Commentary Magazine


Anti-Semitism

To the Editor:

I was disappointed by Paul Johnson’s article, “The Anti-Semitic Disease” [June]. Mr. Johnson suggests that anti-Semitism is, quite literally, a “disease of the mind.” This is essentially a deterministic argument: if anti-Semitism is a disease, there is no personal responsibility, no free will. This is a strange argument coming from one of the great admirers of American freedom. In essence, it is much closer to the brand of Marxism that Mr. Johnson embraced in his youth than to the philosophy of freedom he has so passionately defended over the past three decades.

Mr. Johnson sees Germany as again caught in the grip of this “disease”—now in the form of anti-Americanism—which, he claims, has led to a decline in Germany’s fortunes. He offers no proof for this thesis, and one could very well argue that the opposite is true.

Germans will never forget America’s help during the cold war and the reunification of their nation. Since then, Germans and Americans have worked side by side to spread freedom and democracy in the Balkans and in Afghanistan. No country has contributed more troops to NATO-led operations than Germany. And we have helped to stabilize Iraq with training programs for Iraqi police and armed forces.

Mr. Johnson’s deterministic view of anti-Semitism also leads him to embrace the conspiracy theory of a French “hegemony” over Europe. But the notion that any state “dominates” the European Union shows an astonishing lack of knowledge of contemporary Europe. The reconciliation between Germany and France after centuries of war was one of the key elements in the process of integration. Having sacrificed so much for the cause of peace and freedom in Europe, Americans should be the first to recognize that integration has created an extraordinary zone of peace and stability, today encompassing 450 million people.

To support his argument, Mr. Johnson paints a dark picture of the German economy. He fails to see that Germany has taken a number of steps to adjust to the process of globalization. Some important reforms have been implemented; more will follow. Germany has the third largest economy in the world, was the world’s biggest exporter in 2004, and is the most important European trading partner of the United States.

Yes, anti-Semitism does exist in Europe (as well as in the United States), as recent data collected by the American Jewish Committee show. In Germany, government and civil society are working together with partners in the U.S. and all over Europe to fight anti-Semitism through education and exchange programs, as well as through law enforcement. We should not let ourselves be distracted from this common cause by indulging in overly simplistic arguments.

Wolfgang Ischinger

Ambassador of Germany

Washington, D.C.

 

To the Editor:

Though Paul Johnson is a historian with a special interest in the tragedies of our age, he seems unaware of how closely the language with which he condemns anti-Semitism resembles the language of its foremost practitioners in Nazi Germany. Mr. Johnson asserts that anti-Semitism is “an intellectual disease, a disease of the mind, extremely infectious and massively destructive.” Hitler called the Jews “vermin,” spoke of “cleansing” the Reich of the “Jewish infection,” and used an insecticide, cyanide gas, to rid Germany of its “plague.”

Mr. Johnson states that “[i]t is not clear from the record exactly how, why, and when Hitler became a strident anti-Semite.” Why is it important to know this? Why is it not enough to know that Hitler came to believe and do what he believed and did, like the rest of us, because that is what he chose to believe and do? Mr. Johnson’s ostensible intention is to excoriate anti-Semitism by using the fashionable rhetoric of psychiatric dehumanization. But by doing so, he perhaps inadvertently excuses Nazi anti-Semitism.

We moderns do not believe in punishing diseases or patients for having diseases. We do not imprison, much less kill, mentally ill persons; we excuse them of their crimes and hospitalize them. John Hinckley is still being treated for his anti-Reaganism. If anti-Semitism is a disease, then the Nazi leaders were very sick indeed, and the Nuremberg trials were one of the great injustices of the 20th century.

Mr. Johnson says he has been trying to understand anti-Semitism. But to understand human behavior, we must be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the person whose behavior we want to understand. “Nothing human is alien to me,” said the Roman philosopher and playwright Terence, in a declaration that became the credo of the Enlightenment. The credo of psychiatry, by contrast, is that “nothing alien is human to me.”

Thomas Szasz, M.D.

Manlius, New York

 

To the Editor:

Paul Johnson bestrides the world of journalism and historiography like a colossus; to write a letter dissenting from his article fills me with a considerable amount of condign dread. But I must wonder whether “disease” is the right trope for discussing the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. I certainly agree with Mr. Johnson that disease and anti-Semitism both prove debilitating for their respective host bodies. But the danger in speaking too readily of a moral failure like anti-Semitism in terms of disease and pathology is that it ignores the question of will.

As Pope John Paul II said in his address to the people of Israel in 2000, “anti-Semitism is a sin.” Not a disease, but a sin.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

University of St. Mary of the Lake

Mundelein, Illinois

 

To the Editor:

I am slightly amused and slightly appalled that Paul Johnson would claim and argue that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was the entire motive, cause, and reason for the failure of Germany’s aggression in World War II. Undoubtedly, Mr. Johnson knows of Hitler’s vision of a greater Germania (a competing motive) and of the famous decision to open up a front against Russia (a competing cause of Germany’s failure).

Moreover, in support of his argument, Mr. Johnson’s list of Hitler’s “good qualities” seems to outweigh his bad ones. Is he claiming that it was anti-Semitism that led to Hitler’s psychotic behavior instead of claiming (as I believe) that it was Hitler’s psychosis that fed his hatred and his maniacal actions? Was he a maniac or was he not?

A. Rindsberg

San Diego, California

 

To the Editor:

The novelty of Paul Johnson’s article seems to lie in its almost complete disregard for established views of anti-Semitism. Though most students of the subject maintain that fierce anti-Semitism, from Roman times to our own, tends to arise amid economic decline and social disarray, Mr. Johnson holds that these conditions are not the prerequisites of anti-Semitism but rather its inevitable, almost God-sent consequences. As he sees it, doom and poverty descend upon nations that persecute their Jewish citizens.

Some of Mr. Johnson’s historical examples serve his case rather well, but most of them stretch history too far. To say, for instance, that England and particularly the U.S. won World War II because they embraced Jews persecuted elsewhere is a very shaky assertion (even putting aside the fact that both nations could have saved many more Jews). After all, another victorious country in the same war was Russia, where popular hatred of Jews and thinly veiled state anti-Semitism continue to this day.

Miklós Hernádi

Budapest, Hungary

 

To the Editor:

Paul Johnson does his usual masterful job in “The Anti-Semitic Disease.” He demonstrates how numerous countries and civilizations throughout history—Spain, France, czarist Russia, Germany—fell by the wayside once they allowed themselves to be infected by the self-destructive disease of anti-Semitism. And he points out that the current anti-Semitism of the Arabs has undoubtedly weakened their societies. Conversely, countries like the United States that have been welcoming to Jews have prospered.

All this is true, but Mr. Johnson neglects a significant point. It is not only that virulent anti-Semitism has deprived countries of a talented and motivated labor force, one that possesses great financial and organizational skills; nor is it just that the anti-Jewish obsession has sapped national energies and prevented countries from dealing with more important issues. Perhaps it is also the case that in hating Jews, people hate what Jews historically have stood for: God’s presence in history. And hatred of God’s ideals—justice, charity, love, discipline, ethics, sacrifice—inevitably leads to self-destruction, whether of individuals or of civilizations.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Jerusalem, Israel

 

To the Editor:

As Paul Johnson perceptively notes, a critical element of the disease of anti-Semitism is that it causes damage not only to those who are the hated outsiders, but also to the carrier. Specifically, it causes the anti-Semite to lose the ability to see himself and his society and its faults.

Examples of this abound, including most notably in recent times in the Arab world, which slips further into medievalism while blaming the Jews for everything from the World Trade Center attack to the corruption of the Palestinians.

Edmund Glass

New York City

 

Paul Johnson writes:

The German ambassador is mistaken in thinking I have reverted to Marxism. I have never been a Marxist—God forbid! I have always been a Roman Catholic. I reject determinism and always have rejected it.

I call anti-Semitism a disease for want of a better word. It is clearly not an ordinary form of racism. Whereas racist feelings are an almost inevitable part of uneducated human nature, anti-Semitism seems to me unnatural and perverse. It appears to me to have some of the characteristics of a mental disease, particularly in its destruction of the judgment.

But I was using disease merely as a metaphor, and metaphors should not be pushed too far. To call a habitual and violent anti-Semite a person suffering from a disease of the mind is not to absolve him from blame. My object in writing my article was to try to inject a new element into the subject of anti-Semitism, and to start a debate that may eventually prove fruitful. Let the debate continue.

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