Europe's Jewish Story: Both the History of the Jews in Christendom and the Account of Modern Crimes against Humanity Are Ill-Served by the Concept of Anti-Semitism

By Davies, Norman | New Statesman (1996), May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Europe's Jewish Story: Both the History of the Jews in Christendom and the Account of Modern Crimes against Humanity Are Ill-Served by the Concept of Anti-Semitism


Davies, Norman, New Statesman (1996)


Many of us will have forgotten, or never have known, where the concept of anti-Semitism came from. According to the best authorities, it was invented in 1879 by a notorious German racist and Jew-hater, Wilhelm Marr (1818-1904). An anarchist and an atheist, Marr had earlier authored a peculiarly sarcastic work, Der Sieg des Judentums uber das Germanentum . . . (the victory of Jewry over Germanity, seen from the non-religious perspective). Marr replaced the traditional "Jew" and "Judaism" by "Semite" and "Semitism". "There must be no question of parading religious prejudices," he wrote, "when the real difference lies in the blood."

He then launched his Antisemiten-Liga to foster a sick and dialectical scenario of "The Jews versus the Rest". Is that really a battlefield which we wish to prolong? To my mind it is very odd that the brainchild of a racist bigot should have found its way into the mainstream of supposedly liberal discourse.

It is particularly incongruent that Marr's deliberately unreligious construct should be applied to the Age of Faith, serving simplistic theories which try to retrace a continuous pedigree between the genocidal practices of godless fascists and the ancient disputes of two kindred religions. Where hatred of Jews is judged to be congenital and essentially Christian in origin, it follows that Jewishness is essentially anti-Christian - which I don't believe for one minute.

Indeed, I have come to wonder whether the dialectical concept of anti-Semitism, which tends to dominate modern discussions, is entirely adequate to its task. Like all other products of dialectical thought, from the anti-Americanism and anti-Sovietism of the McCarthy era to the inevitable "class warfare" of communist debate, it demands a bipolar, conflictual vision of the world where all contending elements are reduced to friend or foe, us and them, right and wrong. Intelligent gradations are discounted. Honest differences cannot be respected. Prejudices are encouraged. In my view, dialectics, the fascinating but false "philosophy of opposites", does not provide a suitable or fruitful means for exploring the complexities of Christian-Jewish history.

Few people would contest the assertion that the mid-20th century witnessed the "pits" of European civilisation. The fate of Europe's Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany must surely be located in the very lowest ring of hell. Nothing learnt in the past 50 years has dented the findings of the Nuremberg Tribunal regarding the Nazis' war crimes, and their still more heinous "crimes against humanity".

However, political circumstances at the end of the second world war dictated that the only crimes that could be investigated were those perpetrated by the defeated enemy. The fact that the largest of the combatant powers, the Soviet Union, emerged victorious and was thereby enabled to conceal its own mass crimes, caused enormous imbalances in our knowledge and consciousness. The Nuremberg Tribunal had nothing to say about Stalin's crimes. In eastern Europe all crimes were automatically assigned to fascism. Even during the cold war, many in the western democracies were reluctant to shed their illusions about "Uncle Joe", whose troops had played a decisive role in the defeat of Hitler. Surely, they felt, if Stalin's regime had contributed so hugely to the defeat of evil, it could not itself be half as evil as critics suggested.

The well-grounded reports of east European exiles were discounted. The eyewitness accounts of writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn were thought to be exaggerated. The shocking but selective glimpses provided by episodes such as Khrushchev's not-so-secret speech in 1956 were taken to be the end of the story. The detailed researches of courageous historians such as Robert Conquest were systematically denigrated by communist apologists who persistently reduced "millions" to "hundreds" or "thousands". Fascist apologists were run out of town, sometimes prosecuted. …

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