The fundamental impulse and purpose of antisemitism is to find someone to blame for the world’s, or one’s own, problems. Beginning with the ascendancy of Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era, the Jews were established as the scapegoat upon which the difficulties of the world could be placed. The Jews were the example presented as proof of the degradation of those who refused to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. The Jews were to blame for the unredeemed world.
As the Middle Ages in Europe progressed, the Jews also became convenient economic scapegoats. Restricted to certain professions, most notably moneylending and tax-collecting, Jews became identified with avarice and greed. Yet the Jews remained fundamentally powerless, at the mercy of the rulers who in turn taxed them, and could expel them from their adopted land at a whim. Inexplicable events such as the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century could be blamed on the Jews. Mass slaughters and expulsions would follow, and the pathetic yet paradoxically dangerous “wandering Jew” took over the European imagination.
During the enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, European Jews began to hope that religious superstition and hatred would wane, replaced by the emerging ideologies of reason, liberalism and democracy. Tragically, the archetype of the Jew as the source of blame was by now fully “baked in” to the European psyche. Even those who rejected religion as the source of truth still could revile the Jews, now as the root cause of economic oppression, or as the “fifth column” undermining national movements, or as a vague “cabal” (the word is taken from the Hebrew term “kabbalah”) capable of secretly and conspiratorially controlling the world’s fate.
As racial ideologies emerged, the Jews could be blamed for racial impurity, for sullying the perfectibility of the human race.
Antisemitism, a descriptive coined late in the 19th century, turned out to be an astonishingly convenient and adaptable tool. The Jews became a kind of “Rorschach test” for anyone who was looking to focus blame: for the communists, the Jews were global capitalists, for the fascists, the Jews were communists. None of this needed to yield to logic, only to the emotional satisfaction of transferring blame, and to the public opinion that could be manipulated and mobilized with these easy marks.
The Nazis, in their utter depravity, enacted the ultimate denouement of this dynamic, and did their utmost to physically eradicate the Jews. The Holocaust stands as the final, unspeakable testament to the hateful power of European antisemitism.
As the world slowly became aware of the hitherto unimaginable scale of the Nazi evil, I think many people were overcome by a spasm of moral revulsion. Antisemitism was relegated to the margins of public discourse, and the United Nations voted to recognize the new State of Israel. However, a new permutation of blaming the Jews was taking root, and this time on a global scale. After the war, emerging national movements all over the world began establishing their own nation states and declaring independence, including Israel. Yet Israel, as a Jewish state, and Zionism, as the Jewish nationalist movement, began to be singled out as a uniquely illegitimate and even evil manifestation of nationalist aspiration. Most of the developing world rallied behind this new blame game, and Israel found itself increasingly isolated and vilified on the world stage. In 1975 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring that, apparently unique among all the world’s national movements, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” That designation was revoked by a further UN resolution in 1991, but the damage had been done. Israel was now the world’s scapegoat. Once again, the Jews could be blamed, this time for all of the conflicts in the Middle East, and even as the vanguard of Western racist colonialism against third-world nations.
As always, I must make it clear that Israel is far from blameless in its behavior. That is not the point of this essay. The point I am hoping to make clear is that the vilification of Israel as somehow uniquely unworthy or evil among the family of nations is the product of antisemitism, an astonishingly resilient form of oppression that seeks to blame the Jews for the world’s problems.
In recent years antisemitism has crept back into the public discourse. In my experience antisemitism finds a particularly welcome home at the edges of our political spectrum, known as the “far right” and “the far left.” (Witness, for example, on the left, the slippery rhetoric of Jeremy Corbyn, the head of Great Britain’s Labor Party, and on the right, the antisemitic dog whistles of Donald Trump empowering the far right in our nation.) These extremes differ in many important ways, but I think they share a crucial trait: a desire to divide the world into a binary conflict. Our global order is nothing if not complex, and I think all of us yearn for a simple explanation for the mess we humans have created and in which we find ourselves. I think all of us also share a messianic longing that everything might be fixable. Who are the good guys? Which side should we be on? In my opinion, the ideologies of the far right and the far left offer comforting answers to their adherents, and divide the world into good guys and bad guys. On the left, the world is divided between oppressors and victims, and we want to be on the side of the victims. On the right, one might say it is the pure and righteous (as in white races) against the dark-skinned, the sexually different, the invading “other.” In both cases, the Jews as a category can once again be deployed as the evil “other.” On the far right, old tropes of global Jewish conspiracies can fuel their fantasies. On the left, Israel can become the ultimate villain, a sad tale of a once-oppressed people now becoming a vicious oppressor of dark-skinned Arabs. In both cases, Jews can now once again occupy the position of ultimate scapegoat, a focus for misplaced rage and anguish, a balm of simple answers in a world that appears to be spinning out of control.
I view the best aspects of modernity, messy and inefficient as they may be – liberal democracy, freedom of religion, the embrace of universal human rights, tolerance and pluralism – as also the best conditions in which Jews can live safely and antisemitism can be delegitimized and marginalized. I find far right and far left ideologies, which are permitted to express themselves in liberal democracies, to be fundamentally anti-democratic in their respective quests for ideological or racial purity. When quests for purity ascend, Jews will almost always find themselves once again to be the convenient scapegoat.
A crucial caveat to what I have just written: like all summaries, I have shared an inevitably over-simplified schematic of history. History itself is infinitely more complex. The causes and roots of antisemitism, in the largest sense, remain mysterious to me, just as the Jewish people’s continued and oversized presence on the world stage is a mystery. Historical explanations and outlines simply cannot answer all of our questions. But hopefully this schematic can provide us with a useful lens through which to view and make some sense of an elusive topic. I look forward to continuing the discussion with many of you.