The Gnarled Roots of Anti-Semitism
Based almost entirely in what would today be called alternative facts, anti-Jewish sentiment is an age-old response to the misleading worldview caused by us-them binaries.
By Jonathan Kim, University of Texas at Dallas
Any American citizen who is civil, informed and self-aware takes with great gravity the anti-Semitic inflammation that now inflicts our country.
Though the perpetrators of the media-worthy, Jew-hating barbarism may be few, millions of Americans may nevertheless be harboring some form of anti-Semitic thought. In fact, according to the Anti-Defamation League, ten percent of Americans in 2015 answered “probably true” to a majority of anti-Semitic stereotypes tested; thus, the number of Jew-prejudicing Americans may be as high as 24 million, or four times the number of Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.
A likely cause of such twisted views toward Jewish people may be an ignorance to anti-Semitism’s lengthy history. Only by learning the history of Jew-hatred can one understand its basis in myths and canards. As Perry and Schweitzer, in their book “Antisemitism: Myth and Hate From Antiquity to the Present,” write, “Antisemitism has very little to do with the actual behavior of Jews or the stricture of their highly ethical religion… but is rooted in delusionary perceptions that are accepted as authoritative and passed on and embellished from generation to generation.” If one does not know the history of something, how can one truly understand it?
Though the forms of anti-Semitism have changed throughout history, its roots trace back to Jesus and the Early Church. Perry and Schweitzer write, “It is a painful but inescapable truth that antisemitism, which seethes with hate, was spawned and nourished by Christianity, which reveres a Jewish prophet who preached love and compassion.” For centuries, many Christians have used the Gospels, especially in regard to the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, to accuse the Jews of being “Christ-killers.” This charge of deicide became the spring from which all other forms of anti-Semitic hatred arose.
In fact, the Jews’ archcrime as “Christ-killers” allowed for the Gospels, according to New Testament scholars, to “grow backwards”; many Christians have interpreted certain ambiguous Biblical verses with a preconception against the Jews. For instance, some read the “they” in Luke 23:34 (Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) as refering to Jews and their “blindness” to Jesus as Christ (Messiah).
Even Christian theologians and intellectuals participated in the debate on Jews and their ostensible animosity toward the true Messiah. St. Augustine argued that that the Jews had killed Jesus because of their ignorance and blindness toward him, and thus they knew not that they were killing God. St. Thomas Aquinas claimed a harder view, and argued that they killed out of envy and hatred. Such contempt toward Jews for their unpardonable sin against God only grew harder with time.
But such contempt was not limited to intellectual circles; the harder they were, the more they reflected that in civil society. For example, every ten years since 1634, the villagers of Oberammergau in Bavaria have performed their Passion Play. (The Passion refers to the suffering and death of Jesus.) The villagers, after watching the incendiary depiction of the Jews taunting Jesus, would afterwards “pour into the Jewish ghetto to kill, maim and vandalize.”
In 1860, a Scottish writer, after watching a performance, wrote, “With strange emotions you gazed upon the executioners as upon wild beasts… the Jewish race appeared hateful in your eyes… Just such a feeling seemed excited in this Oberammergau audience by this representation.”
Even Hitler, after seeing a performance in 1934, said that “to save future generations… it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans.”
Though the Passion Plays now hold much less weight of anti-Semitism than they had in the past, they have been an influential mark in a long tradition of contemptuous Jew-scapegoating. But such habit of passing blame paved way for even stranger and insecure myths; one of the grandest among them is the Jews’ covert operation of sacrificing children for religious ritual. This fable of ritual murder began around the second century B.C. when Greek supporters, who were angered by the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple, blamed and defamed the Jews by spreading gossip that they held, fattened and cannibalized Greek captives.
Christians later, especially during the Dark Ages and the Reformation, quickly adopted a version of the predatory Jew; if Jews were willing to spread the blood of the only Son of God, why would they not do the same to children and other humans? Such slander helped lead to the massacre of Jews in the Rhineland in 1096, during the First Crusade, the seventeenth century blood-libel cases in Poland-Lithuania, and many more in between and since.
By the end of the Middle Ages, the Jews were so much despised that they were no longer deemed as humans, but rather instruments of Satan designed to destroy Christendom, an allegation that began in 1321 in France when a cohort of peasants, likely upset by the famine a few years prior, slaughtered Jews in the belief that they were ridding the land of “infidels.” The Bubonic plague, which many had seen as God’s hand against evil, was blamed in part on the Jews as servants of Satan in his diabolical plan to extirpate Christianity and dominate the world.
However, the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution gave the Jews freer reign, and allowed them to leave the ghettos to which they were largely confined (as endorsed by the Catholic Church) and participate in local activities. Many of them migrated to large European cities, like Vienna and Berlin, and contributed much to the cultures of those cities. In fact, by 1930, Jews accounted for 30 percent of Nobel Prize winners in Germany, although they only made up less than 1 percent of the total population. They excelled in fields not only in medicine, law and finance, but also in writing, music and the arts.
Then hit the Panic of 1873, and anti-Semitists, likely suffering from an unhealthy level of jealousy toward Jewish talent, blamed the Jews for being such fierce and unwanted competitors. Unfounded accusations began to slew, once again, toward the Jews. But these rising accusations differed from the largely religious-based ones in the past; they set the stage for a new level of scapegoating in the age of intense nationalism.
Several European countries, including Germany in the late 19th century, adopted extreme, nationalistic ideologies based on race. Such racial nationalism, also known as Volkish thought, is based on the dangerous trifecta of dogma, elitism and jingoism, and thus needs an enemy whose perceived evils are so great that the “master race” is deemed more perfect. And who better to cast as enemy than the Jews?
During the few decades before the first World War, they were considered a conspiratorial and alien race that was capable of limitless evil. Their labored history made the Hebrew people a convenient goat onto which nationalists could pass blame, and served as “evidence” of Jews as worthy of hatred.
So, Hitler, after the turn of the 20th century, only harnessed the already-brewing hatred for Jewry, especially as endorsed by the Catholic Church, when he established Germany as a fascist state. In fact, as Chancellor, he once told Bishop Berning in April of 1933: “As for the Jews, I am just carrying on with the same policy which the Catholic Church had adopted for 1,500 years.”
However, in saying this, he missed an important distinction. Though anti-Semitism originated from religious hatred, it differed much from the modern anti-Semitism based on racial nationalism; Christian anti-Judaism was based on the Jews as “Christ-killers,” while modern anti-Semitism is based on pure myth that Jews are an alien race set out to destroy the master Volk and dominate the world.
But all forms of hatred for Jews – again, historically as people, not of their religious ideologies – exist upon, what Carroll calls in his “New Yorker” article, the “positive-negative bipolarity.” The bipolarity, whether of the rift between “Jesus” and “Jews” or “Volk” and “Other,” is a product of black-and-white thinking, which lends itself well to the aforementioned trifecta of dogma, elitism and jingoism, and thus to nationalistic thought.
My readers have now probably guessed the relevance of such bipolarity in America today. Recently, the status of America as the “Land of the Free” seems to have reduced to that as the “Land of the Free for the Chosen,” an added condition that could refer to American citizens, residents, laymen or even just white people. Regardless, the condition implies an “us-against-them” attitude, and always finds a need to stake up an enemy as a punching bag, whether it’s the media, politicians, ISIS or the rest of the world. Such is the root of nationalism.
Since the ends of nationalism is to solidify a certain “chosen” few, its means is to strengthen the image of the few as perfect and privileged, usually by swelling the bipolarity that exists between it and its archenemy. Nationalistic thought thus promotes a binary outlook on a world whose beauty lies in its variance, and encourages its hosts to reject opposing views not on their ideological merits, but rather on their failure to conform to a particular preexisting bipolarity. And those who convince themselves to be part of the “chosen” few and adopt a bipolar mindset will likely misconstrue dogma as loyalty, arrogance as confidence, and ignorance as discernment.
The current rise of this way of bipolar thinking has fertilized the grounds on which anti-Semitism now grows in America, especially in the past two months. At Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, a printer, suspected of being hacked, began printing anti-Semitic papers; similar instances happened at many other universities, including Brown, Northeastern, Princeton and Oregon State. Graffiti at the Seattle Synagogue called the Holocaust “fake hi$story.” Countless calls have threatened Jewish communities across the country, like one in Iowa that received a voicemail saying, “We gonna spray your shitty synagogue in pigs blood. Watch the fuck out.”
Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in Philadelphia and outside of St. Louis. In 2017 alone, Jewish institutions in America have received at least 152 bomb threats. Even a local Jewish community in Dallas, where I live, has been a target of numerous threatening calls and emails.
The long and dark history of anti-Semitism is grounded in hateful myths and canards.
Jew-haters who ignore this history don’t recognize the very tradition of which they are a part; they hate Jews without knowing the history of hating Jews, while blatantly advertising themselves as people who can guilelessly succumb to fatuous myths. To illustrate, the vandal who considers the Holocaust as “fake hi$story” proves himself to be a host of simple and bipolar thinking, and one who is unable to process facts.
Some anti-Semites may even harbor the illusion that professing Jew-hatred, since it is so frowned upon, is somehow bold and rebellious as a minority cause. But the simpletons who desecrate Holocaust memorials in the shadows of night are not brave and loyal to any cause, though they may believe so themselves, but rather cowards who are too afraid and immature to voice their unfounded opinions in the light of day and in the homes of the living, not of the dead. They, along with the rest of Jew-haters and Hitlerites, can learn from Bertrand Russell’s quote: “Had Hitler been a brave man, he would not have been an anti-Semite.”
As mentioned at the start of this piece, one in ten Americans may be holding some form of anti-Semitic thought. That proportion is unacceptably high and only growing. True rebels of today’s America will fight to lower this ratio by opposing the ignorance and dogmatism that are now on the rise, and will realize that simply protecting the American ideals of freedom and liberty is increasingly becoming a losing battle in many parts of our country.
We, as Americans, need to realize the current danger of bipolar thinking in the promising reign of a Trumpist nationalism. Anti-Semitism will only thrive, as evident in its freshness this year, in an environment where bipolar thinking is normal, and its tainted history will only be further prolonged. Thus, we must understand that the truly brave fight lies not in the expected promotion of anti-Semitism, but rather in its daring destruction.