An Attempt to Identify the Root Cause of Antisemitism

By A. B. Yehoshua

A prominent Israeli author gets to the bottom of the world`s oldest hatred.

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Editor’s note:

The following essay was originally published in the Hebrew journal Alpayim in 2005 and provoked an intense public debate. Its author, the renowned Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, undertook a demanding task: to decipher the most disturbing riddle of Jewish history, to analyze and describe the quintessence of antisemitism in its various historical and cultural incarnations. Yehoshua’s thesis disputes the general intellectual consensus on antisemitism, which denies that there is any single or unique root to the phenomenon. He asserts that it is the unique structure of Jewish identity which has given birth to the venomous reaction of antisemitism—and he offers a way out of this impasse. Yehoshua’s position has outraged many but also given them much to think about. AZURE is proud to present an English translation of this essay, which embodies Zionist thought in its most daring form.

Dedicated to my teacher, Zvi Yavetz, who taught me to walk the paths of history.
Science, which has exposed the lie of pure spirituality, has also been able to re-assert the mutual influence between the body and soul of the nation and will teach us to see with unbiased sobriety the tremendous problem of the relations between Israel and the nations of the world-without tearfulness and without boastfulness.
 -Gershom Scholem, “Thoughts on the Wisdom of Israel”.1 
Does Jew-hatred stem from a single root? Dare one raise such a question regarding a phenomenon—called antisemitism since the end of the nineteenth century—that has persisted for so long in so many forms and with so many explanations? A hatred that dates back to antiquity and has remained fixed for thousands of years in a world that is constantly changing; a hatred and hostility toward Jews that is embedded in different nations and cultures and shared by members of different religious faiths, even those at war with one another, such as Christianity and Islam; the hatred of Jews that persists not only in totalitarian and absolutely secular societies, but in liberal democracies as well? Of course, for hundreds of years, the Jews themselves have been undergoing countless changes, assuming new aspects, shedding old ones, and, sociologically speaking, altering their way of life, their occupations, their places of residence, and their involvement in the societies in which they live—whether they are religious, secular, nationalist, assimilated, isolated, or living in communities.
Is there a discernible line connecting the first-century Roman philosopher Seneca (who called the Jews a “criminal tribe”) and the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (who called the Jews “the abhorrent ones”) to the German composer Richard Wagner or the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, both of whom lived centuries after the Romans and yet were also gripped by a murderous hatred of the Jews-despite the great cultural, ethical, and social gulf between them, and the fact that the Jews they encountered were so utterly different from those the Romans knew?
I grant all due respect to the intellectual apprehension of serious historians and others who recoil at the idea of trying to identify a common root of Jew-hatred throughout the ages. Indeed, it is exactly those who so thoroughly examine the complexities of every historical period, who probe the subtleties of the various elements specific to Jewish and non-Jewish society in each period, who study antisemitic sources in medieval Christianity or contemporary Islam, who delve into the complex undergrowth of German identity that gave birth to Nazism—it is they who will refuse, perhaps justifiably, to accept the possibility that all antisemitic phenomena are based on a common foundation. Scientific caution obliges them to refrain from attempting to make a sweeping generalization that stretches over such a long period of time, it becomes something like a mythological concept instead of a historical assertion.
It is true that, now and then, historians do allow themselves to express sweeping historiosophic views, usually in the manner of an “Eternal Hatred of the Eternal People” (as Nahum Sokolow’s 1882 book was titled); but even these grand syntheses generally remain descriptive rather than analytical.2 Therefore, perhaps it is only natural that people like myself, who are not historians and not bound to conduct their research with scientific precision within a specific time frame, will try to ignite a spark in the hope of reaching a responsible historian who will use it to start a bonfire. For if we pride ourselves on the historical continuity of the Jewish people over thousands of years, and see the contemporary Jew as connected via the structure of his identity to the Jew of hundreds, possibly thousands of years ago, it is not unreasonable to try to discover whether the antisemitism that so consistently accompanies the Jew has its own fixed structure.
Of course, even if such an structure were to be found, it would not negate or marginalize historical analyses and explanations concerning the essence and character of antisemitism wherever and whenever it occurs.
In seeking to identify and understand the structure of the hatred of Israel known as antisemitism, I actually rely on a traditional Jewish notion which intuitively accepts the premise that there is indeed one, eternal, fixed root, without being able to explicate it. R. Shimon bar Yochai’s resolute words “The halacha holds that Esau hates Jacob” have been accepted as comprehensive folk wisdom that regards gentile hatred of Jews as an immutable phenomenon.3 It should not be forgotten: Esau was Jacob’s biological twin! R. Shimon’s saying, therefore, indicates the existence of a real, exceedingly primal hatred independent of socio-religious conditions. Even in the verse Jews sing with such feeling on the first night of Passover—“In every generation they stand ready to annihilate us” (note the use of the present tense)—there is the basic assumption that antisemitic hatred, which actively seeks to destroy the Jewish people, is passed from generation to generation in a variety of circumstances and places. The continuation of the verse, “and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, delivers us from their hands,” also takes for granted that this deliverance can be only partial and ephemeral. The problem in and of itself cannot be solved if God must “deliver” us over and over again. In other words, even for the absolute believer, it is not in God’s power to eradicate hatred against Jews, but only to rescue them, and then only partially and temporarily.
Therefore, in seeking the essential structure of antisemitism, I am expressing the basic Jewish perception that, although inexplicable, this shared antisemitic root is a constant motivating factor of human behavior unrelated to the religious, national, social, or economic conditions prevailing in any given period. Fatalistically, this perception also assumes that this structure cannot be destroyed. It will exist eternally. In a particular and tragic sense, antisemitism has become a most important and natural component in the crystallization of Jewish identity, to the extent that the absence of antisemitism—and how much more so the existence of philosemitism—is suspect and unnatural in the eyes of many Jews. The observant Jew sometimes identifies the active antisemitic element as an essential aspect of the proper ordering of the world.
It seems that no other people is so preoccupied with defining and clarifying its identity as is the Jewish people. It is enough just to see the reports from so many conferences worldwide dealing either covertly or overtly with the subject of Jewish identity. What is a Jew? Who is a Jew? To what extent is an Israeli a Jew? Not to mention questions concerning the secular Jew, the humanist Jew, the assimilated Jew, and the countless variations on the theme so compulsively examined in thousands of books and essays. There is something absurd about an ancient nation that is still, after some three thousand years, hammering away so intensely and so obsessively at the enigma of its identity, tirelessly searching for more and more explanations, definitions, and versions of it—so much so that the definition of a Jew in the State of Israel’s Law of Return has been changed several times within a very short period.
Here, for example, are two strange and fascinating passages written by Sigmund Freud, the first taken from a letter written to the Viennese B’nai Brith organization, and the second from his introduction to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo. To B’nai Brith, he wrote:
What bound me to Jewry was (I am ashamed to admit) neither faith nor national pride…. But plenty of other things remained over to make the attraction to Jewry and Jews irresistible—many obscure emotional forces [which] were the more powerful the less they could be expressed in words, as well as a clear consciousness of inner identity, the safe privacy of a common mental construction.4
In his introduction to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, he adds:
No reader of [the Hebrew version of] this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people.... If the question were put to him: “Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?” he would reply: “A great deal, and probably its very essence.” He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.5
This is perhaps the only time, as the psychologist Zvi Giora has said, that Freud ever sought the help of others in order to understand himself.6 But meanwhile, these others were themselves amazed and moved by the phenomenon of Jewish identity and its survival. The historian Jacob Talmon, apparently in the grip of his emotions, wrote:
We are in this respect confronted with the supreme difficulty which Doctor Weizmann used to call Jewish “ghostliness.” The world is too small to contain them, and they are said to possess all the wealth of the earth, and yet, when you strain every nerve to pin them down by a definition, they elude you like a mirage. It seems impossible to lay a finger on anything tangible and measurable in the Jew’s Jewishness; yet an ailing, all-devouring self-consciousness comes like a film between him and the world…. But these things are too subtle for the historian’s techniques and such crude instruments as quantitative measurements of Jewish participation in trades and professions, or data on attendance at synagogues and contributions to charities.7
Unlike Talmon, Freud was not prepared give up in despair and leave the matter in the realm of mystery and enigma. As a confirmed rationalist, Freud believed scientific research would uncover the Jew’s “very essence”—despite his own inability to articulate it.
An attempt to rationally perceive the structure of antisemitism will help us to comprehend the “enigma” of Jewish identity. No wonder so many Jewish historians conduct their research into the annals of the Jewish people by elucidating the phenomenon of antisemitism in different periods, such as the Crusades, or the expulsion from Spain, and, of course, the Holocaust and what preceded it. This resembles the connection between the study of disease and the study of the anatomy and mechanisms of the human body, or the attempts to understand the structure of human personality through the study of distress and mental illness. After all, if people did not contract serious illnesses, the vast efforts to understand the secrets of the biological mechanism might never have been made. This also applies to the existential or mental injuries that compel human beings to investigate the workings of the human mind and soul on the individual and collective levels. Likewise, studying the plague of antisemitism can serve as a key to the study and understanding of Jewish identity.
The calamities inflicted by antisemitism are so horrendous and cruel, and remain such a grave and possible future menace, that we must at all costs give up the romantic comfort of evasive chatter about the mystery and enigma of Jewish identity. We must use scientific research tools to understand its nature and try, in the words of Jacob Talmon, to “pin it down.”
It is astonishing to discover that the keys to deciphering seemingly impenetrable phenomena are sometimes more available than we thought or had been indicated by others. It is possible that fear of the obvious conclusions has created the strange aversion which leads to disregard and denial.

Abraham “Boolie” Yehoshua (A.B. Yehoshua) is an Israeli novelist, playwright, and essayist. He received the Israel Prize for literature in 1995.

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