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The Suicidal Passion

Who is damaged more by anti-Semitism — Jews, or those who organize politics against them?

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By RUTH R. WISSE
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But I prefer to distinguish anti-Semitism from mere intolerance. Many other groups are subject to prejudice and discrimination. American clubs and schools that formerly excluded Jews also excluded blacks and Asians. Other “middleman minorities,” like Koreans or overseas Chinese, have been attacked as intruders once their welcome ran out. Other peoples have been singled out for “bullying”—a current preoccupation of the Anti-Defamation League. The function of the Jews in international politics is quite different in scale and kind. Anti-Semitism is a political instrument—a strategy, an ideology, sometimes a movement that organizes politics against the Jews. 

The ideology of anti-Semitism arose in Germany in the last third of the 19th century among competing schemes for organizing modern societies. It grew in tandem with democracy—that is, with the need to win rather than assume the allegiance of subjects or citizens. Wilhelm Marr, who founded the League of Anti-Semites in 1879, distinguished his political movement from the religiously based anti-Jewish animosities that had preceded it. We should take him at his word, since his explanation defied Christian and Muslim teachings, which touted their superiority to Judaism. Marr preached the opposite. “The Jews are unstoppable!” They had fought against the Western world for almost two millennia and were now poised to conquer the continent. France was already Judaized. Germany was about to be skinned alive. As Marr wrote,

We have among us a flexible, tenacious, intelligent, foreign tribe that knows how to bring abstract reality into play in many ways. Not individual Jews, but the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world. 

Marr’s ingenious idea was to cast liberal democracy as an imperialist Jewish plot. While others welcomed liberal democracy’s promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity, he opposed it by attributing its attendant evils to “Jewry,” which “corrupted all society with its views.” He accused the Jews of driving out any kind of idealism, of gaining the upper hand in commerce, infiltrating government, ruling the theater, etc., and leaving other Germans only the hard manual labor that Jews had always despised. These same arguments were soon advanced in Russia in more paranoid style through the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabrication that pretended to record the machinations of Jews plotting to take over the world. Europeans had the Protocols only in printed form, which confined it to a literate citizenry. Arab television democratized it for a viewing public. In 2002 Egyptian television produced the series Horseman Without a Horse, which not only recapitulates the thesis of the Protocols, but adds a subplot about malevolent Jews trying to suppress its spread.  

The kernel of truth that allowed for Marr’s paranoid analysis was that Jews were highly competitive in all areas—except national politics. Their civilization was founded on a contractual agreement with God that required their obedience to divinely inspired law in return for divine protection. The Jewish way of life that was based on this premise encouraged individual and collective responsibility and promised eventual return to their promised land. Meanwhile Jews turned the disadvantages of “exile” into strategies of adaptation. Wherever they were offered enough freedom to compete on more or less equal terms, Jews did well enough to lend credibility to inflated images of their “power.” But since collective Jewry lacked and never sought precisely the kind of political reach with which they were credited, the disparity between image and reality made them an ideal target for those who really did want to flex their power.

Thus, at a pivotal stage in the process we call modernization, anti-Semitism became the catchall for a politics of grievance and blame. Democracy, which was just then spreading eastward from England and France toward Romania and Russia, put politics in the hands of the people, and people needed explanations for things that were going wrong and assurances of how they could be improved. Autocratic rulers no less than politicians seeking election now felt obliged to account for hardships, offer remedies for crises, discourage rebellion, and encourage the confidence of populations facing all the anxieties of modernity. Anti-Semitism had such advantages over other political movements that some of those movements, like fascism, nationalism, and communism, incorporated elements of anti-Jewish politics as part of their programs. 

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