Anti-Semitism

A modern phenomenon.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

In a pamphlet published in 1873, Der Sieg des Judentums uber das Germanentum ("The Victory of Judaism over Germandom"), Wilhelm Marr, the German political agitator, coined the term "antisemit­ism." Fortuitous though it may have been, the coincidence of the inven­tion of the word and the manifesta­tions of what could be considered early modern anti-Semitism was cer­tainly very symbolic. Themes and notions of a whole new kind were now grafted upon traditional anti‑Judaism. 

neo-nazis anti-semitism

A neo-Nazi rally

It should be emphasized, however, that anti‑Jewish attitudes based on tra­ditional theological and economic reasons were still widespread through­out European society, mostly among the peasant population. They were still voiced in western and central Europe, but were particularly preva­lent in eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Modern antisemitism, on the other hand, was especially potent in those lands and those sectors of society which were undergoing a rapid process of industrialization and urbanization. Without actually supplanting the older hatreds, it was the new themes which now came to the fore in the more advanced societies. The early 1870s constituted the formative years of the novel phenomenon.

Several socio‑economic, cultural, and political elements converged to give birth to modern antisemitism. The process of desegregation of the Jews in western and central Europe was undoubtedly an important factor. The growing presence of Jews in the larger urban centers, their rapid social ascent, their visibility in the liberal professions, in the wor1d of finance, in the press, and in the arts, as well as in left‑wing political movements, provoked violent reactions.

These reactions were exacer­bated by fantasies entirely divorced from reality: the Jewish minority, representing between 0.3% and 1% of society at large, was described as an occult force, manipulating both capitalism and revolution in order to achieve domination over all nations. This was the central theme of La France Juive by Edouard Drumont (1886) and of the "pioneering" work of the Fourierist Alphonse Toussenel, Les Juifs, rois de l'époque ("The Jews, Kings of the Era," 1845). The negative, often diabolical, stereotype of the Jew inherited from medieval Christian anti-Judaism, far from disappearing in modern times, reemerged in secularized versions.

The multiple forms of modern antisemitism could be grouped in two general categories. Animosity toward ­the Jews based on the economic, social, and cultural reasons mentioned above, was translated into political terms: the demand to curb thealleged influence of the Jews by forc­ing them to assimilate into the local society was tantamount to a call for their complete disappearance as a separate entity (religious, ethnic and cultural). French anti-Semitism, repeatedly boosted by the crash of the Union Generale (1882), the Panama scandal (1889), the Dreyfus affair, and the agitation of the Action Francaise and other antisemitic movements, remained confined, on the whole, to this first category.

Germany, on the other hand, witnessed the appearance of racial antisemitism. Although still marginal, and often still based on older arguments, this was nonetheless a phenomenon in its own right. Racist theories, originating in various nationalconstellations, seemed to offer a neat solution to the perennial "Jewish question." The Jews could now be depicted as an inherently destructive race, and the struggle between Aryans and Jews as an inexorable and merciless war.

The better‑known ideologists of racial antisemitism in imperial Germany were Eugen Duehring, Theodor Fritsch, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Steinrich Class. Their political influence before World War I was minimal, but their ideas soon infiltrated groups of every kind.

The Bolshevik menace, German defeat, economic chaos following ­World War I--all these constituted fertile soil for the growth and ­radicalization of antisemitic theories. These finally culminated in exceptionally virulent form in Nazi ideology.

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Saul Friedlander

Saul Friedlander is a Professor of History at UCLA.