Discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, intolerance, persecution, racism, and xenophobia have existed in all historical eras and in all countries in some form. However, there is something altogether distinctive in the extraordinary persistence of antisemitism, the hateful and hostile perceptions and persecution of Jews as individuals and as a collective group that has existed for thousands of years throughout the world up to the present. From a rational point of view this persistence is baffling because of the contradictory nature of the negative assertions about Jews, the way in which they are assessed by a standard not applied to others, and because that hostility is manifested irrespective of any particular behavior by Jews. No other group of people in the world has been charged with these characteristics. Antisemitism has been displayed in public life, the media, school text -books, the workplace, religious institutions, and in reference to Israel.
The new book, A Convenient Hatred: the History of Antisemitism, by Phyllis Goldstein, with a foreword by Sir Harold Evans, the distinguished journalist and editor, is a welcome addition to the literature on the subject. The book, sponsored by Leonard Stern, is published by the non-denominational educational and professional development organization, Facing History and Ourselves. The work is a valuable contribution not only in itself but also to the mission of the organization, enlightening the general citizenry on issues of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism.
Goldstein, a senior editor at the organization, traces the history of antisemitism throughout history, using memorable historical events and episodes to illustrate the diverse nature of antisemitism and to link the past to the moral questions we face today. She disarmingly acknowledges that others may differ in the choice of events to illustrate antisemitic behavior, and somewhat modestly suggests that the book is in many ways a primer to encourage readers to further investigate the subject.
Goldstein, aiming at a wide audience, writes in a clear, precise manner, in a tone that is devoid of polemics, ideology, or exhortation. She does however hope, perhaps idealistically, that the presentation of information about antisemitism and other hatreds and the way in which these hatreds are transmitted may help overcome them. She understands that myths and stereotypes become embodied in individuals, institutions, and classrooms, and then infect political and social leaders and action. She indicates the way in which antisemitism has ranged from rhetorical and polemical utterances and writings to discriminatory and punitive actions.
In his eloquent foreword Harold Evans, surprised by the widespread globalization of hateful antisemitism, regards it as a mental condition conducive to paranoia, impervious to truth, a very peculiar pathology that recognizes no national borders. Goldstein, starting with the antisemitism displayed over 2500 years ago in Elephantine, an island in the Nile in southern Egypt, puts this mental condition on display. Prejudice against Jews goes back to early history and is found in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman writings and actions, and in early Christianity. Behavior patterns, that have become familiar through two thousand years, were present in this early period, as for instance, in the burning of the Jewish temple and the use of Jews as scapegoats in the struggle between the rival Persian and Roman powers in Egypt. In Alexandria, in which Jews constituted 40 percent of the population, in 38 C.E. there was mob violence against Jews fed by false accusations, and the categorization of Jews as a "diseased race of lepers" by Apion, a Greek lawyer resident there. It was realized early that antisemitism was a convenient device for a leader or a group to unite adherents against a supposed enemy, a way of diverting attention from problems and the real causes of them.
Goldstein provides some interesting details while telling her stories. One of particular interest, in the light of events that would occur shortly thereafter with blame for the crucifixion of Jesus falling on the Jews, was the Roman action in erecting 2000 crosses outside Jerusalem on which to hang Jews, a few years before Jesus was born. She does not claim to be a deep specialized scholar, in the sense of Anthony Julius in his book on antisemitism in Britain, nor is she an expert in the many languages in which antisemitism has been expressed, but she has mastered the existing literature in English on the subject. She presents her thoughts in a readable style and systematic manner, and brings the subject up to date by relating the distortions of present day Holocaust deniers and the unpleasant fulminations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. Goldstein might have dealt more fully with the sordid record of the Mufti of Jerusalem, and with the present complicated interaction of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
In this historical tour we witness the manifestations of antisemitism during the emergence of Christianity from the followers of the Jewish Jesus, the anti-Jewish laws issued by Emperor Constantine in 314 after his conversion to Christianity, the accusations of Jews as "Christ killers," the impact of Islam and its empires, the episode of the Crusades, the struggle between the new Protestantism and Catholicism, the mixed fruits of the Enlightenment, the false conspiracy theories of Jewish power, the distortion of race theories, the machinations of the Soviet Union, the abuse of international organizations, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Throughout 2000 years demonization, dehumanization, and discrimination against Jews have occurred. Goldstein illustrates this in the various chapters, in both familiar and less known issues: included are those in 167 A.D. on the charge of deicide or the murder of God; the burning of synagogues in Iraq in 388; the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland during the first Crusade in 1096; the even greater slaughter by the leader of the Crusade of Jews in Jerusalem in 1099; the attacks on Jews by individuals and groups during the second Crusade in 1146-7; the imposition of special taxes on Jews and attempts to remove them from international trade; the incitements by John Chrysostom in Antioch in the late 14th century; the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and later from other countries including Spain in 1492; the charge in 1144 of ritual murder of Christians to obtain their blood; alleged responsibility for poisoning wells and the Black Death in the 14th and 15th centuries; the desecration of the host in the late 13th century; the insistence by the Church from the 13th century on that Jews wear clothing or head covering that distinguished them from Christians; the attacks on the Talmud and the burning of Jewish books in 1242 in Paris; the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492; forced conversions; the Inquisition in Spain in 1480 to deal with alleged false conversos by burning or torture (the notorious auto-da-fe, the burning of Jews at a public event); the insistence in Spain on purity of blood (la limpieza de sangre) which made race a major rationale for antisemitism; the assault of Martin Luther on the "damned, rejected race of Jews, "the prejudice of the Jesuits which lasted until 1946; the teaching of contempt of the Jews in church documents, a practice that was not disavowed until 1947; the inclusion of Jewish books in the Vatican Index of Forbidden Books in 1549; the confinements of Jews to ghettoes starting in Venice in 1516; the belief of Voltaire during the Enlightenment period that Jews "were ignorant and barbarous people;" the special clothing, hats, and even shoes Jews were obliged to wear in the Ottoman Empire; the massacres in the Ukraine in 1648; the second class status, dhimmis, of Jews under Muslim rule; the political use of anti-Jewish rhetoric by Tories against Whigs in the 1754 British election; the murder in 1840 of innocent Jews for the disappearance of a monk in Damascus; the refusal of many European countries to allow Jews to become citizens; the well known Dreyfus Affair in France in the 1890s; the pamphlet in 1878 by Wilhelm Marr which coined the word "antisemitism;" the racial theories of Ernst Haeckel; the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion produced by the Russian secret police and later publicized by Henry Ford and recently by Saudi Arabia and by Hamas in Gaza; the confinement of Jews to the Pale of Settlement in Western Russia and attempts to convert Jews to the Russian Orthodox faith; the pogroms (thunder) beginning in 1881 in Russia and continuing for over two decades and then resuming in 1917-9 in the Ukraine; the lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta in 1913 for the murder of a 13 year old girl; the allegation of responsibility for the Russian Revolution and two World Wars; the Holocaust; the massacre in Kielce, Poland in July 1946; the ritual murder of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002; and the incessant condemnations of Israel since its establishment.
It is still difficult to provide a rational, unprejudiced explanation, economic, social, religious, or political, for the persistence of antisemitism. Why for example is antisemitism so deeply embedded in the culture of Spain since it is over 500 years since Jews were expelled from the country? Why did General George S. Patton in his diary on September 15, 1945 refer to Jewish DPs in the camps in Europe as "lower than animals?" The danger of antisemitism remains, in governmental actions, in international bodies especially those related to the United Nations, the Durban Conferences, and among those opposed to the existence of Israel. After centuries of animosity towards Jews displayed by Christian Churches it is saddening that Arab and Islamic organizations, influenced by the example of the Mufti of Jerusalem who called for the removal of Jews from Palestine, have now made antisemitic rhetoric and calls for action against Jews a significant part of their activity. Radical Islamists have linked anti-Semitism, or Judeophobia, to their disproportionate criticism and hostility to the state of Israel.
One must ask why international organizations, supposedly promoting and protecting human rights around the world, have been obsessed with condemning and demonizing the state of Israel for fifty years through one-sided resolutions and disproportionate criticism. The fantasy of Jewish and Israeli power and conspiracy reached an absurd climax when some declared that Jews were responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.
In her book, Goldstein has made the horrifying history of antisemitism accessible to everyone. One can only hope that it will have a widespread readership and a salutary impact in changing opinions and behavior in public life, the media, schools, and religious institutions.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and a member of the Board of the American Israel Friendship League