The Functions of Anti-Semitism

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No ideology is as universally condemned in the United States as Nazism. It is the most potent symbol of evil in America, and Jews are its most identifiable victims. Yet, writes Ruth Wisse, the exclusive identification of anti-Semitism with Nazism obscures the true nature of the threats that today imperil the Jews people and the West alike.

Wisse argues that anti-Semitism is more than mere Jew-hatred. It is a potent political ideology that seeks to attack not only Jews, but also liberal democracy itself. Today, it has evolved into a hybrid anti-Semitism/Zionism that forms the “cornerstone” of politics in much of the Arab world and has found a comfortable home in North America. According to Wisse, this true character of anti-Semitism is still misunderstood, because it is ignored by an academic establishment content to dismiss Jewish politics and in thrall to political correctness. But it is long past time, she writes, “for scholars of political and social life to bring to it the same urgency and rigor they have brought to virtually every other meaningful political phenomenon.”

The study of anti-Semitism properly belongs to the study of politics, though it has rarely been taken up this way. Traditionally, political thought and academic political science did not address the political nature of the Jews because, having lost their sovereignty in the land of Israel 20 centuries ago, they were deemed to exist outside politics. Politics—defined as the activities associated with the governance of a country—ignored a people that did not govern its own country and appeared to lack political power. Political thinkers often consigned Jews to some negative or reactionary position in history without recognizing that their very need to do so acknowledged the Jewish people’s disturbing presence in their midst.

In fact, Jews had developed a unique arrangement—call it a political experiment—that allowed them to remain a people outside their country with almost all the properties of a nation. Jews had their own languages (always more than one), religion, calendar and holidays, culture, code of law, and legal authorities. And they sustained a determination to return to their homeland, which, of course, they finally did. What is more, Jews remained politically potent. Thanks to their belief in God as the ultimate (though not necessarily immediate) guarantor of their power, they could indefinitely postpone recovery of their land with the certainty that they eventually would return to it. The political experiment of the Jews simultaneously allowed them to prosper among other nations and allowed for the organization of politics against them. Yet just as political thinkers ignored the political nature of the Jews, so they ignored the exceptional political utility of anti-Jewish politics.

Read the entire article in National Affairs.

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