The Universality of Anti-Semitism


In researching Jewish history, the investigator discovers a wide variance of written material. Work by authors expressly critical of Jews (and they include a surprisingly number of Jewish commentators, mostly "apostates" of one kind or another) is invariably labeled by today's political conventions to be "anti-Semitic" in nature. There is a large body of such material extending throughout history, written by critics wherever Jews were to be found. Some of the criticism is ridiculous; the accusations of Hitler are absurdly exaggerated. But other observations about Jewish life by non-Jews is startlingly consistent over two thousand years. Consistently credible Gentile themes in attacks against Jews include Jewish elitism, their insularity and clannishness, their disdain for non-Jews, their exploitive and deceptive behavior towards those not their own, the suspicion of Jewish national loyalties and allegiance to the lands they lived in, excessive Jewish proclivity for money and economic domination, and an economic "parasitism" (the concentration of Jews in lucrative non-productive fields of finance -- usury, money lending, etc. -- at the expense of non-Jewish communities).

"Anti-Semitism," remarks Oliver Cox, "is an ancient social attitude probably coeval with the rise of Jewish tribalism. It is thus an immemorial trait identified with Jewish culture ... Anti-Semitism has been identified with Jewish behavior in the sense that it is a reaction of other groups to the Jews' determination to assert and perpetuate their identity ... Unlike race prejudice ... anti-Semitism or intolerance is essentially an inherent social response -- a retaliation [against] the Jewish determination to resist merger of their civilization with that of a host people" (Cox, 183-184).

West Banks Settlers Attack Palestinian Woman
Hebron, August 2001: A Palestinian mother, Samar Abdul-Shafti, is kicked by a Jewish boy while a Jewish woman rips off her Islamic headscarf.

"The Jews," J. O. Hertzler writes, "... have been a supernation rather than members of a nation. More than any other people, certainly up to the time of the emancipation, they were innocent and irresponsible toward the national traditions and aspirations of the people among whom they lived" (Hertzler, 76).

"Hatred for the Jews," Abram Leon writes, "does not date solely from the birth of Christianity. Seneca treated the Jews as a criminal race. Juvenal believed that the Jews only existed to cause evil for other peoples. Quintilian said that Jews were a curse for other people" (Leon, 71).

In 59 BC the Roman statesman Cicero criticized Jewish "clannishness" and "influence in the assemblies." In the second century AD Celsus, one of Rome's great medical writers, wrote that Jews "pride themselves in possessing superior wisdom and disdain for the company of other men." Philostratus, an ancient Greek author, believed that Jews "have long since risen against humanity itself. They are men who have devised a misanthropic life, who share neither food nor drink with others." (Cf. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, I, iii.) The great Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 56-120) declared that "the Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and are always ready to show compassion [for their fellow Jews], but toward other people they feel only hate and enmity" (Morais, 46).

Centuries later Voltaire's criticism of Jews, in his Essai sur le Moeurs, repeated many of the same charges: "The Jewish nation dares to display an irreconcilable hatred toward all nations, and revolts against all masters; always superstitious, always greedy for the well-being enjoyed by others, always barbarous -- cringing in misfortune and insolent in prosperity." Ironically, as Jacob Katz observes, "Voltaire did more than any other single man to shape the rationalist trend that moved European society toward improving the status of the Jew" (Katz, 34).

Still historically remembered (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1994) "as a crusader against tyranny and bigotry," Voltaire turned repeatedly and angrily against Jews who he believed to epitomize such "tyranny and bigotry." Jews, he complained, "are ... the greatest scoundrels who have ever sullied the face of the globe ... They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and Germans are born with blond hair. I would not in the least be surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race ... 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" (Gould, 91). On another occasion Voltaire charged that "the Jew does not belong to any place except that place which he makes money; would he not just as easily betray the King on behalf of the Emperor as he would the Emperor for the King?" (Katz, 44). Thirty of 118 of Voltaire's essays in his Dictionary of Philosophy address Jews, usually disparagingly. Voltaire calls Jews "our masters and our enemies ... whom we detest ... the most abominable people in the world."

With the coming of the Enlightenment, as David Sorkin notes, "Jews were roundly condemned for "their ritualistic religion, national character or economic situation which, separately or together, prevented them from being moral. Enlightenment thinkers almost without exception subscribed to this image of Jewish inferiority" (Sorkin, 85). "The ghetto," Enlightenment intellectuals argued, "had produced an essentially unacceptable culture. Jews were utter strangers to Europe. Social isolation had created traits in need of drastic transformation: Jews harbored within them hatred of the Christian nurtured by centuries of Talmudic and rabbinic indoctrination, they were religious fanatics, parasitic in their economics and dishonest in their dealings" (Aschheim, 6).

"Know that wherever there is money," said Montesquieu in his Persian Letters, "there is the Jew" (Krefetz, 45).

Even prominent and widely respected Jewish commentators echoed the same themes about their own people. Benjamin Disraeli, a Jewish convert to Christianity, and the most famous British prime minister of the nineteenth century wrote that "the native tendency of the Jewish race is against the doctrine of the equality of man. They have also another characteristic -- the faculty of acquisition ... Their bias is to religion, property, and natural aristocracy."

Another Jew, the great philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza, was a bridge between Jewish medievalism and the Enlightenment. Spinoza commented: "At the present time there is absolutely nothing which the Jews can arrogate to themselves beyond other people ... As to their continuance so long after dispersion, there is nothing marvelous in it, for they separated themselves from every nation as to draw upon themselves universal hate" (Levy, 93).

Similar complaints, reflecting consistently reccurring charges against Jews, have been echoed throughout history, in many languages and in many lands, including -- even in the ancient past -- "Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and many others" (Hertzler, 62). But this disdain for Jews by critics (some of the most learned men of their times, including Jews and Jewish apostates, across the spectrum of humanity) is not accepted as historical evidence for anything in our own day, except for the strange tenacity of irrational "anti-Semites" and "self-hating Jews" to badmouth Jews.

So what was the real situation in bygone eras? What were Jews like, in relation to Gentiles? Popular Jewish dictate has one answer: look only to the Hebrew texts, ancient rabbis, and other Jewish chroniclers. They know what Jews were like. Their texts are reliable. The rest are all lies and exaggerations.

"How does one understand -- not even forgive, simply understand!" exhorts Harvard law professor and well-known Jewish polemicist Alan Dershowitz,

the virulently anti-Jewish statements of intellectuals throughout history? Their numbers included H. L. Mencken ('The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of'); George Bernard Shaw ('Stop being Jews and start being human beings'); Henry Adams ('The whole rotten carcass is rotten with Jew worms'); H.G. Wells ('A careful study of anti-Semitism, prejudice and accusations might be of great value to many Jews, who do not adequately realize the irritation they inflict'); Edgar Degas (characterized as a 'wild anti-Semite'); Denis Diderot ('Brutish people, vile and vulgar men'); Theodore Dreiser (New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity'); T. S. Eliot (a social as well as literary anti-Semite, even after the Holocaust); Immanuel Kant ('The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.') Other famous anti-Semites include Tacitus, Cicero, Aleksander Pushkin, Pierre Renoir, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and, of course, Richard Wagner. This honor roll of anti-Jewish bigotry goes on, and included people of every race, religion, and geographic area, political leaning, gender, and age. The answer to the question why? probably lies more in the realm of abnormal psychology than in any rational attempts to find understandable cause in history, or economics. Anti-Semitism is a disease of the soul, and diseases are best diagnosed by examining those infected with them (Dershowitz, 113).
Nicholas de Lange, a Jewish scholar, joins Dershowitz in reflecting a virtually generic Jewish response about the constant complaint about their people throughout history and culture, saying: "Much of the ancient literature on the Jews ... is devoted to explaining why the Jews have incurred the justifiable anger or hatred of ordinary peace-loving, law-abiding people ... But no critical historian would consider taking their arguments at face value, and in fact they are likely to tell us more about their authors than their victims" (De Lange, 28).

A Jewish-Polish professor in Warsaw, Pawel Spiewak, speaks in similar terms:

We find the representatives of almost every ideological orientation [who were anti-Semites] ... Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire), arch-conservatives (de Masitre, de Bonald), socialists and communists (Fourier, Proudhon, Marx, Sobel), and the great Romantics (Goethe). These writers seem to differ in everything -- their relation to religion, the idea of progress, authority, feudalism, and capitalism, the concept of knowledge and human nature -- but they are united in a spirit of dislike and hostility towards that strange tribe, the Jews (Spiewak, 51).
While fascists on the political right like Hitler decried the Jews, 18th and 19th century leftists like socialists Charles Fourier, Alphonse Tousenel, Pierre Le Roux, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Johann Gottlieb Fichte were, according to Jewish analysis in our own era, also vehemently irrational anti-Semites. These men wrote tracts like this, by Proudhon: "The Jew is by temperament an anti-producer, neither a farmer nor an industrialist nor even a true merchant. He is an intermediary, always fraudulent and parasitic, who operates, in trade as in philosophy, by means of falsification, counterfeiting, and horse-trading" (Lewis, 111).

"I see no other means of protecting ourselves against them," wrote Fichte, "[other] than by conquering their Promised Land and sending them all there" (Lewis, 111-112). Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin declared that Jews were "one exploiting sect, one people of leeches, one single devouring parasite closely and intimately bound together not only across national boundaries, but also across all divergences of political opinion ... [Jews have] that mercantile passion which constitutes one of the principle traits of their national character" (Lewis, 113).

"For one [reason] or another," Daniel Pipes observes, "virtually every major figure in the early history of socialism -- including Friedrich Engels, Charles Fourier, Ferdinand Lasalle, Marx, and Joseph Proudhon -- showed a marked antipathy to Jews" (Pipes, 88).

Jewish author William Korey notes the same mystifying omnipresence of anti-Jewish animus among disparate peoples in interviews (at a Harvard archive) with 329 refugees from the Soviet Union in the early 1950s: "A detailed examination of the background information of those who registered hostile attitudes to Jews reveals that they were of various age, national, educational, and status groups, and that they left the USSR at different periods" (Korey, 11). The top six "anti-Semitic" assertions by this diverse group of people included assertions that

(1) Jews occupy a privileged and favored position in Soviet society. 2) Jews are business- and money-minded. 3) Jews are clannish and help each other. 4) Jews are aggressive and 'pushy.' 5) Jews are sly, calculating, and manipulative, and know how to 'use a situation.' 6) Jews are deceitful, dishonest, unprincipled, insolent, and impudent (Korey, 5).
When investigating the history of Jewish relations with Gentiles across history, there are obviously only two possible sources for information: Jews and non-Jews. There were no unbiased Martian observers watching with telescopes, none -- in any case -- that left us records. So why, one might wonder, should we, following Prof. De Lange's advice, judge Jewish accounts categorically more reliable than historical accounts by non-Jews, when all varieties of critical commentators about Jews across history, class, language, and culture have basically said the same thing?

"However uncomfortable it is to recognize," says Albert Lindemann, "not all those whom historians have classified as anti-Semites were narrow bigots, irrational, or otherwise incapable of acts of altruism and moral courage. They represented a bewildering range of opinion and personality types" (Lindemann, 13). And why is this "uncomfortable [for Jews] to recognize?" Because, by even a child's exercise of logic and common sense, the common denominator of all such disparate people can only be the enduring truths about Jews as each observer experienced them in varying historical and cultural circumstances.

The French Jewish intellectual (and eventual Zionist), Bernard Lazare, among many others in history, noted this obvious fact in 1894, long before the Nazi persecutions of Jews and resultant institutionalized Jewish efforts to deny, or obfuscate, crucial -- and central -- aspects of their history:

Wherever the Jews settled [in their Diaspora] one observes the development of anti-Semitism, or rather anti-Judaism ... If this hostility, this repugnance had been shown towards the Jews at one time or in one country only, it would be easy to account for the local cause of this sentiment. But this race has been the object of hatred with all nations amidst whom it settled. Inasmuch as the enemies of Jews belonged to diverse races, as they dwelled far apart from one another, were ruled by different laws and governed by opposite principles; as they had not the same customs and differed in spirit from one another, so that they could not possibly judge alike of any subject, it must needs be that the general causes of anti-Semitism have always resided in [the people of] Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it (Lazare, 8).

Works Cited

Aschheim, Steven E. Brothers and Strangers: The Eastern European Jews in Germany and German Jewish Consciousness, 1800-1923. University of Wisconsin Press, 1982

Cox, Oliver C. "Jewish Self-Interest in 'Black Pluralism.'" The Sociological Quarterly, 15 (Spring), 1974, pp. 183-198.

de Lange, Nicholas. The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Ancient Evidence and Modern Interpretation. In Gilman, Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis, 1991.

Dershowitz, Alan. Chutzpah. Little, Brown, and Co. Boston, Toronto, London, 1991.

Englander, David, Ed. The Jewish Enigma: An Enduring People. George Braziller, New York, 1992.

Frank, Daniel H., Ed. A People Apart: Chosenness and Ritual in Jewish Philosophical Thought. State University of NY Press, 1993.

Gilman, Sander. L. and Katz, Stephen T., Ed. Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis. New York University Press, New York, 1991.

Gould, Allan, Ed. What Did They Think of the Jews? Jason Aronson, Inc. Northvale, NJ, 1991.

Graeber, Isacque and Britt, Stewart Henderson. Jews in a Gentile World: The Problem of Antisemitism. Macmillan, New York, 1942.

Hertzler, J. O. "The Sociology of Antisemitism Through History." In Graeber, pp. 62-99.

Katz, Jacob. From Prejudice to Destruction: Antisemitism, 1700-1933. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1980.

Korey, William. The Soviet Cage: Anti-Semitism in Russia. Village Press, New York, 1973.

Krefetz, Gerald. Jews and Money: The Myths and the Reality. Ticknor and Fields, New Haven and NY, 1982.

Lazare, Bernard. Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Britons Publishing Co., London, 1967

Leon, Abram. The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970.

Levy, Ze'ev. Judaism and Chosenness: On Some Controversial Aspects from Spinoza to Contemporary Jewish Thought. (in Frank: A People Apart).

Lewis, Bernard. Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. Norton, New York, 1986.

Lindemann, Albert. Esau's Tears: Modern Antisemitism and the Rise of the Jews. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Morais, Vamberto. A Short History of Anti-Semitism. Norton, NY, 1976.

Pipes, Daniel. Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. Free Press, New York, 1997.

Sorkin, David. Jewish Emancipation in Central and Western Europe in the 18th and 19th Century. In Englander, pp. 81-105.

Spiewak, Pawel. Shoah: The Second Fall. [in Under One Heaven: Poles and Jews. Wiez. Special Issue. Warsaw Monthly. 1998, pp. 47-58.

The preceding text is excerpted and edited from When Victims Rule, online at Jewish Tribal Review. The title is editorial.


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