Commentary Magazine


Anti-Semitism: A Concise World History, by James Parkes

From Prejudice to Genocide

Anti-Semitism: A Concise World History.
by James Parkes.
Quadrangle. 192 pp. $5.00.

It is a rare thing when the title of a book describes it not only accurately but modestly as well. Dr. Parkes's “concise world history” of anti-Semitism is not merely brief; it demonstrates that in studying major social issues more may be learned from common sense concisely supported by wide historical knowledge than from sophisticated techniques extensively applied to a limited number of cases. Again—as the title indicates—the book is a world history, but more significantly so than in the mere extent of its coverage. By electing to study anti-Semitism in its natural habitat—which is precisely world history—Dr. Parkes is able to uncover highly significant features that do not turn up in the laboratories of the social scientists.

That is not to say that Dr. Parkes ignores the psychological aspect of anti-Semitism. His account of the recent research that has been done in the field in England and America is summed up in a few pertinent generalizations: any group which persists in remaining different (or “alien”) from the surrounding milieu will engender feelings of insecurity within that milieu and invite hatred against itself; the group then comes to serve as a scapegoat—an object, that is, onto which hostility may be projected and aggression displaced whenever frustrations of one sort or another rise to a relatively high pitch.

But Dr. Parkes has recourse to psychological theories only for help in clarifying something important that he already knew beforehand—in this case, how pervasive the “scapegoat” motif has been in the history of anti-Semitism. Thus, having considered what mechanisms like projection, displacement, and rationalization can contribute toward an understanding of how minorities in general come to be used as scapegoats, he goes on to investigate what has made the Jews so uniquely suited to serve as scapegoats throughout the centuries. And in addressing himself to this question, he writes as a historian seeking an answer that will be relevant to the special course of Jewish history and no other.

Dr. Parkes's analysis leads to a bold and drastic thesis, best stated in his own words:

One could go on with such instances showing how completely Jewish-Gentile relations followed the normal pattern of relations between neighbors, now good, now bad, now roused to enmity by some special irritation, now moved to approval and imitation by something which was admirable. But it would bring us no nearer the understanding of anti-Semitism. For anti-Semitism is a unique expression of group prejudice, and arises out of a unique cause.

That which changed the normal pattern of Jewish-Gentile relations was the action of the Christian Church. The statement is tragic but the evidence is inescapable.

_____________

Ever since the late 18th century, when the Jews left the ghetto and began to re-enter European society, Jews and Christians alike have questioned whether there was any historic justification for the continued survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. Had not the Jews for centuries been only a relic of antiquity, artificially preserved by oppression? Now that they were free to enter general European society and share in its civilization, should they not be absorbed by that society once and for all? Against arguments like these, those Jewish liberals who would not renounce their collective identity were forced to assert that the rise of Christianity had not made Judaism and the Jewish people anachronistic, and that even after the Enlightenment there still remained a significant contribution which Jewish culture could make to the perfection of man in history. Though Reform Judaism, for example, submitted to many Gentile standards when it introduced its revisions in Jewish ritual, it, too, defied the consensus of Gentile opinion in arguing that the Jews still had a mission—to serve the unredeemed world as a model of monotheistic faith and prophetic ethics.

We must recognize, however, that the apologies for Jewish survival prevalent in the 19th century made little impression on anyone but their authors. Even when thinkers like Franz Rosenzweig and Hermann Cohen recast these arguments into the highly acceptable terms of current philosophy, their efforts went unnoticed outside a small circle of Jewish disciples. Nor is this surprising, for the truth is that the primary impact which the Jews as a collective entity had on modern history (prior to the rise of Israel) occurred not through anything they were or did, but rather through what was done to them. Politically, the major contribution of the Jews and Judaism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to give rise to political anti-Semitism; and so far as general intellectual history goes, the chief importance of Judaism in the 19th century was the incidental role it played in the efforts of Protestant savants from Schleiermacher and Hegel to Harnack and Wellhausen to justify liberal Christianity historically and philosophically.

Dr. Parkes, similarly, considers anti-Semitism essentially as an episode in the history of Christianity. Unlike most writers, however, he adopts this point of view not as a matter of course but with full awareness of alternative interpretations. He specifically rejects any historical explanations which could serve to mitigate Christian guilt by distributing the responsibility for anti-Semitism among causes other than, or in addition to, “the action of the Christian Church.” Thus, monotheism, notwithstanding its peculiar intolerance, was not, according to Dr. Parkes, the cause of anti-Semitism: after all, monotheistic Islam treated both Jews and Christians within its borders relatively well. And while in the Hellenistic world there was hatred of the Jews, it was coupled with admiration for Judaism itself, so that the Jewish-Graeco-Roman symbiosis “followed the normal pattern of relations between neighbors.” By rejecting more general explanations of anti-Semitism—probably with Arnold Toynbee in mind—Dr. Parkes allows neither himself nor his readers any possibility of evading the central issue for Christian conscience: their own special guilt for the historic sin of anti-Semitism.

On certain special questions, Dr. Parkes's particular point of view allows him to illuminate much that is usually hidden—for example, the process by which anti-Semitism made its way up from the tortuous underworld of 19th-century European politics into the public policies of figures like Bismarck and the Czars of Russia. Dr. Parkes's recital of the hateful attitudes of Church Fathers and Christian bishops toward the Jews brings into focus another important aspect of European history that is often passed over in silence.

_____________

No Jewish reader could fail to appreciate the honesty and courage of such an approach on the part of a Christian historian. Yet from the standpoint of anyone concerned with Jewish history in its own terms, an account of that history as a tragic episode within the history of Christianity is bound to seem out of perspective. The special insights which proceed from the Christian conscience rigorously confronting itself become relatively extraneous when we concentrate on the course of Jewish history rather than on the criminal responsibility of Christiandom for the form which Jewish history has taken. While Dr. Parkes documents the specific responsibility of the Christian Church for anti-Semitism too well for it to be overlooked hereafter, a historian concerned less with Christianity than with Judaism would ask questions in addition to those he chooses to ask. Having been taught by Hitler that the physical extermination of the Jews is entirely possible, and by the Soviet Union that their destruction by cultural genocide is also possible, the Jewish historian cannot but note that while the pagan religions did not survive the establishment of Christian hegemony over all of Europe, Judaism did. The Jewish historian therefore must conclude that if Judaism survived, one reason was certainly a decision by the Christian Church, when and where it had power, to permit it to survive.

Chrysostom, who preached that the Jews “are become worse than wild beasts; and . . . worship the avenging devils who are attempting to destroy Christianity” certainly belongs in any history of the Jewish-Christian symbiosis; but (as Dr. Parkes in his other writings fully recognizes) so does Pope Gregory the Great who said that the Jews must not be expelled, deprived of their rights, or converted by force, but rather that they must be brought into the fold by reason and mildness. Gregory, more than any other priest, established the institutional basis of the Jewish-Christian symbiosis wherever the Catholic hierarchy was in power. If anti-Semitism was condoned and furthered by the Church, the Church also made sure to uphold a minimal Jewish status. The practical alternative to this kind of anti-Semitism was genocide—which, indeed, the same Pope Gregory failed to condemn in regard to the pagans. Genocide against the Jews, whether practiced by Hitler or by the crusading rabble, arises from the breakdown of Church authority vis à vis the Jews.

Dr. Parkes's other conclusions, consequently, also need reconsideration. There is no escaping the fact that Judaism and the Jewish people—and the peculiar, exclusive relation between the two—by their very nature engender an uneasy relationship with non-Jews of which anti-Semitism is the outcome. This applies not only to Christian Gentiles but to all others: monotheism, not Christianity, is the specific cause of anti-Semitism. In Graeco-Roman times hostility to the Jews was different in kind from group prejudice toward other minorities because the Jews were monotheists. The famous tolerance of monotheistic Islam toward Jews as well as Christians amounted in substance to maintaining a status for the People of the Book equivalent to Pope Gregory's prescriptions for Jews in Christendom: it stopped short of genocide, not of anti-Semitism.

Because of these circumstances throughout history, the Jews have separated themselves—and been kept separate—from Gentiles not only in order to preserve mutual differences (and no doubt mutual prejudices), but also out of a desire to minimize friction. Yet even full separation, as in Israel, has not served to reduce Jewish-Gentile differences to the level of “the normal pattern of relations between neighbors.” Only a policy of specific controls and disciplines, consciously fashioned by both Jews and Gentiles as a means of governing their relations to one another, can make o for a viable Jewish-Christian symbiosis. Where Jews live among Christians as a religious minority, the key to such “normal relations” is finally to be found in a Christian concern for justice toward one's neighbor of the kind shown by James Parkes in his long career of scholarship and humane endeavor. For tolerance is not the point where anti-Semitism ends. Philo-Semitism is.

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