What is Antisemitism?

June 9, 2015
Image of Solar eclipse with solar flare that makes for an orange glow around the black moon

An extract from the concluding chapter of Rabbi Sacks' book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence.

We still have not understood what antisemitism is and the role it plays in the legitimation of evil. It is the first warning sign of a culture in a state of cognitive collapse. It gives rise to that complex of psychological regressions that lead to evil on a monumental scale: splitting, projection, pathological dualism, dehumanisation, demonisation, a sense of victimhood, and the use of a scapegoat to evade moral responsibility. It allows a culture to blame others for its condition without ever coming to terms with it themselves. The antisemitism flooding through the Arab and Islamic world today is as widespread and virulent as it was in Europe between 1880 and 1945, and it is being disseminated worldwide through the Internet.

Antisemitism is only contingently related to Jews. The real targets of Christians in the age of the Crusades were the Muslims, not the Jews. The targets of Nazi Germany were the European nations that had defeated it in the First World War and humiliated it thereafter. The real targets of the Islamists are secular Islamic regimes and the West, especially those who defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and divided up its spoils. Jews, however, played an essential function in the group psychology of these movements. By fulfilling the role of the scapegoat, they could be blamed for everything bad that happened to the group. As the mysterious, omnipotent, all-embracing enemy, they united the group, silenced dissent, distracted the mind from painful truths and enabled otherwise utterly incompatible groups to become allies. Today, for example, Islamist groups find it hard to win Western support for the imposition of Sharia law, the beheading of captives, the forced conversion of Christians or the sentencing to death of blasphemers. But when they criticise Israel, they find they no longer stand alone. This brings within the fold such strange fellow travellers as the far right, the anti-globalisation left, and some notoriously politicised human rights organisations, surely the oddest coalition ever assembled in support of people practising terror to bring about theocracy. Note that antisemitism, to succeed, must always disguise its motives. It did so in the Middle Ages by accusing Jews of killing Christian children and spreading the plague. It did so in Nazi Germany in terms drawn from medicine. Jews were the cancer in the midst of the Aryan nation. Today it does so by blaming Israel or Jews, in classic Blood Libel/Protocols of the Elders of Zion style, for controlling America, dominating Europe, manipulating the economy, owning the media, perpetrating 9/11 and all subsequent terrorist attacks, creating AIDS, Ebola, the 2004 tsunami and global warming.

In the Middle Ages Jews were hated for their religion, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for their race, and today for their nation state, Israel. In the West, antisemitism is now usually disguised as anti-Zionism. In Arabic, the rhetoric is usually more honest: it speaks openly of Jews. But the targets of Islamist terror in the West – the synagogue guard in Copenhagen, Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket in Paris, visitors to the Jewish Museum in Brussels, and so on – were Jewish, not Israeli. The reason is simple. A scapegoat must be someone you can kill without risk of reprisal. Israel can respond. Jews outside Israel cannot. Indeed, that is one compelling reason why Israel exists. It is the only thing protecting Jews from being the scapegoat-victims of the world for another thousand years.

No one I know confuses antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israel. Jews believe that no human, certainly no nation, is above criticism. Judaism is one of the world’s most self-critical cultures. The Hebrew Bible is an extended essay in self-criticism. Antisemitism is not criticism. It is the denial of Jews’ collective right to exist. It changes form over time. In the 1930s, antisemites chanted ‘Jews to Palestine’. Today they chant ‘Jews out of Palestine’. As Israeli novelist Amos Oz put it: They don’t want us to be here. They don’t want us to be there. They don’t want us to be.

The significance of antisemitism, though, is its effect not on Jews but on antisemites. It allows them to see themselves as victims. It enables them to abdicate moral responsibility. Whatever is wrong in the world, ‘It isn’t our fault, it’s theirs. They did it to us. After all, they control the world.’ The result is that hate paralyses the mind and perpetuates the very failures that caused defeat or underachievement in the first place. Antisemitism did not help Christians win the Crusades, or the Nazis win the Second World War. It will not help Muslims in the Middle East, Africa and Asia build societies that will honour God and his image in humankind. Those who hate Jews, hate freedom. Those who seek to eliminate Jews, seek to eliminate freedom.

Antisemitism is a sickness that destroys all who harbour it. Hate harms the hated but it destroys the hater. There is no exception.