Why Antisemitism? Pt. 1 [Pt. 2 covers Israel]

originally published on March 22, 2012. People have explained the hows of antisemitism a lot, but someone, I think it was Margaret Feike, asked me why. These two posts are my effort at an answer. They are in part a guess, but a fairly educated one. I got a lot of agreement when I first posted these. 

I’ve been asked this more than once on OS, as has Jonathan Wolfman. (His post of yesterday put the topic back on the table and he asked me if I was interested in posting on this at the moment, hence the timing. This one has been in progress for a while.) We’ve both taken stabs at it, in my case in a post explaining how there was way more to anti-Semitism than the Holocaust. In looking at these attempts, I’m realizing that at least part of where we come up short is in concentrating too much on What and not enough on Why. 

So, Why?

The question might best be posed another way. A very smart friend of mine once told me that the primary root of all evil is fear. I think that’s a better explanation than any I’ve ever heard, so I’ll base my question on that assumption:

What about Jews do some gentiles find threatening?

Pre-Christian, the answer probably has to do with the refusal of a monotheistic people to conform to polytheism. When one polytheistic people conquered another, adding gods to your conquered people’s collection wasn’t that big a deal. With monotheistic Jews, on the other hand, it was an enormous deal. That put us on a collision course with authority based on our very identity as a people. Religion is why we kicked the Greeks out (well, the heirs to the Greek empire in that part of the world, who really weren’t Greek) permanently and the Romans out temporarily (which I don’t think had ever been done). Without Greek and Roman attempts at eradicating our religion or repurposing our Temple in Jerusalem, neither rebellion would probably have taken place. The Romans didn’t take kindly to it, came back in greater numbers and, as punishment for our rebellion, kicked us out of our homeland, renamed it “Palestine” after the Philistines to dispossess us, and scattered us – the so called Diaspora. 

The Diaspora is relevant because it resulted in our being a minority population in a whole lot of places. Those who found us threatening typically dealt with us as an internal population rather than an external one. I’ll elaborate on this point as I go on.

From the time Christianity began, all other (non-Jewish) Western religions plus Marxism based at least part of their legitimacy on superceding us. As people came up with new takes on relating to God or, in the case or Marxism, refusing to relate to Him, they invariably thought they’d found The Way and that their predecessors, particularly us, should Get With The Program. We rarely did, and so we were often called a Stiff-Necked People (or worse) for sticking to our original views. The fact that we stuck to those views said to everyone else, in essence, We Think You’re Wrong, even though we made no attempts to alter their beliefs, only to preserve our own. Most of them found that insulting. Who were we to say they were wrong?? (Even though they said the same thing about us, but anti-Semitism isn’t rational enough for consistency.) This might not have become an issue except for two factors:

1. Unlike us, nearly all Western religions and Marxism were highly evangelistic. That in itself put us on a collision course.

2. Because we had no homeland and instead lived in a bunch of countries, we were in close proximity to these evangelizing populations, typically sharing countries, and we had the additional disadvantage of being a minority population in all of them.

So, as a minority population never capable of presenting a viable threat to the majority population wherever we lived, what made us appear threatening?

·        We were highly tribal. Because we weren’t evangelistic, most Jews were descendants of other Jews. We started as a tribal entity and remained one, which emphasized our isolation and added a cultural component to our existing religious differentiation. Most other Western religions are not tribal.

·        Because of both the tribal ethnic component and cultural/religious factors in areas like dress, we often looked different than our host populations and were thereby easy to identify. We were often blatantly Other.

·        We refused to assimilate, to varying degrees. That, as previously pointed out, can be construed as rejection. This voluntary separation was religious and had cultural components but was not typically national. Once you got past our religious requirements, we had no reason not to identify with and support our nations from a civic standpoint.

·        We didn’t often share meals with our host populations because of our dietary laws. (We could host them but they usually couldn’t host us.)

·        We rarely intermarried with our host populations. This varied.

·        We were more literate and better educated than our host populations because religious Judaism is so heavily based on study. (In some cases, being literate at all qualified.) This often led to our being more successful financially, academically, and artistically on average than host populations, particularly when compared to peasant populations. What’s worse (from the standpoint of generating anti-Semitism), local elites sometimes put Jews in prominent administrative positions because of our skill sets. As a differentiated population, none of this tended to go over well.

·        We were less susceptible to certain diseases because of dietary laws. Our host populations frequently noticed the phenomenon but attributed that lower susceptibility to factors other than dietary differences, such as that we were ostensibly poisoning wells.

·        We spoke other languages (depending on where we were) and worshipped in a different language, written in a different alphabet.

·        Our customs, laws, and scripture were all ancient and mysterious and typically took a lot of study, and that’s before we even get to mysticism.

·        We networked with other Jews, including Jews in other countries. That was often useful to monarchs in terms of trade and diplomacy but it sometimes led to assumptions of disloyalty.

·        Because Jews were allowed to charge interest and Christians weren’t during the Middle Ages, Jews were forced into banking because the monarchs needed credit and needed a place to borrow from. Not everyone is inclined to feel especially friendly toward people of another culture to whom they owe money. Sometimes when monarchs’ debts got too big, they basically nationalized the money they owed on debts to Jews and threw the Jews out of their countries.

·        We would often favor our own in business relationships. This was mainly a defensive reaction in that it made more sense to network with people who were likely to accept us than people who weren’t, but it could result in visible advantages in certain fields. Incidentally, those fields were rarely critical from a national security standpoint – we were much more likely to be a dominant presence in fields like entertainment, the arts and retail than in, say, weapons, heavy industry, or energy.

·        Major religious texts sometimes vilify us based on original failures to recruit us, so there are portions of the New Testament and the Qur’an that don’t speak well of us. In other words, we were threatening because passages in some texts said we were. Marx also vilified us, interesting in that both his grandfathers were rabbis and in that a lot of the moral underpinnings of Marxism clearly have Jewish roots. (I think Marx was too focused on faith issues to notice his intellectual debts.)

In short, as populations go, we were tailor-made for conspiracy theorists: easy to resent, easy to identify, and easy to scapegoat when anyone needed to distract, unify or recruit from a population. Originally, the conspiracy theories just took the form of rumors but these got more elaborate over time. One popular rumor from the Middle Ages, stating that we used the blood of Christian children in Passover rituals and usually referred to now as the Ritual Murder charge, made its way into the Caunterbury Tales. Later more elaborate efforts included one by the Czar’s secret police: authorship of a deliberately fraudulent document called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is still around and has been serialized on Egyptian television and presented as fact. Most conspiracy theorists didn’t go so far as to fabricate documents. It was simpler to just fabricate facts in the form of accusations, more like what can be found in Mein Kampf

There’s another contributor to antisemitism that is much more modern in origin. Jews over the last century and a half or so, particularly in Western countries, tended to assimilate a lot more and be threatened less. (There are, shall we say, significant exceptions.) As a more mainstream population, we got more involved politically. Due to high average level of education, rigorously studied religious doctrine, and long experience with persecution, an unusual number of us tended to advocate for oppressed populations. Given that oppressed populations are typically oppressed by powerful people or at least by entrenched groups, this tended to make us less than popular in certain influential circles. Though he wouldn’t have been inclined to admit it, these factors probably produced Marx and certainly produced some of the original Russian communists (and the ultimately far less influential American communists), particularly when communism was still a movement largely driven by notions of egalitarianism rather than the excuse for oligarchy it quickly became.

You might notice that there seems to be a topic missing: Israel. A discussion of Israel in this context would lengthen this post by too much, so I'll devote a separate post to that topic. That's why this one is Part 1. 

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