Anti-Semitism; History, Religion and Anti-Semitism; & Second Change

Naomi Hyamson | Published in History Today
  • Anti-Semitism – The Longest Hatred
    Robert S. Wisbich - Thames/Methuen - xxvi + 341 pp. - £16.99
  • History, Religion And Anti-Semitism
    Gavin I. Langmuir - I.B. Tauris, 1990 - ix + 380 pp. - £35
  • Second Change – Two Centuries Of German-Speaking Jews In The United Kingdom
    Edited by Werner E. Mosse - J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Sieberk) – Tubingen, 1991 - xiii + 654 pp. - D128

Scholars and journalists seeking to come to terms not with the 'end of history' but with its resumption at full throttle must comprehend the endurance of nationalism and anti-Semitism in East-Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Indeed, the post-Communist nations themselves face a disturbing reckoning with their pasts, under both black and red authoritarianism; a reckoning that was virtually impossible while history was appropriated by the party-state.

Old ethnic, national and religious hatreds did not, of course, go away under the Communist regimes, and in fact were manipulated by them. The anti- Semitic campaign in Poland in 1968, thinly disguised as anti-Zionism, was carried out in the service of an inner-party struggle over which faction was more 'Polish'.

The contemporary re-emergence of political and popular anti-Semitism – in some places even more evident now than when Robert Wistrich sounded the alarm in his Anti-Semitism – The Longest Hatred a year ago – is, however, partly the result of defrosting the historical deep freeze of dictatorship. It is also a psychological reaction to the utter uncertainty brought about by the collapse of Communism. But if today's political and economic upheavals are the immediate occasion of Jew-hatred in the post-Communist world, they do not of themselves explain its roots or its endurance. Professor Wistrich's book, which. accompanies the Thames Television series of the same name on which he was historical adviser, aims to provide 'a comprehensive overview of the phenomenon... which would trace the entire history of anti- Semitism from its beginnings until the present day, in a form accessible to the non-specialist reader'.

The author emphasises that 'anti-Semitism is not a natural, metahistorical or metaphysical phenomenon... nor is it an intrinsic part of the psychic structure of Gentiles', but has 'definite historical causes': an account must come to terms with its historical continuity and development. One may feel driven by the sheer irrationality and fatuity of the prejudice to wonder whether it can finally be understood by the historian. Wistrich's answer is that while the historian may not be able to provide the definitive 'why' of anti-Semitism, he must describe the ‘how’.

What Wistrich calls the Christian 'negation of Judaism' is traced from St Paul, through the Church Fathers, the turn to outright persecution during the Crusades, the grotesque accusations of the medieval period, and on through its Inquisitorial and Lutheran variants. Wistrich argues that, although there was significant hostility to Jews in the pagan world, the theological polemics of Christianity against Judaism were more central to its identity than for any other religion: no other faith accuses Jews of deicide. The Age of Reason, he points out, failed to end anti-Jewish bigotry; instead Enlightenment thinkers came to identify Judaism as the root of hated official religion. In nineteenth-century Germany, he shows, the new pseudo-scientific racial theory of anti-Semitism was added to a religious legacy of Jew-hatred and drew on 'an explosive mix of romanticism, anti- capitalism, volkisch nationalism and hatred of Western liberal democracy'. Wistrich depicts Hitler as an heir to Christian anti-Semitism who, however, turned to a biological, genocidal 'racism'. Nazism, indeed, rejected Christianity as a 'Semitic' religion. Wistrich's reference to 'the twisted cross of the swastika' therefore seems inconsistent as well as rather unpleasant.

There is a thoughtful chapter on post-war attitudes in Germany, where neo-Nazism now seems a greater menace than when it was written. The removal of the taboo on anti-Semitism in Austria – that self-styled 'first victim' of Nazism which welcomed Hitler in 1938 – during the Waldheim affair is well-described. Talk of a campaign by international Jewry became respectable once more. I am told that a reporter from a leading news agency would, on telephoning the presidential office, be greeted: 'Ah, die judische Nachrichtagentur' (Oh, the Jewish news agency).

The phenomenon of 'anti-Semitism without Jews' has more startling political resonance in post-Communist Poland, and Wistrich explains its context in today's 'existential uncertainty' and its roots in Polish national history.

The chapter on the 'Soviet Disunion', written before the Au- gust coup inadvertently finished off the old system, points to the then emerging unholy alliance between hardline communists and Slavophile nationalists. That 'red-brown' threat is more evident: today as the black-shirted fascists of Pamyat, and other groups, seek to build on popular discontent with economic reform. With commentators speaking of 'Weimar Russia', the alternative to Boris Yeltsin – in the absence of a strong democratic left – appears to be openly anti-Jewish Russian nationalism: Communism is clapped out. Although Wistrich was right to warn of that danger, his book does not mention the remarkable Jewish cultural renaissance that Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost brought to the Soviet Union.

The weakest section of this book deals with Arab attitudes: perhaps surprisingly, since the television programme dealing with the subject, on which Wistrich worked, was much fairer. There is a carefully balanced chapter on Jewish history in Islamic lands. Wistrich goes on rightly, to point out that, though European-style conspiracy theories were imported into the region, they now have a life of their own there; he is right, too, to be alarmed at the sale of Nazi-like material, including the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Middle East. One has heard even Palestinian moderates blame a mythic 'Jewish' power in the United States for their political failures ('Capitol Hill is occupied territory' being a particularly tasteless phrase).

However, Wistrich devotes less than a page to Palestinian expression of opposition to Zionism in terms of national identity, not prejudice against Jews. And when it comes to explaining why most Palestinians do not make such distinctions, he reaches for vague euphemisms such as 'daily events' in the occupied territories, 'questionable treatment of Palestinians' and 'oppressive institutionalised roles'. The religious rhetoric invoked by Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Arab parts of east Jerusalem makes it particularly impossible for Palestinians to see them as Wistrich does: 'settlers who merely happen to be Jews'.

In History, Religion and Anti- Semitism, Gavin Langmuir examines the historiography of anti-Semitism through philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, and sociology and psychology. This is a bold discussion of how far the historian can discuss religious phenomena, and of the language he may legitimately use. Not only, Professor Langmuir argues, should the historian avoid taking for granted historical actors' explanations of their attitudes, he should make clear his own pre-conceptions. Langmuir distinguishes between 'rational', 'non- rational' and 'irrational' motivations, and argues that early Christian anti-Judaism was a non-rational (but not irrational) response to the challenge posed by Jewish disbelief in Christ and the doubts thus reinforced in Christian minds. His sometimes schematic approach leads to the rather odd assertion that, as late as 1096, ordinary people who killed Jews were not acting with true irrationality since they killed Jews because they were Jews (not because of any fantastical beliefs). But henceforward, the author says, the verge of irrationality was crossed, as fantastical beliefs about Jews emerged (such as accusations of ritual murder). Modern racial anti-Semitism is seen as the irrational response of 'physiocentric' religion (such as Nazism) to the inconsistency of empirical reality with its beliefs. That approach leads to a discussion of Soviet anti-Semitism in terms of the 'anti-Judaic' attitudes of 'Communist believers'; yet surely it should be primarily seen as a politically repressive response to a challenge to the monopolistic ideology (in which acquiescence, but not belief, was required).

Those interested in German-Jewish experience in Britain, scholars and general readers alike, should turn to Second Chance: Two Centuries of German-Speaking Jews in the United Kingdom, a collection of papers presented at the first conference on the subject in Britain, in 1988, in Cambridge, held by the Leo Baeck institute. The two main waves of immigration – in the Victorian era and the 1930s – are analysed, and there is a wealth of detail on immigrant experience and indigenous response, both individual and collective. German textile merchants were prominent among the first wave; in a gently amusing, perceptive account, Todd M. Endelman shows how they drifted away from their German and Jewish roots 'even if they retained a fondness for music or heavy meals'. A number of chapters discuss the cultural and scientific achievements of those who came here in the 193Os, but Tony Kushner offers a valuable corrective with his piece on domestic service, which offered an escape route to one third of the German-Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution who came here. With wit and irony, Pauline Paucker shows how British social attitudes were reflected by the picture of Jews in English fiction.

In his book, Robert Wistrich rightly characterises anti- Semitism in Britain as social and non-ideological, identifying a 'polite' upper-class distaste for Jewish achievement, in the first half of this century: 'Although I loathe anti-Semitism,' Harold Nicolson risibly wrote in 1945, 'I do dislike Jews.' Such attitudes were reflected in working-class 'rich Jew' prejudice.

Turning to the contemporary British scene, Wistrich concentrates on the neo-Nazi fringe and the Holocaust-deniers, arguing that Jewish success in public life and business have not led to marked anti-Semitism. However, I fear that snobbery, xenophobia and ignorant envy are more persistent here than he suggests.

  • Naomi Hyamson is a freelance journalist.
Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5