Jewish Ideas Daily: A convenient hatred

With some 1,000 books currently in print on the subject, does the world desperately need another tome on anti-Semitism?

March 11, 2012 22:09

Anti Semitism 390. (photo credit: Reuters)

This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily ( and is reprinted with permission.

With some 1,000 books currently in print on the subject, does the world desperately need another tome on anti-Semitism? What difference will it make, when anti-Israelism provides only the latest justification for Europe’s persistent prejudice against Jews and anti-Semitic views are shared by 15 percent of Americans and 90% of Muslims worldwide?

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Phyllis Goldstein’s A Convenient Hatred: A Short History of Antisemitism, published by the liberal-minded “Facing History and Ourselves” foundation, is nevertheless timely, because she writes not primarily as a historian or polemicist but as a teacher of tolerance. Though Harold Evans’ foreword acknowledges that anti-Semitism is a “mental condition conducive to paranoia” and “impervious to truth,” the hope seems to be that this book can inoculate high-school and college students against incipient anti-Semitism. Assuming that human beings are capable of moral choice, there is every incentive to continue this battle, no matter the odds of victory.

Goldstein lucidly synthesizes the relentless hatred that Jews have confronted. Did anti-Semitism begin because Jews refused to embrace the gods of more powerful civilizations? Or when Jews lost their sovereignty and were scattered into the Diaspora? In either case, Goldstein makes clear that anti-Semitism is as ancient as the Jewish people. Greek and Roman stereotypes “dehumanized and demonized Jews as a group.” The first regime-orchestrated pogrom against Jews dates to ancient Alexandria, which also spawned the first blood libel.

In 325 CE, as Roman Christianity solidified its hegemony, Church fathers taught their flock to detest Jews. With the birth of Islam in Arabia around 570 CE, Jews found themselves at the mercy of yet another imperial empire, which generally tolerated them so long as they accepted dhimmi inferiority and paid tribute. How Jews were treated by Muslims “depended on who was king or caliph,” Goldstein writes. A ruler tolerant of Jews “might be followed by one who was greedy, cruel, or just weak.”

For Christian civilization, subjugating the Jews wasn’t enough. Between 1096 and 1149, scores of European Jewish communities were decimated by Christians on their way to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. Over the 300 years beginning in 1144, Christians in England, France and Germany promulgated the calumny that Jews used the blood of Christians for ritual purposes. French Christians marked St. Valentine’s Day in 1349 by burning Jews alive. Barred from owning land and entering many professions, Jews were demonized because a number of them turned to the “sin” of money lending.

Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella go down in the rogues’ gallery of haters for having ordered the deportation of Jews from Spain in 1492. But, Goldstein shows, this expulsion was by no means unique: Jews were repeatedly expelled from France, Germany, Hungary and Lithuania, and once from England. They headed for Muslim countries or Eastern Europe. Neither offered safe haven for long.

WITH MODERNITY came the prospect of acceptance. Yet, to paraphrase Napoleon, even where Jews abjured claims of nationhood and converted to Christianity in hopes of “blending in,” they were not accepted as individuals. Emerging nationalisms viewed Jews, conversions notwithstanding, as foreign objects within the body politic. Economics, too, played a role, then as now. The dislocation engendered by the industrial revolution made Jews a target of antagonism. They became hated for fomenting capitalism and Communism, for being clannish and cosmopolitan.

Old lies never fade away; they just metastasize. Though The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first fabricated by the Russian Czar’s secret police in 1907, its falsehoods have thrived ever since, first under the Nazis, then, as remains true today, in the Muslim Middle East. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt hardly invented the insinuation that Jews are culpable of dual loyalty; that falsehood was in vogue by the end of World War I, when German Jews were charged with stabbing the Fatherland in the back.

Wisely, Goldstein does not dwell on the Final Solution but moves swiftly to post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Her capsule history of the Arabs’ rejection of Israel is meticulously fair-minded, reporting that Palestinian Arabs became refugees in the course of the 1948 fighting while “less attention” has been paid to the 875,000 Jews forced from their homes in Arab countries. She does not gloss over the continuing Muslim penchant for anti- Jewish conspiracy theories, including the cant that Jews were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The torture-murders of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and Ilan Halimi in a Paris suburb are given their due.

Goldstein also covers left-wing anti-Semitism, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to the “progressive” anti-Zionism on display at the 2001 UN Durban Conference, where “nearly every slander hurled at Jews over the centuries was expressed.” The author discusses right-wing anti-globalization sentiment as a xenophobic opposition to “the opening of national borders to ideas, people, and investments”; but she might have said more about the no-less-dangerous left-wing variety.

This is a remarkably concise work covering an extensive period, so there is room to quibble. There is Goldstein’s kumbayah description of the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States as an ecumenical affair enjoying the support of American officialdom; in fact, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was determined to put détente first. Goldstein’s facile description of the first intifada as “dominated by young Palestinians who threw stones at soldiers” underplays a violent frenzy that took the lives of 160 Israelis and over 1,000 Arabs, many of the latter murdered as “collaborators” in internecine slaughter.

None of this detracts from Goldstein’s central argument that “the link between the language of extremism and actual violence remains as strong as ever.” Anti-Semitism remains “a convenient hatred” because it mobilizes and unites otherwise disparate haters behind a common cause, diverting them from their own shortcomings.

Over the millennia, anti-Semitism has indeed become almost metaphysically “impervious to truth.” It may be hoisting hope over experience, but let A Convenient Hatred be read worldwide in schools committed to combating bigotry. Even the jaded have a right to hope that this worthy book will contribute to overcoming the terrible lies told about the Jews.

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