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The World's Oldest Obsession

Reviewed by Alexander H. Joffe

The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day
by Walter Laqueur
Oxford University Press, 2006, 228 pages.


 
Few scholars have lived as en-meshed in their subjects as has Walter Laqueur, an estimable voice on the history of the twentieth century. Born in Germany, he left for Mandatory Palestine in 1938. As a journalist, he covered the Middle East and the creation of the State of Israel. He left to study in England, where he eventually became director of the Institute of Contemporary History and the Wiener Library, the premier research center on anti-Semitism, and was a founding editor of the Journal of Contemporary History. Laqueur also taught at Brandeis and Georgetown universities, and was chairman of the International Research Council at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Now in his ninth decade, he continues to produce books and essays on a regular basis. His present volume, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism, forces us to confront the problem at hand starkly.
This synoptic book is something of a departure for Laqueur. His renowned studies of Zionism, the Holocaust, the Weimar period, and the Soviet Union, to name a few, all addressed discrete forms of calamity and responses to it. But in this new volume, Laqueur undertakes a survey of anti-Semitism from its beginnings in Greek and Roman antiquity to its modern incarnation among Muslims and the radical Left. In a slim volume he manages to cover the entire trajectory of a global phenomenon in a comprehensive yet accessible way. And in the end, the picture of anti-Semitism that emerges is of a phenomenon perhaps more consistent, and rather less evolving, than Laqueur himself is willing to admit.
 
At one level, Laqueur shows that nothing has changed since antiquity. While prejudice and xenophobia were hardly uncommon among the ancient Greeks and Romans, the focus on Jews as an insular and clannish people was especially tenacious. Indeed, Ptolemy’s characterization of the Jews as comparatively “more gifted in trade and exchange… more unscrupulous, despicable cowards, treacherous, servile, and in general fickle…” could easily describe the sentiments of anti-Semites millennia later.
Indeed, it could be argued, Christianity merely added allegations of deicide and resistance to the existing litany of anti-Jewish complaints. The repudiation of Christianity by the Jews was met by hostility that “became sharper with every generation of Christian interpreters,” including Justin Martyr, St. Augustine, and John Chrysostrom, and was operationalized through countless decrees, prohibitions, restrictions, and persecutions. Still, these paled before the organized violence and mass slaughter of Jews in Central and Western Europe launched with the First Crusade. Blood libels, allegations of well poisoning, and the depiction of the Talmud as the archetype of secret evil knowledge followed, along with new and bloodier massacres. But, as always, writes Laqueur, “there is much evidence that those attacking the Jews were motivated, as in the First Crusade, not only by fear and religious fervor but by greed and envy.” 
Interplay between the theological and socioeconomic bases of anti-Semitism prevailed throughout the remainder of European history. In both a generous assessment of Protestant “tolerance” and an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, Laqueur quotes Martin Luther’s suggestion that Jews be sent to the realm of Islam, for “the Turks and other pagans do not tolerate what we Christians endure from these venomous serpents.”
Yet Laqueur’s assertion that with respect to Islam, “Jews had committed no basic sin as in Christianity” may be contested. Is it really true that it “is impossible to summarize the attitude of the Koran toward the Jews simply because the evidence is contradictory”? There were indeed occasional bright spots of Muslim tolerance and cultural symbiosis, but as Laqueur himself points out, the “Golden Age of Spain” trope served mostly as a counterpoint to contemporary and historic European intolerance. Theologically, Muslim attitudes invariably reset to Koranic norms. The vehemence and violence of the Medinan suras are unambiguous, and speak to a deep-seated sense of Jewish “original sin.” Muhammad Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, the ninth-century Muslim historian and Koranic exegete, takes his interpretation of suras even further, saying:
In my opinion, [the Christians] are not like the Jews who always scheme in order to murder the emissaries and the prophets, and who oppose God in his positive and negative commandments, and who corrupt his scripture which he revealed in his books.
Islam found itself in a parallel yet different conundrum with respect to its progenitor faith than did Christianity. The latter’s debt to Judaism was all too obvious. For Christianity, the problem of Jesus as a Jew was instantly recognized and addressed during its first centuries: The subjugated position of the living community of Jews was convenient evidence of God’s having transferred his allegiance to Christians, and the Jewish covenant’s having been replaced.
For Islam, however, the wholesale cultural expropriation and conceptual inversion of the Jewish Bible (and the Gospels) was declared sealed by the finality of Muhammad’s prophecy. Yet one suspects that that is precisely what must have gnawed. The new pastiche of Judaism, Christianity, paganism, overblown messianism, and pedantic legalism—with a smattering of other traditions thrown in for good measure—turned biblical and post-biblical traditions on their heads. It is hard to believe that the creators of Islam did not regard Jews as a threat simply on that basis. Accusations of Jews falsifying Scripture and Islam superseding previous revelations were thus fundamental to the invented tradition, preoccupied with the purity of its revelation.
Laqueur is correct that, as with Christianity, Islamic anti-Semitism waxed and waned with various conditions. Moreover, the importation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European anti-Semitism was also key to the form (and, in the case of direct Nazi and Soviet efforts, to the organization and content) of Islamic anti-Semitism. But it fell on theologically fertile ground.
Racial anti-Semitism, by contrast, came to the forefront in the nineteenth century. Laqueur recounts the decline of religion and the growing role of the sciences, first linguistics and then biology, in providing new “justifications” for anti-Semitism and, increasingly, fueling Aryan mythology. The emergence of nationalism also provided entirely new frameworks from which Jews could be excluded. 
But, as with nationalism, there are strong indications that “race” as a category predates the nineteenth century. What are we to make, for example, of the following:
Our people observing thus the occupations of the Jews and the Christians concluded that the religion of the Jews must compare unfavorably as do their professions, and that their unbelief must be the foulest of all, since they are the filthiest of all nations… the Jews, by not intermarrying, have intensified the offensiveness of their features. Exotic elements have not mingled with them; neither have males of alien races had intercourse with their women, nor have their men cohabited with females of a foreign stock. The Jewish race therefore has been denied high mental qualities, sound physique, and superior lactation. The same results obtain when horses, camels, donkeys, and pigeons are inbred.
Far from a nineteenth-century Muslim reification of European racial theory, the quote in fact originates with the Arab polymath al-Jahiz of the mid-ninth century. It reflects what might be called late-antique racial sociology, a cross of sorts between Herodotus and Ibn Khaldun. Either way, the racial animus is clear. The disagreement with Laqueur, then, is not over the claim that predominant forms of and rationales for anti-Semitism changed. Rather, it is that a continuous thread across two millennia of Occidental and Oriental thought viewed Jews as a theological and “racial” community dedicated to maintaining its independence.


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