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.

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.
The essentials of Jew-hatred were already thoroughly, clearly, and concisely formulated in an ancient text, written long before Christianity, before Islam, before modern antisemitism, before Nazism, and before the Middle East dispute. Scholars date this text to the era between the fourth and first centuries B.C.E., but historians have found no evidence from the ancient world indicating that the events recounted in the Book of Esther in fact actually happened.
It is, therefore, a fictional Jewish text written by Jews for Jews. It is not merely one neglected book among many written by Jews throughout the generations, but an important canonic text to which Jews demonstrably return every year, insisting that it be read from a parchment scroll. A Jewish holiday was built around the text in an attempt to imprint it permanently on the Jewish national consciousness in a manner not much different from the treatment of other mythological stories which accompany holidays such as Hannukah and Passover.
Meticulous study of the text reveals a high level of Jewish self-awareness, but regrettably, this self-awareness was never translated into practical behavior on the part of the Jews throughout history.
The words of Haman ben Hammedata, a literary character created by the Jews themselves centuries before Christianity, provide the first clear focus on the structure of Jew-hatred. They will constitute the starting point of our discussion:
And Haman said to King Ahashverosh, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are different from all people; nor do they keep the king’s law: therefore it is of no benefit to the king to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed; and I will weigh out ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.” And the king took his ring from his hand and gave it to Haman the son of Hammedata the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews.8
I will try to make a detailed analysis of Haman’s words, which were put into his mouth by the Jews themselves, as mentioned above, and are therefore all the more authoritative in the search for the truth about antisemitism. In my interpretation of Haman’s words, I do not relate specifically to that historical period but to the principle on which the words are based. After all, soon after it was written, the Book of Esther was taken out of its historical context and given archetypal, mythological status.
Haman clearly speaks of a specific people and a specific religion, and he differentiates between the two concepts. He does not speak of a territorial national minority, but of one people scattered throughout many different nations and states. Had the Jews settled within the borders of only one nation, the task of identifying them might have been simpler. However—and this is a salient point—Haman is not satisfied with the word “scattered;” he adds the word “dispersed.” In my opinion, this is not by chance, because by the addition of this adjective he implies that not only are the Jews scattered, they also do not resemble one another; they have been diversified, which adds to the difficulty of identifying and marking them. Wherever the Jew lived, his features were different from those of Jews living elsewhere: he dressed differently, his name was different (Jews often changed their names to local names), he adopted local customs, and his language differed from place to place, since Jews appropriate the language of their surroundings. Even when Jews created their own Jewish languages, they mutated the host tongues. As a result, Jews could not understand each other on a primary level. They lacked a common language, the very basis for communication between members of the same nation.

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