3000-year-old historic roots of the Jewish people in Zion are simply expunged from the record as if they had never existed. This sleight-of-hand has had disastrous consequences for any realistic appraisal of the conflict.
Post-1945 antisemitism in Western Europe, unlike its pre-Shoah predecessors, is (outwardly, at least) no longer predominantly nationalist. It more usually purports to be post-nationalist, except in those parts of Eastern Europe where national consciousness has been reawakened under the impact of globalization or socio-economic crisis. Much more common – especially in the West – is the assault on Jewish nationalism, Jewish nationhood and the right of Jews in Israel to determine their own future as a self-governing, independent polity. This cardinal principle of Zionism has become a kind of red rag to many liberal “progressives” and left-wing internationalists who hate Israel as the living antithesis of their own disintegrating vision of a world without borders, nations, religions or ethnic conflicts. The current dramas being played out in the Ukraine or the Arab Middle East are a powerful reminder of just how utopian this world-view has proven to be.
Islam: Liberalism’s Blind Spot
Classical antisemitism, before the Shoah, proclaimed Jewry to be an existential menace to the internal homogeneity, the Christian values and “racial purity” of the nation. Such mythical claims are no longer fashionable in the West but new slanders projected against the Jewish State enjoy relative immunity. Thus contemporary anti-Zionists, defying all reason or empirical fact, see the nation of Israel as a threat to world peace and the international order greater than Iran or North Korea. This was the verdict of nearly 60% of Europeans only a decade ago, when Israel reached the Number One spot in the hit parade of nations supposedly endangering universal tranquility and brotherhood.
There are times today when contemporary Europeans sound as if they were unconsciously echoing pre-1939 fascist myths of “warmongering Jews” or the Communist libels of the 1970s, denouncing the militarist, expansionist “essence” of Zionism. For a growing segment of the Western liberal intelligentsia, it is not theocratic Iran or the barbaric Syrian regime but tiny Israel which should be subject to sanctions and isolated from the community of nations despite its stunning scientific achievements and adherence to democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.
One reason for this blind spot in the world-view of Western liberals is the refusal to see how far anti-semitism has penetrated into the body politic of the Muslim Umma. Islamic Judeophobia goes back 1300 years to the Qur’an itself, to the hadith, the sunna and a long tradition of discrimination, not to mention humiliation of Jewish (and Christian) dhimmis. There have been pogroms in the Muslim world through the ages, even if they were generally less frequent and violent than under Christian rule. The status of Jews under Islamic rule was, however, nearly always subordinate and inferior, though one can find periods of relative tolerance, calm and prosperity, especially during cultural peaks such as the “Golden Age” in medieval Spain and at the height of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
For the past 65 years, however, hatred of Jews has become far more lethal and toxic in the Muslim world than anywhere else. It has converged with hatred of the West and the growing jihadization of culture and politics in the Middle East. As the designated enemy of the Muslim Umma after 1948, Zionism has acquired a special status, alongside and sometimes underlying the broader hostility against Western imperialism, secularism and globalization.
The Muslim war against the Jews has been constructed as a “holy war” against contemporary Jewish-American and Israeli incarnations of Satan. To this we should add, in the case of Iran, a populist, revolutionary Shi’ite brand of anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism that has attracted some maverick Western and Third World radicals, disappointed in their hopes for the proletarian world revolution. But the “Arab Spring” did not lead to any diminution in levels of Arab antisemitism or hostility to Israel. In Egypt, for example, both the present regime and the ousted Muslim Brotherhood accuse each other of being “agents” of the Jews and Israel, as if endemically incapable of freeing themselves from the power of such hoary clichés.
The roots of this pathology lie deep in the collective psyche of a failed modernity in the Arab-Muslim world. For more than a century, Jews have been presented by Arab propaganda as one of the prime symbols of the hated West – as representatives and agents of its most rapacious, repressive and exploitative features. At the same time, the West itself is all-too-often perceived – in classic Judeophobic fashion – as being under Jewish/Zionist domination. This twisted stereotype of a “Judeo-Zionist” West, usually embodied by a “crusading” America, has built upon the older anti-semitic legacy of pan-Arabism. Since the 1930s, the Palestinian Arab leader Haj Amin el-Husseini as well as prominent Iraqi and Syrian nationalists openly admired Hitler, forming an alliance with the Nazis based largely on radical anti-semitism and anti-British sentiment.
Nazism left an unmistakable imprint on the language of both pan-Arabism and Islamism, with its endless evocation of Israel as a “cancer” in the Middle East, long after 1945. One can find traces in the “exterminationist” rhetoric against Israel used since the 1950s by post-war Arab leaders like Gamal Abdul Nasser, King Feisal of Saudi Arabia and in more recent decades by Colonel Ghadaffi in Libya. The 1948 Arab war to abort Israel and the broad pan-Arab effort to throw the Jews into the sea in 1967 was a continuation of this drive. It was implicit in much of Yasser Arafat’s demagogy and it became altogether explicit in the 1988 Hamas Sacred Covenant. Genocidal Jew-hatred still remains very influential in the Arab media, on the Arab street, in Iran and in a number of Asian Muslim countries including Pakistan. Arab-Muslim Holocaust Denial is one important component in this genocidal outlook as is the constant re-invention of anti-semitic Western conspiracy theories.
Related themes of global Jewish power – suitably Islamicized and adapted to current requirements – have provided an additional bond between the radical Right in the West, the far Left and militant Muslims from the Middle East. Even the fact that the Sunni-Shi’a confrontation in the Middle East and the danger posed by a nuclearized Iran objectively dwarf the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have made little dent in the proclivity of millions of Muslims to see the “hidden hand” of Israel and world Jewry behind the current mayhem. Such toxic fantasies, far more than the issue of Israeli settlements have made the Arab-Jewish struggle over the fate of the Holy Land so intractable. One wonders how long Western liberals will remain oblivious to such uncomfortable realities.
Robert Wistrich is Professor of Modern European History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Head of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.