Who Hates Jews? A Historical Travelogue
“Who is a Jew? Who is an antisemite?” These two related questions are at the center of a vexing early 21st century debate that should concern us greatly. In this article, my focus is the second question.
The terminological morass over antisemitism began when second-rate German intellectual Wilhelm Marr bestowed a new name on the hatred of Jews in The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism (1879). When most Jews in the orbit of the Enlightenment were increasingly viewing themselves as “Hebrews” — sharing the Mosaic faith but of diverse nationalities — Marr argued that Jews were an alien minority, the antithesis of German racial “Aryans,” and defined by their origins in Oriental lands where “Semitic” language speakers became dominant and then “invaded” Europe.
Marr’s argument was fatally flawed because Arabs who spoke Semitic languages were not Jewish, and because not all of Europe’s Ashkenazic Jews originated from “Semitic-speaking” lands. This confusion did not bother Marr’s followers, because their real purpose was political — not scientific. They wanted to stigmatize the emancipated Jews of Western Europe and North America.
The irony was that the new breed of “antisemites” soon began to exploit the ambiguities of their own definition of “antisemitism.” Some began to argue that they were not “antisemites” per se, because they had nothing against “Semitic” Muslim Arabs and because Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews were not “real” Semites. The true origins of these “imposter Jews” was in the Caucasus Mountains among the non-semitic “Khazar” tribes, who converted to Judaism around AD 900 and then moved as far west as Germany and France. Arthur Koestler, a German-Jewish intellectual and no antisemite, also defended the Khazar hypothesis in The Thirteenth Tribe (1958).
The Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, who is an ardent antisemite, utilizes the same phony argument against American and Israeli Jews in denouncing them as frauds — unlike the small minority of fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as the Haredi sect Neturei Karta, who still reject the State of Israel.
The term “antisemitic” really means “anti-Jewish.” Jew hatred is a very old creed (the late Robert Wistrich called it “the longest hatred”) dating back to the Hellenistic period, even before the Roman Empire. After Rome converted to Christianity, Jew-hatred took on the theological guise of “anti-Judaism,” which expressed Christian disdain for Jews because they clung stubbornly to the Hebrew Bible over the New Testament gospels.
Then, around the time of the medieval Crusades, as Northern Europe thoroughly Christianized and Muslim lands were invaded by Christian Crusaders, European Jew-hatred assumed an ethnic-racial dimension, as Ashkenazic Jews were redefined by their negative association with the Muslim (and Jewish) Orient. Wilhelm Marr dressed up this medieval “racial” Jew hatred in modern, pseudo-scientific garb.
At first, European Jew haters were religiously Christian. Then, during the Enlightenment, the French Revolution (which provoked a conservative backlash), and the Romantic Movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, they gradually secularized. Jew-hatred soon became a defining political creed. In what may be an urban legend, a rabbi with a luxurious beard sat on the left side in the Frankfurt Assembly during the Revolution of 1848. Asked why, he replied: “Because Jews have no Right.”
Ever since, right-wing antisemitism has been the province of Jew-haters who denounced the Rothschild bankers for dominating the globe (though some leftists also agreed), who incited pogroms in Eastern Europe, who supported Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger — and then Hitler — in Central Europe, and who shouted “Better Hitler than Blum” (a pre-World War II socialist) in France. Its most recent manifestations include America’s alt-right movement and the Charlottesville marchers shouting: “The Jews will not replace us.”
What complicates the story is that, after Herzl’s Zionist movement emerged around 1900, so too did left-wing Jew-hatred, which increasingly targeted the idea of a Jewish state, as well as the “backwardness” of Eastern Europe’s “Ostjuden.” Left-wing Jew hatred mutated into hard-core “anti-Zionism” after 1948, as Stalin’s Soviet Union pivoted to support Israel’s genocide-minded Arab and Muslim antagonists.
Reaching high points with the UN’s 1975 “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution and the 2001 Durban “Anti-Racism” Conference, Jew-hatred in the left-wing garb of “anti-Zionism” entered the 21st century, where is it now ascendant on many college campuses. And this surge in right-wing and left-wing antisemitism is where we find ourselves today.
Historian Harold Brackman is co-author with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (Africa World Press, 2015).