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The nature of antisemitism

The nature of antisemitism
We can see then, that hatred enables social groups to define themselves in comparison to others. The view of those outside of their group in a collectively negative, hateful, and threatening light, allows a specific group to gain a self- definition and a sense of identity. It is an identity and definition based on negation - I am not what I hate. When discussing the history of antisemitism and Jew-hatred, the “other” is clearly defined, as the objects of hate are always the Jews. The perpetrators of hatred, however, are varied, crossing periods, cultures, religions, and ideologies. Many of them even viewed and still view the Jews as ultimate “others” without being exposed to Jews at all.
These features of antisemitism join others in characterizing this phenomenon. Let’s hear more about the characteristics of antisemitism and examine how they distinguish this form of hatred. All prejudices differ from each other, basically because of the different contents those prejudices have. They can be expressed in similar ways. So there are various rhetorical and linguistic means to express hatred, or also in caricatures, or comics, or other visual semiotic means. But the contents are the most important part. And in this way antisemitism is certainly quite unique because it covers a whole range of different stereotypes. Some of them are very old and some of them are new. Actually what is quite interesting is that you have very contradictory stereotypes.
You have sort of the communist - the revolutionary, and you have the capitalist - the rich Jew. You have the intellectual, who’s sort of thinking about how to upheave, and destroy, and change society. On the other hand, you have the greedy Jew, who’s only after your money and basically who only trades, who doesn’t really work. So my theory about antisemitism is what I call the “Judeus ex machina,” which means whenever you need an enemy image, you can produce one by instrumentalizing any cliches about Jews.
And that seems to work very well right now, that whenever you need some kind of cliche and stereotype, it’s like if you would grab into a big bag and you just pull out whatever suits this kind of political function. Not to in any way diminish, to denigrate, to relativize, the hatred of Blacks, the hatred of Native Americans, the hatred of other forms of communities, but the fact is that not only is antisemitism the oldest, longest hatred. But of course that would not be much of a distinction. That would be a fact.
What distinguishes antisemitism is not only that it’s a prejudice, a stereotyping, a demonizing of Jews - something about the fact that Jews are unpleasant, that they smell, that they’re dirty - right. These are said about all kinds of groups - that they’re involved in dishonorable behavior. But the issue of antisemitism is connected to metaphysical theories. It’s very interesting that the origin of antisemitism is Christian theology. The Jews are a deicidal people. That’s a metaphysical issue. There’s God and his enemies represented by Satan, and Jews are children of Satan. And therefore Jews fight against Christianity. They fight against the salvation brought by the church. In the modern world again you have the idea that Jews are an international conspiracy.
This is a doctrine, a philosophical-political doctrine about how Jews operate to control space and time. Today in the modern world again, it’s metaphysically charged. The Jews are accused of all kinds of profound constitutional behavior that’s more than improper. It represents a kind of effort to dominate the world, a kind of effort to defend their self-interest by taking advantage of others. These attitudes - these metaphysical, ontological, psychological attitudes, you don’t find in other hatreds. When the communists dislike the Jews, they don’t attribute to them only that they’re dirty and ugly, but they tribute to them the idea that they are the force of capitalism par excellence.
So there’s something very special about the nature of antisemitism which goes far beyond merely the dislike of the unlike, which is the usual definition of xenophobia. There is a moment when Jews appear as quasi-non-real human people in the mind of some other people. There is a moment when Jews appear as evil, or as Devil, both of them. There is a moment when if you want to understand the world in which you live, the society in which you are, the times where we are, you don’t find any … the people that are antisemitic don’t find the good solution, the good answer until the moment when the discoverer that there is something coming from Devil, which is Jews.
That is to say, something which does not appear in a visible way, something that nobody can touch. Not real Jews that you meet in the street, but a mysterious power. And at that moment really we are at the core of antisemitism and violence towards Jews. Antisemitism is a riddle. It is hard to explain why a cultural tradition would become so fixated on a particular group of people as a source of its problems. Now, we know why in the Western cultural tradition this hatred exists. It’s rooted in a religious rivalry.
It’s rooted in the sense that Christianity developed, that it had superseded Judaism, that it therefore had replaced it, and those people who clung to Judaism were dangerous to the faith of the people who had not, who had embraced Christianity. And thus these people were regarded as contaminating. They had to be kept at a distance. They had to be confined. We know where this tradition came from. But what is striking is that in the modern world, which is a largely secular world in the West, this hatred keeps morphing. It keeps shape-shifting. It shifts to other kinds of justifications. And that I think is the thing about antisemitism that I regard as different from the motivations of other perceived genocides.
The motive is protean. The motive keeps changing shape. But the hatred is the constant element. And as I said, I do believe that antisemitism is a kind of superstition. So to try to understand why people are antisemitic, one has to understand why are people superstitious. One of the reasons is of course because generations before them have taught them to be, have said that if you in fact want to ward off some event that you don’t want to happen to you, you knock on wood. We all know that knocking on wood is not efficacious, and yet we somehow think that it’s a safe thing to do just in case.
With regard to antisemitism there is this kind of fixation on these people as being hyper-dangerous. And thus they have to be confined or reconfined in order for our lives to be safe. There is no empirical rationality behind that. There is no demonstration behind that. It is a form of knocking on wood, and to explain it any further than that is of course very difficult, because superstitions are almost impossible to account for.

Prof. Ruth Wodak, Prof. Steven T. Katz, Prof. Michel Wieviorka, Prof. Peter Hayes

After discussing the nature of hate in general, let us move on to explore the nature of antisemitism, asking ourselves the following question:

Does antisemitism have unique characteristics that distinguish it from other prejudices and hostilities?


  • Gilman, Sander L. and Steven T. Katz, eds., Anti-semitism in Times of Crisis (New York: New York University Press, 1991).‏

  • Hayes, Peter, Why?: Explaining the Holocaust (New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).

  • Katz, Steven T., The Holocaust in Historical Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

  • Reisigl, Martin and Ruth Wodak, Discourse and Discrimination: Rhetorics of Racism and Antisemitism (London: Routledge, 2001).

  • Wieviorka, Michel, Evil (London: Polity Press, 2012).

  • Wodak, Ruth, “Iudeus ex Machina,” Grazer Linguistische Studien (1989), pp. 153 – 180.

  • Yakira, Elhanan, “Virtuous Antisemitism”, in Alvin H. Rosenfeld, ed., Deciphering the New Antisemitism (Boomington: Indiana University Press, 2015) pp. 77 – 102.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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