The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism

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It is a struggle to choose the term that most accurately describes the phenomenon of Jew-hatred. Judeophobia is little used because it literally means “the fear of Jews.”Anti-Judaism, which is the most literal and specific, is problematic because it suggests that Jew-hatred is primarily or exclusively religious. Anti-Semitism has become the standard because it refers to the many forms of Jew-hatred evinced throughout recorded history: beliefs, passions, and behaviors whose primary manifestation is the physical and symbolic violence done to Jews. That is why it was originally coined, and not by Jews but by their enemies: Antisemitismus supplanted Judenhass in 1879 under the inspiration of the German anti-clerical radical atheist Wilhelm Marr, who wished to distance himself from Protestant Christian Jew-baiters such as Adolf Stoecker. (The socialist anti-Semite Eugen Dühring followed a similarly anti-Christian agenda in 1881.)

In the relatively liberal Europe of the 1870s, perpetrators of anti-Semitism did not want to be branded as mere Jew-baiters who were animated by pre-scientific “confessional” prejudices that smacked of the Middle Ages. A pseudo-scientific term such as anti-Semite sounded much more enlightened than Jew-hater. It was racial rather than religious—Semites being a 19th-century classification for the peoples of the Middle East—and therefore more respectable to many contemporaries. It often went together with emphasis on the “Aryan” (Nordic/Germanic) character and alleged superiority of European civilization. Defining Jews as the key element in the race of “Semites” allowed them to be characterized collectively in unfavorable terms without reference to religion.

Racial anti-Semitism culminated in the Shoah and has never fully separated itself from the stigma attached to Hitler’s genocide. Still, it survives among neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, most notably in Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Belgium, and Poland. It is, in fact, growing in Europe, in part due to those groups and in part due to the growth of Muslim minorities. In fascist or ultra-nationalist ideology, Jews are still perceived as enemies. Hungary’s Jobbik party (the third largest in the country, with 47 parliamentary seats) is openly anti-Semitic in the racialist manner. It survives to a certain extent in Greece (with the Golden Dawn party) and in Ukraine (with the rise of the Svoboda—”Freedom”—party). As these radical-right organizations seek to play a significant role in electoral politics, they tend to downplay their endemic anti-Semitism or mask it as “anti-Zionism” aimed squarely at Israel. 

Despite this resurgence, the most ideologically influential versions of postwar European anti-Semitism have more often come from the totalitarian left than the radical right. In the late 1940s, Stalinist Communism took over the Nazi legacy of attacking Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” and reinvented a worldwide “Jewish-Masonic-imperialist” conspiracy—relabeled “Zionist fascism.” Though the USSR and the Communist camp recognized and supported the creation of Israel in 1948, within about four years they had turned the word Zionist into a term of opprobrium serving much the same scapegoat role as it had in classic anti-Semitic rhetoric. Trotskyite anti-Zionism proved to be no less virulent in its demonization of Israel and Zionism, despite (or perhaps because of) the presence of so many “internationalist” Jews among its theoreticians. Anti-Israel vituperation on the radical left has become in our time a functional equivalent of the dominant far-right anti-Semitism of some 80 years ago. The central difference being that now it is the Israeli state filling inas the collective Jew that is depicted as the wamongering enemy of humanity.

There are other telling differences as well. The right’s 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitism stereotyped Jews as Orientals, Asiatics—a non-European, non-Western people, part of a backward, inferior, and threatening culture. The especially vehement reaction to the migration of the less cultivated Jews of Eastern Europe into countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany was a reflection of this racist attitude. When the Prussian histrian Heinrich von Treitschke spoke in 1879 of the Jews as “our misfortune,” he was primarily haunted by the specter of trouser-selling Judenjungen (“Jew-boys”) from neighboring Poland who, he feared, would one day inexorably inundate the German Reich, taking over its liberal press and stock-exchange. The nightmare of European conservatives like von Treitschke was that the Asiatic Ostjuden—or “Semites”—would swamp or dilute German culture.

Today’s dominant anti-Semitism rarely accuses Jews of being too Eastern. They are, instead, commonly rejected by liberals and leftists for their Western orientation—especially when it comes to the State of Israel. Jews are too Western in the simplistic sense that the West is automatically identified as being synonymous with oppression, domination, colonialism, and racism. Israel’s “original sin” is its presumed Western colonial character, which is understood as being coterminous with trampling on a supposedly indigenous Palestinian people.

This “new” anti-Semitism has prospered for the last 45 years, ever since the crushing victory of the Six-Day War, in which Israel unexpectedly came into possession of formerly Arab-ruled territories. During these decades, there has been a gradual (and at times uneasy) convergence of “anti-imperialist” Zionophobia from the left and the Islamists’ proto-fascist Judeophobia. Both ideologies are violently anti-Western, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic. For these movements it is axiomatic that the creation of Israel was totally illegitimate, a diabolical imperialist conspiracy. The highly artificial construct of Palestinian, or for that matter pan-Arab, nationalism is rarely critically examined in this context.

The current anti-Semitism in Western Europe, unlike its pre-Shoah predecessors, is not predominantly nationalist. Outwardly, at least, it is post-nationalist. The Jews—except in parts of Eastern Europe—are no longer primarily execrated as sans patrie, aliens par excellence, or rootless nomads. In America and Western Europe, they are rarely branded as eternal wanderers seeking to exploit those Gentile nations foolish enough to offer them safe harbor. Such accusations do still exist on the far right, but usually in attenuated form. Much more common is the assault on Jewish nationalism and the right of Jews even to constitute themselves as a self-governing, independent nation. This cardinal principle of Zionism is a red flag to many liberal progressives and left-wing internationalists who see Israel as the living antithesis of their utopian vision of a world without borders, nations, religions, and ethnic conflicts.

Classical anti-Semitism, it should be remembered, proclaimed the Jews as a minority group to be an existential menace to a given nation—a danger to its internal homogeneity, unity, religious values, and racial purity. Postwar anti-Zionism, on the other hand, sees the nation of Israel above all as a deadly threat to world peace and the international order. This was the verdict of nearly 60 percent of Europeans polled in a Euro-Barometery Survey in October 2003, when Israel reached the number-one spot in the hit parade of nations that imperil universal tranquility and brotherhood. Yet the change is not as deep as one might assume. 

Democratic Europe in the 21st century trades in characterizations not so different from the pre-1939 Fascist myth of “warmongering Jews” or the Communist libels in the 1970s about the militarist, expansionist “essence” of Zionism. For a growing segment of the Western liberal intelligentsia, Zionist Israel is caricatured as a fascist, racist, warmongering state that must be isolated from the community of nations. Today, long after the demise of Communism, democratic intellectuals and academic elites are reproducing some of the worst Soviet clichés about Israel. In that respect, they remind us of the “post-Christian” late-19th-century racist anti-Semites who demonized the Jews in ways reminiscent of the clerical bigots whom they denounced.

Perhaps the most dangerous single feature of postwar anti-Semitism is its integration into the Islamist ideology of global jihad and its thorough penetration into the body politic of the Muslim umma (or general community). Islamic anti-Semitism—more accurately described as Judeophobia—goes back, of course, to the Koran and the hadith(the collected sayings and practices of Muhammad). There have been pogroms in the Muslim world through the ages, even if they were less frequent or violent than those that occurred under Christian rule, and the status of Jews has nearly always been subordinate and inferior.

Over the past 65 years, 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 spurred the growing radicalization of culture and politics in the Middle East. As the projected enemy of the Muslim umma, Zionism has acquired a special status, alongside and sometimes underlying the broader hostility against American imperialism, secularism, and globalization. The contemporary Muslim war against the Jews is a holy war against the contemporary Jewish American and Israeli incarnation of Satan himself, and it’s often presented in terms strikingly reminiscent of Christian medieval apocalyptic language about the Antichrist. To this we might add, in the case of Iran, a populist Shiite brand of revolutionary anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism that attracts certain Western and Third World Marxists who’ve become disappointed in their hopes for the proletarian world revolution. 

In the past 20 years, the banner of a militant and at times triumphant Islam has been raised in Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, and briefly, in Algeria. Political Islam has gained new victories in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. Its prospects in Libya and Syria also look promising. As for the West, jihadist terrorism and Islamist anti-Semitism are all too often excused or explained away as a form of popular resistance to criminal Zionism and the American-backed “state terrorism” of Israel. This ranks as one of the more brazen and successful Big Lies produced by contemporary Islamist and Marxist propagandists against the Jewish state.

For almost a century, Jews have been presented as one of the prime symbols of the hated West in the eyes of many Muslims—alleged representatives and agents of its rapacious, repressive, and colonialist features. The West is often depicted as being under Jewish/Zionist domination (or, in Richard Wagner’s words, as having been “jewified”). This perceived Judeo-Zionist West, embodied by a crusading America, is peculiarly repulsive to radical Muslims. During the past 45 years, they have built upon and further radicalized the earlier anti-Semitic legacy of pan-Arab nationalism whose leaders, as early as the 1930s, collaborated with Hitler (and later with the USSR) in repeated efforts to eliminate the “Zionist enemy.”

The unmistakable influence of Nazism on the language of postwar pan-Arabism and Islamism, with its constant evocation of Israel as a “cancer” in the Middle East, has been especially toxic. It was already present in the exterminationist rhetoric used by postwar Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Even before them, genocidal jihadist rhetoric had been an integral part of the repertoire of the supreme Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini during World War II. It was integral to both the 1948 Arab war to abort Israel and the 1967 pan-Arab effort to throw the Jews into the sea. It was implicit in much of Arafat’s demagogy and is explicit in Hamas’s “Sacred Covenant” charter of 1988. Genocidal Jew-hatred is still very influential in the Arab media, on the Arab street, in Iran, and in Asian Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia. Arab and Muslim Holocaust denial is increasingly central to this genocidal outlook and can be seen as a reinvention of the most grotesque Western anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about global Jewish power. This “negationism” (to translate the French term) is a theme that has provided a particularly strong bond between the radical right in the West and militant Muslims worldwide—powerfully demonstrated by Western participation in the 2006 Holocaust Denial Conference in Tehran, sponsored by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

In the Arab and Muslim worlds there is, of course, no legislation against Holocaust denial. It is, to the contrary, a trend strongly supported by Arab leaders, intellectual elites, and the mass media. Along with the broad dissemination of conspiracy theories and notorious Western-Christian blood libels in Arab and Muslim lands, this has led to a geographical re-centering of anti-Semitism and a displacement of its center of gravity. Before 1945, anti-Semitism was more often exported from Europe to the Middle East and other parts of the world. Since the Holocaust, it has been re-exported back to Europe—borne on the passions flowing from the Arab-Israeli conflict and the radicalization of parts of the Muslim diaspora in the West. As a result, it has become an increasingly global problem, about which we seem to read more horrific stories everyday.

On the left, “anti-Zionist” anti-Semitism has often been complicit in encouraging the most dangerous and toxic fantasies of the Islamists. The Palestinian cause, obsessively focused as it is on the criminalization and demonization of Israel, has provided the crucial pretext. A culture of mindless hatred has absorbed the most sinister motifs in the history of anti-Semitism. It has steadily taken over the Palestinian narrative and continues to undermine whatever remains of critical judgment in large sections of the Western intelligentsia.As anti-Judaism gave way to anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism now enjoys the cover of anti-Zionism. From right to left, West to East and back again, Jew-hatred evolves and adapts in eerie symbiosis with a perpetually changing world.

Robert S. Wistrich is a Neuberger Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel (University of Nebraska Press). This essay is based on a presentation he gave to a forum of the European parliament in the summer of 2012.


The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism

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Robert S. Wistrich

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