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Home arrow Sociology arrow Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism Representation

II Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism


Antisemitism: Continuities and Discontinuities

Introduction

Antisemitism1 has a history of several millennia and can plausibly be thought of as one of the most enduring forms of prejudice against any single group. Indeed, Jewish history is fraught with acts of persecution. The Jewish people were exiled from their homeland of Judah during the rule of the Babylonian Empire, which subsequently gave rise to a Jewish diaspora scattered all over the world. In their host countries, in the Christian and Islamic worlds, Jews continued to suffer persecution to varying degrees, and, in some cases, pogroms and even genocide.2 The study of antisemitism is clearly an important area of research. Despite the immensely insightful contributions made by historians, sociologists, political scientists (Lindemann and Levy, 2010a, 2010b; Perry and Schweitzer, 2002; Wistrich, 1999a, 1996b; Salzborn, 2010; Wittenberg, 2013) and social psychologists (Baum, 2009a; Cohen et al., 2009; Jaspal, 2013a) to the study of this age-old prejudice, antisemitism remains something of an enigma. This chapter introduces the concept of antisemitism and discusses its conceptual and definitional aspects. The continuities and discontinuities of antisemitism are examined across time, space and culture, beginning with a historical overview of antisemitism from antiquity to modern history. Antisemitism in both Christian and Islamic contexts is discussed, and some of the key antisemitic myths, representations and “techniques” are identified. Their trajectory across time, space and culture is charted, as well as their implications for contemporary antisemitism. A series of key social sciences research studies are critically evaluated and their implications for contemporary antisemitism research are outlined.

1  Although some scholars differentiate explicitly between anti-Judaism, as a form of religious prejudice, and antisemitism, as a racially-based prejudice (e.g. Cunningham, 2010; Isaac, 2010), here it is employed to encompass both forms of prejudice as there is historical and contemporary slippage between them.

2  It is acknowledged that anti-Jewish persecution was not constant in all of the countries in which Jews resided and that there was periods of positive intergroup relations. In Muslim Spain, for instance, where Jews were said to have been generally treated with tolerance and acceptance (Menocal, 2002), there were instances of brutal anti-Jewish violence, such as the 1066 Granada Massacre which resulted in the deaths of some 4000 Jews (Cohen, 1995; Fernández-Morera, 2003).


Antisemitism: Conceptual Issues

Antisemitism is a slippery concept which has been understood and used in different ways in accordance with time, space and context. The German journalist Wilhelm Marr first used the term “Semitismus” (Semitism) interchangeably with “Judentum” (Jewry) in his pamphlet Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum. Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (“The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a non-religious perspective”), published in 1873. In his next pamphlet on German Jewry, “The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit” (1879), Marr employed the term “Antisemitismus” (Antisemitism), in order to denote opposition to what he described as “Jewish domination”. Crucially, his use of the term “antisemitism” was intended to highlight the racial, rather than religious, characteristics of Jews and was therefore secular in character. This pamphlet became popular in German society and led to the formation of the Antisemiten-Liga (the League of Antisemites), a German organisation which advocated the forced removal of Jews from Germany in order to protect Germany and German culture. The pamphlet and the League of Antisemites helped to introduce the terms “antisemitism” and “antisemite” into the political and cultural lexicon and eventually into everyday language. This referred more explicitly to racial and cultural, rather than purely religious, antipathy to Jews.

Although some scholars have questioned the accuracy of the term given that the Semitic people include Arabs and other ethnic groups, the term has been adopted in several languages, including Romance, Germanic, Slavic and even Turkic languages, to refer to forms of hostility against Jews in particular. Antisemitism has been subjected to considerable debate in the academic world, as scholars have attempted to define its conceptual boundaries and to outline what can and what cannot be legitimately regarded as “antisemitism”. In its broadest sense, antisemitism refers to prejudice and hostility towards Jews on the basis of their ethno-cultural and/or religious group membership. Antisemitism attributes to the Jews an exceptional position in the broader social matrix, constructs them as an inferior group and generally excludes them from dominant society (Pauley, 1998). Thus, it also encompasses what some scholars have referred to as “anti-Jewishness” or “anti-Judaism” (e.g. Cunningham, 2010; Isaac, 2010). The distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism as religious and racial forms of prejudice, respectively, is useful in historical overviews of antipathy towards Jews (Isaac, 2010) but given their overlap and conflation in contemporary discourses around Jews, the terms appear to be less conceptually delineable.

However, numerous scholars do take issue with this broad defi of antisemitism. From a historical scholarly position, Bernard Lewis (1999) has argued that the term antisemitism should not be used to describe just any hostility towards Jews but rather that it should be reserved for cognition and treatment which construct Jews as a “cosmic evil”, the inherent corruptors of all human activity. While hostility can, in principle, reduce if a group is perceived as redeemable, this is not applicable
to those groups regarded as a cosmic evil since this is constructed as an immutable, quasi-biological trait. For instance, although medieval Islamic law treated Jews as inferior to Muslims – socially, politically and theologically – Jews continued to be regarded as human beings, as “people of the Book” and, thus, not as a cosmic evil. This anti-Jewish prejudice emerged in the context of religion, rather than “race”. Similarly, some of the most pivotal fi in modern European antisemitism, such as Wilhelm Marr and Heinrich von Treitschke, appeared to regard Jews as potentially redeemable citizens and, thus, not as a cosmic evil. According to Lewis's conceptualisation of antisemitism, Hitler would, conversely, qualify as an antisemite because, as leader of the Nazi party, he disseminated demonising and dehumanising representations of Jews, whose “reform” was not deemed to be possible due to “racial inferiority” (Gilbert, 1985; Hilberg, 1985).

Many scholars converge in their conceptualisation of antisemitism as a form of racism. Isaac (2010, p. 34) regards it as “a proto-racist set of ideas” and “a collective prejudice with delusional aspects” which “attributes to the Jews, as a collective group, negative traits that are unalterable, the result of hereditary factors”. He draws a distinction between antisemitism, which he regards as a form of racism, and anti-Judaism, which conversely constitutes “hostility based on religion” (p. 34). Although Isaac does not discuss the threat component, which is suggested by Lewis's conceptualisation of antisemitism, there is clearly some overlap in their thinking. According to Isaac, antisemitism, as a form of racism, constructs Jewishness as an immutable, quasi-biological trait and, thus, Jews as immutable and beyond reform. Conversely, anti-Judaism, as a form of religious outgroup discrimination, implies that Jews can change and reform provided that they exit their religious group. In the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, Jews and Muslims were afforded the opportunity to renounce their respective religious identities and to convert to Catholicism to avoid expulsion (Roth, 2002). Similarly, in radical Islamism, Jews are not generally viewed as racially inferior to Arabs and are afforded the opportunity for redemption provided that they renounce Judaism and embrace Islam (Wistrich, 2010). However, the language employed to describe Jews sometimes suggests that they are inherently inferior to Muslims (Chapters 7 and 8, this volume).

Antisemitism is clearly a very complex form of prejudice, which has permeated time and space. These narrower definitions of antisemitism run the risk of attenuating the gravity of some forms of hostility and discrimination towards Jews due to their Jewishness however this is conceptualised. Furthermore, such narrow definitions of antisemitism can mean that newer, subtler manifestations of Jewhatred may be overlooked, thereby limiting our ability to identify antisemitic acts when they are committed. There is clearly a need for a definition that facilitates the identification (and even prediction) of antisemitism. Helen Fein (1987, p. 67) provides an apt and inclusive definition of antisemitism which clearly captures the complexity and fluidity of this form of prejudice. She regards it as

a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs toward Jews as a collectivity

manifested in individuals as attitudes, and in culture as myths, ideology, folklore
and imagery, and in actions – social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against the Jews, and collective or state violence – which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews (p. 67, italics in original).

This conceptualisation of antisemitism is useful and insightful in a number of ways. It refers to both religiouslyand racially-based prejudice towards Jews. Importantly, antisemitism is implied to have an action orientation in that it is intended to produce particular forms of action, both psychological and social. Fein invokes the desired “goal” among antisemites, namely the distancing, displacement and/or destruction of Jewry. This captures the distinct forms that hostility can take. This hostility can be manifested in a deadly, genocidal manner as exemplified by the Holocaust but also in more benign ways – in the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, many Jews feel belittled, marginalised and threatened by both the Iranian government and public because of their Jewishness (Jaspal, 2014b). There are likely to be distinct social and psychological “routes” to the goals of distancing, displacement and/or destruction. The most obvious routes include inter alia the reconceptualisation of Jews as animalistic rather than human; Holocaust denial; the isolation of Jews; violence against Jews; and, as outlined by Fein in her definition above, group mobilisation against Jews. Thus, this conceptualisation invites us to consider what antisemites intend to achieve by disseminating particular representations of Jews.

This definition connects various important levels of analysis (which will be discussed in Chapter 4), namely the micro (individual), meso (cultural) and macro (institutional) levels. Fein quite rightly refers to antisemitism as a latent yet persisting structure of beliefs. It is the complex and dynamic interaction between the individual, cultural and institutional levels which can explain how and why latent or dormant hostile beliefs manage to persist over time and to become quite central to a group's ethos and to an individual's cognitive framework. Fein's definition invites us to think not only about the individual's antisemitic attitudes but also the ways in which these attitudes may be supported or challenged at social and institutional levels. Indeed, social psychology has long argued that the individual's attitude constitutes the product not only of psychological factors but also of social and institutional environment (Bar-Tal, 2000; Moscovici, 1988).

Fein acknowledges that “hostile beliefs” can function and manifest themselves at distinct levels of human interdependence. They may be manifested in the cognitive level of the individual, evoking negative emotions such as anger or disgust, and lead to particular patterns of interpersonal relations, such as avoidance or violence. Such hostile beliefs about Jews have of course been embodied and widely disseminated in age-old antisemitic myths, such as the blood libel, and in antisemitic conspiracy theories, such as that concerning Jewish complicity in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York (Gray, 2010; Perry and Schweitzer, 2002). Antisemitism at a cultural level clearly informs and reinforces antisemitism at the individual level, but the relationship is reciprocal – committed antisemites will do all they can to ensure that their cultures continue to accept and convey
antisemitic messages. Indeed, Hitler, a committed antisemite, managed to awaken, reinvigorate and crystallise dormant antisemitic beliefs in his national group. As this particular example indicates, antisemitism is most dangerous when it is endorsed, encouraged and manifested at a politico-institutional level. Political groups or institutions may use Jews as scapegoats for political gain by resurrecting extant, though dormant antisemitic myths which they know will gain traction in public consciousness. Once activated in cultural consciousness, antisemitic beliefs can infiltrate the individual's cognitive framework, precipitating patterns of cognition and interpersonal and intergroup relations that are indeed “designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews” (Fein, 1987, p. 67). It was of course organised, political antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, the most destructive act of genocide against European Jewry perpetrated by institutions, groups and individuals alike.

 
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