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Very Short Introductions: Antisemitism Part 2


Last week I brought you a post from Steven Beller, author of Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction, on what antisemitism really is. Today I’m bringing the second part of the Q&A I did with him on the subject.

OUP: Antisemitism seemed to really take hold in Germany and central Europe during the 19th century. What were the main factors in this happening?

STEVEN BELLER: As the answer to this question is the main content of my VSI, I would urge readers to look there. But I would highlight the following main causes. As mentioned above, the religious division between Jews and Christians and the theological, cultural and ideological attitudes that arose from that were a necessary basis for later antisemitism. But there were other more immediate factors, including the rise of the Romantic reaction to rationalist thought and modernization, as well as the rise of nationalism, and indeed the conspicuous success (economic, cultural and otherwise) of many (though not all) Jews in Central Europe, which fed off this initial prejudice to form the modern political and ideological movement we know as antisemitism in Germany and Central Europe. In this development there were both irrationalist and rationalist moments, those who were reacting to the onslaught of modernity, but also those who saw themselves as the heirs of modern science and thought. What made Germany/Central Europe such fertile ground for antisemitism was both that Jews were such a successful and prominent partner in the cultural and economic modernization of the region, and also that the form of modernity that the region was developing came to be seen as an alternative form to that already developed in the West. The fact that nationalism, and more crucially ethnonationalism, with its quasi-racial assumptions, was seen as the main motor of modernization in the region in the end proved fatal to the integration of Jews within that modernity. For they fell victim to a reductio ad absurdam of the exclusionary logic that lies at the heart of nationalist ideology.

OUP: You say in your book that “the relative strength and significance of antisemitism, and its place in the world, have radically changed” since the Second Would War. In what ways?

BELLER: Antisemitism as a respectable ideological position or a political movement no longer has any credibility or respectability. This was not true before the Second World War, or even, in the shadow of the Holocaust, for a couple of decades after 1965. In the religious sphere, “Vatican Two” fundamentally changed Catholic teachings about Jews and Jews now have a quite different place in the Christian worldview than they did before the Second World War. The intellectual foundation of antisemitism, especially “scientific” racial thought, has been completely discredited. The emergence of liberal pluralist systems on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere among the world’s democracies has also greatly limited the negative effects of nationalism on the position of minority and diasporic groups such as Jews, to the enormous detriment of antisemitism. The existence of the state of Israel has also profoundly changed attitudes of Jews to themselves and of non-Jews to Jews, and this has also radically affected the nature of antisemitic attitudes. (The virtual absence of Jews in Eastern Europe also had an effect, as did the fact that the postwar “economic miracle” in western Europe, Germany and Austria removed economic envy as a factor in resentment against Jews.) One effect of Israel’s existence has, unfortunately but understandably, been that the most threatening form of anti-Jewish animosity today is not to be found in Europe or the West but rather in the Middle East, especially in forms of Muslim antisemitism that barely existed as such before the Zionist development of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

OUP: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran famously made a statement about wiping Israel off the map. With such outward proclamations of antisemitism, should the international community be worried about anti-Jew violence on the scale of the Holocaust?

BELLER: We should always be vigilant about genocidal threats to any people or nation, especially Jews, given the Holocaust. And I cannot see into the Iranian president’s head to know whether he really meant what he has said, on various occasions. Frankly, however, I am deeply sceptical whether he has any real intention to murder six million Israelis, and I also do not think he will ever have the power to do so. I would put such statements on a par with Khruschchev’s assertion “We will bury you”. That statement sounded deeply threatening but was apparently simply claiming that Soviet communism would outlast Western capitalism—whatever its supposedly threatening nature, we now see that it proved false. That was because the West not only proved to have the willpower to stand up to the Soviet Union, but also the confidence and wisdom not to over-react to such threats, but rather to practice a policy of containment and later détente. Similarly as regards the remaining threat of anti-Jewish violence in the world, especially in the Middle East, it is most important that cool heads prevail on both sides, not only on the “anti-Zionist” side but also in Israel and among Israel’s supporters. I realise that in the last few years, given developments in Israel and increased Muslim migration to Europe, “antisemitic” incidents have been on the rise in many European states and the tenor of the European media has often pushed up against the line where reasonable, even justifiable criticism of Israeli government policy and actions shades off into anti-Zionism, and worse still, into antisemitism. Yet the extent to which criticism and hostility toward Israel has transformed into a “new antisemitism” where Israel as “the big Jew” has replaced “the Jew” as the target of antisemitic ire, is, I think, highly exaggerated. Indeed this idea that criticism of Israel in the West and the Muslim world is almost always a form of covert, if revived, antisemitism is very unhelpful if we are ever to come to some resolution of the conflict that remains between Israel and the Muslim nations. As the American commentator Edmund Leites said recently, referring to current American Jewish attitudes towards Israel’s position in the world, the worst enemy of human understanding is paranoia, and in a very real sense, when it comes to the current state of relations between the thirteen million or so Jews in the world today amongst a world population of over six billion, Jews have, despite their often tragic history, and despite current crises, “nothing [more dangerous] to fear than fear itself”. In that sense, eternal vigilance can only be part of the equation—the only really effective answer to the threat of antisemitism is to work for a global society of inclusiveness, mutual respect and mutual trust amongst all peoples and individuals, a thoroughly liberal pluralist world community based not on fear but on confidence. To paraphrase (inversely) another American president, the aim must be to verify—but trust.
The world has seen since 1945 many episodes of genocide and hideous, murderous cruelty of human to human, whether in China, India, Cambodia, Biafra, Rwanda, now Darfur, and many other places, that must put severely in doubt our collective will to realise the goal of “Never Again” for all humanity. And I fear that such horrors will occur again in the future. Yet, if genocidal violence on a par with the Holocaust is still a potential threat to many peoples and minorities around the world, my sense is that, irony or no, Jews will not be counted among its victims. This is because I believe that antisemitism is indeed, this time around, largely a thing of the past, and that the basic philosemitism that characterizes most Western states, but especially the United States, will continue to act as a guarantor that any attempt to obliterate Israel will indeed only be attempted by the insane—and I just do not think even someone like Ahmedinejad is that crazy. Let us hope I am right!

OUP: Once people have read your Very Short Introduction, which five books would you point them towards next?

BELLER: Another easy question. (!) I would start with the two best introductory books on the subject,
Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1980) and the somewhat more specialized, but indispensable Peter Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. Revd. Edn. (London: Peter Halban, 1988). For understanding how the pre-war antisemitic movement transmogrified into Nazism and the Holocaust, there is a host of literature, but I would probably choose Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography of Hitler:
Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (London: Allen Lane, 1998)
Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis (London: Allen Lane, 2000)
For subsequent reactions in the West and antisemitism’s post-1945 career I have found particularly helpful:
Tony Kushner, The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A Social and Cultural History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). A key collection of essays, focusing on Vienna, is Ivar Oxaal, Michael Pollak and Gerhard Botz, eds., Jews, Antisemitism and Culture in Vienna (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987).
That is five, sort of.
For the yet more adventurous reader, who wants more theoretical suggestions, there is
Gavin I. Langmuir, Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California University Press, 1990) and the old, but still challenging Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew (New York: Schocken, 1948). For another very thought-provoking approach Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989). Perhaps one of the most insightful books on the subject is, however, a work of fiction: Gregor von Rezzori, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (London: Picador, 1984).

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