While many in the West look to the tumultuous changes taking place throughout the Middle East and view it as a revival of The Enlightenment, we should be aware of the anti-Semitic thinking that was laced into the last one and how those ideas led to horrific consequences in due time.
Arthur Hertzberg pointed this out in his seminal “The French Enlightenment and the Jews: the origins of modern anti-Semitism”, noting the era of Western history that began with the French Revolution ended in Auschwitz.
In fact, since the days of The Enlightenment, the liberal voices of the left have been many of the loudest anti-Semites and some of the worst enemies to the Jews.
Though taking a different approach, Hannah Arendt corroborated this same notion. Reflecting on the history of anti-Semitism at the time of The Enlightenment, Arendt points out in her book, “The Origins Of Totalitarianism,” “They saw in them (Jews) as the backward remnants of the Dark Ages, and they hated them as financial agents of the aristocracy.”
Because of their close relationship to state sources of power, the Jews were invariably identified with power. Therefore, those on the left who were rebelling against those in power would associate Jews with their oppressors.
Instead of putting an end to the anti-Jewish sentiment of previous centuries, the philosophes in fact exacerbated it, even bolstering it into a new era. Hertzberg writes, “An analysis of everything that Voltaire wrote about Jews throughout his life establishes the proposition that his is the major link in Western intellectual history between anti-Semitism of classic paganism and the modern age.”
So too today, hateful sentiments and ideas about Jews that have existed for centuries on the Arab street, will likely turn a deadly gaze, setting out to destroy them once again if given the chance.
While from Cairo to Damascus, both Facebook and Twitter have become powerful lenses; they’ve created the conditions to view how the world lives outside of their oppressive borders. Yet, because anti-Semitism has been inculcated throughout their lessons and filled their minds with fabrications - no different than what European Christians had been fed - their anger will be directed at the most successful of nations in their midst – Israel.
From that perspective, how different is it from what Hertzberg described as the Catholic education given to the majority of children in France in the late seventeenth century who were taught that the Jews were Christ-killers and therefore deserved exile and worse?
Today those carrying the torch of freedom on their BlackBerrys, are no different in this respect from the peasants who nurtured the old canards about Jews.
Abe Novick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.