Commentary Magazine


Esau's Tears by Albert S. Lindemann

Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews
by Albert S. Lindemann
Cambridge. 568 pp. $34.95

What accounts for anti-Semitism—one of the most enduring and persistent hatreds in human history?

Some historians have seen it as a product of dysfunctional societies in which chimerical fantasies about Jews have taken hold. Others have emphasized the role of Christian anti-Judaism and the dehumanizing stereotypes it helped to form in the Middle Ages. Still others have pointed to factors ranging from economic pressure to ethnic hatred, xenophobia, and the universal need for scapegoats. Finally, there have been those who, recognizing that Jews have not been simply the powerless or passive objects of prejudice, view Judaism itself—and the challenge it poses to non-Jews—as a contributing element.

It is one thing, however, to recognize that Jews have interacted with their persecutors in complicated ways, and wholly another to present them as largely responsible for the irrational hatreds to which they have so often fallen victim. Yet that is what Albert S. Lindemann, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has now done in this deeply pernicious book.

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Esau’s Tears focuses on relations between Gentiles and Jews in Europe and the United States over the course of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. In Germany and Austria these relations are characterized by Lindemann as “ambiguous failures,” in Britain and America as “ambiguous successes,” and in Russia and Romania as outright failures. France is dealt with briefly, and there is also a side glance at Hungary and Italy. But despite the differences among these societies, in all of them, Lindemann argues, the central catalyst of anti-Semitism was the growing economic and political influence of the Jews themselves, to which the prejudices that emerged were an understandable and even justified reaction. As he puts it in a summary statement: “Jewish action in the real world has had something quite relevant to do with hatred of Jews.”

Consider the two outright “failures,” Romania and Russia. Over the course of the 19th century, Lindemann tells us, Romania, an impoverished country, was flooded by a mass movement of Yiddish-speaking Polish and Russian Jews, many of them deeply religious Hasidim, who insisted on living apart and on retaining their foreign language and culture. And even the indigenous Jewish bourgeoisie “refused to become Romanian and in truth did threaten native Romanians” by outstripping them in economic competition. With their “inferior morals” and “characteristic Jewish vices,” the Jews, natives and newcomers alike, not only exploited the Romanian people but actively spread exaggerated reports of anti-Jewish prejudice in Romanian society.

But in fact, according to Lindemann, Romania’s reputation as a land of narrow-minded backwardness was undeserved; he cites one source testifying that Romanians were “the most tolerant of all Christian peoples.” The impression of bigotry was fomented instead by “prominent Jews” who had “taken a leading role” in the “mean-spirited denigration” of the country. When Romania’s leaders repressed the Jews and denied them civic equality, they were therefore pursuing a “justifiable policy.”

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Lindemann’s portrait of Russia proceeds along similar lines. There, too, anti-Semitism was “hardly a hatred without palpable or understandable cause.” Most Jews were not interested in assimilating into the broader society, choosing instead to maintain their social distance, and they were religiously intolerant to boot. Moreover, Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918) was “undoubtedly correct” that growing numbers of Jews “wanted to destroy him and his empire”—government officials were being assassinated by Jewish anarchists and nihilists—and while he or his ministers might have indulged in some conspiratorial fantasies, “they were not wrong in believing that Jews were a power in the world.”

As for the pogroms from which Jews in the Russian empire suffered at the turn of the century, these, Lindemann writes, were not entirely what they seemed. For one thing, Jews themselves engaged in violent tactics; for another, as in the terrible Kishinev pogrom of 1903, they exaggerated and falsified the numbers of their dead, offering “lurid” accounts to attract sympathy and relief funds and to wage a public-relations campaign against the Czar. An analogous pattern characterized Jewish behavior down into the period following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

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Is it necessary to say that both these accounts are nothing but a gross and mendacious caricature? To begin with Romania, the easily documented truth is that Jews immigrating to that country became acculturated very quickly, not only learning the language of their new homeland but in many cases becoming fierce Romanian patriots. Indeed, it was precisely their drive to embrace Romanian culture, and not the inclination of certain hasidic communities to retain their separateness, that caused the greatest anxiety among Romanian anti-Semites, whose ferocity and sadism are matters of indisputable historical record.

Lindemann’s examination of Russia is similarly bizarre. It is bizarre in the details—in support of his assertion that Jews themselves adopted violent anti-social tactics, he cites a riot in Warsaw in 1905 in which Jewish socialists attacked Jewish pimps and prostitutes—and it is bizarre in the large. The deep-seated anti-Semitic attitudes present in Russian society for centuries are mentioned by Lindemann almost in passing. About the prejudices that permeated the Orthodox church, he says next to nothing. Most strikingly of all, one searches in vain for a single reference in this book to what is probably the most representative and certainly the deadliest concoction of turn-of-the-century Russian anti-Semitism, namely the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

To be sure, the wide acceptance this scurrilous forgery enjoyed in Russia and many other places—with its fantastic thesis that satanic Jews were ruling the world, remorselessly fomenting wars and revolutions—would tend rather to undercut Lindemann’s central argument that anti-Semitism is a response always and everywhere to the actual misdeeds of Jews. In this light, his decision not to mention the existence of the Protocols becomes all too understandable.

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Were the task not so tedious, and so distasteful, one could go on cataloguing the faults of Lindemann’s “history.” Suffice it to note that, although some chapters are more balanced than others, his presentation throughout is marked not only by sympathy for the arguments of anti-Semites but by an undisguised antipathy toward Judaism and Jews. Echoing common anti-Semitic slurs through the ages, he assures us, for example, that biblical Jews “glorified unspeakably bestial acts”; that the book of Deuteronomy provides a “religious source for modern racism”; and that the Hebrew Bible as a whole justifies “policies of racial extermination.” His bias against Jews surfaces in a slew of recurring stereotypes. In Russia and Eastern Europe they are described by him as backward, ragged, filthy, and parasitical, and their language, Yiddish, as “a nasal, whining, and crippled ghetto tongue”; in Western Europe and the United States he finds them arrogant and overbearing, and far too successful and domineering for their own or anyone’s good. Everywhere they appear as degenerate, physically unattractive, tribalist, exploitative, and immoral.

The closing pages of this book are particularly strident, as Lindemann sets out to remind contemporary Jews of their alleged sins throughout history. In a malevolent and wide-ranging diatribe that proceeds without evidence of any kind, we are told that Jews “unquestionably did trade in slaves, own slaves, exploit blacks, and harbor racist attitudes to them,” and that, in resisting the “notion of being held responsible for things that happened in the past,” they are no better than Germans who seek to deny their own history of racism. These impassioned, indignant, simplistic, and tendentious pages make an especially curious counterpoint to Lindemann’s frequent rebukes to Jewish historians for their supposedly “impassioned,” “indignant,” “simplistic,” and “tendentious” writings.

As for Lindemann’s own knowledge of Jewish history, despite a smattering of Yiddish and Hebrew terms it appears little better than that of the anti-Semites whose arguments he echoes. Nor does he offer the slightest insight into the culture or self-understanding of the Jewish world on which he casts his heartless gaze. He shows no mastery of primary sources, no traces of having done archival research, and almost no familiarity with works in languages other than English or even with the most recent secondary literature in the subject on which he proposes to instruct others. It is appalling that Cambridge University Press has put its distinguished imprint on so profoundly biased and ignominious a work.

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