An Introduction to Antisemitism
Antisemitism or antisemitism? Years ago, Rabbi Gunther Plaut convinced me to spell this attitude and activity as an unhyphenated word in lower case letters because there was no doctrine of “Semitism” to which the modern hatred of Jews as a race (?), culture or ethnic group could be attached. Further, when the term was coined in 1879 to distinguish this hatred from anti-Jewish hatred, which referred to Jews as a religious group, Wilhelm Marr spelled the word without a hyphen. Another reason subsequently arose for writing the term as a single word. Semitic in linguistic studies referred to the Semitic group of languages, and antisemite would then be interpreted as prejudice against all who spoke any one of the languages in that group, including Arabs, which the term was not used to connote. Nor could the prejudice be against the Semitic race when there really was no such race and, in any case, Jews came from many racial strains.
Although modern antisemitism rose in conjunction with the new racism and antisemites defined Jews as a race, spelling the term anti-Semite buys into the possible validity of their claim, while antisemitism is a singular attitude and type of behaviour toward a specific people, Jews, whether religious or secular. Yet I sometimes spell the term anti-Semite, especially when it is not the central subject about which I am writing. The reason is simple. Antisemitic is accepted by Google spell check while antisemite is not. When I want to write the latter as one word, my automatic spell check program converts the word to anti-Semite. Using both words, antisemitic to refer to the attitude and anti-Semite to the people who hold that attitude, would be too bothersome. However, when writing about the subject, I choose to go against the general grain and spell the term “antisemitism” and call people who hold that attitude antisemites even though I must reverse the automatic correction in every instance that I type the word.
There are three very distinctive types of antisemitism: ancient anti-Judaism or theological antisemitism which I dub Type A; the classical version that arose in the nineteenth century and reached its apogee in the Holocaust, which I label antisemitism Type B; and antisemitism Type C which arose after WWII and has been its main expression in the last forty years. Type A antisemitism is rooted deep in history and it is the central theme of the Book of Esther which is read this week when Purim is celebrated. Type A antisemitism focuses on the Jews as chosen, on the Jews as the embodiment of the divine, with the Jews as trespassers and with the Jews as traitors, a fifth column in any polity.
One explanation for Type A antisemitism is jealousy. Jews historically claimed they were the chosen people by God. On Mt. Sinai, God commanded Moses to inform the Israelites that they would receive the Torah and, thereby, become to Him “a chosen people.” They may have been chosen to carry an extra burden of responsibility or to be a light unto the nations, but, as this explanation continues, others resented this claim for exceptionalism, even if it meant carrying an additional burden. In other words, in this explanation, the primary responsibility for antisemitism Type A must rest with Jews themselves and their beliefs.
But the claim goes further. In Jewish theology, Jews are the embodiment of the soul of God, the Shechinah, the feminine part of God that dwells on earth in the bodies of Jewish men and women and in the spirit of the people as a whole. This claim goes further than being chosen, for it suggests that Jews were chosen to embody God, to be the embodiment of God. Jews are the manifestation of God’s presence on earth. If you think chosenness was a grandiose claim, what do you make of embodiment of the divine?
The other two explanations for Type A antisemitism is that Jews are trespassers. In their own words, they are always sojourners. No land is naturally their land, even Israel. All lands belong to the indigenous people who lived there. But Abraham left his native land in Mesopotamia and came to a new land already occupied, but one promised by God to the Israelites. It could have been a positive sum game, but many if not most of the other tribes they encountered resisted this depiction of the Jewish mission. Further, if the sojourner is a stranger, if the sojourner is the Other, then when things go wrong, instead of embracing the stranger and treating him or her with respect and dignity, turn on them as scapegoats and insist they are illegal aliens and need to be expelled. Such a demand is enhanced when the goal is greater power as well as an opportunity to seize the property (or jobs) of the killed or expelled Jews.
This antisemitism goes back well before the refusal of Jews under Alexander the Great to accept and integrate Greek religious standards and norms, back at least to the Babylonian era when, according to the Book of Esther, leading Jews refused to bow down to the demand for unquestioning and total obedience to the king. Such action was treachery and worthy of being put to death, not because treachery had been charged and proven, but because the person was a Jew. A Jew was inherently treacherous. A Jew was inherently an alien in a nationalistic land because he or she had not become complete and total members of the polity.
Type B antisemitism arose with the Enlightenment, arose with the belief in the cosmopolitan assimilation of all into the religion of reason. In the pseudo-science of the time, there is an acceptance of Jewish chosenness, but Jews are chosen as prime targets for persecution and eventual destruction. Jews do not embody a divine spirit but an evil one which they inherit with their mother’s milk. Out of that alleged Jewish malevolence, Jews are engaged in a global conspiracy to a) control the economy of the world; b) instigate wars; c) exercise control over governments; d) control all media; or focus on e) alleged despicable patterns of Jewish personal behaviour. Jews are trespassers on the soul of the nation. This type of antisemitism is rooted in views of economics, military affairs, politics, sociology and psychology. Jews are an internal threat, a Fifth Column, that can eat away and destroy the national spirit.
In antisemitism Type C, Israel becomes the surrogate for Jews. Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism if, for only the simplest of reasons, that would make every single Jewish Israeli an antisemite. Antisemitism Type C is a grossly disproportionate focus on Israel as a target for criticism to provide grounds for the elimination of Israel as a state. For Zionism was an ideology chosen by a small percentage of Jews, but expanded to become a central tenet of belief for virtually all religious Jews and for the vast majority of secular Jews to unite the various strains of Jewry. The central goal of Zionism was “return,” return to once again become rooted in an ancient homeland promised to Jews by God. Therefore, by definition, Zionists were sojourners displacing the nationalism of the local population and eventually displacing a large portion of that population as well.
In A, B and C types, it is necessary to distinguish between expressions of antisemitism, between policies and actions versus antisemitic attitudes. In Type B antisemitism, many people are antisemitic. Only a very small proportion B-type antisemites express their antisemitism through violence, threats of violence or vandalism. As many as 10% of Americans and perhaps, a higher proportion of Canadians, may carry the B-type antisemitic virus. In the Anti-Defamation League 2014 poll, countries with populations of over 50% who hold B-type antisemitic attitudes include Turkey (71%) and Greece (67%), two otherwise erstwhile enemies. In Iran, following decades of anti-Israeli propaganda, antisemitic attitudes are, surprisingly, found in only 60% of the population. In Eastern Europe, the figures for Romania, Hungary and Poland are, respectively, 47%, 40% and 37%, and the latter has a large and very vibrant philosemitic movement as well. In the Ukraine, in spite of, or perhaps, in part because of the prominent role Jews played in its most recent revolution, the figure is 32%.
Countries like Italy, Spain and Latvia, where fascists and ex-Nazis played such a prominent part in their respective histories, the figure is almost 30%. In Argentina, for similar reasons, it is 24% with similar percentages for Central American countries with histories of right-wing dictatorships. And in the current Putin authoritarian Russia with its long and glorious history of both antisemitism and extraordinary Jewish achievements, the figure, even following the great Jewish exodus, is 23%. In Western Europe, one may be surprised to find Belgium with a figure of 21%, but not so surprised that it is 17% in France and 16% in Germany while only 12% in the UK and 11% in the Netherlands.
However, there is a huge difference between the percentage of a population that carries the virus and the number in whom that attitude expresses itself in vandalism and violence. In America, that expression manifests itself in only .01% of the population, 1 for every 3,500 who carries such an attitude. But the current situation suggests that it takes very little to shift the condition for many more to become activists. When exacerbated by international events or by a permissive political leadership, especially a leadership that expresses distrust of the Other, the opportunities and incentives to exhibit itself increases even more.
Further, there are six times as many Americans with antisemitic attitudes than there are Jews in America. In the world, there are an estimated one billion plus individuals who carry the anti-Semitic Type B virus, and in countries with a much less pronounced official government and societal antipathy to antisemitism Type B, the percentage of those who express their antisemitism may be much higher than in America. But even if the low American percentage is used, even if the widespread strain of Type C anti-Semitic virus in the Arab world who are also infected with the Type B virus is ignored, there are at the very least 300,000 activist Type B antisemites worldwide and, in reality, many more.
Nevertheless, there is a difference when antisemitism manifests itself in words and images and when it manifests itself in arson, bullet holes and beatings. However, while the latter gets the most attention and the former does when it is manifested in threats of violence, the most virulent strain of antisemitism is the C strain that is seen in a political activity, such as the BDS campaign, particularly the BDS campaign on campus that is rife with members who deny that they have the B strain. And most do not. However, many of them have the C strain, particularly among the founders and leaders, because their ultimate goal is not to force Israel to give up the West Bank, but to characterize Israel as an apartheid illegitimate state that should be eliminated from the map.
The most often asked question concerning antisemitism is not what it is but why it is. Since Purim is approaching, and since Haman as depicted in the Book of Esther was clearly an antisemite millennia before the term was invented, any explanation would have to transcend the particularities of a geographical region or a specific historical period. Jews have not been well liked by significant portions of populations. It is the persistence of antisemitism, it is its seeming immunity to education and prosperity, enlightenment and exposure, that makes antisemitism so puzzling.
After we examine antisemitism is specific regions, we will return to this question and see if we can come up with some answer to explain the existence and persistence of antisemitism.
With the help of Alex Zisman