“The Jews, such as they are today, are our work, the work of our 1,800 years of idiotic persecution.”
Emile Zola, 1897
"They own, you know, the banks in this country, the newspapers. Just look at where the Jewish money is.”
US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff George Scratchley Brown, 1976
Perpetuation of a Hate
Anti-Judaism is fairly easy to understand when pointed out in Christian scripture. Difficult not see its presence in Paul’s, I Thessalonians in accusing the Jews of having “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets; where Matthew 27:25 depicts “the Jews” as demanding Jesus be crucified and then demanding blame for themselves but eternally for all Jews throughout history: “His blood be on us, and on our children.” But how understand that religious prejudice carry over into secular society, that theological anti-Judaism morph into “scientific” antisemitism? How did antisemitism become a political ideology in the new nation-states of the Enlightenment?
The key to understanding the “mystery” is the common antisemitic “stereotype.” Anti-Defamation League (ADL) studies statistically demonstrate how widespread a part of western, of American culture such beliefs spread. George Scratchley Brown, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, twice raged against Israel and “the Jews” for requesting weapons he would not have provided, first before a university audience in 1974 and again in 1976 to a French reporter:
“Now this is somebody from another country, but they can do it. They own, you know, the banks in this country, the newspapers. Just look at where the Jewish money is.”
Another example involved Dennis Johnson, co-majority leader of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. In April, 2013,
“While speaking on the virtues of small business in debate over a bill Wednesday, he said, "They might try to Jew me down on a price. That''s fine ... that''s free market as well." He was then handed a note about fifteen seconds later. “Did I?" he said to a colleague." I apologize to the Jews… it came out of one of the wrinkles of my brain and it was not something that was intentional.
The “wrinkle” of his brain referred to boys of his childhood commonly using such references to Jews.
In 2011 another state legislator, Texas Rep. Larry Taylor said, "Don''t nitpick, don''t try to Jew them down." Realizing the slur he said, "That''s probably a bad term."
In the case of General Brown the term “antisemite” would likely apply. In the other two instances, where the “slur” might represent only a Wrinkle of the brain overt antisemitism might not have been intended. But all three examples demonstrate the presence of the stereotypes. And all three represent that the Enlightenment posed no barrier to the passage of scriptural anti-Judaism from feudal to secular society.
German caricature from 1929, depicting Jewish greed. (Wikipedia)
Do Jews have a tail, horns and cloven feet? This is another fairly common stereotype that originates in Christian scripture. John 8:44, represents Jesus admonishing the Jews:
“Your father is the devil. You are his children, and you want to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has never stood for the truth, because there''s no truth in him. Whenever that liar speaks, he speaks according to his own nature, because he''s a liar and the father of liars.”
How is it that these religion-based stereotypes appear in secular society? In their writings most Enlightenment thinkers distanced themselves from traditional religion as “superstition,” promoted the ideal of social “tolerance.” How was it that when it came to the Jews these same defenders of liberté, égalité, fraternité uncritically absorbed anti-Judaism from the religious system the sought to replace?
The answer is “cultural inheritance:” centuries of prejudice are just too deeply embedded in western history; Judeophobia is just too familiar to give way to “reason.”
In the mid-eighteenth century Jews were a unique population. In France the population had a common language, history and general geography to define their national identity. All other European populations shared these characteristics. All but the Jews. Jews did share language and culture, but not geography. How classify a people scattered among the European nations? If the Enlightenment liberated the West from feudal slavery Jews, for the most part, remained aliens and unwelcome.
The Philosophes: Diderot, principal contributor and editor of the Encyclopédie (1765), described the Jews as “an ignorant and superstitious nation,” while Voltaire, in his Treatise on Toleration (sic), 1763, wrote that the Jews are, “the most detestable [nation] ever to have sullied the earth...” And in his Dictionary wrote that the Jews are,
“the most imbecile people on the face of the earth, enemies of mankind, most obtuse, cruel absurd... In short, we find in them only an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.”
In his Letter of Memmius to Cicero, (1771), Voltaire insisted that Jews,
“are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.”
And the following year:
''You [Jews] have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.''''
One hundred and sixty years before Germany elected Adolph Hitler chancellor, Voltaire had already concluded that the Jews are, “deadly to the human race.” His conclusion that the Jews, “deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny” is taken nearly verbatim from Augustine who in turn quoted Matthew 27:25.
Some modern philosophers would rescue Voltaire-as-antisemite by pointing out that his attack on the Jews was part of a more general assault on Christianity. And perhaps, had he limited his critique to Judaism-as-religion the argument might be somewhat credible. But Voltaire singled out “the Jews,” the “nation.” Nor are such antisemitic attacks limited to Voltaire. “The Jews” also appear with regularity in the writings of many others identified as Philosophes, and Jews and Judaism occupy more than twenty-five percent of Voltaire’s Dictionary.
Voltaire and Diderot and most of the Philosophes, Europe’s intellectual avant-garde, were dedicated to liberating the continent from superstition and prejudice, from intolerance and what they perceived as the darkness of religion: how explain their unreflective import of 1700 years of anti-Jewish prejudice into their “rational” and secular model for a just and modern society?
The short answer is that we are, individually and collectively, the product of our time. Our worldview is influenced by our surroundings; our thinking and behavior respond to and are modified by our immediate environment based on past experience. The Enlightenment represented a rebellion against the previous hierarchical social structure, the authoritarianism of religion-based feudal society. But the rebellion was itself product and inheritor of Christendom’s history, including its deeply embedded biases expressed in its stereotypes of “the Jews.”
Stereotypes serve as convenient short-hand and social lubricant. More often that “shorthand” serves bigotry. Stereotypy may be transcended, but that requires effort and continuous self-monitoring. Regarding many areas of European society, culture and history the Philosophes were relentless liberal critics. But when it came to the Jews religious anti-Judaism, in its new “rational” secular guise as antisemitism, passed seamlessly into that new world order which is today’s “enlightened” West.
Emancipation and its discontents
“Hating the Jew was too much an integral part of western culture and tradition and was not to be exorcised.”
(The next two paragraphs describe the “process” by which antisemitism was passed from religious to secular society, and how antisemitic politics of the 19th Century evolved from the exclusion to extermination in the 20th Century. The discussion is somewhat technical.)
Until now the process of transmission of anti-Judaism and Judeophobia across the theological/rational boundary has been limited to the uncritical acceptance of past events and attitudes across generational boundaries. Let’s call this “tradition,” something familiar to all. It is instructive and cautionary to recognize that even so radical a break with the past as that represented by the Enlightenment inherited doubts regarding freedom for the Jews. But beginning in the 19th century the ambiguous place of Jews living in Christendom underwent abrupt and radical changes. So before turning to “emancipation and reaction,” the transformation of religious persecution to secular industrial murder, some explanation of how 19th century exclusion became 20th century extermination is needed.
In 1962 Stephen Kuhn published a small book on the philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it he argues that science is not simply the accumulation of facts but a series of crises, points at which the paradigm representing those facts is inadequate to explain current “events (phenomena).” In physics, for example, Einstein represents such a “paradigm shift.” In the “human” sciences I suggest an imprecise but similar phenomenon which, in anthropology, is termed “cultural florescence.” The “abrupt” appearance of architecture and astronomy in Mayan culture is one example as is the Enlightenment. Since the 18th century developments in both science and technology have been rapid, radical and socially transformative. Social dislocation feeds insecurity which, in turn, seeks an outlet for anxiety. It is in response to these factors, fed by inherited and often unconscious prejudice, that represents the social mechanism for the failed 20th century Final Solution, and points towards the future and final, Final Solution.
In the brave new world of secularism “science” provided Jewish exclusion a new and socially-acceptable justification. And the threat to the Jews, previously dire, would grow far more dangerous.
In his History of Anti-Semitism, Leon Poliakov quotes Napoleon:
“I do not intend to rescue that race, which seems to have been the only one excluded from redemption, from the curse with which it is smitten, but I would like to put it in a position where it is unable to propagate the evil,” (volume III, p.226).
Still, Napoleon’s commitment to French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité meant extending the same even to the Jews. But the price he demanded, the “Napoleonic Bargain,” was little different from that demanded by Martin Luther three hundred years earlier. Luther demanded that Jews abandon their religion; Napoleon expected the Jews to abandon their identity.
In effect both demanded assimilation, that Jews abandon Judaism:
"Napoleon''s outward tolerance and fairness toward Jews was actually based upon his grand plan to have them disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion."
Still he did usher in the process which would be called the Emancipation; he promoted laws governing the inclusion of Jews as relative equals and citizens. But freeing the Jews from centuries of serfdom and their community identity still had many opponents. Even within revolutionary France many preferred an “exclusionary solution” to the now secularized Jewish Problem. According to Jacob Katz,
“The possible expulsion of Jews from France had been mentioned in the National Assembly debate… as the unreasonable and unthinkable alternative to the obvious solution, the radical integration of the Jews into the newly created body politic,” (From Prejudice to Destruction, Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933, p. 109).
The Napoleonic conquests extended Jewish emancipation across a reluctant Europe and once he was defeated in 1814 emancipation evaporated as quickly as it had been imposed. Many Jews responded by reverting to “’son of’ names, such as Mendelssohn, Jacobson, Levinson, etc.” And perhaps this reversion to tradition points to a fundamental of Jewish insecurity in the Diaspora unreflectively carried forward from a threatening history.
Emancipation’s promise was seriously reversed with Napoleon leaving the scene. But eventually, if haltingly, the emancipation movement revived. In the 1830’s Greece, Canada and Sweden freed their Jews; Denmark in 1849, the United Kingdom in 1858 and Germany in 1871. The United States followed Germany in 1877.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy exemplifies German Jewry’s desire to assimilate. A convert to Lutheranism his grandfather, philosopher and trained Orthodox rabbi Moses Mendelssohn, developed Haskalah and the movement to adapt Judaism to modern society that would later be called Reformism.
In his antisemitic diatribe “Jewishness in Music,” Richard Wagner, a previous friend and admirer of Mendelssohn’s music, turned on his former friend. Although Mendelssohn’s father converted before his birth Wagner decided that the “holy water” of conversion does not wash away Judaism. Mendelssohn, as far as Wagner was concerned, was an alien influence on real German music. According to Grosser and Halperin (The Causes and Effects of anti-Semitism, 1978, pps. 208-9),
“Jewish success following their emancipation caused resentment on the part of many Christians… The scientific age and mindset gave anti-Semitism a new respectability. As religion lost ground to science, anti-Semitism became in part scientific. No longer based solely on religious belief, this new version of [Jew hatred] became respectable and acceptable to the modernist.”
The term “anti-Semitism” first appeared in the 1870’s. Coined by the journalist Wilhelm Marr it gave the old hate a scientific gloss:
“[F]or a time, during the first half of the century, it seemed that anti-Semitism would disappear as nations became more secular and the last vestiges of feudalism and privilege fell to political liberalism and scientific and economic progress. This optimism was mistaken. Hating the Jew was too much an integral part of western culture and tradition and was not to be exorcised,” (Grosser and Halperin, 1978, p. 207).
Very soon Jewish emancipation would inspire the rise of organized antisemitic movements, the emergence of political parties based on antisemitism. The march towards the Holocaust had begun.