Two new scholarly books show how even the most neutral academic can feel bound to answer anti-Semites’ demonic vigor in kind
In many parts of the world, Jews are increasingly unwelcome in the 21st century. The number of countries in which wearing visibly Jewish clothing such as a kippa means risking physical violence has hit an all-time high. On both the individual and the national level, Jews are targeted with extraordinary ferocity: We hear Israelis (but no one else) being compared to Nazis; we are told that Jewish nationalism is oppressive and archaic; that Israel is a uniquely racist country; that Israel’s terrible misdeeds explain why people hate Jews. Instead of being seen as ordinary or all too human, Jews are seen as carriers of a uniquely transcendent evil. No other group of people on the planet is accused so much and of such fantastic wrongs. For a few decades after the Holocaust, it seemed that anti-Semitism might wane or even die out. That hope has now been defeated. Could anything we do or say stem the tide, or will Jew-hatred persist as long as there are Jews to hate?
Anti-Semitism is an inert object of a kind not usually met with in the social sciences. While historians try to see everything in its context to show how our human environment alters our beliefs, anti-Semitism resists context; it is a rock-hard conviction so persistent and monomaniacal that, for all we can tell, it will never go away. In the words of Edouard Drumont, the 19th-century anti-Jewish propagandist, “All comes from the Jew; all returns to the Jew.” Yet when we recognize this persistence, we enter, disturbingly, into a debate with the anti-Semite. The Jew-hater and the maligned Jew face off eternally, one playing offense and the other defense. This is the anti-Semites’ revenge: They make us sound like ranters when we complain about them.
But it’s crucial for Jews to talk about anti-Semitism, even as we hear that Jews are so secure these days that anti-Semitism can’t be very significant; that Jews discuss anti-Semitism in order to claim special privileges; that Jew haters are merely nutty rather than dangerous; that talking about anti-Semitism in the Muslim world means that you are a “Likudnik,” or something worse. We have to rebut these wrong-headed sentiments. But a further challenge looms: When we talk about anti-Semitism, we risk confusing our personal wounds with the larger history we’re trying to grasp. Scholarly detachment is a needed remedy. But as two recent books show, being detached is harder than it looks, since even the most neutral academic feels bound to strike back, to answer the anti-Semite’s demonic vigor with a few accusations of his or her own.
In new and heated account of the recent rise in global anti-Semitism, The Devil That Never Dies, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen relies heavily on public opinion surveys, many of which indeed make grim reading. Over 89 percent of the citizens of Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan have a “very unfavorable” opinion of Jews—only a tiny percentage chose “somewhat unfavorable,” and even fewer “favorable.” In these countries only two or three people in a hundred have a positive impression of Jews. By contrast, a mere 2 percent of Lebanese see Christians very unfavorably, a remarkable statistic given the country’s history of violence between Muslims and Christians. It is definitely worth pausing to contemplate such unpleasant facts.
It is also a fact, according to European public opinion, that Israel poses the greatest danger to world peace, presumably because it stirs up Muslim enmity. Yet shockingly, most Americans said much the same thing about Jews in a series of surveys taken by the Opinion Research Corporation during WWII, before the State of Israel was founded: Jews posed a greater threat to the United States than Germany or Japan, with whom America was at war. The wish to transfer guilt from persecutors to victims is the same both then and now: If the Jew were less of a cause of trouble, wars might be avoided.
Today’s canonical form of anti-Semitism is formally directed at the State of Israel. Yet as former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has remarked, “Anti-Zionism inevitably leads to anti-Semitism.” In the anti-Zionist’s eyes, actual Israeli wrongs are generally not akin to the wrongs committed by other sovereign states, like America, China, or Greece, but rather metastasize into proof of monstrous guilt. Goldhagen is right to say that Jews alone live in a country that is seen by large parts of the world as “self-invalidating.” Since its very existence is understood as a provocation by so many in the Muslim world, Israel’s right to even the barest accouterments of sovereignty comes into question in way that truly makes the Jewish State unique among the nations. As Goldhagen writes, Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel is the “unifying symbol” for many in the world who have never been troubled by oppression of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria, or the fate of the world’s many other stateless peoples, like the Kurds, Tamils, Tibetans, or Chechens.
Goldhagen’s main points are hard to contradict. But he also runs into the trouble that comes from his habit of denouncing rather than evaluating. Indeed, Goldhagen often seems interested mainly in racking up an enemies’ list, at which point his analysis becomes dully single-minded. Everyone from Stéphane Hessel to Navi Pillay becomes an anti-Semite in his eyes; and he thinks that Palestinians who say that Jerusalem belongs to them alone are also anti-Semites (even as the prime minister of Israel regularly announces that Jerusalem should never be divided). And his writing style is often maladroit and hyperactive, to the point where one becomes uncomfortable; the fact that most of his research comes from the Web makes his book a far cry from the nuanced, scholarly approach to anti-Semitism offered in, say, recent works by Anthony Julius and Robert Wistrich.
He is at his most explosive when writing on other religions. “The Christians” and “the Muslims” become monolithic enemies, nearly analogous to the anti-Semite’s “Jews.” The similarity in rhetoric leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth—and it overlooks the many non-Jews who are sympathetic to Israel and to other Jewish causes. If anti-Semitism is widely shared in today’s Europe and the Middle East, nations are still complex entities—and Goldhagen would have done better to recognize some of this complexity. There is no mention in his book of the many ardent defenders of Jewish rights and Jewish memory in France, Germany, Poland, and elsewhere (including elected leaders of these countries).
He proclaims that the Quran is anti-Semitic, writing that “The Qur’an’s and Hadith’s treatment of Jews is horrifying, grounded in the foundational anti-Semitic paradigm, and provides the foundation for the Arab and Islamic world’s profound anti-Semitism.” It would be wiser for Goldhagen to recognize that religious traditions are capable of change on the Jewish issue, as the Catholic Church and many Protestant sects have showed us, and as Islam may yet show us, too.
But when he deals with Catholics, Goldhagen becomes an outright conspiracy-monger. On the revelations about sexual misconduct among Catholic priests, he writes, “The Church’s reflex behind the scenes was to blame the Jews, a view that was publicly articulated in 2010 by Bishop Giacomo Babini, who said that a ‘Zionist attack’ was behind the criticism of the Pope over the sex abuse scandal … Of course, the Church’s formal public stance was to deny and repudiate this Italian bishop’s public statements.” Does Goldhagen seriously think that the Vatican believes “Zionists” are behind the aggrieved response to Catholic sexual abuse? When the church firmly condemns anti-Semitism, as it did in response to the lunatic Babini, and as it has often done in recent years (most recently, the Vatican newspaper denounced Roger Waters’ use in concert of a floating pig adorned with the star of David), Goldhagen discounts such statements as inadequate, or even mere window dressing: The church “has failed to excise anti-Semitism from its teaching and liturgy,” he writes. He slips easily, and dangerously, from the ravings of one bishop to a claim, offered without a shred of evidence, that the Vatican remains secretly anti-Semitic, even when it speaks out against Jew-hatred. It’s hard not to feel that what Goldhagen does to the church is exactly what anti-Semites do to Jews.
While Goldhagen shouts from the rooftops about the pressing threat of anti-Semitism, David Nirenberg presents a calm, scholarly antidote. Nirenberg, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, has rebranded anti-Semitism as “Anti-Judaism”: a more abstract entity that has less to do with pogroms than with figures of thought. With magisterial sweep, Nirenberg shows that since antiquity virtually every aspect of life has been criticized as “Jewish”; that “Jewish ideas” are nearly always seen as having the power to corrupt the larger culture; and that Christian and Muslim notions of Jewishness have little or nothing to do with the behavior or beliefs of actual Jews. Nirenberg says he’s not concerned with defending Jews or Israel, only with describing a problem in intellectual history, yet he draws attention to a phenomenon that can only be enormously alarming: Why were Jews seen as so serious a threat to civilization that they needed to be exterminated, and on the basis of such imaginary evidence?
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