Persistent anti-Judaism

Ever since Caligula was emperor of Rome, and perhaps even before, anti-Semitism has been the most persistent hatred known to Western society.

Swastika grafitti (illustrative) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Swastika grafitti (illustrative)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The first ghetto in recorded history was set up in Alexandria in 38 CE at a time when Caligula was emperor of Rome, according to Robert Wistrich, an eminent historian of anti-Semitism. Ever since, and perhaps even before Caligula, anti-Semitism has been the most persistent hatred known to Western society. And this “lethal obsession” is not showing any signs of disappearing any time soon.
In 2012, there were 686 threats, acts of violence and vandalism, including physical attacks – with a weapon (50) or without (89) – perpetrated against Jews because they were Jews, according to a report published on Holocaust Remembrance Day by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry.
As dependable as the changing of seasons, anti-Semitism may, like the weather, fluctuate, but never does it dissipate.
There are hotter years, such as 2012, when violent incidents rise, and there are years such as 2010 and 2011 when expressions of enmity for Jews fall.
The ebb and flow seems to have its own internal rules.
When Israel defends itself – whether against Hezbollah aggression on the Lebanon border or against Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in the South – Jews living in places like Toulouse or the Bronx are inevitably targeted.
And deadly attacks, like the one on the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse in which a rabbi and four children were murdered by Salafist Mohamed Merah, encourage more violence. The carrying out of such atrocities breaks a psychological barrier, paving the way for more.
The tradition of publicizing data related to anti-Semitism on Holocaust Remembrance Day is liable to lead to despair. Even the Shoah failed to shock humanity into abandoning its most ancient hatred. And a new book by historian David Nirenberg titled, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, leaves little room for optimism.
In his work of extraordinary erudition, Nirenberg traces enmity toward Judaism from ancient Egypt through the modern era in thinkers such as Karl Marx. He chooses the term “anti-Judaism” as opposed to “anti-Semitism” because the deployment of Judaism as a force of evil that purportedly threatens Egyptian, Christian, Muslim and modern society, takes place irrespective of the existence of living and breathing Jews, whether in Shakespeare’s England, 16th-century Spain, Martin Luther’s Germany or elsewhere.
Manetho, an Egyptian historian who lived in the third century BCE, transformed Moses and the Hebrews into lepers who spread diseases as a means of making sense of his people’s history of subjection to foreign powers.
Early Christians used the term “Judaism” or “Pharisee” to describe those who rejected Jesus and who attached an overly literal reading of the Bible, in the process destroying the “spirit” of the gospels. Muslims portrayed Judaism as a force that corrupted holy texts. And when Luther rebelled against Catholicism, he attacked the church’s “legalistic understanding of God’s justice” as “Jewish.”
Nor did the age of secularism usher in a more positive perception of Judaism. Marx’s insistence on the abolishment of private property emanated from his desire to emancipate society from Judaism’s spiritual slavery and alienation from the world. It was, after all, the essential “Jewishness” of money and property that produced the despicable Jewish qualities in the gentiles who used them.
Anti-Judaism is, therefore, not solely a negative attitude toward Jews. Rather it has evolved through the ages as an intellectual apparatus for engaging with and/or criticizing the world. This negative mode of thinking about Judaism’s impact on perceptions has persisted after the Holocaust. As Nirenberg points out at the end of his book, “We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the arguments that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel.’”
Notwithstanding the calls to “combat” expressions of anti-Semitism throughout the world, the fight against hatred of Jews seems doomed to failure. Zionism’s response, tragically belated in implementation, was, and still is, the most pragmatic to this disheartening reality.
Jewish political self-determination has, admittedly, created problems of its own. But when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vows, as he did at Yad Vashem on Sunday night, “never again will there be a Shoah,” even Israel’s most virulent detractors take him seriously – or they should.