The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day

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The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, by Walter Laqueur. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 216 pp. $22.00.

Walter Laqueurs many books on European and Middle Eastern history have always combined historical depth and contemporary relevance. His latest work, a history of antisemitism, is no exception: although it begins with the ancient world and provides a brisk survey of the history of antisemitism through the era of the Holocaust, half of its chapters deal with aspects of "the new antisemitism," the surprising mutations of the old virus that have occurred in the post-Holocaust era. As Laqueur wryly notes, the Nazis made the term "antisemitism" disreputable, and most antisemites now masquerade under other names: "A spade is no longer a spade but an agricultural implement."

Laqueur's chapters on ancient and medieval antisemitism, the Enlightenment and its aftermath, the rise of racialism and conspiracy theories, and the Holocaust are masterly examples of concise analysis, full of crisp judgments of the distinctive factors at play in each period. It is true, he acknowledges, that there are continuities in the history of antisemitism: Voltaire, for example, was influenced by his reading of classical authors with prejudices against the Jews, as well as by Spinoza's rationalist critique of Judaism in the seventeenth century. But as a historian, Laqueur is more attentive to differences rather than similarities across periods, and he stresses that different societies have produced different varieties of antisemitism. Antisemitism in early modern Germany, for example, was primarily theological in character, while Polish antisemitism had mainly social rather than ideological causes. Instead of depicting antisemitism as a kind of primordial lava that erupts periodically in times of crisis, Laqueur is alert to specific changes in the constellation of factors that have produced outbreaks of hatred and violence against Jewish minorities in European and Islamic societies.

Laqueur has written authoritative works not only about the Holocaust, but also about various forms of ideological extremism and terrorism, as well as about Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is therefore well equipped to examine the more recent manifestations of antisemitism in the Middle East and on the left side of the political spectrum in Europe and elsewhere in the contemporary world. He begins his book with a puzzle: If more than 25 million people have been killed in internal conflicts since the end of the second World War, why have the 8,000 victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict received so much of the world's attention? Why has Israel been the target of more United Nations resolutions than all other nations combined? Is it a matter of sympathy for the underdog in the conflict? But surely there are many other underdogs in the world's many zones of conflict, some of them suffering more grievously than the Palestinians. …