In response to:
Is Anti-Semitism Dying Out? from the June 24, 1993 issue
To the Editors:
Arthur Hertzberg [NYR, June 24] wilfully misstates the theme of my Satanizing of the Jews, which demystifies “mystical anti-Semitism” by analyzing its origin, a specific historical event that imposed on the Church, in its earliest phase, a radical misunderstanding of St. Paul.
That event was a non-event—the non-appearance of the Kingdom of God, which had galvanized Jewish energies in the first century and led to the Roman war of 66–70, which in turn cleared the way for Christianity through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Kingdom of God—a total transformation of the world—was thought to be imminent: Jesus, St. John the Baptist, and Paul believed this. Paul’s special view was that the resurrection of Jesus, Son of God, was a signal that the Kingdom of God was indeed “at hand.”
But—since the Kingdom was to be brought about by God’s direct action, why had it not taken place instantaneously?
To explain this delay Paul contrived a vast collision between “God-forces” and “Devil-Forces.” In this clash of extra-terrestrial forces the Jews, the premier people because of their covenant with God, were “mysteriously” blind to the divinity of Jesus, and hence were holding up the installation of the Kingdom alongside the Devils. But for Paul the Jews were merely mistaken, not evil—not devils themselves.
Paul’s ideas were to become the core and framework of Christian theology, never foreseen by him since he died thinking the natural world was about to end.
Yet his explanation of the delay, archaic even at the time, was entirely forgotten by the generation after him and—by the Church Fathers.
For them, when the Kingdom of God failed to appear, the idea itself became extinct. But one-half of Paul’s explanation, about the Jews, was carried far beyond Paul’s view. The Jews—revered by the pagans who were the target of the new faith—were active rivals and enemies. For the Church Fathers, this part of Paul’s explanation was wrong-headed. For them it was no “mystery,” it was obvious: the Jews were on the side of the devils because they were, in their essence, devils themselves.
This is the source of “mystical anti-Semitism”—disregarded by all books on anti-Semitism and by Rabbi Hertzberg, who applies this banal misconception to me in a phrase that in context, is, to boot, incomprehensible—the “Synagogue of Satan”! With no clarification!
Nevertheless this notion of inherent Jewish evil never became part of actual Church policy. The Church enabled the Jews to survive the consequences of its own propaganda: The Jews had to survive, as Witness to the Triumph of Christianity, though, to be sure, in an abject state. And of course there was always conversion.
But for centuries Christendom, in all aspects of culture, was steeped in Christian doctrine: the Jews became eerie, evil, not quite human—and powerful through their satanic associates.
It was after theology was weakened, during the Enlightenment, that the stigmatization of the Jews was to be expressed in the preposterous “racial” theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the mystical anti-Semites who stressed “race” conversion was meaningless; there was no reason at all for Jews to exist.
Hitler, the only “racist” anti-Semite to capture a state, was thus a “logical” extension of an ancient misunderstanding.
The reason I think all this may be dying down, however slowly, is because Christianity, which after all projects a Divine Savior for all Mankind, does not, really, require anti-Semitism at all. The Kingdom of God idea that sparked the first phase of Christianity was a mere accident.
It is bizarre that Rabbi Hertzberg, a campaigning scholar, should disregard all this. He carries on endless discussion of anti-Semitism as part of a genre of literature whose superficiality appalled me when I first started reading it.
It is superficial, really a form of erudite gossip, because instead of discussing what “mystical anti-Semitism” is, it takes it for granted that everyone already knows what it is, and hence devotes itself to multiplying instances of it. It is why books on anti-Semitism, including Leon Poliakov’s, are generally long, and mine is short.
It is surely still more bizarre that Jewish commentators generally fail to notice the radical difference between “ethnic slurs”—banal sneers at Jews as individuals—and the very strange idea that Jews, a group of human beings reproducing themselves normally, should somehow embody an abstract principle of Evil, a condition of nature. Their indifference to this primordial distinction is, no doubt, the source of the vast number of books repeating instances of the same thing, with tediousness as the result.
Aside from submerging my very simple, purely historical analysis in a misstatement, Rabbi Hertzberg imputes to me another erroneous and particularly silly statement—that I think there is “a fundamental doctrine defined in the New Testament” whose “revision” will counter the threat of Christianity to the Jews.
Needless to say, there is no “fundamental doctrine”: there are the Letters of Paul, a reference in the Gospel of John, and the theory of a Jewish plot against Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, which is merely human behavior. In fact the New Testament does not have the theory of essential Jewish evil worked out at all. Here Rabbi Hertzberg shifts from the erroneous to the absurd.
Rabbi Hertzberg has, after all, written a book on this subject himself. For him to warp my book in this way, while calling me, absurdly, a “hardliner” in quite a different context (Israel) and then conceding that I do not consider Muslims mystical anti-Semites, is surely an obfuscation of the whole discussion.
And when Rabbi Hertzberg says, further on, that I (together with Leon Poliakov) “avoid, or only touch on … the source of … Jewish otherness,” I clutch my head: the whole of my book is aimed at demonstrating that mystical anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews.
I should not like to suggest that the blurring of Rabbi Hertzberg’s thought has been prompted by meanmindedness.
Many Christians are disturbed by charges that Christianity is “naturally” anti-Semitic. Jews, including Jewish scholars, are so impervious to Christian ideas that they refuse to look into their historical context.
It is easy to see the obstacles in the way of my very short book. It is also depressing.
New York City
Arthur Hertzberg replies:
Joel Carmichael has two related complaints against my essay: he insists that true anti-Semitism appeared only after the advent of Christianity, when Jews were cast in the role of demons who denied mankind its salvation; and therefore, he argues, the tensions in pre-Christian times were simply group conflicts which are not part of the history of anti-Semitism. In the opening pages of his book Carmichael discusses Hellenistic anti-Jewishness. He admits that “many Greeks called Jews atheists and misanthropes, as well as recklessly mad, and at the same time, cowards.” Carmichael softens this assertion by adding that Jews were hardly ever accused of being “cunning” (p. 6), and he writes that “the general mood of hostility to the Jews, widespread in the population and especially among some of the more influential thinkers, was not reflected in law” (p. 8). But two pages earlier Carmichael writes:
In Palestine, curiously, though they comprised the basic population, they were, in the cities created there by the Greeks and later by the Romans, inferior: in such cities they were considered foreigners, just as they were in countries where they had been settled for generations, such as Egypt. (p. 6)
There seems to be enough in Carmichael’s own writing on the subject for someone to maintain that the earliest history of anti-Semitism begins before Christianity, and to think, as I do, along with Bernard Lazare and Shmuel Ettinger, that the source of confrontation between Jews and the world is the Jewish doctrine of monotheism, which annoyed the pagans many centuries before Christianity appeared.
Carmichael is, of course, correct in insisting that the Jews were demonized in Christian theology, and that their resistance to God’s truth in Christ was seen as the work of Satan, which stood in the way of the millennium. Carmichael’s thesis is that this notion was fashioned by the Church Fathers at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century. He is therefore upset by a brief sentence in my essay in which I attributed this outlook—that the Jews are “the synagogue of Satan”—to the New Testament. Here, too, Carmichael’s own formulation is revealing:
The foundation of this view [that the Jews were demons led by Satan to fight against the kingdom of God and present the redemption] was eventually laid down in the Christian Scriptures, long after Paul, to be organized as the New Testament. In the Scriptures themselves, to be sure, the consequences were not yet drawn: Paul’s comments, in their own context, are ambiguous. But the Scriptures were also the foundation, properly interpreted, of the Church Fathers’ doctrines generations later. (pp. 31–32)
I cited Carmichael, as I said in the essay, among those who regard anti-Semitism as solely a Christian phenomenon; a view he asserts vehemently and without qualification. He is not alone, as I wrote, in wanting to regard anti-Semitism as something that happened to Jews from the outside, despite themselves, because certain Christian dogmatics needed to use the Jewish resistance to the new faith in order to solve their own theological problems. In my view, Christianity is one of several permutations of the “great hatred.” I argued that point twenty-five years ago in my book The French Enlightenment and the Jews, which Carmichael mentions as if to imply that what I wrote should lead me to agree with him. But the thesis of that book is in direct opposition to his view. I argued that post-Christian, “enlightened” anti-Semitism began by skipping over the Christian era, and that it aimed to evoke the pagan disapproval of Jews.
It is, in my view, wrong to deny the Jews the dignity of having made their own history, even its pain. The root of Judaism—and of anti-Semitism—is in the very essence of the Ten Commandments [“I am the Lord your God”; “You shall have no other gods before me”] and not in Paul of Tarsus and the Church Fathers.