The study of antisemitism has taken many turns and twists over the years. The goal remains: understanding where this hatred emanates from and how it continues to cascade throughout the generations. While the scholarship has differed on exact definitions, the signs and trends have been voluminous. Leon Poliakov, one of the early scholars of antisemitism, highlighted this uniqueness in his definition of antisemitism as “an effective sui generis attitude of the gentiles towards the Jews . . .”
Clemens Heni holds a PhD in political science from Innsbruck and currently the director of the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. In his newest book, Antisemitism: A Specific Phenomenon, Heni attempts to pick up where others have left off, deciphering the latest trends of anti-Zionism and Islamism.
Both Christians and Muslims have embraced antisemitism wholeheartedly. It is this theological understanding that united Hitler and Haj Amin Al–Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, given their common Jihadist agenda toward the Jews. As an example, Andrew G. Bostom, in his book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), quotes Bat Ye’or on Islamic antisemitism and its dissemination throughout the Muslim world:
The pejorative characteristics of Jews as they are described in Muslim religious texts are applied to modern Jews. Anti-Judaism and anti-Zionism are equivalent—due to the inferior status of Jews in Islam, and because divine will dooms Jews to wandering and misery, the Jewish state appears to Muslims as an unbearable affront and a sin against Allah. Therefore it must be destroyed by Jihad. Here the Pan-Arab and anti-Western theses that consider Israel as an advanced instrument of the West in the Islamic world come to reinforce religious anti-Judaism. The religious and political fuse in a purely Islamic context onto which are grafted foreign elements. If, on the doctrinal level, Nazi influence is secondary to the Islamic base, the technique with which the Antisemitic material has been reworked, and the political purposes being pursued, present striking similarites with Hitler’s Germany (168).
When it came to the rise of Nazism, which was racial to its core, the fatalistic view toward Jews is synonymous with the Jihadi view found in the Muslim world. As Walter Laqueur observes in his study, The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day:
The Nazi murder of the Jews was total—not selective—and it was carried out systematically, following industrial organization and techniques. It was not a series of pogroms and somewhat spontaneous massacres, nor was there an escape for the Jews. Jehovah’s Witnesses or Communists could gain their freedom from the concentration camps if they abjured their fate and promised to collaborate with the Nazis. As far as the Jews were concerned, their religious or political beliefs were wholly unimportant to the Nazis. The Jews were killed not because of what they did or thought but because they were Jews. In this respect the Holocaust was unique.
Heni’s contribution lies in his ability to sharpen exactly how antisemitism is exceptional— not only because of its ruthlessness but also because of its very character. He writes:
Antisemitism is a specific phenomenon. Critical research on antisemitism concludes that racism, prejudice and antisemitism are not equivalent. No single group of people, except for Jews, has ever been singled out and blamed simultaneously for mutually exclusive developments like capitalism, communism or liberalism and humanism.
Moreover, Heni is able to elucidate how antisemitism and anti-Zionism have been sold as two separate issues rather than the latter having grown out of the former. In his treatment of Hannah Arendt, he writes:
Looking back on more than 2000 years of Jew-hatred, it was indeed realistic that antisemitism should be considered a constant power, resentment, with genocidal consequences. Remember: Arendt writes that Jews take advantage of Jew-hatred, while the Jews have still been buried in the oven of Auschwitz. The Holocaust was still going on in 1944/early 1945, and Arendt aimed at the Zionist idea of being saved by a possible Jewish state. More ignorance, arrogance and de-realization is hardly possible. This might be, on the other side, the reason why so many scholars and the public embrace Arendt. In recent years one can find huge lists of publications on her. [At] the same time, antisemitism is on the rise, including and particularly aiming at Jewish nationalism, or the Jewish nation-state.
In Heni’s view, a critical tipping point in the global arena of antisemitism is the adaptation of Holocaust rhetoric to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, such as equating the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) with the Holocaust. This has engendered statements such as characterizing the Israeli security fence being a method of ghettoizing the Palestinians—posing yet another hurdle to the pro-Israeli community, which has to counter demands to recognize a nonexistent Palestinian Holocaust. The task becomes increasingly difficult as the media consistently promotes the Palestinian angle.
The Arab-Muslim narrative sees the establishment of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust as a clear validation of the linkage between Nazism and the continuation of Jewish domination. The widespread use of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion during the Arafat years, and even more so today under Hamas, has given this false representation the status of a primary document in Palestinian textbooks. Moreover, the Protocols has attained the status of academic scholarship in the Arab-Muslim world, not just a folk myth. This “academic legitimacy” based on counterfeit documents stimulates the modern antisemitism Heni describes, thereby raising a new Arab-Muslim generation that religiously believes in these “facts.”
Finally, Heni underscores why history especially matters when it comes to racial Jewish hatred. The fact that the debate about antisemitism has become so intellectualized that individuals have a difficult time distinguishing racism from acceptable criticism is in itself telling. The new or revised antisemitism is built on the “old” medieval one; cycles of hatred toward Jews reflected in Muslim and Christian writings still repeat many old antisemitic canards, but are now willing to embrace junk science and social Darwinian tropes whenever possible. Europe today, as we saw in the 1930s, is seeing a steady growth in antisemitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. Not since the end of WWII has there been such a level of distress among European Jewry. As Robert Wistrich writes, “Europe cannot fight antisemitism if it appeases terrorists or blackens Israel’s name. We need to insist that a linkage exists between blind ‘Palestinophilia,’ being soft on terror and jihad, defaming Israel, and the current wave of antisemitic violence.” (http://www.jcpa/org/phas/phas-25.html).
Heni’s analysis, while long and gloomy and tending to leave the reader depressed about the possibility for any change, only shows that the age-old basic Jewish hatred is alive and well. His study represents an important contribution, as it offers an interpretation based on insights that can be useful in combating contemporary antisemitism.