Hatreds Ancient and New
There is and will always be anti-Semitism. But has it really remained unchanged from medieval times to fin-de-siècle Europe to today?
In January 1882, a physician in the Ukraine published a pamphlet harshly assessing what he called “the Jewish question” and recommending a radical solution. The publication struck the massive Jewish community of the Russian empire like an electric jolt and helped spur the mass Jewish exodus to America and Palestine. “Among the living nations of the earth the Jews are as a nation long since dead….” the author wrote. “[A] burden to the rest of the population, parasites who can never secure their favor,” and “as such can neither assimilate nor be readily digested by any nation.”
Jews, he wrote, have the “[g]hostlike apparition of a living corpse.” And “if the fear of ghosts is something inborn, and has a certain justification in the psychic life of mankind, why be surprised at the effect produced by this dead but still living nation?” Therefore, he wrote, “the solution lies in finding a means of so readjusting this exclusive element to the family of nations, that the basis of the Jewish question will be permanently removed.” Translation: Get out.
The essay, Auto-Emancipation, was not the raving of an anti-Semite. The anonymous author, Leon Pinsker, was a prominent figure in the Russian Jewish community, and his treatise was one of the founding manifestos of modern Zionism. Pinsker’s diagnosis of the causes of anti-Semitism led him to urge that his fellow Jews seize their collective fate in their own hands and remake themselves as a nation in a land of their own.
Auto-Emancipation took the Jewish community by storm. Legions of followers adopted Pinsker’s analytic approach to anti-Semitism to develop their own diagnoses. Some cited the economic middleman role into which Jews were frequently thrust, putting them in the crossfire of class conflict. Others blamed the obsequious pose that Jewish minorities tended to adopt toward their non-Jewish neighbors and urged a more assertive, even militant stance. Many agreed with Pinsker’s prescription of emigration and Jewish territorial independence. Many others looked toward democracy, socialism, or anarchism at home.
What they shared was a revulsion for the traditional Jewish stance of helpless passivity in the face of hostility. In Pinsker’s words, “We are no more justified in leaving our national fortune in the hands of the other peoples than we are in making them responsible for our national misfortune.”
Lately, it appears, that classical Zionist approach has fallen out of favor. In part this is due to the emergence after World War II of a stubborn new militancy that views any cause-and-effect analysis of prejudice as “blaming the victim.” During the Holocaust the Nazis’ genocidal hatred allowed for no rational explanation, no option of negotiation or compromise, no possible response except victory or death. In the decades since, many have learned the lesson of that era all too well: For them all criticism is bigotry, every enemy is a Nazi, and every compromise is surrender—or worse, collaboration.
A critical element in the new Jewish militancy, though, lies in the failure of Zionism. Of course, Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, and the rest were spectacularly successful in their immediate goal of creating an independent Jewish homeland. But Jewish independence has so far failed to cure the disease for which it was first prescribed: anti-Semitism. On the contrary, there is a growing conviction among Jewish thinkers and activists, in Israel and internationally, that since 1967 and the occupation, Israel has simply become the focus of a new breed of anti-Semitism. Hatred of the Jews has morphed into hatred of the Jewish state. And over time, these analysts argue, the new anti-Semitism is recombining with the old anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews wherever they live, yielding a worldwide pathology that some say is more virulent than ever before.
There’s genuine evidence, it must be said. In Palestinian and broader Muslim religious discourse, Jews are routinely described today in dehumanizing, even demonic terms. Europe has witnessed a startling reappearance of anti-Jewish street violence, mostly by Muslim youth. Both phenomena are real and worrisome. Then, too, it’s become common for intellectuals in the West and elsewhere to speak of pro-Israel advocacy in Washington in terms that can border, to some ears, on conspiracy-mongering—particularly in the wake of the Iraq War and the widespread, exaggerated focus on the pernicious influence of the “Israel lobby.” And some countries are experiencing a noticeable resurgence of far-right xenophobia. For the doomsayers of the new anti-Semitism, these are all symptoms of a single, deadly ailment: a rebirth in a new guise of the old plague of anti-Semitism that’s infected Europe and the Middle East for millennia—and should have died out after the Nazi Holocaust.
In fact, it’s not self-evident how closely these trends are interrelated, much less integral to a larger whole. The ancient scourge of anti-Semitism—the demonization and persecution of a powerless minority—was largely buried in the ashes of the Holocaust. In the past half-century the Catholic Church has declared anti-Semitism a sin, the European Union has outlawed defamation of Jews, and the United Nations has established an annual day for worldwide Holocaust remembrance. Most important, Jews are no longer a scattered, homeless, powerless minority. Nearly every position of power is open to them as citizens in the countries where they live today, and in one nation they are a majority with a powerful army.
But—and this is the critical point—the creation of that Jewish nation planted the seeds of a new conflict that has yet to be resolved. And unlike classical anti-Semitism, which entailed the persecution of a minority for no reason that the victim could control, this new conflict has two active parties, each with claims against the other. The conflict has spillover effects on others around the world, Jews and Muslims, who identify with one side or the other. It is ugly and getting uglier. But to call it merely a rebirth of the old hatred is to deny that there are two sides to the conflict. This has important political implications, as we’ll see.
The new anti-Semitism thesis first appeared shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, but it has gained wide acceptance in the last decade, reflecting the emotional and intellectual tremors unleashed by the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 and the September 11 attacks. Since then it’s inspired a veritable cottage industry of books and articles. First out, in 2003 and 2004, was a wave of alarmist polemics by activists, notably Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, feminist theorist Phyllis Chesler, and conservative journalist Gabriel Schoenfeld. The second round, starting around 2006, featured several thoughtful volumes by academics, including historian Walter Lacqueur and analytic philosopher Bernard Harrison, stepping back for a broader, more dispassionate look at anti-Semitism over time.
The third wave combines elements of the first two: sweeping historical scope coupled with pessimistic alarmism. This wave began in 2010 with an encyclopedic volume by the dean of anti-Semitism studies, historian Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University, titled A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. And now comes the latest in the series, The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the genocide scholar and former Harvard political scientist.
Coming late to the discussion, Goldhagen has a tall hurdle to surmount: proving he has something fresh to say. Like others, he sees an interconnection among the various strands of anti-Jewish expression, including the old Christian deicide myth, Muslim hostility to Israel and Jews, right-wing xenophobic racism, and leftist or liberal anti-Zionism. His innovation is to claim that the individual strands are really extensions of a single, amorphous entity that has existed since the dawn of Christianity. Until recently it emerged in different forms at various times and places: medieval blood libel, Polish pogroms, Muslim discriminatory laws, Nazi death camps. Today they have surfaced to reveal themselves as tentacles of a single beast, which he calls “global antisemitism.”
The common element in all these threads is what Goldhagen calls “the foundational antisemitic paradigm.” By this he means a conviction, originating in the early church but forever re-emerging in different varieties, that Jews are demonic beings, “devils in human form” who threaten the entire world and must be eliminated. This persistent, ever-evolving obsession with an imaginary Jewish evil, which he calls “Jewness,” makes anti-Semitism different from any other form of prejudice:
These multiple sources and flows, including and particularly through the Internet, have made global antisemitism a thing unto itself with so many dimensions and facets that it is truly global in the sense that it is available to everyone and anyone everywhere and can be easily appropriated, adopted, incorporated, exploited for virtually any purpose—whether to mobilize hatred, explain misfortune and suffering, make allies, create seeming sense out of the world, vent hatreds, or find satisfying targets—no matter whether it is attached to or divorced from any of its original sources.
Today, he writes, thanks to the emergence of global anti-Semitism, Jews are in greater danger than ever before: “[N]ever before has antisemitism been so openly and diversely eliminationist in its rhetoric—not even during the Nazi period.”
Evident throughout is a political agenda that ultimately constitutes the book’s primary message. Like other authors of the new anti-Semitism school, Goldhagen argues that anti-Zionism is effectively tantamount to anti-Semitism, since it denies Jews, alone among the world’s peoples, the right to national self-determination in their own land. Unlike most others, Goldhagen goes a step further and claims that anti-Semitism is the only source of opposition to Israel—and that Israel’s behavior is never a cause of anti-Jewish feeling.
From the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he argued, “Plain and simple, the objection was that Israel was a country that was a home for Jews.” In fact:
Anyone who claims that the antipathy of the region, or of the world at large, is only for Israel because of its policies, and not toward Jews in general because of their Jewness, or who claims that such people’s intent is anything but eliminationist toward Israel the country and toward Jews in general because of their Jewness, is being duped or is seeking to dupe others.
It’s a sweeping assertion, and the implications are no less sweeping. Since opposition to Israel is always and only a product of deep prejudice, not objection to anything Israel does, then negotiation and compromise are pointless. Even “[a]mong Palestinians who accept the two-country solution, most of them see it as an eliminationist maneuver, as only a strategic stepping-stone to Israel’s destruction.” By implication, then, pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state compromise is abetting anti-Semitism. Much of the book leads, or rather meanders, toward that conclusion.
Goldhagen occupies an unusual space among scholars of prejudice and Jewish history. His first book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, published in 1996, was an international bestseller, rocketing him to fame at 37. Yet it was hugely controversial among his fellow academics. Raul Hilberg, arguably the pre-eminent historian of the Holocaust, called it “worthless” and wrote, “By the end of 1996, it was clear that in sharp distinction from lay readers, much of the academic world had wiped Goldhagen off the map.”
Hitler’s Willing Executioners maintained that most ordinary Germans who participated in slaughtering their Jewish neighbors weren’t coerced but joined willingly, even enthusiastically, because of a centuries-old “eliminationist antisemitism” infecting German culture. Some reviewers saluted his boldness in challenging conventional wisdom—New York Times cultural commentator Richard Bernstein called it a “landmark”—but many more called it tendentious, poorly researched, badly written, and plagued by factual errors. Oh yes: and prejudiced. Yehuda Bauer, the dean of Israeli Holocaust studies, accused him of “anti-German bias” and said his “thesis does not work.”
His next two books, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair (2002) and Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (2009), fared even worse. In addition to repeat charges of poor research, poor writing, and poor accuracy, A Moral Reckoning was widely savaged as nakedly anti-Catholic (and puerile; among his recommendations was that the New Testament be rewritten). Worse Than War was accused of overstating his case, unnecessarily wallowing in the lurid details of mass murder, and overly focusing on the anti-Israel rhetoric of “political Islam.” David Rieff called Goldhagen a “pro-Israel polemicist and amateur historian.”
The Devil That Never Dies won’t help Goldhagen’s reputation. It suffers from all his earlier flaws plus a few new ones. The writing is bloated, repetitious, and prone to hyperbole, to the point of undermining his credibility. His list of “eliminationist antisemites” active today ranges from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Al Jazeera television to the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations, the BBC, and the “international human rights community.” One whole chapter presents survey statistics purportedly showing the number of people in the world who are anti-Semites (several billion), including most of the populations of Spain, Hungary, and China. He also has a serious problem with consistency, beginning with his basic premise. Hitler’s Willing Executioners argued that the predisposition to murder Jews was unique to the German character. In A Moral Reckoning he extended it to Catholics. Now it includes most of humanity. What happened to German uniqueness?
More problematic is his selective marshaling of facts. He returns repeatedly to the supposedly enduring anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, yet barely mentions the Second Vatican Council, which renounced the charge of deicide in 1965. He mentions Pope John Paul II’s 1986 visit to a synagogue but seems unaware of John Paul II’s greatest coup against anti-Semitism, his declaration that God’s covenant with the Jews is still in force. This has bound the church explicitly to the position that Jews, alone among the world’s non-Christians, can enter heaven without Jesus and must no longer be proselytized.
Unsurprisingly, Goldhagen thinks America is different, and he goes to strange lengths to prove it. His claim that America is an exception to the worldwide plague of anti-Semitism is central to his argument, and for an obvious reason: If opposition to Israel is evidence of anti-Semitism, then support for Israel must show lack of anti-Semitism. America must be the land of the sane.
And so, in one passage he cites an imagined history of exemplary American intergroup fairness: With the “enormous and grotesque exceptions” of blacks and Native Americans, he writes, there has never been a “call or drive for or mobilization around, let alone programs for, the creation of a racially or nationally pure America.” This is stunning; as a student of the Holocaust he should have stumbled across the congressional Dillingham Commission, after Senator William Dillingham of Vermont, which spent four years from 1907 to 1911 studying the threat to America’s society, culture, and racial purity from Southern and Eastern European immigration. Dillingham’s voluminous reports led directly to the immigration quotas of 1924—which, in turn, closed America’s gates to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe.
There have been other such nativist efforts, of course: the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic Know Nothings of the 1840s and 1850s (whose first elected congressman, Lewis Charles Levin of Pennsylvania, was also the first Jewish member of Congress); the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; and today’s powerful anti-immigrant movement, with its deep strain of anti-Hispanic bigotry. Goldhagen mentions none of them.
But the omission of the Dillingham Commission is particularly telling. Its hearings were directed against whites who didn’t happen to come from Northern and Western Europe, specifically examining Italians, Slavs, and “Hebrews.” Thus it was profoundly anti-Jewish, but not anti-Semitic, if by anti-Semitic we mean singling out Jews for special animus. It was a case of Americans recoiling from groups—several groups—who were different.
Dillingham challenges Goldhagen’s view of anti-Semitism as a single thing that appears in many guises throughout Jewish history, forever poisoning the minds of gentiles, uniquely tormenting the Jews. In fact, Jews have encountered hostility at various times in various places for various reasons over the centuries. It arose first not in Christian Europe, as Goldhagen claims, but in ancient Rome, where conservatives attacked local Jews for spurning Rome’s gods and exporting gold in gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem.
In medieval Europe Jews suffered long periods of harsh discrimination and periodic mob violence, partly due to the New Testament myth of deicide, but partly, too, because of the perennial human fear of the Other. If Jews suffered uniquely, consider that they were the only targets around, since Judaism was the only non-Christian religion in Europe permitted to survive the rise of Christianity. It’s also true, as the seminal historian Salo Baron observed, that in most places at most times, as an urban merchant class (usually barred from farming and most trades), Jews were better educated, better fed, healthier, and less likely to suffer violence in any individual lifetime than the masses of Europe’s peasants and serfs.
The paradoxes continue in the modern era. During World War II, France collaborated shamefully with the Nazis in rounding up Jewish citizens for extermination, and recent years have seen some terrible acts of violence as Muslim immigrants have imported the passions of the Arab-Israeli conflict onto French soil. And yet, that same France in the postwar years has had more Jewish prime ministers—five—than any country outside Israel. Great Britain has seen a wave of anti-Israel activism, often laced with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, on its university campuses and in its trade unions, and yet both of its major parties, Labour and Conservative, have chosen Jewish leaders and standard-bearers in the last decade.
The Devil That Never Dies tells none of that. It’s an unbroken tale of woe, from ancient times to this week’s news. Goldhagen didn’t invent this narrative; it’s baked into Jewish tradition, going back to the biblical days of Jeremiah and Lamentations. Salo Baron derided it as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” The “new anti-Semitism” school revived it and updated it.
Goldhagen takes the old tale and retells it. In his hands, the story is not merely misleading—it’s a dangerous diversion from reality. Goldhagen wants us to believe there’s nothing Israel or Jews around the world can do to reverse the very real threats they face today, other than raise their voices in protest—which will likely fall on deaf ears, based on the hair-raising opinion polls he’s described. This fatalism is a recipe for paralysis, just as it was in Pinsker’s day.
In 2002, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental social-service agency run as a partnership between Israel and international Jewish charities, created a think tank in Jerusalem. Its primary task is to assess the conditions of Jewish community life around the world and submit an annual report to the prime minister. The first report, a 600-page volume submitted in 2004, included the surprising recommendation that Israel create a framework to allow ongoing input from diaspora Jewish communities before making decisions that will affect them.
The primary reason, then-Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor told me at the time, was the threat of attacks on diaspora Jews in retaliation for Israeli security actions. Meridor said he began thinking about this in 1994, when the Buenos Aires headquarters of the largest Jewish organization in Argentina was blown up, allegedly by agents of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah organization, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds. It was and remains the deadliest single anti-Jewish attack since World War II. Israel’s intelligence agencies believe it was in retaliation for Israel’s 1992 assassination of Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas Musawi and his family.
Meridor said he was working in Israel’s defense ministry at the time the decision was taken to target Musawi, “and I promise you, nobody thought for a minute to consider that it might affect Jews outside Israel. But it did.”
Since Buenos Aires, there have been dozens of assaults on Jews and Jewish targets around the world by Muslim attackers, usually in explicit retaliation for Israeli actions. Some have been lone wolf attacks, including deadly shootings on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, atop the Empire State Building in 1997, at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002, and at a Seattle Jewish charity in 2006. Others have been planned attacks by terrorist organizations, like the murderous assault on a Mumbai synagogue in 2008 or the deadly bombings of a Tunisian synagogue in 2002, two Istanbul synagogues in 2003, and a Jewish restaurant, community center, and cemetery in Casablanca in 2003. And this doesn’t include dozens of attacks that were nonfatal or were foiled by authorities.
In one sense, this constitutes a new wave of violent anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen and others claim. It is a series of attacks on Jews who have not done anything to invite it, because they are Jews.
In another sense, though, it is an ugly expansion of a century-old territorial war that hasn’t hesitated to target civilians, on both sides, and now includes their supporters, allies, and kin around the world. Israel’s intelligence professionals believe the war can be ended through compromise but will only get uglier until that happens. Zealots believe they have a God-given mandate to stand firm, and they’re holding Jews around the world hostage to their beliefs—and recruiting unsophisticated polemicists like Daniel Goldhagen to make their case.
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