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.

The urge to objectively analyze the motivations and reasons for antisemitism and to describe the pathological interaction between Jew and gentile have occupied secular Jews since the end of the nineteenth century. Consequently, the literature on the subject is vast. The Zionists in particular wanted to correctly appraise the depth of antisemitism on the assumption that the radical remedy they were proposing was the right one. Incisive and very critical texts were written by some of the great and most respected Zionists concerning the essence of the Diaspora experience and Jewish responsibility for it. These formed an integral, legitimate part of Zionist ideological discourse.
Apparently, however, this self-critical trend became much weaker following the Holocaust. The reasons for this are certainly understandable. The monstrous dimensions of Jew-hatred revealed in the Holocaust debilitated attempts to understand the motivations that were at work, lest any kind of objective understanding—even the most reserved—confer indirect legitimacy on the worst crimes in history, not only against the Jews but against humanity itself.
Thus, harsh and venomous self-criticisms, such as those voiced by Yosef Haim Brenner at the beginning of the twentieth century (I dare not even quote them), became impossible for even the most brazen critics of the Jewish way of life.
However, the attempt to halt and temper objective analysis for fear of giving the murderers some legitimacy rebounded on the victims in the end. The lesson of the Holocaust obliges us to make every serious intellectual effort to understand (but not, heaven forbid, to justify) the pathological interaction that leads human beings to commit crimes as terrible as those committed against the Jews. If, justifiably, we say, “never again,” we must empower ourselves to cope with all possible threats in the future. This empowerment and preparation for the possibility of further onslaughts requires more than a proper understanding of the root of the evil; it demands a profound understanding of the roots of Jewish existence and its relations with the rest of the world. Talmon and Salo Baron’s romantic notions regarding the “mystery” and “enigma” of Jewish identity are insufficient when faced with so serious a matter. Even Freud’s “some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind” is a kind of evasion, however respectable it may be. It is necessary to go to the roots of Jewish identity, to delve deep in order to understand the dangerous pathological interaction that sometimes occurs between the Jews and their surroundings. Our main effort has always been devoted to studying the official, legal dimension of Jewish existence in the midst of other nations, but we do not relate sufficiently to the spiritual relationship between Jews and their surroundings. Such an understanding, should it be achieved, may perhaps make us despair when we realize that such is the ingrained structure of our identity and there is nothing to be done about it. Yet perhaps it will also become clear that there are things that can and should be changed.9
Of all the attempts to comprehend antisemitism, Leon Pinsker’s theory that fear of Jews is at the core of Jew-hatred seems to come closest to the heart of the problem. The fact that Pinsker was a doctor gave him, in my opinion, a more balanced view of the root of antisemitism. He intuitively discerned an element of individual mental illness in it that outweighed religious, sociological, economic, and political factors. In this, he returned the matter to the antisemitic individual and only afterward to antisemitic society as a whole. Indeed it is easy to prove that sometimes, in the same society, living under the same socio-economic conditions, some are more infected with severe, personal antisemitism than others. Even in the Nazi state, which officially adopted the ideology of hatred and war against the Jews, there were, by many accounts, a considerable number of people who did not identify with the antisemitic ideology or fantasy—although they did not dare to admit it openly. Thus, for example, throughout the generations we find absolute believers in the Christian faith who do not carry the antisemitic virus within themselves, just as there are those of the same faith who fully identify with it—which indicates that it is not only Christianity that causes antisemitism (even though it certainly can promote it), but something else that has its primal roots in a personal interaction with the (real or imagined) Jew, before he has become a social phenomenon.
In his famous essay, Autoemancipation, published in Berlin in 1882, only three years after Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-Semitism” to describe the definitive concept of Jew-hatred, Pinsker speaks of fear of Jews. In a somewhat poetic vein, he adds:
To the living the Jew is a corpse, to the native a foreigner, to the homesteader a vagrant, to the proprietary a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, for all a hated rival.10
The various and contradictory designations enumerated in this rhetorical description are not the main point, but rather the fact that the Jew possesses undefined characteristics (in his own eyes, too) that allow and even invite the non-Jew to project his generally negative fantasies onto him.
However, first let us return to the premise that fear of the Jew is the basis of antisemitism. On the face of it, this appears to be peculiar and contradictory, since who knows more clearly than we do that not only is there nothing to fear from Jews but that throughout history they have been essentially most vulnerable and weak. Nevertheless, Pinsker is correct in asserting that it is projected fear that evokes such intense reactions, particularly in the most extreme and cruel cases of antisemitism.
Fear of Jews—not envy of the Jews—is the prime, decisive cause of antisemitism. It is difficult for Jews to accept this, since they would much prefer to relate antisemitism to envy because of their religious conviction that they are God’s chosen or, according to the secular view, because of their success and achievements. After all, anyone who is despised prefers to believe that he is hated because he is envied for what he regards as his material or spiritual success, or, if these achievements are not obvious, at least because of his “elevated morality.”
But the belief that envy of Jews is the primary, not the secondary, reason for antisemitism is unconvincing. After all, to say that Jew-envy explains antisemitism sounds ridiculous and absurd considering the fact that for such long periods Jews were poor and humiliated, subject to many harsh decrees and prohibitions. For what could they possibly be envied? What was enviable in the fate of Holocaust refugees whose lives were so viciously destroyed and who were greeted with such powerful hatred when some of them returned to Poland after the war? What is enviable about the citizens of the State of Israel, living for so many years with so many wars and vicious terrorist attacks? Does the wave of antisemitism now passing through Europe stem from envy of Israel’s recent military or moral “successes?”
Can envy of the true achievements of others arouse such murderous frenzy in people? Sometimes quite the opposite is true. People are attracted to the successful individual, hoping to learn his “secret” and imitate it.
At the foundation of the mad frenzy of antisemitism lies something more genuine: fear. It is fear which drives people to the most ferocious reactions. Perhaps the most prominent and astounding proof of the existence of this absurd dread is to be found in the words of Hitler himself, spoken on the eve of his suicide in his Berlin bunker as it was bombarded by the approaching Soviet army in 1945. “I had underestimated the power of Jewish domination over Churchill’s England,” he said to his companions.11 And at the conclusion of his political testament, he wrote: “Centuries will pass away, but out of the ruins of our towns and monuments the hatred against those finally responsible whom we have to thank for everything, international Jewry and its helpers, will grow.”12
The greatest criminal in history, knowing precisely how vulnerable and weak the Jews were and how easy it was to murder six million of them with no danger of any real resistance, could still express fear of their power, even after the catastrophe he had wrought on that same wretched people; he could attribute his terrible defeat not to the Russians or the Allies but to none other than international Jewry, which was proven powerless to save its people from a massacre unequaled in human history.

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