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

By Christopher Hitchens

Image credit: Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

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).

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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.


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