Wilhelm Marr, inventor of 'antisemitism'

I favor writing “antisemitism” in the British way, as one word without a hyphen. Antisemitism–a term invented by a 19th century German (Wilhelm Marr) to label his Jew-hating belief system–is an ideology, but “semitism” is not. Moreover, antisemitism is not about the hatred of all peoples who speak a Semitic language (the linguistic family that includes Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic). Consequently, it’s not a misnomer to refer to Arabs who happen to hate Jews as antisemites.

The definition of antisemitism that I most prefer is attributed to the British-Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin: that antisemitism means “hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary.” This is a wise as well as witty observation that acknowledges that Jews–being only human–are capable of all the imperfections, weaknesses, mistakes and crimes of other humans. (That Jews are ordinary human beings is in itself something that the most extreme antisemites deny.)

Jerome Chanes, historian and contributing editor of The Forward, has recently written a review of the latest in the long list of books on the subject. He concludes with the common understanding that this is a problem of non-Jews, not a Jewish problem as such. I know what he means, of course, but I disagree slightly.

Yes, among hardcore antisemites, Jews are guilty of something bad regardless of what they do. Such people cannot even accept Jews when they convert to Christianity, or when they are completely assimilated into the non-Jewish majority culture, eschewing any interest in or attachment to a community of self-affirming Jews. But antisemitism becomes a dangerous affliction when these bigots are able to stir up the passions of otherwise non-fanatical non-Jews by pointing to real or imagined wrong-doing by Jews.

Such is what happened in recent years when the widely disseminated visuals of the Second Intifada and of the Israeli military response inspired antisemitic outbursts against European Jews (most especially noted among Muslim immigrant communities in France). So on occasion, what Jews do–or are seen to do–does matter. This is a point I made in a somewhat controversial op-ed article in The Forward in 2003. I noted that if some pivotal singular events had not happened–e.g., Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Arabs in Hebron in 1994, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the wave of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during the election campaign of 1996–the peace process of the 1990s would likely have succeeded, and there would have been no outbreak of antisemitic incidents in Europe in the early 2000′s.

It is still my belief that the peace process of the 1990s, although obviously flawed, came very close to succeeding. If not for the tragically effective efforts of enemies of peace on both sides–perhaps most effectively on the Israeli side–Oslo would have succeeded. And it is also my belief that with the formal end of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the phenomenon of antisemitism would have come to an effective end. Like polio or smallpox, the virus might still infect some souls, but only on the margins of society.

Alas, as the conflict endures, so does this pestilence and the danger of it spreading. I know that there are parts of Western Europe today where Jews are warned against wearing kippot (yarmulkes), or stars of David, or other such indicators of Jewishness on the street. And widespread anti-Israel sentiments in the Muslim world are often expressed in antisemitic terms. But I see the antisemitism as mostly a product of anti-Israel attitudes rather than the other way around.


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