Anti-Semitism is one of the world’s most powerful and enduring ideologies—and, in the current century, it is more pervasive than ever. Earlier in the postwar era, this would have seemed doubtful given that the Holocaust raised anti-Jewish prejudice and practice to seemingly unsurpassable levels. But anti-Semitic worldviews are now more universal, and more inextricably part of global culture, than they were during the Holocaust itself. Fantasies of Jewish power and evil are found nearly everywhere—from Egypt to Pakistan, Indonesia to Malaysia, Russia to France, Argentina to Canada.
Islamic supremacism is sometimes called the key to global anti-Semitism, but in fact anti-Jewish sentiments are also common in realms where Catholicism, Protestantism, and Greek and Russian Orthodoxy hold sway. Even Japan, which has almost no history of direct contact with Jews and no obvious cultural ground for anti-Jewish sentiment, has become a hub of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, with a prolific source of best-selling books alleging Jewish domination over the non-Jewish world.
Contemporary events sustain and spread this worldview. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and simmering controversies over the meaning and truth of the Holocaust exert wide influence, keeping Jews in the global limelight. But the roots of anti-Semitism stretch far into the past. Generations of historians and social scientists have sought to explain how this sentiment crystallized and how, over time, it acquired its unique features and dimensions. The answer lies in history, which this entry reviews.
Jews acquired a special religio-cultural status in antiquity that, in modernity, mutated into an oddly ideological identity. Like no other people—and certainly no other dispersed minority—the Jews are imagined to rule and ruin the world. They are viewed as plutocrats and radicals, bankers and commissars, the secret “elders” and masters of capitalism and communism. They are indicted as media moguls who traduce public morality and masquerade as sacred genocide victims. Pariahs who are viewed as parasites, Jews are treated as if they were the key to the world’s woes. Rid the world of Jews, anti-Semites say, and you solve the riddle of history and save humanity.
No other prejudice is so comprehensive, so paranoid—or so popular. Other despised groups have been demonized; for example, the Tutsis were demonized by Hutu chauvinists in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But no other group has ever been demonized on this scale by adversaries all over the globe, who accuse Jews of savior-killing, soul-destroying, world-dominating malignity. And therein lies the central problem with respect to the analysis of anti-Semitism. A prejudice that resembles other prejudices in some respects, anti-Semitism is also an encompassing ideology formulated to explain the misfortunes of a world careening from disaster to disaster. How are we to understand this ideology in all its complexity?
Gavin Langmuir offered a useful starting point by distinguishing among three types of ethnic bias: garden variety prejudice when groups simply dislike each other, xenophobia when groups form essentially negative opinions of each other, and chimeria when out-groups are demonized as bearers of monstrous powers. Jews, at different times, have been the object of all such prejudices, but increasingly they are the objects of chimerical prejudice in particular, according to Langmuir.
“Chimeria” is a neologism based on the myth of the Chimcera—a beast that is part lion, part goat, and part snake. Lions, goats, and snakes are, of course, real; however, chimeras are mythical. Chimeria, then, is the belief in mythical creatures. Jews, according to Langmuir, have had the bad luck to be perceived as if they were fabulous monsters while their real attributes are dismissed or disdained. Other groups have been maligned in similarly fanciful ways, but no group has been so fantastically derogated, for so long, in so many places. The key to this uniquely chimerical status lies in the central and defining role of the Jews in “Judeo-Christian” and world history.
The Israelites first distinguished themselves, in the days of the prophets, by claiming an exclusive covenant with an all-powerful God, Yahweh (YHWH). This was not always a self-congratulatory claim; the prophets castigated the Israelites for forsaking the covenant, insisting that Israelite misfortunes (e.g., defeat, persecution, captivity) were their just desserts, but it was a charismatic claim nonetheless. YHWH was deemed the ultimate deity, and the Israelites were designated YHWH’s chosen, if errant, people.
The strength of this faith was tested by many trials, from the Babylonian captivity to the massacre at Masada. At every step, the Israelites (whether free or captive, in Palestine or in diaspora) renewed their charismatic claim as YHWH’s “chosen ones,” the unique heirs to Mosaic revelation. Living along the caravan route between Assyria and Egypt and exposed to the depredations of empires, the Israelites preserved their unity by fanatical devotion to their creed. At times they were reviled for this fanaticism. But until Christianity sprang from the ferment of Hellenic and Mosaic religion, this “odium” was, analytically speaking, xenophobic, not chimeric. Only when the Jews were first depicted as inversely charismatic enemies—specifically as Christ killers, as God’s betrayers—did a chimerical variable enter the equation.
The Jews, of course, occupy a central position in the New Testament. They retain their status as the sacred people of the Old Testament, but now they are also seen as traitors who betray God’s son, God’s gift to humanity as a whole. The Jews, by “hardening their hearts” to Christ’s divinity, forfeit God’s favor. This makes them the failed precursors of the new faith. As such, they become opposition incarnate, cautionary figures who by their very disqualification as God’s chosen yield this qualification to others. This gives them an exemplary role in the gospel dramaturgy. And yet, nonetheless, they remain a thorn in the side of believers because, with “stiff-necked” obstinacy, they persistently reject the revelation that builds on their own. Rather than sharing the charisma of Mosaic revelation with the new messiah, they reserve it for themselves. Thus, they remain a rankling reminder of the new faith’s inability to conquer its iconic forebears.
Thus, criticism of the Jews was central to the emergent Christian theology of Roman and medieval times. At times this criticism gave way to denunciations of the kind familiar from the adversus Judaeus tradition. Writings by Chrysostom and others fall into this category. But in the first millennium, it was unusual for theology to inspire pogroms. Mass anti-Jewish action was rare. Jews were icons of disbelief, but they were not, in the main, enemies to be scourged.
The situation changed during the late medieval period. The reasons for this change are complex and can only be intimated here. One factor, for example, may be the commercial revolution of the 11th century, which proved to be destabilizing with anomic effects. The advance of Islam and the weakening of Byzantium also proved to be unsettling. Fierce jurisdictional disputes divided the Roman papacy from the Holy Roman emperors, antinomian heresies and millennial fantasies flourished, and chimeric prejudice became common, for example, manifest in sorcery fears and witch hunts (directed, above all, against lepers, widows, Lombards, and Jews). A sense that the world was coming unhinged, that daily life was ruled by occult and malevolent forces, began to infuse public sensibilities. Jews, in particular, began to seem uncanny and menacing.
The first Crusade, begun in 1095 with the goal of reconquering Muslim-ruled Jerusalem, showed the force of this superstitious dread. Jews were often collateral victims of crusader violence. The spirit of this violence—exorcistic and expropriatory—permeated a traumatized culture so that, when the Black Death broke out in 1349, Europeans had already grown accustomed to chimeric charges against Jews, ranging from child murder to well poisoning. The fact that similar charges are still current, in places as diverse as Slovakia and Saudi Arabia, testifies to the breadth of their diffusion during this period. Jews, who had earlier been decried as unbelievers, were now reviled as miniature anti-Christs. When, in the same period, they began to figure as money lenders—because handling money was taboo for Christians—they were censured as usurers. This charge, in particular, ultimately had fateful consequences.
Late medieval Europe witnessed many anti-Jewish innovations, including expulsions and inquisitions. England, Spain, and Germany led the way, forcing Jews into an ever widening diaspora. Growing enclaves of Ostjuden—“eastern Jews”—sprang up in Russia, Poland, and the Baltics. These populations also were subject to persecution, including Cossack violence. But chimerical bias during this period remained a fairly minor source of Jewish woes compared with ordinary ethnic and religious prejudice. Feelings toward the Jews were hedged in with magical dread (hence with chimeria), but more often than not Jews in early modern Europe were ostracized but not utterly demonized.
The ratio of chimeria to lesser prejudices began to shift decisively when capitalism entered the picture. As money became unmistakably a world-changing power, Jews, who had become nearly synonymous with money, acquired an even more odious and uncanny reputation than before. This happened by infinitesimal degrees, but a crucial moment can be identified in the surge of railroad building that occurred in Central Europe during the 1830s and thereafter. The Rothschild-financed Northern Railway, in particular, roused jeering antipathy, inspiring rallies, broadsides, and even poetry. Friedrich Engels, at the time, observed that Jews figured in this movement as money personified; the anger they attracted was diverted from capital, which, as a strictly impersonal force, was far harder to grasp. It was easier to blame the Jews—for guilt by association with Rothschild, with money, or with both—than to blame the structural dynamics of an invisible, silent inscrutable system.
Karl Marx, decades later, said that the public is often drawn to an invidious distinction between productive and parasitic capital. Because production is valued, industry is praised and profit from industry is applauded; however, interest from lending appears to be parasitic, springing not from industry but rather from the sheer manipulation of needs, debts, and numbers. If Marx had added, with Engels, that parasitic capital is routinely identified with Jewry, he would have brought us to the threshold of modern anti-Semitism in one of its principal forms. Jews are demonized not merely as religious recalcitrants but also as parasites—as rapacious and calculating Shylocks preying on producers. The “Jew as banker,” personifying parasitic finance capital, is among the master themes of modern anti-Semitism. This first became apparent during the late 19th century, and it has since become so widely known that it borders on the obvious.
The Long Depression of 1873 to 1896 was a major turning point. Until then, no single crisis had ensnared all the Euro-Atlantic economies at once. Capitalism had been growing by leaps and bounds, but its growing pains had been felt locally and regionally. Now, for the first time, a tear in the fabric of the capitalist system became universally evident. Insecurity about wages and profits became common across the spectrum; job loss and business failure became nearly universal fears. Disoriented, the public sought answers. Often, instead, they found scapegoats.
It was not preordained that the Jews would be blamed for this crisis. For example, in the youthful United States, where antibank sentiment materialized during the panic of 1819 and matured during the Jacksonian years, the scapegoat for crisis was not the Jews but rather the Freemasons. An anti-Masonic scare of major proportions played a notable role in early mass politics in the United States, while Jews were ignored. Initially, something similar happened in Europe as well. When the first major anti-Semitic writers began to bewail modernity and berate the Jews during the 1880s, they pointed accusing fingers at the Masons as well. Catholic tradition, in particular, made the Masons a familiar scapegoat, so when Edouard Drumont and others began to publish conspiracy theories about the masterminds who they alleged were the sponsors of sedition and crisis, they singled out the Masons as often as they did Jews. But the equation of Jews with money proved to be decisive.
Finance capital was having too obviously corrosive an effect on society to be ignored, farmers and small shopkeepers were pushed to the brink of survival, and workers fell deeply into debt. By the turn of the 20th century, Jews had eclipsed the Masons as the chosen ones of modern chimeria. They became fantasy figures or objects of obsession. This chimeric status was confirmed when the Dreyfus affair engulfed France in 1894, giving anti-Semitism a mass base. Just three years later, Vienna was governed by a radical anti-Semite. In 1919, another Austrian, Adolf Hitler, would join a rightist German group that, under his leadership, became the Nazi party. He was won to this party, Hitler reported, by its anti-Semitism. Germans were besieged, party leaders told him, by a Jewish conspiracy with two arms: the “Red International” of communism and the “Golden International” of finance capitalism. It was the duty of anti-Semites to destroy this menace. Hitler took this lesson to heart. Since then, many others have done the same.
Etymologically, anti-Semitism is a modern term, coined in 1879, that was deployed to give a scientific veneer to the claim that Jews are an antisocial “race.” Ever since, ideologues have poured energy into circulating this nostrum, inspiring many analysts to call anti-Semitism a form of racism. This is a fair claim. A kind of essentialism, akin to racism, is inherent in much anti-Jewish sentiment. But sociologically speaking, the ideas and movements called “anti-Semitic” are more often fired by chimerical fear and fantasy than they are by pseudoscience. Modern anti-Semitism is ultimately a species of demonology best explained by history and social psychology.
American Jewish Committee; Anti-Defamation League; Genocide; Jewish Americans; Prejudice; Stereotypes; Zionism
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