Globalizing anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is evolving. After a period of remission owing to the horror of the Holocaust, the ancient prejudice has recently been reactivated, catalyzed by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
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Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Anti-Semitism is evolving. After a period of remission owing to the horror of the Holocaust, the ancient prejudice has recently been reactivated, catalyzed by the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has entered a new era in which its main focus has shifted from the domestic to the international. Always protean in quality, always changing to take on the idiom of its day, anti-Semitism has been globalized.

Anti-Semitism has always had domestic and international components. During the long era of Christian anti-Semitism, the transnational institution of the Catholic church spread the belief that Jews as Christ-killers were a cosmic force of evil. But the principal target of anti-Jewish prejudice was local, the Jews of one's town, region and country who allegedly harmed their Christian neighbors.

In its second era during the 19th and 20th centuries, anti-Semitism took on a secular and more racist cast, in which an international conspiracy of Jews worked against humanity. Still, most of the anti-Semitic fire was aimed locally - by Germans at German Jews, by French at French Jews - for the harm that they allegedly inflicted on their countrymen. Globalized anti-Semitism is a new constellation of features grafted onto old ones. Varied and complex, it is oriented to the global stage. In most of Europe, and certainly in the West, the domestic "Jewish Problem" is all but dead. Only fringe elements in Germany, France and elsewhere believe that local Jews are causing great harm - financial, professional, moral - to their non-Jewish neighbors, and that a radical response is necessary.

The focus of the animus against Jews has shifted overwhelmingly to Jews of other countries - of Israel and the United States - as the alleged central moral and material culprits of the international arena. Zionism has become, for many, a mythical entity, a destructive agent in the world, and anti-Zionism has been woven into anti-Americanism to the point where Russian nationalist politicians can express their fear of American domination by saying that Russia is in danger of being "Zionized."

The center of anti-Semitism and directions of its transmission are also new. . Essentially, Europe has exported its classical racist and Nazi anti-Semitism to Arab countries, which they then applied to Israel and Jews in general, suffusing it with the real and imagined features of the intensive local conflict.

Then the Arab countries re-exported the new hybrid demonology back to Europe and, using the United Nations and other international institutions, to other countries around the world. In Germany, France, Great Britain and elsewhere, today's intensive anti-Semitic expression and agitation uses old tropes once applied to local Jews - charges of sowing disorder, wanting to subjugate others - with new content overwhelmingly directed at Jews outside their countries.

The imagery of globalized anti-Semitism is new. Rambo Jew has largely supplanted Shylock in the anti-Semitic imagination. The sly and stealth corrupting Jew of the first two eras of anti-Semitism, now armed with his new military and political power, has become the subjugating, brutalizing and killing Jew, either doing the dirty work himself, as in Israel, or employing others to do it for him, as the Jews, fantastically, are said to do with the Bush administration.

Globalized anti-Semitism has other important and new features, including its instantaneous, global transmission through the Internet and by television's biased stories and inflammatory images of Palestinian suffering; its unification of elements of the European left and right, and its semi-concealing cloak of anti-Zionism.

Most distinctive, though, is the unmooring of anti-Semitism from its original sources. It is detached from Christianity, even if there are still powerful Christian sources of anti-Semitism.

It is detached from its 19th-century European sources of nation building, reactions against modernity and pseudo-scientific notions of race and social Darwinism, even if that era's demonology is still potent in a somewhat transposed form.

Globalized anti-Semitism has become part of the substructure of prejudice in the world. It is free-floating, located in many countries, subcultures and nodes, available in many variations, and to anyone who dislikes international influences, globalization or the United States. It is relentlessly international in its focus on Israel at the center of the most conflict-ridden region today, and on the United States as the world's omnipresent power.

It is self-reinforcing, with its fantastical constructions of Jews and Zionism - which are divorced from the fair criticisms that can be made of Israel's policies - and by being located totally outside people's countries and experience. And it is only a few clicks of a mouse away.

After the Holocaust and after Vatican II, it seemed that anti-Semitism had diminished and might eventually atrophy. It had indeed declined, and in most European countries, including Germany, the publics' conception of their domestic Jews was de-demonized. Many people in Europe and elsewhere today also reject the new anti-Semitic fantasies.

Yet the reawakening of anti-Semitism in its new globalized form meant that anti-Semitism succeeded again in metamorphosing and in extending its reach - even to Africa and Asia. So far the new globalized anti-Semitism has not proved to be as dangerous as earlier forms, except in the Middle East, but its disquieting features suggest that it has the potential.

A genuine settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict would take some of the wind out of this new anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism's deep roots in the ever more globalizing consciousness, and its tenacity and plasticity, make its dissipation unlikely.