Antisemitism: A Social Barometer of Historical Proportions

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during the 34th annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF – Conseil Representatif des Institutions juives de France) on February 20, 2019, at the Louvre Carrousel in Paris. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Roughly 80 Jewish graves were vandalised in Quatzenheim, France, this week. Eight British MPs left the Labour Party complaining of an entrenched culture of antisemitism. In the United States, where memories of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting are still fresh, vandals broke the windows of a synagogue in Brooklyn this week and the antisemitism scandal surrounding the congresswoman Ilhan Omar continues. Why are we seeing a resurgence of antisemitism and what does it say about our society? Hostility towards Jews has been a feature of European society since the time of Christ, and yet it was not until summer 1941 (or possibly earlier in 1942) that a systematic attempt was made to annihilate Jews as a race. The contexts in which antisemitic feelings turn into violence helps to teach us some important lessons about the problem of antisemitism:

First, it’s not (necessarily) about the Jews per se but the causal factors that lead the perpetrator to scapegoating. Most histories of the Holocaust begin with a chapter about Jewish communities before the Second World War. But that is to commemorate the dead, not because Jews caused or provoked antisemitism. Like all bullies, antisemites attack their victims because they have a problem, not because of something Jews did. So we need to be asking ourselves why people become bullies. The answer, according to psychologists, is that bullies are usually people who have experienced some sort of stress or trauma themselves, have low self-esteem, have been taught that aggressive behaviour is good, have often been bullied themselves, and are worried that their relationships with family and friends might break down at any time. None of these reasons excuse this behaviour, but if you are going to treat a problem we first have to diagnose it correctly.

Second, antisemitism is often a way of negotiating social values. The historian Ronald Schechter points out that French philosophes and revolutionaries talked disproportionately about Jews just before and during the early years of the French Revolution. They did so, he says, to explain what being a “good citizen” meant, both in terms of what Jews needed to do if they wanted to become citoyens, and how the French should treat them if they wanted to show the world what a healthy republic should look like. Calling people like Ilhan Omar to account for her comments about Israel allows her political opponents to police public speech and to set limits on what is and is not acceptable to tweet in the public sphere.

Third, antisemitism is often a way of expressing anger at those in power. Emmanuel Macron responded to this week’s vandalism by stating that “every time a French person because he or she is Jewish, is insulted, threatened — or worse, injured or killed — the whole Republic is”. He may be on to something. The historian Robert Moore argues that antisemitism increased during the eleventh century, when Europe became a “persecuting society” more generally. Europeans attacked Jews, heretics, and foreigners as a response to the growing power of the state over their lives. Even more strongly, David Nirenberg argues that Christians attacked Jews in fourteenth century Aragon because they were upset with the King. They could not attack the King directly, so they hurt the Jews, who were legally the King’s property.

Fourth, people use antisemitism to establish the boundaries of their communities. The Spanish expelled all Jews from Iberia in 1492 precisely at the moment when Jews were converting to Christianity en masse. Terrified that they might no longer be able to differentiate the Jews from themselves, they drove them out. Violent pogroms were a frequent occurrence in nineteenth century Odessa as Greek merchants used antisemitism as a weapon to drive their Jewish competitors out of business. Some of the most brutal of these pogroms took place during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, when the Greeks needed to differentiate themselves from other Ottomans and to establish their identity as Greeks.

Fifth, antisemitic violence happens when people think the state is weak. A glance at pogroms in early twentieth century Russia shows that they peaked in 1905 and 1917 – at exactly those moments when revolutions were rocking the state. With the government’s attention focused on the revolutionaries and the army occupied elsewhere, peasants took advantage of the opportunity to attack people they disliked, and perhaps to enrich themselves in the process. Similarly, pogroms in interwar Poland peaked in 1935, when the army was engaged in a brutal pacification campaign against Ukrainians. Similarly, today antisemitic vandalism and graffiti allows the Yellow Vests movement to demonstrate how powerless the French government is to call them to account for their actions.

Finally, people use antisemitic violence to feel powerful. One of the least remembered moments of mass violence against Jews took place on the border between Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the First World War. With the borders of these new states still in flux, the three countries fought each other to decide who would control the region for the next twenty years. Soldiers on both sides massacred entire villages in an attempt to prove that they, and not their enemies, had control. Further South, twenty years later Romanian troops massacred Jews in Bucovina and Bessarabia in 1940 as they pulled out of the area which had just been given to the Soviet Union as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact played itself out to its logical conclusion. Humiliated and angry, Romanians killed Jews because they needed to lash out and Jews were the most convenient victims.

These lessons from history should make us sit up and wonder what it is about our societies that is producing new waves of antisemitism every few months. And once we decide what is causing it, we need to do something about it.

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.

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