Rabbi Sacks on the Origins of Antisemitism

JInsider (March 2010)

Let’s take a look at the mutations of antisemitism, exactly why they worked out the way they did. And the answer is very simple. Although it is very easy to hate, it is very difficult to justify hatred. Somehow or other, we don’t like hating people, and we have to justify it in some way. And when it comes to something like antisemitism, hatred of a whole group of people, you can only justify that by the highest source of authority in the culture at the time. So obviously what was the highest source of authority in the early Christian centuries and throughout the Middle Ages? The answer was religion. So that is why throughout that period, antisemitism took the form of religious anti-Judaism.

In the 19th century you’re dealing with Enlightenment Europe, the age of rationalism and the highest authority at that time was clearly not religion, which was seen as superstitious, something of the past. The highest authority in post-Enlightenment Europe was science. And that is why 19th century anti-Semitism, especially in Germany, was based on two pseudo-sciences. One, the so-called scientific study of race, which held that human beings are really inexorably different, depending on their race. And number two, what was called Social Darwinism. The idea that just as nature is a struggle between the strong and the weak, in which the strong eliminate the weak and have to do so because that’s nature. So it is in society, the strong nations, the strong races eliminate the weak. And that was the source of German and indeed Hitler’s antisemitism. The scientific study of race and Social Darwinism.

Now, clearly anything that was remotely racist does not play in the post-Holocaust world. What then is the highest source of authority in that world? Not religion, not science. The highest authority in the world after the Holocaust is human rights. And that is the new source of today’s antisemitism.

In the notorious Durban United Nations Conference Against Racism at the end of August and the beginning of September 2001, the State of Israel, which is the demonised Jew of our time, was accused of the five cardinal sins against human rights, racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide, crimes against humanity. So that is what is new about the new antisemitism, but it is as dangerous and potentially deadly as any in the past.