Commentary Magazine

Accounting for Anti-Semitism

The term anti-Semitism made its first appearance in Germany in the fall of 1879. It was introduced into public discourse by Wilhelm Marr, one of the leading figures in an anti-Jewry campaign which had been gaining strength for the better part of the decade and which emerged at this juncture into a full-fledged social-political movement. We know with certainty what prompted the use of the term and why it was so readily adopted by the general public. The men who coined and propagated it wished to convey the idea that their objection to Jews had nothing to do with traditional “Jew-hatred.” A product of bygone times and obsolete conceptions, Jew-hatred had arisen against the background of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians. The anti-Semites, for their part, claimed to be entirely free of religious prejudice.

What, then, was their complaint against the Jews? It was, they said, prompted by Jewish behavior, by the preponderance of Jews in the economy, by Jewish penetration into the social fabric and cultural life of the nation, and so forth. Thus ran the reasoning of the German anti-Semites, who had been anticipated by forerunners in Hungary and who were followed by imitators in Austria and France. In all these places Jews were viewed as aliens, their participation in national life as an intrusion and usurpation. Only seldom was reference made to events and ideas of earlier times; the data of the moment were considered sufficient grounds for hostility.

Strangely enough, an explanation structurally similar to the one offered by the anti-Semites of the late 19th century can be found in the work of Jewish historians of our own day. The late Salo W. Baron, for example, testifying at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 as an eminent authority on anti-Semitism, resorted to a formula coined by sociologists to explain the worldwide phenomenon of discrimination against ethnic minorities: “The dislike of the unlike.” Now it may well be that when Jews first settled among Gentiles in antiquity, they, like other ethnic minorities, fell victim to the “dislike of the unlike.” But by the 19th century and for many generations previously, Jews had ceased to be a truly alien element in society. In the Christian environment especially, Jews were not strangers in the sense of being unknown and therefore baffling and antagonizing. Indeed, Christians knew about Jews from their own religious tradition.

For better and for worse, it was this very knowledge which historically had defined the Jews’ status in Christian eyes. For better: as heirs to the “Old Testament,” Jews enjoyed relative legitimacy and dignity, and on this basis were admitted to Christian society and tolerated in a way that other deniers of the Christian faith, especially Christian heretics, were not. For worse: Jews were relegated to an inferior position politically, economically, and socially as a penalty for having rejected and killed Christ and for their “obstinacy” ever since in refusing to acknowledge the truth of Christianity. They were therefore to be tolerated but subjugated until they changed their minds; in the meantime, their low condition was visible testimony to the fact that they had been forsaken by God.

Under this theological cover—the quasi-official teaching of the Church—the Jews survived during the Middle Ages. Yet the price of survival was far higher than may have been intended by those who set it. The despicable role of the Jews in the Christian drama—a theme of ritual, liturgy, and art—became imprinted on public consciousness. The notion of Jewish culpability became the excuse for periodic outbursts which could not be curbed by the admonitions of religious or the protection of secular authorities, which were anyway not always forthcoming. Indeed, the religious and secular powers themselves often went beyond the perimeter set by doctrine and expelled or segregated their Jewish subjects. This was a cumulative process, so that at the dawn of modern times we encounter European Jews living in ghettos or ghetto-like areas.



Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, came emancipation, the magic potion through which all traces of the sad past were to be erased. Jews were now to be included in the state as citizens, admitted to all circles of society, no longer prevented from entering any field of endeavor. The idea of Jewish emancipation was the legitimate child of a rationalism that embraced all aspects of social organization. In the thoroughly secularized society of the future, it was held, Jews and Christians, or rather, former Jews and former Christians, would meet as equal human beings.

In the first decades of the emancipation period, which coincided with the rise of European liberalism, it seemed as if this optimistic vision would indeed materialize. Jews extricated themselves from physical as well as cultural isolation and made important strides into the economic and social spheres. Strictures against them still in evidence could be readily explained away as but a residue of bygone eras—so ran the diagnosis made at the time by Jews and Gentiles alike. No wonder, therefore, that the emergence of the anti-Semitic movement toward the close of the 19th century baffled so many people—what could have gone wrong with their expectations?

In retrospect we are not at a loss to account for the reversal of the Jewish cause. Emancipation was a good that had been granted by the secularized state. So far as I am aware, no official representative of Christianity in any country had been consulted as to its desirability. True, in the public debate prior to the passage of the emancipatory legislation, some theologically-minded observers raised the objection that granting equal social and economic status to Jews contradicted the ancient tenet according to which their toleration in Christian countries depended upon their being kept in eternal bondage; others made similar arguments even after emancipation was granted. But these were individual voices. The Church took no stand on the issue—it did not protest, but neither did it give its consent.

And as the Church took no active part in emancipation, so it refrained thereafter from adapting to it. Some enlightened clergymen, in the performance of their public duties, may have mitigated traditional anti-Jewish expressions. On the popular level, however, Christian teaching, with its stereotypes of Jewish character, remained intact. The Church did not silence those publicists who continued to charge the Jews with the crime of deicide, or who propagated other anti-Jewish stereotypes. Nor did the Church take any steps to eliminate elements of its ritual and liturgy which more or less prompted anti-Jewish feelings in the worshipper. Nor did the Church renounce the deeds and rhetoric of the anti-Semites. As against the few Christian dignitaries who did indeed raise their voices, there were the many who participated in anti-Jewish activity, or else tried to draw some benefit from it as a manifestation of Christian loyalty. Thus, when the anti-Semites came to sound their call, even though they themselves claimed to be acting on purely secular grounds, they could count on a positive response out of the depths of ordinary people’s religious allegiances.

Actually, the anti-Semites’ disclaimer of any indebtedness to traditional Jew-hatred was a fiction. Although irreligious themselves, if not outright atheists (like Marr and Eugen Dühring), the anti-Semites were not above referring to or invoking ingrained Christian resentments. Again, though irreligious or anti-religious, they were only too willing to cooperate with religious dignitaries like the Protestant court preacher Adolph Stöcker in Berlin or the Catholic priest and professor Auguste Rohling in Prague, men who based their own venomous anti-Jewish agitation on the concept of the Jews’ absolute moral corruption. Nor would it be correct to take at face value the anti-Semites’ assertion of their own freedom from the taint of traditional Jew-hatred. In the process of secularization, the disappearance of cognitive content rarely entails the disappearance of the emotions and sentiments attached to it; what usually happens is that these same affective elements now cling to the new cognitive content. So with the anti-Semites, who only substituted new carriers for an old animosity.

There is no way of explaining the rapid expansion of anti-Semitism and its deep penetration socially and psychologically other than by noting the ways in which it capitalized on the residue of traditional Jew-hatred. In the course of time, this post-emancipatory revival of anti-Jewish sentiment would even come to serve as a prelude to the physical destruction of the Jews. By this I do not mean that the Holocaust was an inevitable result of antecedent anti-Semitism, but that the ground for it was well prepared. The Holocaust itself was unpredictable, as I have long argued,1 but the defamation and persecution of Jews that preceded it were its necessary, although not its sufficient, precondition.



In view of the fact that traces of the teachings of Christianity, often called the “teaching of contempt,” can be found in the ideological background of the modern persecution of Jews, up to and including the Holocaust itself, can Christianity be held responsible for those events? My answer is a qualified one. In antiquity and through the Middle Ages, Jews and Christians alike acted on their convictions, Christians in granting to those who rejected the Christian religion a limited space in which to live, Jews in accepting their harsh situation as divinely ordained. Both sides were embedded in the world of their conceptions, and only those who share that world view are qualified to judge their actions.

It is altogether different when we speak of modern times, when only the sediment of medieval conceptions still survived. It is, of course, absurd to charge anyone except those who actively participated with responsibility for a deed as unforeseeable and unforeseen as the Holocaust. But when it comes to historical enormities of this scale, we are also obliged not to neglect or slight their antecedents. A clear paradox is presented here, and I should like to offer a solution to it by referring to a source from the Jewish legal tradition.

In the Babylonian Talmud the following case is discussed: a shepherd is charged with the duty of protecting a herd against thieves. The shepherd leaves the herd, and although in his absence no thieves arrive on the scene, the herd is attacked, and devoured, by wolves. Is the shepherd liable for the damage? According to the school of thought whose decision is finally accepted by the Talmud, the shepherd has indeed neglected his responsibility and is thus liable for the damages, even though they were unforeseeable. To apply this to our case, I would say that in view of the circumstances, those who in the prewar period condoned anti-Semitic atrocities were guilty of at least the sin of omission, and on this basis must be assigned a measure of culpability for major consequences which at that time were unknown and hardly even conceivable.

There is also a lesson to be drawn here for our present situation. We are witnessing today various anti-Semitic developments all over the world. Although they are not, or not yet, of the most virulent kind, it is the duty of those capable of curbing them to do so, lest in the future they be held accountable for more terrible acts which, although still unforeseen, are in our day certainly no longer inconceivable.



1 See my “Was the Holocaust Predictable?,” COMMENTARY, May 1975.

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