The Politics of Antisemitism

The term ‘antisemitism’ is rife with political and social connotations. Popularized by German scholar Wilhelm Marr, as a way to distinguish “scientific” hatred of Jews from the more traditional Christian anti-Jewishness the term first came into widespread use in the 1870s. Although the legitimacy of scientific antisemitism has long been discredited, ending generally with the loss of Nazi Germany in World War II, the term has been repurposed and gained widespread acceptance in scholarly circles to describe anti-Jewish, and sometimes anti-Zionist amicus. As Walter Laqueur states in his work The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day “While up until 1945 antisemities did not on the whole mind being called antisemities, there has been since that time indignation on the part of many, however hostile to the Jews, at being painted with the antisemetic brush.” (Laqueur xiii) No longer do those who wish Jews harm control labels associated with antisemitism. Instead, the scholars and pundits discussing and leveling charges of antisemitism are inherently opposed to it, and are generally of Jewish background. Instead of those in embracing the label being the arbitrators of who is or is not an antisemitie, the label is foisted upon those whose actions and words fit the description by scholars and commentators. Because of this, arguments about who is an antisemite and what constitutes antisemitism are inherently rooted in political realities of the time.
The three main texts in discussed in this work all deal with antisemitism in different ways. Leonard Dinnerstein’s Anti-Semitism in America looks specifically at anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions in the United States. Dinnerstein is considered one of the most prolific chroniclers of American Jewry by American Jewish scholars and in this paper, his work is being held up as an example of the scholarly consensus concerning antisemitism in America. Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad is an extremely polemical work whose thesis is that the Arab world is the latest in a long line of civilizations that wish Jews harm. His is an example of a work that links anti-Zionism to antisemitism and embraces the political connotations of such an endeavor. Walter Laqueur’s The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day is a much more scholarly, yet still polemical. In addition, this work will bring in other works that deal with antisemitism, including Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life as well as Benzion Netanyahu’s The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain. All of the scholars discussed in this work research broadly in the field of Jewish history, which makes their work interesting on a number of levels. To begin, they are dealing with non-Jews leveling accusations at Jews. Leonard Dinnerstein the author of Anti-Semitism in America is a noted scholar of American Jewry who was a professor at the University of Arizona before retiring. Robert Wistrich, the author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad is a professor of European history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Walter Laqueur the author of The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day is a journalist who has taught variously at colleges and universities throughout Israel, the United States, and Europe.
While all of these scholars come from different backgrounds, they are similar in their view that antisemitism is not something that came out of the modern world, as the original users of the word intended, but as something eternal and unending. All of the authors place the roots of antisemitism in the pre-modern world and see a continuous line between early and medieval Christian oppression of Jews and modern antisemitism. (Laqueur x, Dinnerstein ix, Wistrich 17) A line that, it should be noted, would be considered anathema to the earliest antisemities. Reflecting the scholarly consensus, Laqueur writes, “But the break in continuity between modern and pre-modern antisemitism must not, for a variety of reasons, be overemphasized. Racialist antisemitism can be found (for instance in Spain) many centuries before its appearance in Central Europe.” (Laqueur 13)
This idea of pushing back the origins of racialized antisemitism and linking it to Christian antisemitism was made prominent by scholar Benzion Netanyahu, who, in addition to being a prolific chronicler of medieval and early modern Spanish Jewry, was also associated with the Israeli conservative movement. Netanyahu argued in his 1995 work The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, “For what they [documents] showed, beyond any doubt, was that the standard accusation that the Marranos [Spanish Jews] were ‘Jews’ was a weapon of a vilifying propaganda; that the evidence offered in support of that charge bears all the symptoms of a popular invention; and that consequently the religious condition of the Marranos could offer no justification, and therefore no real reason for the establishment of the Inquisition.” (Netanyahu xxiii) Netanyahu, a right wing Zionist was making deep political implications with his scholarly arguments. The Zionist movement is predicated on the argument that Jews will only be safe from discrimination in their own homeland. The idea that converted Jews in early modern Spain were faced with continued persecution after they converted lends credence to the argument that Jews without a homeland were at the mercy of malevolent governments and without power in the countries they lived in.
After Netanyahu’s death in 2012, Jonathan Spyer, columnist for the right wing Jerusalem Post wrote an obituary in Tablet magazine wherein Benzion Netanyahu was lionized for his influential role in Israeli politics, with no mention made of his scholarly contributions. Instead, Spyer wrote, “The man who would go on to make the Likud [right wing Israeli party] and the Israeli right synonymous with his own name from the mid-1990s and until today was Benzion Netanyahu’s son, Benjamin.” (Likud’s Great Grandfather Tablet Magazine May 2012) While Netanyahu was a prolific scholar who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, his scholarship was greatly informed by his politics and it is very hard, if not downright impossible, to separate the two.
Walter Laqueur’s study of antisemitism is perhaps the most personally motivated. He writes, “I belong to the last surviving members of a generation that lived through European antisemitism in its most extreme form, in contrast to later students of antisemitism for whom the subject was by necessity an abstract or at least remote phenomenon.” (Laqueur x) While he is the only one of the authors featured in this study to make such a direct connection, this statement is very telling. Even, or in some cases especially, for professional scholars working in the field of Jewish studies, antisemitism is a very personal thing that they or their families have experienced. Part of what makes the study of antisemitism so inherently polemical is that the ‘worst case scenario’ has already existed. It is not impossible to imagine a modern nation state with antisemitism as one of its major principals because that state has existed before. In discussing the impact of the Holocaust on American Jewish collective identity, Historian Peter Novick argues: “If the Holocaust defied rational explanation, who could know what trivial event might be the precursor to ‘the ovens’? With this mindset, there could be no such thing as overreaction to an anti-Semitic incident, no such thing as exaggerating the omnipresent danger.” (Novick 178) This assumption that any instance of anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist action or even rhetoric potentially leads to another Holocaust has lead to a trend, best exemplified by Wistrich, of scholars discovering potential antisemitism everywhere they look.
Although his focus is on the American tradition, Leonard Dinnerstein also takes the long view in exploring antisemitism. In his 1994 work Antisemitism in America historian Dinnerstein argues, “Antisemitism is a real and ignoble part of America’s cultural heritage. It was brought to the new world by the first settlers, instilled by Christian teachings, and continually reinforced by successive waves of Protestants and Catholics who populated American shores.” (Dinnerstein x) Thus, according to this line of thinking, the American political and religious tradition is rooted in animosity towards Jews. Although Dinnerstein does acknowledge a post-World War II decline in antisemitism, his study is still hyper-vigilant in terms of concern for anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States. (Dinnerstein 178)
This fear of nascent antisemitism lurking in all corners has led scholars to charge those on the political left of creating an ostensibly new form of antisemitism. No coincidently, the first chapter of Laqueur’s book is titled “new antisemitism”. It is a concept that has been touted by multiple scholars working in the field. Dinnerstein also warms of the rise of new antisemitism permeating from the left in the 1960s and 70s. (Dinnerstein 197) In this ostensible new form of Jew hatred, the new antisemities are those who were once allies with the Jews. According to this theory, new antisemitism is a rejection of Jews by the global left. Whereas existential threats to Jews were previously seen as coming out of nationalist sentiment originating on the political right, new antisemitism has its origins on the anti-imperialist left. For American Jews, according to Novick this meant a retrenchment away from the civil rights movement and toward their own communities. (Novick 170-171) For scholars on the political left such as Novick, this threat of antisemitism was not a real threat. For more conservative scholars of antisemitism such as the University of Oklahoma’s Stephen H. Norwood, the American Far Left was the greatest threat to the safety of American Jewry. In his work Antisemitism and the American Far Left, Norwood connects the idea of eternal antisemitism with leftist politics: “The Black Panther Party, which identified as Marxist-Leninist made similar charges [relating to Israeli imperialism] rooted in a tradition of economic antisemitism dating to medieval Europe.” (Norwood 1)
Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession is much more polemical than Laqueur, or Dinnerstein’s work. Like Novick and his arguments are rooted in modern political views. Wistrich, affiliated with the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In his work, Wistrich offers a narrative of eternal antisemitism, with his work arguing that the one thing that links very disparate and different peoples is their eternal hatered for Jews: “At one time a major feature of medieval Christianity, it [antisemitism] has been annexed by the Islamists and other Muslims convinced that the “evil Jews” are moving history forward to its climax.” (Wistrich 74) Although the title of Wistrich’s work suggests that his is a careful study of the subject discussing the term’s context and evolution, it is much more a teleological polemic, in a sense warning Jews that they should be and remain hyper vigilant to the threat posed by antisemitism. “In Christian (and then Muslim) theology, Jews and Judaism became the perennial symbol of secret powers and dark forces that could threaten the triumph of their dogmatic and universalistic creeds. In the modern era, the Jew became the Antichrist, Satan, and master conspirator rolled into one-a primary obstacle to universal redemption.” (Wistrich 76-77) This symbolic connection between Jews and everything negative, argues Wistrich, is what makes antisemitism so universal and dangerous.
What makes the study of the evolution of antisemitism so challenging is that the term is loaded not only with racial and ethnic implications, but also political implications. All of the works discussed, especially Wistrich’s and Novick’s are very polemical. Wistrich closes his work with a warning: “The Holocaust that the Nazis carried out during the war would be simultaneously justified in Hitler’s last testament of 1945 as an act of self-defense and as a liberation of humanity from the Jewish plague. If we substitute the word ‘Zionist’ for ‘Jew,’ a similar message is currently being propagated by Tehran and its allies.” (Wistrich 930) This connection between the genocide that took the lives of the majority of Europe’s Jews and a modern political actor who has threatened the Jewish state of Israel on multiple occasions demonstrates how politics shapes debates around antisemitism. While it can certainly be argued that all scholarly work has a presentist bent, the study of antisemitism has a decided urgency to it. When one examines the scholarly debate surrounding antisemitism, one discovers that it is not ultimately possible to remove concerns about the present from the study of antisemitism in the past. This is due mainly to the sense that antisemitism is something eternal and unchanging. Antisemitism does not end, according to these studies, but only takes different forms. The historiography has remained fairly steady since the late 1990s, with scholars on the left generally questioning the prevalence, or at least the danger, of antisemitism and those on the right arguing that it is a rising force in global politics.
-Dinnerstein, Leonard. Antisemitism in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
-Laqueur, Walter. The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient times to the Present Day. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
-Norwood, Stephen H. Antisemitism and the American Far Left. New York: Cambridge, 2013.
-Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
-Netanyahu, B. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. New York: Random House, 1995.
-Wistrich, Robert S. A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. New York: Random House, 2010.

One thought on “The Politics of Antisemitism

  • March 7, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    First, remember that conventions of print writing like italicizing book titles and quotes around article titles are used in web writing also.

    Your intro here doesn’t distinguish between your voice and the voice of the scholars you’re analyzing: it comes across that Laquer’s argument re: control of the label is your argument, which may not actually be the case, as hinted at by the last sentence of your intro. Your intro also doesn’t clearly distinguish between whether your topic is the history of the term itself, or the history of how scholars have analyzed the term, which are very different things.

    Be careful about proofreading: besides italicization, you have errors like “texts in discussed in this work” which distract and capitalization errors. “A line that, it should be noted, would be considered anathema to the earliest antisemities.” is not a complete sentence.

    Don’t rely so heavily on passive verbs like is/are/was/were. If you’re holding up some work as an example of the scholarly consensus, state that outright rather than saying that’s what you’re doing. This makes your argument clearer and stronger, as well as more readable. Your use of “this work” is often unclear as to whether you’re referring to your own writing or another scholarly text; less reliance on passive verbs will help this. Likewise in the third paragraph and throughout, it’s not always clear who you mean by “the original users of the term,” especially given your argument that the phenomenon is not modern.

    The second paragraph reads very scattered; while I understand that you’re introducing the works covered, it’s difficult to follow who did what with their backgrounds tacked on the end, without a clear sense of structure in that paragraph. Flipping your second and third paragraph, to foreground how all these authors are related, might be helpful in giving the reader a sense of why all this who’s who matters. It’s usually unnecessary to include a scholar’s institutional affiliation unless, like Netanyahu, their non-academic affiliations affect how their work is viewed or received.

    Your section on Netanyahu is a good connection between his own politics and his scholarship, but it’s not well connected to your argument on antisemitism except by implication. Be explicit about this, especially given your own statements on how influential he is.

    The paragraph on Laquer and the personal nature of antisemitism scholarship wanders; Wistrich was last introduced in the second paragraph, and it’s not immediately clear how he’s related without looking back. The end of this paragraph hints at connections back to your thesis, but you shift focus into the next author before developing this.

    Your paragraph on Novick and Norwood are a good start at connecting conversations in the field, but you jump into this and then jump out of it without introducing or developing your analysis of the conversation. What bearing does the Novik/Norwood conversation have on your observation about Wistrich and the wider field? The paragraph on Wistrich is a good start, but very hard to follow, since it covers a) Wistrich’s own take on the medieval period b) your take on Wistrich and Novick’s polemics c) Wistrich’s take on the post-1945 period and d) your take on the post-1945 period; all without clear delineation between those four topics.

    This is doubly unclear since much of the latter half of this paragraph (perhaps it’s a separate paragraph, but it’s difficult for me to tell without a double line break) seems to be the conclusion as well. Your own voice seems to get lost under the scholarship you analyze, so it’s not clear whether the idea that “antisemitism is eternal” is your position, or the position of the field you’re analyzing. Your final sentence seems to indicate that this is not your position or the majority position of the field as a whole, but it’s difficult to parse your analysis from those you’re analyzing.

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