November 7, 2009

The Origin of Anti-Semitism

Justin Katz

Perhaps it's peculiar, given my Jewish heritage, or perhaps it's entirely predictable, given my progression from atheism to Catholicism, but I'd never thought to explain anti-Semitism in the way that Meir Soloveichik describes here:

As Stanley Hauerwas notes, Berkovits fails to understand that "societies putatively founded on values of 'universal validity' cannot help but interpret the particularistic commitments of the Jewish people as morally retrogressive." In contrast, many Christians have come to appreciate, and even celebrate, God's special relationship with the Jewish people. Wyschogrod, in his description of God's election of Israel, notes that anti-Semitism is, at its core, a resistance to, and jealousy of, this election. "Instead of accepting Israel's election with humility," he writes, the nations of the world all too often "rail against it, mocking the God of the Jews, gleefully pointing out the shortcomings of the people he chose," for "Israel's presence is a constant reminder to them that they were not chosen but that this people was." At the same time, as Kendall Soulen notes in his excellent introduction to Wyschogrod's thought, for Wyschogrod, it is through God's love of Israel that we come to know his love for all the world—or, in Soulen's words, "God also desires to be Redeemer of the world as the One whose first love is the people of Israel." Thus Soulen cites Wyschogrod: "Because [God] said: 'I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you; in you shall all the families of earth be blessed' (Gen. 12:3), he has tied his saving and redemptive concern for the welfare of all humankind to his love for the people of Israel."

It seems to me that this assumes that anti-Semites ultimately believe in the God of Israel, and although a significant number may believe while proclaiming not to do so (even, in some sense, believing that they do not believe in Him), I'm not so sure this is sufficiently broad as a core theory. I'd be more inclined to explain anti-Semitism as a rebellion against Western civilization's heritage (expanded to include the Middle East). The Jews are a direct reminder and descendants of our foundational culture, particularly of the moral components thereof that complicate sinful desires and corrupt intentions.

Western and Middle Eastern civilization don't feel the same way about, say, the Greeks, because not only was their contribution more academic in nature, but modern Greeks' connection to ancient Greece is by mutable geographic nationhood, whereas Jews' nationhood is intrinsically related to their being the direct inheritors of their — and our — tradition.

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Although I have no alternative explaination, I find it very difficult to credit any article which seeks to explain something as ancient as anti-Semitism. Many of the facts that old are unknown, or poorly understood. For instance Parting of the Red Sea, modern attempts to explain it are definitely anti-theological without accepting that God controls all things. All reports indicate that anti-Semitism goes back to the time of Egyptian dynasties. Part of the current friction between Muslims and Jews may be explained by comparative theology, but I do not readily see it as explaining European anti Semitism. My slight knowledge of those things (and a reading of Ivanhoe) indicate that the Catholic church inspired anti-Semitism (the Inquisition), which was accepted by the faithful. I suppose that the root cause among the clerics might be "comparative theology".

Still, there are questions neither asked, nor answered. I understand Japan to be quite anti-Semitic, and for the most part they do not even have a theology as we understand it. Perhaps it was introduced by Christian missionaries.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 7, 2009 7:21 PM

Hmmm. I'm not sure it makes sense to trace anti-Semitism to pre-Commandment times except to the degree that warring tribes engaged in alternating oppression can be said to be "anti" the others. For similar reasons, I'm not sure "comparative theology" tells you much specific to the Jews, beyond the fact that they're not Christians, Muslims, or whatever else, because a comparative theology difference ought to make each religion "anti" all others. Unless there's something in a particular theology that evokes the reaction.

I'm proposing that that "something" is more cultural, which could help explain non-religious anti-Semitism — specifically, that its the Jews status as central to Western tradition.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 7, 2009 7:44 PM

Jewish people have always been the one that I had no idea why they were persecuted. I've asked people and usually gotten different answers, ranging from they were the one group who didn't see money as evil, so they were the bankers and had all the money (jealousy) all the way to John 3:16, (don't believe in Christ).

Other groups, I've heard peoples' reason for the persecution. I just don't understand anti-semitism.

Posted by: Patrick at November 7, 2009 9:21 PM

Patrick writes:
"Jewish people have always been the one that I had no idea why they were persecuted. I've asked people and usually gotten different answers, ranging from they were the one group who didn't see money as evil, so they were the bankers and had all the money (jealousy) all the way to John 3:16, (don't believe in Christ).

Other groups, I've heard peoples' reason for the persecution. I just don't understand anti-semitism."

As far as European anti-Semitism goes, I think the cause was clearly the Catholic Church and its teachings, combined with the fact that Jews could speak a secret language, Hebrew. Interestingly most educated people of the 18th century studied Hebrew, Thomas Jefferson and many other of the "Founders".

When we think of Jews as not seeing money as evil, we have to remember the Catholic Church, at the time, forbade interest (Christ threw the money changers out of the temple). Consequently when the medieval monarchs needed to borrow money, they had to go to the Jews. It was easier to persecute, or banish, your creditors than to pay them. Since Jews were wide spread they were able to facilitate "letters of credit". This made it possible to borrow money in France and receive it in Casablanca. This seemed like magic to medieval Christians. It is also made it possible for Jews to accumulate wealth without real property, this was also magic to medieval people ("Jesus saves, Moses invests"). We owe the concept of the mortgage (French for "dead debt") to the Jews. The existing system was basically that you sold property to your creditor and it was returned/re-purchased when the debt was paid. Since Jews were forbidden to "own" property in Europe this presented a problem. It was resolved by a system which gave the creditor a "claim", or lien, against the property without taking ownership. This lien was exercised by a "auction", so the Jew never had ownership of the property. Once again it was possible to banish, or revile, the creditor. Thoughtful study of the Holocaust, will show that the Nazis basically "banished" the Jews and eliminated their rights as creditors.

Although only very recently resolved, it appears that the Catholics taught that Jews were "Christ Killers". I don't know if this "caused" anti-Semitism, or is just an easily understood explanation for anti-Semites who don't know the reason for their anti-Semitism.

Then there was the Inquisition. Interestingly the leading Inquisitor, Torquemada, was of Jewish extraction. In school, before college, I was taught that the Inquisition was directed towards "heretics" and non-Christians. It was only later that I learned that it was frequently directed against Jews. It did encompass Christian heretics and Moslems as it expanded. Towards the end it was simply a political tool. I may over emphasize the effect on Jews here by a trick of memory, I remember that when I first learned of the Inquisition there was no mention of the Jews. Recently I read a history of the Inquisition and Jews figure prominently. Altogether an awful incident in European history. I recall that an entire town was burned, heretics and Christians included. The theory was that on resurrection "God would know his own".

There are a few other factoids that come to mind, but I will sound like I am dumping on the Catholics. I do not mean to single them out, at the time they were the only game in town.

Mild anti-Semitism may be simply explained as "they aren't our kind". I understand the same division existed between the Sephardites and Ashkenase. Jews of middle European and Russian extraction have told me they weren't desired at some Jewish country clubs, it seems they were regarded as coarse. In any case, I suspect that a truly rabid anti-Semite would only make themselves ridiculous if they attempted to explain their feelings, it would probably come out as a "Master Race" explanation. Let us dwell on the number of Nobel Prizes they have brought to this country, before Obama made that meaningless.

Although Jews are "people of the book", I suspect jealousy does inflame some Muslims. Over all, Islamic countries have not progressed very well. It must be difficult for clerics to explain
why Allah seems to favor the Jews.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 7, 2009 11:19 PM

Well, there have certainly been a variety of proximate causes and justifications for anti-Semitism, but my point was to offer a cultural alternative to somebody's theological explanation for the pervasiveness of the hatred.

Perhaps one could argue that secularists and atheists of the last couple of centuries merely translated anti-Semitism that they'd learned from a Christian heritage, but that doesn't cover hundreds of years of persecution prior to the Roman Empire's conversion to Christianity, which coincides with Christians' taking up the violence, raising the question of which, in the too-close overlap of Christian Church and Roman state, led the other.

From an historical point of view, it's reasonable to suggest that Jews were simply among the various tribes, as society congealed, and were persecuted by the more powerful (and persecuting when they were more powerful), which became written into the Roman Empire and subsequently the Christian West (in part focused on particular cultural differences, as with money), somehow being transmitted to Muslims and then globally as the West expanded around the world and then being maintained by secularists more recently.

Such an explanation essentially compiles a series of historical accidents to which the Jews were situationally prone, which is perfectly plausible, but if for intellectual purposes, one wishes to discuss an underlying cause, something more fundamental is required.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 8, 2009 8:29 AM
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