Commentary Magazine


Hatred Now, Not Then

Global Anti-Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity, Volumes I-V
Edited by Charles Asher Small
The Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy

In 2010, Yale University’s Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism hosted a groundbreaking conference, the largest ever convened on the subject of Jew-hatred in the modern world. This would seem an entirely uncontroversial subject, but the conference, and the research center more generally, were immediately targeted by highly dubious accusations of Islamophobia (directed, it appears, from the office of the Palestinian envoy in Washington D.C.). In June of the following year, Yale surrendered to this campaign and shut down the center on the grounds that it had fallen short of the university’s academic standards, a disgraceful move that provoked widespread condemnation from Jewish community leaders who were under no illusions about the political nature of this decision.

But the doors of the center’s parent organization, the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, did not close. It resumed its status as an independent research organization, headed by Charles Asher Small. ISGAP has now published the proceedings of the 2010 conference in five short volumes. The 57 essays presented in these volumes represent an important resource in the study of modern anti-Semitism. As Small remarks in his introduction, the study of anti-Semitism has often been merely descriptive; the approach here is decidedly analytical.

How is it that the oldest hatred is still with us in an age that has broken with the past in so many other regards? Has anti-Semitism simply endured in spite of modernity, or has modernity done something to exacerbate existing prejudices against Jews? Is the new anti-Semitism that we are witnessing a function of modernity itself, or is it the failings of modernity that have allowed Jew-hatred to live on?

Small argues that modernity, as a liberalizing force, can be a cure for many archaic prejudices. Yet he says that with the setbacks experienced during the process of modernization, not least the recent financial crisis, both postmodern and reactionary forces have been able to revive anti-Semitism as part of a wider agenda to oppose modernity (and Westernization generally). Modernity has had the tendency to break down existing structures, communities, and identities. It has undermined certain concentrations of authority while provoking the questioning and unraveling of entire belief systems.

In this largely socioeconomic account, Small favors a version of the popular “scapegoat” explanation for anti-Semitism, with the Jews perpetually blamed, ever caught between the ruling elites and the disenfranchised masses. Most of the essays in some way echo Small’s notion that modernity itself is a positive force for counteracting this evil. In this understanding, the culprits are primarily conservative reactionaries, be they Muslim theocrats or the European far right, along with those who have always opposed capitalism. Similarly, the essays tend to concur that Jews are used as scapegoats in wider political agendas. Anti-Semitism, we are assured, has nothing to do with actual Jews or what Jews do. Just as John-Paul Sartre wrote that if Jews didn’t exist, anti-Semites would need to invent them, so the writers here essentially argue that anti-Semites continuously reinvent false images of the Jew to serve their own purposes.

In her essay, Harvard professor and longtime Commentary contributor Ruth R. Wisse seeks to offer counsel on how anti-Semitism might actually be defeated. Anti-Semitism, she says, should not be viewed as an inevitable attribute of human nature, but as a successful political ideology. In undemocratic societies, such as those in pre-modern Europe, or the Arab world today, Jews are held to account for the failings in societies where there is no redress of grievance from those who actually govern, Wisse argues. Once the Arab world is able to elect its own leaders, that leadership will no longer be able to blame the Jews, and political parties seeking election will have only one another to blame.

There is, however, another element to the arguments being put forward here. In addition to accounting for how modernity can help remedy the oldest hatred, many of the writers also detail how in the modern age ideologies have emerged that have fomented Jew-hatred, notably through the contemporary demonization of Israel. Both post-nationalism in Europe and the anti-Western Third Worldism popular in liberal circles have been used to direct hate against the Jewish state.

This is where arguments about modernity and anti-Semitism hit a paradox. Considered collectively, the essays tell us that modernity is both anti-Semitism’s cure and cause. Even if we accept the notion that anti-Semitism is being generated, or perhaps simply aggravated, by modernity going into crisis, it seems that we are being presented with an account in which side effect and symptom have apparently become indistinguishable. Nor can we forget that it has been modernity’s pseudosciences, whether Social Darwinism or Marxism, that have given birth to the regimes that carried out the most concerted efforts to extinguish all Jews.   

Karin Stoegner and Johannes Hoepoltseder confront the problem of how, in the modern age, Jews have come to be hated by nationalists and post-nationalists alike. They present us with the perplexing anomaly of how both movements have Jew-hatred as a salient feature. For the nationalist, the Jew is the rootless cosmopolitan, advancing globalization, the free market, and perhaps even unpatriotic socialism. For the post-nationalist, the Jew is tribalistic, self-interested, and, through Zionism, a backward ultra-nationalist.

Why in each account are Jews singled out? Anyone wishing to provide an explanation of anti-Semitism that hinges on a scapegoat theory will need to explain convincingly why it has always been the Jews who have served as the scapegoats. It’s not as if most societies have a shortage of other outsiders and enemies. Yet, according to the scapegoat account of anti-Semitism, Jews are just always coincidentally in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some of the essays attempt to explain modern anti-Semitism by arguing that Jews have simply found themselves on the wrong side of the prevailing value system, as in the case of the antagonism between post-nationalism and Zionism. The problem with this approach is that one would then have to explain what relation, if any, this has with Jews being hated in the past, before Theodor Herzl. Is it once again just a coincidence that in every age Jews happen to be running counter to the contemporary worldview, be it Hellenism, Christianity, Islam, nationalism, race theory, atheistic Communism, post-nationalism, anti-colonialism, the international-law culture, and the human-rights agenda?

By endorsing so fully the assumption that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with actual Jews and holding that Jews are irrelevant bystanders in the causation of the hatred directed against them, these studies shut off a potentially useful avenue for understanding anti-Semitism. What is missing here is consideration of the possibility that the driving force behind Jew-hatred today, as in pre-modern times, might be the popularity of ideologies that implicitly reject the value system promoted by the Jewish tradition itself. 

The academic study of anti-Semitism can be appealing; viewed down the microscope, anti-Semitism is kept at a safe distance, explained and thus explained away. These essays do not do that; they unflinchingly expose anti-Semitism in all its unpleasantness, sounding the alarm for immediate action. Yet, by restricting the investigation of anti-Semitism to viewing it primarily through the lens of modernity, they cannot get to its root.

About the Author

Tom Wilson, a new contributor, is COMMENTARY’s Tikvah Fellow.




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