The toxin of anti-Semitism isn’t a threat only to Jews.

Honored recently with an invitation from the family of Daniel Pearl to give the annual memorial lecture that bears his name, I tried to speak about the protean character of the world’s most ancient and tenacious prejudice. The Passover Haggadah speaks of Jew-hatred or attempted Judeocide as something that happens in every generation, but as true as this may be, it is of little help in making distinctions. There is, probably first and certainly foremost, religious anti-Semitism. Unlike other nations or peoples, Jews were among the witnesses to the alleged lives and preachings of Jesus and Muhammad, and turned away from men they deemed false Messiahs. It is inconceivable that they will ever be quite forgiven for doing so. Most medieval Christian anti-Semitism was of the “Christ killer” sort, usually enriched by lurid allegations about ritual slaughter and the ineffaceable nonreligious but actually racial deformities (body odor, birthmarks) that branded the Jew as outcast. After the deportation of Jews from Christian Spain, the Muslim Ottoman Empire kept up a tradition of “tolerance,” allowing large Sephardic communities in European cities as diverse as Salonika and Sarajevo as well as on the North African littoral. But the Jews of the Arab lands were expelled again in revenge for the defeat of Palestinian nationalism in 1947–48, and now the most evil and discredited fabrication of Jew-baiting Christian Europe—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—is eagerly promulgated in the Hamas charter and on the group’s Web site and recycled through a whole nexus of outlets that includes schools as well as state-run television stations.

This might license the view that the sickness is somehow ineradicable and not even subject to rational analysis, let alone to rationalization. Anti-Semitism has flourished without banking or capitalism (for which Jews were at one time blamed) and without Communism (for which they were also blamed). It has existed without Zionism (of which leading Jews were at one time the only critics) and without the state of Israel. There has even been anti-Semitism without Jews, in states like Malaysia whose political leaders are paranoid demagogues looking for a scapegoat. This is enough to demonstrate that anti-Semitism is not a mere prejudice like any other: Sinhalese who don’t like Tamils, or Hutu who regard Tutsi as “cockroaches,” do not accuse their despised neighbors of harboring a plan—or of possessing the ability—to bring off a secret world government based on the occult control of finance.

Paradoxically, then, there is something almost flattering about anti-Jewish racism. To have been confined in the ghetto for so long, and then to be held responsible for Marx, Freud, and Einstein, to say nothing of Rothschild … Yet the outcome is always the same: to be treated as human refuse and to be either deported or massacred. Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay profiling the anti-Semite has many shortcomings, but it’s hard to argue with his conclusion that such a person must necessarily carry a thirst for murder in his heart. Yet this is perhaps true of other racists as well. What strikes the eye about anti-Semitism is the godfather role it plays as the organizing principle of other bigotries. The Nazis may well have thought of Slavs and Poles as less than human, but it was the hatred of Jewry that cemented their worldview (and, horribly enough, gave them something in common with many of their Slavic and Polish victims).

Given the salience of this, it’s of some importance to teach ourselves to make distinctions. Robert Wistrich has been writing about this subject for a considerable time, and has succeeded in retelling the old and dolorous tale of witch-hunting, Inquisition, and pogrom in such a way as to furnish a solid work of reference. Yet for him, almost any piece of anti-Jewish graffiti is to be taken as seriously as the Protocols themselves, and virtually all propaganda against the state of Israel participates in an ancient agenda that has extermination as its object.

Thus, according to him, in 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon:

In Italy, shortly before Yasser Arafat was granted a hero’s welcome by the government, no fewer than two hundred thousand trade unionists passed before the Holocaust memorial of a Rome synagogue uttering cries of “Death to the Jews” and “Jews to the ovens.”

This simply did not take place as described. It is probable that some in that crowd shouted some of those things, but the Italian labor movement is not like that, as Wistrich knows full well. Nor does he mention that 300,000 Israeli Jews demonstrated in Tel Aviv at the same time over their revulsion at the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut by an Israeli-supported Phalange party that had been a historical sympathizer of National Socialism. At that time, too, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon attempted to meet any criticism of their complicity in crimes by terming it “blood libel.” One does not want such a grave charge as that to be degraded by propaganda to the point where it meets diminishing returns.

Wistrich is not the only one sickened to see half-baked pro-Palestinian protesters superimposing the swastika on the Star of David (especially when some of the protesters don’t actually think the swastika was all that bad to begin with). But this is an auction of imagery that was started by Begin and other Israeli extremists who once openly and regularly compared the PLO to the Nazi Party. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, editor of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, used the dubious term Judeo-Nazi to describe elements of the Israeli settler movement as early as 1967: you could hardly guess at the existence of critics like him if Wistrich was all you had to go on. (Wistrich does devote a little space to the idea of the “self-hating” Jew, another catch-all propaganda device, most recently employed by Netanyahu fans to describe David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel.)

In some contrast, Anthony Julius’s study of the phenomenon in its English form is punctilious and specific. You “catch it on the edge of a remark,” as Harold Abrahams observes of non-philo-Semitism in Chariots of Fire. And if by chance you miss it, Julius will be there to catch it for you:

Scoffs and scorns, which are predicated on a sense of difference, may be evidence of nothing more than a certain amused contempt. I have several proof texts for this proposition: a World War I memoir, Adrian Bell’s Corduroy, a passage from one of Macaulay’s letters, a Balliol College rhyme, and then, by way of identifying the limit of this perspective, a short prose piece of Virginia Woolf’s and a remark of a Cambridge don.

And, by Jove, so he does deploy all these arcane “proof texts.” Indeed, his long section on British literary anti-Semitism is a small masterpiece of research, improving on his earlier study of T. S. Eliot’s Judeophobia. It was “free-thinking Jews,” remember, whom Eliot deplored in After Strange Gods. Medieval English authors like Chaucer dealt in the Christian stereotypes of their day, and Shylock and Fagin have troubled Jews for many years, but Shakespeare included all the reasons why a Jewish moneylender in Christian Venice might feel resentful. Dickens went to considerable trouble to amend the text of Oliver Twist (and to create a sympathetic Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend). George Eliot, who would be the heroine of this story if it had a heroine, exerted herself to learn the Hebrew language and Jewish history before embarking on Daniel Deronda. She also formulated a ban that still stands. As she wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe:

Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? … The best thing that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity which is still the average mark of our culture.

Equating Jew-hatred with being ill-bred and vulgar is still a fairly useful form of damnation in English society. In 1938 the extremely right-wing Evelyn Waugh was writing that British Fascism amounted to little more than “a form of anti-Semitism in the slums.” A few aristocrats did try Fascism as a fashion, or as a political tactic, but they ended up as objects of ridicule or hatred, or both. (By the time Nancy Mitford and P. G. Wodehouse had finished with Sir Oswald Mosley, he was wise to remove himself to France for the pathetic remainder of his career.)

On two other vital questions, also, the English used to be unusually proof against the more paranoid versions of anti-Semitism. For one thing, they had their own biblical concept of themselves as “a chosen people.” Oliver Cromwell—who first allowed the Jews back to England after earlier monarchical expulsions—expressed a view of his countrymen as “God’s elect” that is echoed in literature from Blake to Burke, which often makes explicit comparisons to the children of Israel. Second, when the English of the 19th and early 20th centuries heard tales of a worldwide financial empire that gave a single people the anointed right to rule, they were fairly sure that there was indeed such a thing, and no bad thing either, since it was they who were running it. Few other countries or cultures had such a stolid sense of security.

However, if we examine the single grandest exception to this, which is the self-evident anti-Semitism of that lofty patrician Arthur James Balfour, then we find both of our authors becoming somewhat vague and defensive. There cannot be any doubt that the British debate over the so-called Aliens Act in 1905 was heavily infected with the racial prejudice of a Conservative Party once led by Benjamin Disraeli, yet Wistrich guardedly reports this by saying that “even” Balfour (the actual leader of that party) supported the anti-Jewish agitation. He compounds this by saying that, “ironically enough,” the main opponent of the Balfour Declaration 12 years later was the British Cabinet’s only Jew, Sir Edwin Montagu. It is as if one was forbidden “even” to think that an anti-Semite could favor a separate state for Jews (a phenomenon manifested again by the Christian right in America) or that a British Jew could have a non-“ironic” reason for resenting being told that he belonged in Palestine. Julius gives a fairer and larger account of this wrenching historical episode, but rather shrinks from exploring its implications. A single anecdote that he tells, about the weird press coverage he himself received for being the sharp divorce lawyer for Princess Diana, is enough to persuade one that anti-Jewish caricatures among the English are now both widespread and weak.

I began by saying that anti-Semitism is protean and contradictory, but then, so are Judaism and Zionism. Is there such a thing as “chosenness”? Is there a special “covenant”? Does the state of Israel have the right to speak for all diaspora Jews? Is Israel not in fact a part of the diaspora? Will the Messiah come? Does he take an interest in certain territories and not others? Who is a Jew, anyway? Rabbinical authorities and Israeli spokesmen have proved themselves unable and unqualified to decide these matters, and meanwhile vast numbers of Jews have secularized themselves and become big friends of a smaller Israel. This implied self-criticism of the faith and the project is not self-hatred, nor does it owe anything traceable to the disgusting slanders anatomized by Wistrich and Julius. The chief impetus of anti-Semitism remains theocratic, and in our epoch anti-Semitism has shifted from Christian to Muslim: a more searching inquiry into its origins and nature might begin by asking if faith is not the problem to begin with. This would also entail the related and essential question of whether the toxin of anti-Semitism is a threat only to Jews.

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