Despite liberalization and modernization around the world, anti-Semitism endures and, in some places, seems to be getting more toxic. Herzl’s solution to the problem of anti-Semitism, Zionism, has not been a salve either; now some argue that Israel is the cause of rather than the solution to today’s anti-Semitism. But the truth is that anti-Semitism’s permanence is due to far deeper factors, factors neither Zionism, nor liberalism, nor anti-Zionism can cure. In this 2003 essay, Natan Sharansky investigates the trans-historical reasons for the trans-historical problem of Jew hatred.
The (by and large correct) perception of the Jews as rejecting the prevailing value system of the ancient world hardly justifies the anti-Semitism directed against them; but it does take anti-Semitism out of the realm of fantasy, turning it into a genuine clash of ideals and of values. With the arrival of Christianity on the world stage, that same clash, based once again on the charge of Jewish rejectionism, would intensify a thousandfold. The refusal of the people of the “old covenant” to accept the new came to be defined as a threat to the very legitimacy of Christianity, and one that required a mobilized response.
In the pre-modern world, Jews and Gentiles were largely in agreement as to what defined Jewish rejectionism, and therefore what would constitute a reprieve from it: it was mostly a matter of beliefs and moral concepts, and of the social behavior that flowed from them. In the modern world, although the question of whether a Jew ate the food or worshiped the God of his neighbors remained relevant, it was less relevant than before. Instead, the modern Jew was seen as being born into a Jewish nation or race whose collective values were deeply embedded in the very fabric of his being. Assimilation, with or without conversion to the majority faith, might succeed in masking this bedrock taint; it could not expunge it.
While such views were not entirely absent in earlier periods, the burden of proof faced by the modern Jew to convince others that he could transcend his “Jewishness” was much greater than the one faced by his forebears. Despite the increasing secularism and openness of European society, which should have smoothed the prospects of assimilation, many modern Jews would find it more difficult to become real Frenchmen or true Germans than their ancestors would have found it to become Greeks or Romans, Christians or Muslims.
The novelty of modern anti-Semitism is thus not that the Jews were seen as the enemies of mankind. Indeed, Hitler’s observation in Mein Kampf that “wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity” sounds no different from the one penned by Philostratus 1,700 years earlier. No, the novelty of modern anti-Semitism is only that it was far more difficult—and sometimes impossible—for the Jew to stop being an enemy of mankind.
On closer inspection, then, modern anti-Semitism begins to look quite continuous with pre-modern anti-Semitism, only worse. Modern Jews may not have believed they were rejecting the prevailing order around them, but that did not necessarily mean their enemies agreed with them. When it came to the Jews, indeed, European nationalism of the blood-and-soil variety only added another and even more murderous layer of hatred to the foundation built by age-old religious prejudice. Just as in the ancient world, the Jews in the modern world remained the other—inveterate rejectionists, no matter how separate, no matter how assimilated.
More about: • Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism
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