In many parts of the world, Jews are increasingly unwelcome in the 21st century. The number of countries in which wearing visibly Jewish clothing such as a kippa means risking physical violence has hit an all-time high. On both the individual and the national level, Jews are targeted with extraordinary ferocity: We hear Israelis (but no one else) being compared to Nazis; we are told that Jewish nationalism is oppressive and archaic; that Israel is a uniquely racist country; that Israel’s terrible misdeeds explain why people hate Jews. Instead of being seen as ordinary or all too human, Jews are seen as carriers of a uniquely transcendent evil. No other group of people on the planet is accused so much and of such fantastic wrongs. For a few decades after the Holocaust, it seemed that anti-Semitism might wane or even die out. That hope has now been defeated. Could anything we do or say stem the tide, or will Jew-hatred persist as long as there are Jews to hate?
Anti-Semitism is an inert object of a kind not usually met with in the social sciences. While historians try to see everything in its context to show how our human environment alters our beliefs, anti-Semitism resists context; it is a rock-hard conviction so persistent and monomaniacal that, for all we can tell, it will never go away. In the words of Edouard Drumont, the 19th-century anti-Jewish propagandist, “All comes from the Jew; all returns to the Jew.” Yet when we recognize this persistence, we enter, disturbingly, into a debate with the anti-Semite. The Jew-hater and the maligned Jew face off eternally, one playing offense and the other defense. This is the anti-Semites’ revenge: They make us sound like ranters when we complain about them.
But it’s crucial for Jews to talk about anti-Semitism, even as we hear that Jews are so secure these days that anti-Semitism can’t be very significant; that Jews discuss anti-Semitism in order to claim special privileges; that Jew haters are merely nutty rather than dangerous; that talking about anti-Semitism in the Muslim world means that you are a “Likudnik,” or something worse. We have to rebut these wrong-headed sentiments. But a further challenge looms: When we talk about anti-Semitism, we risk confusing our personal wounds with the larger history we’re trying to grasp. Scholarly detachment is a needed remedy. But as two recent books show, being detached is harder than it looks, since even the most neutral academic feels bound to strike back, to answer the anti-Semite’s demonic vigor with a few accusations of his or her own.
In new and heated account of the recent rise in global anti-Semitism, The Devil That Never Dies, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen relies heavily on public opinion surveys, many of which indeed make grim reading. Over 89 percent of the citizens of Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan have a “very unfavorable” opinion of Jews—only a tiny percentage chose “somewhat unfavorable,” and even fewer “favorable.” In these countries only two or three people in a hundred have a positive impression of Jews. By contrast, a mere 2 percent of Lebanese see Christians very unfavorably, a remarkable statistic given the country’s history of violence between Muslims and Christians. It is definitely worth pausing to contemplate such unpleasant facts.
It is also a fact, according to European public opinion, that Israel poses the greatest danger to world peace, presumably because it stirs up Muslim enmity. Yet shockingly, most Americans said much the same thing about Jews in a series of surveys taken by the Opinion Research Corporation during WWII, before the State of Israel was founded: Jews posed a greater threat to the United States than Germany or Japan, with whom America was at war. The wish to transfer guilt from persecutors to victims is the same both then and now: If the Jew were less of a cause of trouble, wars might be avoided.
Today’s canonical form of anti-Semitism is formally directed at the State of Israel. Yet as former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has remarked, “Anti-Zionism inevitably leads to anti-Semitism.” In the anti-Zionist’s eyes, actual Israeli wrongs are generally not akin to the wrongs committed by other sovereign states, like America, China, or Greece, but rather metastasize into proof of monstrous guilt. Goldhagen is right to say that Jews alone live in a country that is seen by large parts of the world as “self-invalidating.” Since its very existence is understood as a provocation by so many in the Muslim world, Israel’s right to even the barest accouterments of sovereignty comes into question in way that truly makes the Jewish State unique among the nations. As Goldhagen writes, Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel is the “unifying symbol” for many in the world who have never been troubled by oppression of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria, or the fate of the world’s many other stateless peoples, like the Kurds, Tamils, Tibetans, or Chechens.
Goldhagen’s main points are hard to contradict. But he also runs into the trouble that comes from his habit of denouncing rather than evaluating. Indeed, Goldhagen often seems interested mainly in racking up an enemies’ list, at which point his analysis becomes dully single-minded. Everyone from Stéphane Hessel to Navi Pillay becomes an anti-Semite in his eyes; and he thinks that Palestinians who say that Jerusalem belongs to them alone are also anti-Semites (even as the prime minister of Israel regularly announces that Jerusalem should never be divided). And his writing style is often maladroit and hyperactive, to the point where one becomes uncomfortable; the fact that most of his research comes from the Web makes his book a far cry from the nuanced, scholarly approach to anti-Semitism offered in, say, recent works by Anthony Julius and Robert Wistrich.
He is at his most explosive when writing on other religions. “The Christians” and “the Muslims” become monolithic enemies, nearly analogous to the anti-Semite’s “Jews.” The similarity in rhetoric leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth—and it overlooks the many non-Jews who are sympathetic to Israel and to other Jewish causes. If anti-Semitism is widely shared in today’s Europe and the Middle East, nations are still complex entities—and Goldhagen would have done better to recognize some of this complexity. There is no mention in his book of the many ardent defenders of Jewish rights and Jewish memory in France, Germany, Poland, and elsewhere (including elected leaders of these countries).
He proclaims that the Quran is anti-Semitic, writing that “The Qur’an’s and Hadith’s treatment of Jews is horrifying, grounded in the foundational anti-Semitic paradigm, and provides the foundation for the Arab and Islamic world’s profound anti-Semitism.” It would be wiser for Goldhagen to recognize that religious traditions are capable of change on the Jewish issue, as the Catholic Church and many Protestant sects have showed us, and as Islam may yet show us, too.
But when he deals with Catholics, Goldhagen becomes an outright conspiracy-monger. On the revelations about sexual misconduct among Catholic priests, he writes, “The Church’s reflex behind the scenes was to blame the Jews, a view that was publicly articulated in 2010 by Bishop Giacomo Babini, who said that a ‘Zionist attack’ was behind the criticism of the Pope over the sex abuse scandal … Of course, the Church’s formal public stance was to deny and repudiate this Italian bishop’s public statements.” Does Goldhagen seriously think that the Vatican believes “Zionists” are behind the aggrieved response to Catholic sexual abuse? When the church firmly condemns anti-Semitism, as it did in response to the lunatic Babini, and as it has often done in recent years (most recently, the Vatican newspaper denounced Roger Waters’ use in concert of a floating pig adorned with the star of David), Goldhagen discounts such statements as inadequate, or even mere window dressing: The church “has failed to excise anti-Semitism from its teaching and liturgy,” he writes. He slips easily, and dangerously, from the ravings of one bishop to a claim, offered without a shred of evidence, that the Vatican remains secretly anti-Semitic, even when it speaks out against Jew-hatred. It’s hard not to feel that what Goldhagen does to the church is exactly what anti-Semites do to Jews.
While Goldhagen shouts from the rooftops about the pressing threat of anti-Semitism, David Nirenberg presents a calm, scholarly antidote. Nirenberg, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, has rebranded anti-Semitism as “Anti-Judaism”: a more abstract entity that has less to do with pogroms than with figures of thought. With magisterial sweep, Nirenberg shows that since antiquity virtually every aspect of life has been criticized as “Jewish”; that “Jewish ideas” are nearly always seen as having the power to corrupt the larger culture; and that Christian and Muslim notions of Jewishness have little or nothing to do with the behavior or beliefs of actual Jews. Nirenberg says he’s not concerned with defending Jews or Israel, only with describing a problem in intellectual history, yet he draws attention to a phenomenon that can only be enormously alarming: Why were Jews seen as so serious a threat to civilization that they needed to be exterminated, and on the basis of such imaginary evidence?
Most of Nirenberg’s instances of anti-Judaism are depressingly familiar. We are told for centuries on end that Jews care only for the letter of the law, that they cling to ritual observance but ignore the spirit and are therefore against life. (The irony is that the Hebrew prophets themselves battled against mere empty ritual and for true service to God.) When Romantic philosophers look down on mere reason, it too becomes Jewish, the opposite of living, breathing thought. Nirenberg refers to “the work done by figures of Judaism” in the Christian and Muslim traditions and in post-Enlightenment philosophy as well—but the “work” he describes is almost always a caricature of thought rather than real thinking.
The instances Nirenberg selects have little or nothing to do with any real Jewish tradition, as he himself concedes. But if Christians and Muslims exclude actual Jews so completely, if anti-Judaism is as monolithic as Nirenberg says it is, then Jewishness really is utterly isolated—and it becomes hard to explain how the Talmud influenced European law and political theory so profoundly, or how the Exodus story became a beacon for so many revolutionary movements in Europe and the Americas. If all the non-Jewish world knows is a faded, inaccurate cartoon version of the Jew, then Judaism’s claims to be an (or the) origin of Western religion and ethics is untrue. Unless this is a case of anxiety of influence: The more indebted Christianity and Islam are to Judaism, the more they turn against their Jewish sources. Nirenberg’s chosen angle means that he fails to reveal any significant interplay between Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers, letting us believe that real-life Judaism (which, he implies, lies beyond the boundary of his subject) must inhabit its own dark planet, lightyears away from the galaxies of the Gentiles.
Unlike Goldhagen, Nirenberg ultimately has little interest in seeing behind every anti-Jewish snub a reminder of genocide. Yet he too knows only too well that anti-Jewish violence is always a possibility. Nirenberg chillingly remarks that “we live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel.’ ” Although there are bright spots in Islamic-Jewish relations, there is also a pervading darkness that cannot be ignored: Anti-Semitism is something like a majority view in more than a few Muslim countries. An overwhelming consensus about the evil influence of Jews, if combined with sufficient military power, would be just as dangerous today as it was in the 1930s.
The choice between Goldhagen-style polemics and Nirenberg’s scholarly coolness has a turbulent recent past in the academic study of anti-Semitism. The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism was abruptly ended by the Yale administration in 2011. The director of the institute, Charles Small, had little connection to the Yale community, and he saw himself as a political advocate as well as a scholar, frequently issuing topical policy statements on the Iranian threat to Israel. In their comments on the fracas at Yale, renowned scholars of anti-Semitism like Deborah Lipstadt and Robert Wistrich lined up against Small. “What happened in the past [at Yale] was a mess,” Alvin Rosenfeld, director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and editor of a new anthology, Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives, remarked to me in a recent interview.
Within a few weeks of the controversy, Yale replaced the defunct YIISA with the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, which is headed by a professor of French, Maurice Samuels. In an interview, Samuels said, “About half of our program is dedicated to historical forms of anti-Semitism, including Nazism, and about half is dedicated to contemporary forms.” By contrast, Small’s institute was almost completely devoted to current anti-Semitism, especially in the Muslim world. This November, the Yale program will host a panel on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism.
There are now at least a half-dozen academic programs devoted to the study of anti-Semitism: In addition to the ones at Indiana, Yale, and Tel Aviv, Hebrew University has the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, headed by Wistrich. There is also a program at Berlin’s Technische Universität, and London’s Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, houses the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. The programs in Berlin and London combine their focus on anti-Semitism with an interest in other kinds of racism, including current anti-immigrant violence in Europe. The Pears Institute’s homepage announces that “we set anti-Semitism within a wider context,” seeing it “as part of the broader phenomenon of religious and racial intolerance.” Scott Ury, director of Tel Aviv University’s Roth Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism, noted in an email that “the most difficult challenge facing the scholar of anti-Semitism is overcoming the inescapable present,” given the fact that anti-Semitism is such a constant topic of conversation among Jews around the world, and a political football for Israeli (and other) politicians. Ury wrote that “We end up asking ourselves: are we allowing our personal opinions and experiences to color our research on anti-Semitism?”
At both TU and Birkbeck, Alvin Rosenfeld told me, “anti-Semitism is subsumed under a larger category of prejudice, bias, and racism. That’s partly right, but if you stop there you’ll never really understand it.” This is another large divide among scholars of anti-Semitism: Should this hatred be seen alongside others, or is there a danger of missing what’s distinctive about anti-Semitism when it’s treated as one bias among many? “People who dislike Jews rarely dislike only Jews,” David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute, wrote. This June, the Pears Institute hosted an aggressively comparative conference, “Boycotts: Past and Present.” The conference ranged widely, from anti-Jewish boycotts in 19th- and 20th-century Europe to the boycott of apartheid South Africa and—finally, inevitably—the BDS movement. “It was very polite, no shouting,” remarked Samuels. “Both sides of the debate had a voice” at the conference, Feldman noted, pro- and anti-BDS: “Both positions were up for examination.” It’s hard to imagine a civilized argument over BDS occurring in New York City, but it’s important to know that it can happen: That’s what an academic setting, at its best, can do.
Protesting against the resurgent plague of anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen so adamantly does, is not the same thing as trying seriously to understand how it works. As Samuels told me, “There’s a difference between advocacy and scholarship, though sometimes advocacy can be good for scholarship.” Declaring yourself for Jews and against their enemies does not mean that you’ve explained why these enemies do what they do.
There’s another problem, too. Being aware of anti-Semitism seems a fundamentally distinct mission from appreciating Jewish traditions, and it’s often hard to know what the two things have to do with each other. Yet, as Samuels noted in our interview, it’s necessary to study anti-Semitism because “You can’t really understand the positive aspects of Jewish culture without understanding this too.” Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as Isaiah Berlin, in his virtuosic essay “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation,” showed that half-assimilated Jews can draw on, and turn inside out, anti-Semitic prejudices. It’s hard to imagine Disraeli or Proust, not to mention the history of American comedy, outside of this messy but fertile dynamic.
But both Nirenberg and Goldhagen, for all their differences, reject this approach; they insist that there must be no commerce between Jews’ ideas about themselves and anti-Semites’ ideas about Jews. Both men have understandable qualms about seeing anti-Semitism as a root of any Jewish creativity, given how anti-Semitic bigotry led to mass extermination. Yet their reticence means that they miss out on a central, if sometimes troubling, aspect of Jewish history—the way Jews react to what the world thinks about them. Perhaps the most basic lesson from the grim continuing history of anti-Semitism is that anti-Semites don’t get to say what the Jew is. Jews do, and each Jew does, and those answers are bound to be rich, confusing, and deeply personal—responses that the anti-Semite will fail utterly to recognize.