Antisemitism as Metanarrative

Marvin Perry, Frederick M. Schweitzer, eds.  Antisemitic Myths: A Historical and Contemporary Anthology.   Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.  xxiii + 352 pp.  $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-34984-2; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-21950-3.

This collection of ninety-some documents is the third major product of a long-term collaboration between historians Marvin Perry and Frederick Schweitzer.  It is intended as a companion to their somewhat controversial narrative text on antisemitism, published in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.  Perry and Schweitzer also co-edited a useful and wide-ranging collection of essays on Jewish-Christian relations in 1994.1  This collection, which demonstrates the stances argued for in that work, is vulnerable to similar critiques, especially concerns that its treatment of the phenomenon of modern antisemitism is ahistorical.

Antisemitic Myths is divided into three time periods, entitled “Medieval and Early Modern,” “Modern,” and “Contemporary,” respectively.  What immediately strikes the reader is the seemingly disproportionate attention devoted to the contemporary era, the 63 years since the end of the Second World War.  The roughly thirteen hundred years covered in the first part, with representative selections from the long, well-documented history of Christian antisemitism, merit only 54 pages.  As one would expect, in view of the Holocaust, almost three times that number, 161 pages, are devoted to the roughly two hundred years of the modern period, beginning with the Enlightenment and culminating in the mass murder of Jews under the Nazis.  But the 119 pages devoted to contemporary antisemitic myths come as a bit of a surprise.  Partly, this seeming imbalance results simply from the book’s organization, as the first two chapters of the contemporary period deal with how the Christian churches confronted their antisemitic past after the war.  Although Perry and Schweitzer point out some of the shortcomings in both Catholic and Protestant postwar renunciations of antisemitism, the churches’ public contrition illustrates how greatly institutional attitudes toward Jews and the public acceptability of antisemitism have changed as a result of the Shoah, at least in Europe and the United States.  No doubt this imbalance in the number of pages devoted to the present also reflects the fact that the history of antisemitism up to the Holocaust has already been covered in considerable detail in numerous historical works, while the postwar era is less well charted, both because it is so recent and because so much has changed in public attitudes.2

But more is involved in this anthology’s disproportionate emphasis on contemporary antisemitism — an impression reinforced by the fact that while the first two sections are entirely devoted to primary materials, the third part branches out to include such diverse secondary material as an article from Commentary, an op-ed piece from the New York Times, and excerpts from Raphael S. Ezekiel’s The Racist Mind (1996).  Perry and Schweitzer understand antisemitism as more than just a particularly long-standing and destructive form of religious or racist hostility aimed specifically at Jews, a hostility that was particularly widespread and lethal in Europe because of the notion of Christianity’s supersession of Judaism and the growth of integral nationalism in the nineteenth century.  In their conception, antisemitism, because it culminated in mass industrialized genocide, is qualitatively different from similar forms of xenophobic hostility or racism directed by dominant majorities against vulnerable and nonconforming ethnic and religious minorities in various societies, western and non-western, throughout history.  For Perry and Schweitzer, antisemitism is not just the historically “longest hatred” that reached its terrible climax in the uniquely destructive Holocaust.  It is a sociopathy that knows no political boundaries and attests to “the perennial appeal, power, and danger of mythical thinking” (p. xxii).  This controversial stance holds that antisemitism is like an insidious disease that can break out anywhere at any moment for no reason and represents a mortal danger to Jews everywhere, even today.  Since in Perry and Schweitzer’s view antisemitism is a thoroughly irrational ideology — “rooted in myth, fantasy, and delusion” (p. xviii) — historical or even discursive contextualization, while provided in brief and informative introductory paragraphs, can only be of limited usefulness in explaining its motives and causes.

Such depoliticization, which treats antisemitism (broadly defined as all forms of Jew-hatred, whether religious, economic, political, or racial) not as an ideology conditioned by changing social and political circumstances but as a permanent, ever-present, and potentially ineradicable human pathology, obviously serves conservative political purposes today and reflects the dramatically changed political landscape in Europe and the Middle East after the founding of the state of Israel.  Ironically and paradoxically, however, describing antisemitism as a (un)natural pathology while largely skimming over its politics actually fosters its instrumentalization on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Perry and Schweitzer provide many examples of contemporary Muslim antisemitism, such as the recycling of the long discredited tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), in Arab countries to mobilize popular support for opposition to Israel.  But by drawing parallels “between the demonization of the Jews by the Nazis and the current depiction of Jews in Muslim lands” (p. 307), Perry and Schweitzer are also engaging in a form of instrumentalization, using the post-Holocaust stigma attached to antisemitism to imply that irrational and unfounded hatred of Jews and Judaism, not the struggle for sovereignty and territory, is at the heart of the Palestinian conflict.

While historians still argue about the sources of the unique intensity and destructiveness of National Socialist antisemitism, particularly the extent to which it drew on Christian antisemitism (as Perry and Schweitzer make clear, the same anti-Jewish stereotypes return with astonishing regularity from the Middle Ages onward), a broad consensus has emerged among them that modern political antisemitism emerged with greater or lesser force in various European nations in the nineteenth century as a response to Jewish emancipation and to the disruptive social developments of modernization and industrialization (including the growth of capitalism and commercialism, as well as the growth of socialism and the international labor movement, both of which antisemites blamed on Jewish influence).  Indeed, antisemitism was so much a hallmark of the historical Right that it could serve as a gauge by which to measure how far to the right a particular movement was.  The antisemitic Right’s opposition to both capitalist liberalism and communist socialism, both of which it blamed on Jewish interests and explained as part of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, was based on its rejection of the emancipatory, secular, democratic, and egalitarian values that spread, unevenly and by degrees, throughout Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  A perverse logic might be discerned in this position, as the vast majority of nineteenth-century European Jews did support the emerging movements that advocated and promoted human and civil rights so long denied to them and other subordinate classes in Europe.  After emancipation, European Jews did indeed play a role that conservatives, nationalists, and right-wing extremists regarded as subversive to the existing order and inimical to traditional relations of power and property.3

These political alignments, which were radicalized in the fascist era that followed the First World War and the Russian Revolution, changed dramatically after the decisive defeat of the extreme Right in the Second World War, the consequent disrepute attached to antisemitism, and the emergence of the Cold War.  Zionism received a decisive boost as a result of the Holocaust.  Both sides in the Cold War originally competed for the nascent state of Israel’s allegiance, but the United States soon gained the inside track, not least because of the growing incidence of antisemitism in the East Bloc, exemplified by the notorious “doctors’ plot,” to which Perry and Schweitzer give due coverage.  Even after Josef Stalin’s death, while official antisemitism declined in the Soviet Union (which had persisted despite its illegality), the Soviets continued to oppose Zionism as a militant nationalism.  As Israel moved ever more firmly into the West, the Soviet Union adopted an ever more hostile stance toward Israel, now seen as a threat to communist internationalism and as the spearhead of western imperialism in the Arab world.4  Political alignments in Israel itself shifted even further to the right after the Six-Day War in 1967, which gave Israel control of the densely populated Palestinian lands up to the Jordan River as well as the Gaza strip, lands settled by Israelis shortly after the war ended despite United Nations Security Council resolution 242.   The Right’s ascendancy in Israel was confirmed by the unexpected election of Menachem Begin, head of Likud, to the premiership in 1977, several years before a similar turn to the right in Britain and the United States brought increasing international support for Israel’s policies of military occupation and settlement expansion.

This political background accounts for the counterintuitive fact that while antisemitism today is largely confined to white supremacist groups on the lunatic right-wing fringe in Europe and the United States, the charge of antisemitism is increasingly directed against the Left, especially against critics of Israel’s occupation policies.  Today support for aggressive Israeli settlement policies comes predominantly from the Right, including theologically motivated evangelical Christian fundamentalists.  While Perry and Schweitzer have no use for such right-wing mythology, they, too, see anti-Zionism as the changing face of antisemitism and equate it with criticism of Israel, especially when that criticism comes from Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim sources.  Perry and Schweitzer include a chapter on “Zionism as a Defense against Jew-Hatred,” with selections from the works of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, but fail to include a chapter on Zionism as a potential trigger of Jew-hatred, which might have offered a better explanation of why antisemitism has become so pervasive in the Middle East.  Perry and Schweitzer do not consider the possibility that this development might be one result of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.  Attributing Arab and Muslim hostility to ingrained antisemitism rather than to resentment toward Israeli and U.S. policies in the Middle East fails to suggest the possibility to prospective readers of the book, and hence students of the topic, that antisemitism could be mitigated if Israel adopted a more even-handed, conciliatory policy toward its Palestinian minority.  The new animus against the Left, which advocates such policy change and whose members are alleged to be purveyors of the “new antisemitism,”5 is symbolized by the prominence given in Perry and Schweitzer’s rogues’ gallery to Karl Marx, who is perversely coupled with Nazi economist Werner Sombart in a chapter entitled “The Jew as Evil Capitalist.”  While Perry and Schweitzer do not suggest that Left and Right are equally to blame for modern antisemitism, Marx’s alleged antisemitism is offered as evidence that egalitarian values and partisanship for the dispossessed and the oppressed provide insufficient protection against so deep-rooted and irrational a prejudice.

The assumption the anthology promotes, that antisemitism is primordial, ungrounded in political reality, independent of all political orientations, and bears no particular relationship to the actual behavior of Jews, has the effect nowadays of defending the interests of Israel as defined by its right-wing leadership.  Perry and Schweitzer might have done well to reread the passages of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) in which Hannah Arendt warned against trivializing antisemitism by reducing it to mere “scapegoating” or by defining it as “eternal.”  Arendt inveighed against “the doctrine of an ‘eternal antisemitism’ in which Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.”6  That “professional antisemites” would adopt such a doctrine did not surprise her, but she did regret that the assumption of an eternal antisemitism “has been adopted by a great many unbiased historians and by an even greater number of Jews.”7  The danger in such a point of view lay in fostering forms of escapism: “Just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility.”8  While Arendt’s own subsequent efforts to analyze the sources of modern antisemitism certainly remain subject to debate, her warning against the apolitical and ahistorical assumption that antisemitism is part of the nature of things remains valid today.  More persuasive and better grounded in history, in my view, is the recognition that antisemitism is not a permanent inborn hatred of Jews, but a socially conditioned religious and political ideology.  In the modern era, it has an unmistakably right-wing pedigree that the documents chosen for this collection do not reveal clearly enough.



1  Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); and Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, eds, Jewish-Christian Encounters over the Centuries: Symbiosis, Prejudice, Holocaust, Dialogue (New York: Peter Lang, 1994).

2  For antisemitism to 1933, see Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism, 4 vols, trans. Richard Howard, N. Gerardi, Miriam Kochau, and George Klim (1965-1985; repr. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); and Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).  For Christian anti-Semitism, see Gavin I. Langmuir, History, Religion, and Antisemitism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990); and idem, Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).  A standard history is Robert S. Wistrich, Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (New York: Pantheon, 1991).  A good collection of primary sources particularly useful for teaching purposes is Richard S. Levy, Antisemitism in the Modern World: An Anthology of Texts (Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1991).  Very useful, too, is the two-volume encyclopedia edited by Richard S. Levy, Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005).

3  The classic account for Germany is Peter Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

4  Robert S. Wistrich, ed., The Left Against Zion: Communism, Israel, and the Middle East (London: Valentine, Mitchell, 1979).

5  This was the title of a book whose publication was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1974: Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, The New Antisemitism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974).  For a recent discussion of “the new antisemitism,” see Walter Laqueur, The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1-20.

6  Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), 7.

7  Ibid.

8  Ibid.

Roderick Stackelberg is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga University.  This review was first published by H-German (July 2009).