In the past few weeks, many have criticized historian Prof. David Engel for cautiously proposing to do away with the commonly used term “antisemitism.” That term was given to the world by the German ultra-nationalist publicist Wilhelm Marr in the 1870s. He didn’t quite invent it since it had been used previously, but Marr, a typical Jew hater, gave it the connotation that has stuck to it since then. Racism never was just snobbism of the poor. It has accompanied European cultural elites for centuries. Only in the mid-19th century did it become a “scientific” term.
In my book “An Imaginary Race – A Short History of Judeophobia” (in Hebrew) I discuss the history of Judeophobia, a term also used by Leon Pinsker, a 19th-century leader of the Lovers of Zion movement, who also preferred this term over antisemitism. There were a few reasons for my reservations regarding the latter common term. First of all, using it when speaking about the New Testament, Luther, Voltaire or Kant would be anachronistic however one looks at it.
Secondly, Marr used the term to emphasize the fact that the Jews were a foreign Semitic race that arrived in Europe early in the Common Era and had since tried unceasingly to wrest control over it. Accepting the term used by Marr largely meant surrendering to an essentialist concept, false and misleading.
Marr’s position was utterly baseless. First, there is no such thing as a Semitic race. There are only Semitic languages, which European Jews did not speak, but only prayed in one of them. I, on the other hand, am a Semite because I speak and write Hebrew. My parents were not Semites because they spoke Yiddish.
Secondly, the Jews were never foreign to Europe and did not arrive there from the outside. They have always been authentic natives of the Continent, who at some point or another accepted the Jewish religion. It is not by chance that not one research study has ever dealt with the exile or migration of “the Jewish people.”
The population of the Kingdom of Judah, the vast majority of whom were hardscrabble farmers, never sailed to the other side of the Mediterranean in order to live in the “terrible exile.” The exile or migration of the Judeans originated as a hostile Christian myth.
From Christianity’s founders all the way to Hitler, haters of Jews refused to see them as bearers of a competing, unique religion. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler derided German Jews for falsely believing themselves to be part of the German people, for “the Jew has always been a people with definite racial characteristics and never a religion” and therefore Jews could never be counted among those with Aryan blood (DNA had yet to be discovered then). For this reason, Hitler wished to expel them from Europe, and when he saw this would not be possible, decided to annihilate them.
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But Hitler is not Erasmus or Shakespeare, even if all three detested Jews. Lumping them into one category won’t get us any closer to understanding their worlds. However, there is a connection between the three of them. Their fear and loathing shared a common background, which for some reason: All three come from Christian civilization, which laid the ideological and mental basis for the ostracism and hatred of the Jews in Europe.
It’s true that every monotheism is wary of a competing monotheism, and thus in Islam, too, we see a condescension toward Jews and Judaism, but the Muslims did not hate Jews like the Christians did (at least not until the Zionist settlement in Palestine). Including them in the term antisemitism will not improve our understanding of the complex past.
Imprinted in the religion of Jesus, however, is not just scorn for Judaism, but also a profound fear and deep hatred that find expression in the New Testament. The Jews are the murderers of the Savior and their accursed descendants will have to pay for this until the Day of Judgment. While Christian Judeophobia was not uniformly intense throughout different periods of history, it was never easy to live in close proximity to neighbors who thought you killed the son of God. Under Islam, exhilarating cultural symbioses occurred (producing figures like Rabbi Abraham ibn Daoud and Maimonides). There was no similar fusion with Christian civilization.
I am an Israeli, and as many Israelis I detest too many Jew-haters to be “objective” or “neutral.” Awareness of our own limitations can help us strive to be wiser and more judicious, and perhaps even to examine the deep-seated racism that is spreading within the society in which we live.
Admirers of Wilhelm Marr in late-19th-century Germany sometimes joked that philosemites are antisemites who love Jews. How many Israelis could be considered as such?
Prof. Shlomo Sand is a historian. His latest book, “An Imaginary Race – A Short History of Judeophobia” (Hebrew) was published this year by Resling Press and in French translation (“Un Race Imaginaire”) by Seuil.