The Broken Sword: Anti-Semitism in History, Anti-Semitism as History

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If a short history of anti-semitism tops 300 pages, what does the complete history look like? The answer might be found at the conclusion of the Gospel of John, perhaps the founding text of Christian anti-semitism, which imagines a book that is bigger than the world itself. But even that wouldn’t solve the problem of putting a full understanding of the subject between covers, because, as Theodor Adorno, no stranger to anti-semitism, warns us: The whole is always false.

If the trend in anti-semitism has been to move from theological inspiration (the Jew as Christ-killer) to social motives (the Jew as the unassimilable enemy of mankind) to a biomedical register (the Jew as poison or vermin), the parallel trend among historians of anti-semitism has been to move from religion to economics and politics to psychology. Peter Schäfer’s A Short History of Antisemitism, ably translated from the German by Carolijn Visschers, resists this trend, not only by focussing on politics in the ancient world and religion in the modern world, but by mostly ignoring psychological aspects of anti-semitism. It is a bold and productive move, and a sensible one, given that the task of writing the history of anti-semitism became so much more complicated in a post-Intifada, post-9/11 world, before becoming even more complicated with the global resurgence of totalitarian leaders whose apparent philosemitism is mostly veil for Islamophobia. Schäfer also chooses to sidestep questions of terminology that have so often stymied and distracted our understanding of anti-semitism, or, if we prefer, Judeophobia or anti-Judaism. Historians of racism, homophobia, misogyny, or Islamophobia know it when they see it, and Schäfer does too, without ever giving in to essentialist understandings of the phenomenon. It’s a balancing act of the sort Schäfer excels at: He recognizes that anti-semitism has “personal” aspects, but he never sees it as merely an individual or passion or pathology, which would of course neglect the sense in which anti-semitism is a structural, even constitutive part of “western” civilization.

derde kruistocht mannen bij toren waar iemand wordt uitgegooid
Crusaders burning in 1320 the Tower of Verdun-sur-Garonne in which 500 Jews are hidden

Over the course of eight dense and liberally footnoted chapters, Schäfer, a professor Jewish Studies at Princeton University and the Freie Universität in Berlin, and the former director of the Jewish Museum there, as well as a leading authority on Jewish life in ancient Greece and Rome, confidently follows the development of his subject, which is always the same and yet always changing, stable yet adaptable, with eternally returning patterns of expulsion and exile, inquisition, and pogrom and genocide, from the ancient Middle East to Classical antiquity and early Christianity, through the rise of Islam, and back to Europe for the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, the early Modern period, and the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Starting at the beginning doesn’t mean Schäfer is a Hegelian, engaging in a version of Whig history, which essentially operates backwards, leading most historians of anti-semitism to see the phenomenon as leading inexorably to Nazi Germany. Schäfer’s decision to begin with the Babylonian exile is also productive because it allows us to understand how genocidal anti-semitism is not a medieval or modern phenomenon, but an ancient phenomenon, on display in a shocking way in one version of the Book of Esther. Schäfer also convincingly finds in the ancient Near East the roots of later ideas such as the Jew as practitioner of human sacrifice, and such practices as the destruction of their holy books.  

Things were very different for the ancient Greeks and Alexander the Great, who represented a culture that saw itself as the one and only bearer of universal civilized values, and so worried less about religious than cultural differences. The objection to the Jews for the Greeks was not so much theological as social: They refused to participate in games held in the nude, mutilated the bodies of male newborns, would not work on the Sabbath (evidence of their supposed laziness), and refused to eat pork, which for the Greeks added up to a broader rejection of the body (just a few hundred years later Paul would fault “New” Jews for just the opposite).  For the Greeks the Jew was not a barbaric outsider but an internal threat to cultural cohesion, and at the same time a figure worthy of admiration. Indeed, it is in the ancient world that we first see the distressing combination of praise and disdain for the Jews that one still witnesses today. Things changed under the Romans, where anti-semitism took on a much more intense and systematic character, no doubt in part due to the rise of a Judaism with distinctly revolutionary political aspects. For the representative Roman anti-semite, Tacitus, Judaism was less a religion than an extremist ideology that made Jews, who supposedly held themselves apart and above the rest of the Roman Empire’s ethnic groups, unassimilated and unassimilable. It was the Jew, not the Roman, Tacitus argued, who was xenophobic and misanthropic.

The politics of Judaism take on renewed relevance with the rise of Christianity, whose early anti-semitism, Schäfer argues, was really a matter of internal Jewish politics: New Jew versus Old Jew. But of course, early Christian anti-semitism drew heavily on Classical tropes. What is new is Paul’s sense–it is also there in the Gospels–that the law was a moral curse, that the literal-minded Old Jews who could not make the metaphorical leap that Jesus represented and demanded were standing in the way of sacred history.  Apologists like to claim that the synoptic gospels are relatively free of the anti-semitism of Paul, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke actually invite us to witness an angry and even hateful Jesus, someone who sees his own people as morally deaf and blind, as poisonous vipers inevitably bound for torments of Hell. Just as Paul’s anti-semitism can’t be fully explained or excused by claiming that he was responding to very particular doctrinal problems in very specific and tiny communities of New Jews, Matthew, who sees the New Law as less an abrogation of the Old Law than a fulfillment of it, doesn’t get a pass from Schäfer simply because he was Jewish, and Schäfer is right to reject the traditional claim that the New Testament only targets certain groups of Jews: Matthew 27 makes it clear that the entire Jewish people is responsible for the cricifixion. Of course, what for Matthew is a conclusion is for John just the beginning. His assertion that Jews are the progeny of Satan is as brilliant and original as it is evil.

There can be no question of anti-semitism as a matter of internal Jewish polemics after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the transformation of Jerusalem into an official colony of Rome, when writing adversus Judaeos became a new and vast literary genre. The period when Jews were “exiled into the book” demanded responses that were unmistakably Christian, especially given that one of the prime objections to Jews in Paul and the Gospels was that they were too literal-minded. Indeed, both Torah and Jews were now to be read allegorically, which of course did not preclude discrimination and violence that went far beyond language. To read Zion as a mere metaphor, to read the law as simply a symbol, was destruction of the Temple by other means. But the allegorical impulse wasn’t sufficient, it seems, for Christians who actually attempted to strike what they already knew as the Old Testament from the canon. That’s how dangerous the book was, and that’s how dangerous its readers could be–not so much old wine as soured or even poisonous wine–hence the textual violence that early Christians engaged in so passionately.

massacre on Jews during the black Pest, Liber Chronicarum, 1493

Schäfer’s chapter on Islam is similarly eye-opening, beginning with the too-often-neglected, in this context, pre-Islamic religious situation on the Saudi peninsula. But his real interest is the sense in which, as with Christianity, it was not the theological distance between Judaism and Islam that inspired early Muslim anti-semitism but the theological closeness. It was not the Jew “out there” that was the problem but, as with Christians, the Jew “in here.” But of course, Schäfer is always alive to the differences between Christian and Muslim anti-semitism. In some cases this is a no-brainer: Because the Qur’an rejects the notion of Jesus as divine, there’s no notion in Islam of Jews as deicides. So too do Muslims read Jewish reading differently. The Muslim interpretation of Jewish misinterpretation of Torah saw it less as a matter of denial than a mistake, albeit purposeful, which is why early Muslims saw Jews as theological allies but political enemies. But Schäfer is clearly no scholar of Islam, which may only be visible because he is so comfortable with the Patristic tradition of the Christian Middle Ages. When dealing with Islam he tends to stick not only to primary texts but to the primary text, without much reference to the enormous body of exegesis and commentary in Arabic (which, to be fair, remains mostly untranslated) that helps form wide and sometimes contradictory variety of Muslim views toward Jews.

It is in Schäfer’s treatment of the European Middle Ages that we see most clearly how determined he is to emphasize the absolute continuity of certain anti-semitic themes. Just as fantasies (and attempts at) mass murder are ancient in origin, so too does the trope of the Jew as bearer of disease predate medieval accusations of the Jew as poisoning wells and spreading the plague. Hekateus of Abdea’s History of Egypt, from 300 BCE, makes a similar claim, as do some versions of the Exodus narrative in which the Israelites were ejected from Egypt because of the dangers they posed to public health. And the association of Jews with usury doesn’t come out of nowhere. Indeed, it’s rooted in one of the very earliest accusations against the Jews: that they read too literally, worshiping the physical medium (gold, language) rather than what it represents (value, ideas). But the forced conversions so often recommended by the Church were dissatisfactory in countering the Jewish presence in European life, which is perhaps why the Church sometimes discouraged them, seconding Augustine’s idea that the Jews must be allowed to live among Christians, to serve as a living example of the wages of the ultimate sin. This gave the Jews an enormous symbolic power, and again, the Jew as ambitious and power-hungry was there in the early Christian period. The response a millennium later was less a matter of character or motivation than intensity and scale. While Muslims were the nominal focus of the Crusades, Jews were the main target: 800 murdered in Worms and more than 1,000 in Mainz in the Second Crusade alone. But we would be wrong to blame everything on the Church. Secular politics was behind the murder of more than 5,000 Jews in more than 140 Jewish communities in Germany in the summer of 1298, a century after the Third Crusade. 

Anti-semitism clearly works from the bottom up too. Schäfer shows how even the accusation of ritual murder or blood libel, in which Jews apparently kidnapped and killed Christian children in order to make Passover matzos, one of the features of medieval anti-semitism that is often seen as a novel development, has its roots in the primal Christian trauma of the crucifixion of the Son of God, the Lamb of God, at the hands of the bloodthirsty celebrants of Pesach. The same symbolic matrix, Schäfer shows, is at work in accusations of Jewish desecration of communion wafers. Even the fascinating figure of the judensau, an image of an enormous pig suckling a group of rabbis, one of whom lifts her tail to inspect what’s underneath, used starting in the 13th century to illustrate books and to decorate churches in Germany and France, seems to have ancient roots. 

Antisemitism in Germany between the World Wars, source: US Holocaust Museum

The impure body of the Jew was a particularly resonant theme in Spain, where the Inquisition’s relentless and impossible pursuit of limpieza de sangre coincided with the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian peninsula.  Schäfer’s point here is that anti-semitism always seems to operate the most forcefully against the most assimilated Jewish communities. Again, it’s not difference that inspires hatred but sameness–or at the very least, what Freud calls “the narcissism of small difference.” This is certainly true for Martin Luther, to whom Schäfer rightly devotes much thought, perhaps because his hatred of the Catholic Church seems to recall the era in which anti-semitism was in large part an intra-Jewish phenomenon, a struggle to determine who was, for better or worse, the real Jew. Here Schäfer also looks forward, especially inasmuch as Luther’s program of anti-semitic violence, complete with book burnings and the destruction of synagogues and Jewish schools, provided the playbook for Hitler four centuries later.

Schäfer covers the Enlightenment period, the era of Romantic Nationalism, and the 20th and 21st centuries in two chapters, a seemingly impossible task, but the book’s solid foundation in antiquity and church history ensures the success of these pages. The defiantly secular French philosophes and their contemporaries in Germany considered themselves immune to anti-semitism because Judaism was a religion, and it can’t get worse than that, to paraphrase Mark Twain. But the heat with which Voltaire (and Fichte) attacked Judaism betrayed something deeper, with distressing results. We all remember the famous emancipation of French Jews in 1789. Fewer of us remember that emancipation was extended not to Jews as a group, but only as individuals, so that public expressions of faith and practice were banned. Almost none of us remember that two decades later Napoleon reversed what little rights French Jews had gained.

Stalin and Churchill as puppets of a Jewish man. Serbian poster. source: Swim Ink 2/Corbis via Getty Images

The increasing emphasis on Jews as politically objectionable, as opposed to religiously backward, came of course just as the concept and the reality of the nation-state awoke old fears about Jewish loyalty. They were and would always be a nation within a nation, a people within a people. So even as the old imagery of Jews as Christ-killers and well-poisoners died away in the capitals of Western Europe, questions about Jewish domination of politics, economics, the press, and culture became sharper, especially when combined with rising interest in the pseudo-science of race. This is of course clearly visible in the Dreyfus Affair, a situation that was both unique and representative, and which properly receives detailed attention from Schäfer, if for no other reason than the impact it had on Theodore Herzl, who of course saw Zionism as a political solution to a political problem. But the combination of motives driving anti-semitism has never been coherent, and internal contradictions continued to inspire European anti-semites, who blamed the economic crises of the late 19th century on the Jews, who were at once capitalist and communist, unrooted cosmopolitans and  uncivilized boors. 

Things get more personal in this book when Schäfer, who came of age in Germany in the postwar years, arrives at point when a perfect storm of ancient and modern tropes about Jews inspired the focal point of any history of anti-semitism: the Third Reich. In fact, Schäfer spends much time on 19th century German politics, World War I, and the Weimar years, in order to clarify how well-prepared the German people were for Hitler, who appealed to their desperate sense of powerlessness at the hands of a people who were for the most part even more powerless–“the Jew in us,” as the saying went, required a “dejudaization” of Christianity in the 1930s. The Shoah and the postwar period, including the rise of Israel and the rise of anti-Zionism, are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, with much attention to the silence, denial, and hypocrisy that characterized postwar Germany’s relationship with its anti-semitic past and present, before a final section that addresses the future of anti-semitism. But without an overarching theory, without a grand, unified understanding of what anti-semitism is, Schäfer has little to say about what we can expect from our new millenium. 

Dreyfus affaire Arthur Ranc
Arthur Ranc, defender of Dreyfus shown as a reptile, antisemitism in France around 1900. Source: Wiener Holocaust Museum

Anyone writing about antisemitism in recent decades has had to confront the challenge of anti-Zionism. Schäfer tackles this problem head on, again armed with the context of the phenomenon as it first appeared in antiquity, driven, then and now, by the apparently distressing recognition of Jewish political power and fed by humanity’s deepest, darkest, most human fantasies. Indeed, Schäfer’s general lack of interest in the psychology of anti-semitism, beyond a largely unexamined and under-theorized assertion of anti-semitism as a combination of fear and envy, is not a deal-breaker. All too often, the understanding of anti-semitism in psychological terms–an individual passion, as Sartre would have it–prevents us from seeing hatred of the Jews as the true heritage of Christian Europe. 

Schäfer’s instructive overview has, however, little to offer the specialist in Jewish Studies or religion in the ancient world or European history. Anyone looking for original insights will also be disappointed. And many scholars might find Schäfer’s almost total omission of women from this history a serious flaw. Schäfer has no major new ideas to offer beyond what has been done elsewhere by Walter Laqueur, Leon Poliakov, Paul Johnson, William Rubenstein, or Robert Wistrich. This may be due in part of Schäfer’s focus on textual manifestations of anti-semitism through the ages (illustrations would have helped here). While his grasp of the relevant languages and texts is secure, we ought to keep in mind that most of what has been written down in human history is lost to us, and even then, writing captures poorly or even not at all the behavioral realities of human existence. Then again, the most committed anti-semites seemed just as happy to destroy books–public burnings of the Talmud were particularly popular in medieval France–as to destroy Jewish bodies.

In the end Schäfer has given us less a history of anti-semitism as lived experience than anti-Jewish rhetoric and discourse – necessary but necessarily partial.


note from the editor: In het Nederlands verschenen als Korte geschiedenis van het antisemitisme bij uitgeverij Prometheus

More on Peter Schäfer as director of the Jewish Museum Berlin

cover: Jewish magic and antisemitism in the Middle Ages, source: My Jewish Learning

Over Jonathan Gill 4 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

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