Very Short Introductions: What is antisemitism?
Regular OUPblog readers will know that we have a series of posts around our Very Short Introductions series, where authors answer a few questions on their topic. Today I’m doing something a little different. Steven Beller is the author of Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction. I asked him what he saw as the main reasons for there being such a high level of antisemitism throughout world history, and why he thought so much irrational hatred was leveled at the Jewish faith. His answer was so in depth and interesting that I thought it deserved a post all of its own. Check back next week for the rest of his fascinating Q&A.
It is true, as I state at the beginning of my book, that antisemitism can be and has been defined as an almost “eternal hatred” of Jews that has stretched from Antiquity to the present. But that is not the definition I operate with in my VSI, because in the end I do not think it is all that helpful in getting to grips with the central problem of antisemitism in the modern era, as a political and ideological movement, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. I define antisemitism as that modern political and ideological movement, and one of my main points in the book is that it is wrong to think that the previous history of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution in European history made the emergence of antisemitism as a movement inevitable. It is another major point of my book to dispute the notion that the emergence of antisemitism as a potent political and ideological force before 1914 meant that there was anything inevitable (until it happened that is) about the triumph of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and the ensuing Holocaust.
I do not even think that it is all that accurate to assume that antisemitism has been present “throughout history”. Even when we define antisemitism in the “eternal” variety, as any form of anti-Jewish hatred, whether religiously, politically, socially, ideologically or economically based, there are vast swathes of time and recorded space in which it was not present, or at least of little consequence. Chinese and Indian history, and pre-Columbian history and Sub-Saharan African history, accounting for most of human historical experience, knew little or no animus against Jews before the modern era, mainly because Jews were an unknown or insignificant group. Anti-Jewish hatred was really a phenomenon of Middle Eastern and European history, and only spread to the rest of the world with the triumph of Eurocentric modern civilization. Even within Europe, and in what I see as the bastion of modern antisemitism, Central Europe (German-speaking and otherwise), there were periods when anti-Jewish hatred could be dismissed as an insignificant atavism; even in its era of major success around 1900 in Central Europe, there were many areas and centres, such as German Prague, Budapest and Breslau (Wroclaw) where the message of antisemitism was rejected or simply ignored.
It is true that anti-Jewish hatred has a very long history, going back (one assumes) to the Egyptians and the Romans, but I think some of this sense of “eternal hatred” is a consequence of a Judaeocentric view of the world, and I do not think that, until the emergence of Christianity, there was anything all that unique about anti-Jewish hatred. Jews were just one of the peoples in the Mediterranean world that needed to be dealt with by others, and I do not think the Romans, for instance, hated the Jews more than they had hated, let us say, the Carthaginians. With Pauline Christianity came a special animus against Jews resulting from the fact of Christianity’s Jewish roots; there is a similar special character about the pre-modern Muslim, religiously-based animosity to Jews, because, ironically, of the shared religious heritage. In European history it was the Christian need to be proved the true faith that led to anti-Jewish hatred being so ingrained into European culture and thought. Even so, this animosity was not the same as antisemitism, and in many eras, such as the late eighteenth century, was very much on the wane. It took further developments in modern European history to enable such underlying, religiously-based prejudices to be transformed into modern antisemitism. Antisemitism is thus a subject of modern history and not simply the study of an atavistic survival.
To talk of “irrational hatred” suggests that there is such a thing as “rational hatred”, and it is another point of my book to at least suggest that there are indeed many more “reasons” for anti-Jewish animosity and hence for antisemitism than many students of the subject are prepared to admit. This does not mean that such hatred is morally right, or acceptable, but it does open up the possibility that it is not irrational. Hence, Christian animosity towards Jews is based on a non-rational belief in the divinity of Christ that Jews can never share—is Christian animosity towards Jews because of this refusal to accept the “truth” (in Christian terms) irrational, therefore? I am not sure it is. But it should not be too surprising that Christian societies have tended to be anti-Jewish as a result of this fundamental theological conflict, and it is this religiously based difference which is at the heart of European society’s animosity towards Jews. At the same time, the Freudian/Nietzschean claim that it was precisely the fact that Christianity imposed “Jewish” moral, anti-hedonistic, repressive values on pagan European societies also has much going for it: Jews end up being blamed for both rejection and origination of the imposed faith. This might explain why the Jewish religion, seen as the original monotheism, has been such a focus of animosity within Christian societies. At the same time, I would like to stress that this particular strength of hatred of the Jews compared to “other faiths” was not historically a constant. Jews might have been restricted and persecuted in medieval Christendom, but they were allowed to exist within it as Jews, unlike any other heretical Christian group, or indeed Muslims or other faiths. In North America there are examples, such as Peter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam, where Jews were a tolerated minority, but other groups, such as Quakers, were not. So we need to be careful not to assume that Jews have always and everywhere been the most hated faith.
I am also intrigued by the use of the term “faith”. There is, I would agree, a foundation of religious conflict to both Christian and Muslim animosity towards Jews. Yet faith is only a part of it, and there is also a very strong group or ethnic component to this animosity, especially after the emergence of nationalism, and this has very little to do with Jews as a community of faith, and everything to do with them being perceived as a group of others. When it comes to this ethnic animosity, then Jews have also been historically the premier example of the consequences of “irrational hatred”, as in the Holocaust; on the other hand, the animosity directed and the horrors perpetrated against all kinds of other minority ethnic or religious groups, such as the Armenians in Turkey, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, the Igbo in Nigeria, or African-Americans in the United States (or even once upon a time Catholics in the United kingdom) should remind us that Jews are far from being alone in being the object of such hatred and persecution.