The destructive action orientation of modern antisemitism
Antisemitism from the early twentieth century could be described as possessing an action orientation in that it constructed Jews and Jewishness as posing a threat which required a defensive response from non-Jews. The “appropriate” response varied in accordance with context – while the tsarist regime appeared to turn a blind eye to the sporadic but deadly anti-Jewish pogroms at the turn of the century, Hitler and his collaborators ultimately opted for the systematic annihilation of European Jewry, which later became known as the Holocaust. In order to create a context in which the destruction of European Jewry would eventually be possible, the Nazis readily invoked medieval representations of Jews as host desecrators, demons, ritual murderers and inherently dangerous to Christianity, which they secularised and adapted to the contemporary German context (Wistrich, 1999a). These medieval myths adequately reinforced the Nazis' delegitimising and dehumanising antisemitic agenda. Nazi German stereotypes of Jews evoked Christian religious imagery, and readily made use of the blood libel in order to demonise Jews and mobilise the population against them. Heinrich Himmler, one of the key architects of the Holocaust, was allegedly impressed by the mobilising potential of the blood libel accusation and ordered the Nazi propaganda machine to disseminate this social representation throughout Europe and the Middle East (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002).
Consistent with antisemitic representations in nineteenth century Europe, there was also a theme of Jewish sexual immorality and predation (Vincze, 2013). The Jewish male was represented as racially inferior, yet as a threatening sexual predator prying on Aryan women, while the Jewish female was depicted as an ugly and devious, yet highly fertile, temptress who would lead Aryan men to their demise (as depicted in Hitler's Mein Kampf). What rendered Jews so threatening in the eyes of the Nazis was the apparent assimilation of Jews into German society, which rendered them difficult to spot (Burrin, 1999). According to Nazi ideology, the destruction of Jewry constituted an attempt to “save” Germany, but also mankind, from disaster. Similarly, during this era, in Slovak folklore, Jews were represented as strange, guilty and foreign (Krekovičová, 1997), which evoked common Central European social representations of Jews (Herzog, 1994; Rothstein, 1986). In the Polish context, people viewed Jewish characteristics (often deemed to be negative) as more threatening and more immutable than those of other social groups (Kofta and Sedek, 2005). As Perry and Schweitzer (2002,
p. 1) highlight, “the Nazis regarded themselves as noble idealists engaged in the biological and spiritual purification of Europe”. Their pseudo-biological ideology, which constructed the Aryans as superior and the Jews as subhuman, essentialised, dehumanised and animalised Jews – this created a perception that the allegedly inferior and subhuman traits were “built” into Jews, rendering futile any attempt to “rehabilitate” them. According to the Nazis, Europe could only be “purified” if the Jews were annihilated in their entirety (Spencer, 2010). What is abundantly clear from the Nazi era (and also from the tsarist regime in Russia) is the destructive force of antisemitism when it is politicised and institutionalised. The destructive action orientation of antisemitism (invoked by Helen Fein) was clearly bolstered and crystallised by organised and institutionalised political antisemitism. In her sketch of how antisemitism functioned and accomplished this destructive action orientation in Naziadministrated Europe, Bergen (2010, p. 198) describes a tripartite system of antisemitism: (i) “antisemitism as ideology” which motivated particular patterns of action against Jews; (ii) “antisemitism in power”, that is, how antisemitism might have been shaped as it was institutionalised, legalised and implemented within policy and practice; and (iii) “antisemitism as a product of the Holocaust”, referring to the notion that violence against Jews itself produced particular cognitions and emotions (e.g. hatred, resentment) towards the Jews which began during the Holocaust and continued to exist in its aftermath.
The first two components of the system exhibit unequivocally the clout that antisemitism could have when it became a systematic ideology which could be disseminated to the public and when it was legalised and implemented at an institutional level. In Nazi-occupied Europe, its transformation into ideology and its implementation endowed antisemitism with a coherent action orientation, namely the destruction of Jewry. Indeed, as Bergen (2010, p. 201) argues, “power institutionalised Nazi antisemitism and diffused it throughout society in ways that merged its extraordinary force and vehemence with the ordinary, even banal manifestations of everyday life”. Through processes of institutionalisation, antisemitic representations came to make sense in everyday life and to be viewed in society as a “natural” response to Jews. Medieval stereotypes of Jews were made to appear reasonable and tangible to laypeople who could now perceive a coherent narrative of the “Jewish threat”. The third component highlights the paradoxical force of the Holocaust, the most destructive act of genocide in Jewish history, in perpetuating antisemitism. Indeed, Samuels (2009, p. 2) observes that in Eastern Europe where the local Jewish populations were almost entirely wiped out during the Holocaust, antisemitism has persisted as a “phantom pain syndrome” – no Jews remain but hatred towards them does. Antisemitic beliefs (i.e. that the Jews are evil and that they pose a threat) can function as a heuristic tool for explaining the unexplainable – the systematic murder of 6 million Jews. Moreover, the Holocaust appeared to leave a stigma on Jews, since individuals (including many Jews themselves) came to view them as “eternal victims” who attract suffering (Bergen, 2010, p. 210; see also Bar-On, 2008). This phenomenon has been explained in terms of “secondary antisemitism” which is essentially a “guilt-defensive anti-Semitism” designed to deflect feelings of guilt associated with Jewish suffering (Markovits, 2006).
Many scholars (e.g. Küntzel, 2010; Wistrich, 2010) have argued that, while antisemitism persists in various forms within the West, it is most conspicuous in the social, political and institutional levels in the Islamic world.