On Hating the Jews
by Natan Sharansky
NO HATRED has as rich and as lethal a history as anti-Semitism--"the longest hatred," as the historian Robert Wistrich has dubbed it. Over the millennia, anti-Semitism has infected a multitude of peoples, religions, and civilizations, in the process inflicting a host of terrors on its Jewish victims. But while there is no disputing the impressive reach of the phenomenon, there is surprisingly little agreement about its cause or causes.
Indeed, finding a single cause would seem too daunting a task--the incidence of anti-Semitism is too frequent, the time span too broad, the locales too numerous, the circumstances too varied. No doubt that is why some scholars have come to regard every outbreak as essentially unique, denying that a straight line can be drawn from the anti-Semitism of the ancient world to that of today. Whether it is the attack on the Jews of Alexandria in 38 C.E. or the ones that took place 200 years earlier in ancient Jerusalem, whether it is the Dreyfus affair in 1890's France or Kristallnacht in late-1930's Germany--each incident is seen as the outcome of a distinctive mix of political, social, economic, cultural, and religious forces that preclude the possibility of a deeper or recurring cause.
A less extreme version of this same approach identifies certain patterns of anti-Semitism, but only within individual and discrete "eras." In particular, a distinction is drawn between the religiously based hatred of the Middle Ages and the racially based hatred of the modern era. Responsibility for the anti-Semitic waves that engulfed Europe from the age of Constantine to the dawn of the Enlightenment is laid largely at the foot of the Church and its offshoots, while the convulsions that erupted over the course of the next three centuries are viewed as the byproduct of the rise of virulent nationalism.
Obviously, separating out incidents or eras has its advantages, enabling researchers to focus more intensively on specific circumstances and to examine individual outbreaks from start to finish. But what such analyses may gain in local explanatory power they sacrifice in comprehensiveness. Besides, if every incident or era of anti-Semitism is largely distinct from every other, how to explain the cumulative ferocity of the phenomenon?
As if in response to this question, some scholars have attempted to offer more sweeping, trans-historical explanations. Perhaps the two best known are the "scapegoat" theory, according to which tensions within society are regulated and released by blaming a weaker group, often the Jews, for whatever is troubling the majority, and the "demonization" theory, according to which Jews have been cast into the role of the "other" by the seemingly perennial need to reject those who are ethnically, religiously, or racially different.
Clearly, in this sociological approach, anti-Semitism emerges as a Jewish phenomenon in name only. Rather, it is but one variant in a family of hatreds that include racism and xenophobia. Thus, the specifically anti-Jewish violence in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, has as much in common with the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia at the turn of the 21st as it does with the massacres of Jews in the Ukraine in the mid-1600's. Taken to its logical conclusion, this theory, would redefine the Holocaust--at the hands of some scholars, it has redefined the Holocaust--as humanity's most destructive act of racism rather than as the most murderous campaign ever directed against the Jews.
Reacting to such universalizing tendencies a half-century ago, Hannah Arendt cited a piece of dialogue from "a joke which was told after the first World War":
An anti-Semite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? asks the one. Why the Jews? asks the other.
George Orwell offered a similar observation in 1944: "However tree the scapegoat theory may be in general terms, it does not explain why the Jews rather than some other minority group are picked on, nor does it make clear what they are the scapegoat for."
WHATEVER THE shortcomings of these approaches may be, I have to admit that nay own track record as a theorist is no better.
Three decades ago, as a young dissident in the Soviet Union, I compiled underground reports on anti-Semitism for foreign journalists and Western diplomats. At the time, I firmly believed that the cause of the "disease" was totalitarianism, and that democracy was the way to cure it. Once the Soviet regime came to be replaced by democratic rule, I figured, anti-Semitism was bound to wither away. In the struggle toward that goal, the free world, which in the aftermath of the Holocaust appeared to have inoculated itself against a recurrence of murderous anti-Jewish hatred, was our natural ally, the one political entity with both the means and the will to combat the great evil.