Is anti-Semitism reviving? Could it become again a major threat to Jews? Some of the closest observers of contemporary anti-Semitism disagree about these questions; they interpret quite differently such incidents as the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the painting of swastikas on Jewish grave-stones in Germany. The chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Simcha Dinitz, for example, has suggested that the 40,000 Jews in Germany should pack their bags and move to Israel. The president of the Central Organization of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, disagrees, insisting that the neo-Nazis are small, marginal groups, and that Jews are safe in a country where hundreds of thousands of Germans have taken to the streets to express outrage on behalf of the minorities that have been attacked.

In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League released last November a “survey of anti-Semitism and prejudice in America” which had what sounded like a sensational conclusion: that “one in five Americans—or between thirty-five and forty million adults—hold views about Jews which are unquestionably anti-Semitic,” and that this percentage among the American population has declined only very slowly during the last thirty years.1 The survey was based on a list of eleven anti-Semitic beliefs, including such propositions as “Jews stick together more than other Americans,” they have “too much power in the business world,” are “more loyal to Israel than America,” and “don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.” Those who agreed with six or more of eleven negative statements about Jews were considered to be among the one in five Americans who are anti-Semites.

The conclusions in the Anti-Defamation League report were widely publicized but they were challenged and attacked by other agencies. Jerome Chanes, the director of national affairs for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, has said repeatedly that anti-Semitism continues to decrease in the United States. On March 1, in a speech to the officials of the American Jewish Congress, he said that “each succeeding age group tends to display fewer anti-Semitic attitudes than the preceding generation,” and that anti-Semitism has fallen dramatically in the United States in the last forty years.

After making a survey of all the Jewish communities of the world, the World Jewish Congress was less alarmed than the Anti-Defamation League, but not quite as hopeful as Jerome Chanes. At the congress’s conference on anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice held in Brussels in July 1992, the Institute of Jewish Affairs, a London-based research group, issued a report with a country-by-country account of current anti-Semitism, from Austria to Uruguay. Tony Lerman, the director of the institute, wrote in the introduction to the report that “the anti-Semitic climate has markedly worsened since the beginning of the 1990s,” but he also pointed out that

anti-Semitism is by no means the primary form of bigotry apparent today. Racial prejudice and violence are experienced most acutely by blacks, Turks, Gypsies, Moslems, Asians and other ethnic minority groups and by foreign workers, immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

The president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, was equally emphatic in saying that “nationalism, religious assertiveness and ethnic pride” were the main problems today and that they affected non-Jews more acutely than Jews. Bronfman’s point was that Jews had a particular responsibility to help solve these problems because Jews had long been charged with being “a light unto the nations…. The Bible enjoins us to think not of our own problems but of the larger human context.”

Anti-Semitism may or may not be growing more virulent today, but every recent study, both in the United States and in Europe, shows that at least seven out of ten Jews believe that it has increased to the point where they should be particularly concerned about it. At the same time, non-Jews everywhere, even those who harbor some anti-Jewish feelings, believe that today’s anti-Semitism is simply not very important. This difference is most striking in the countries of the former Soviet Union. A survey in 1991 found that among non-Jews 10 percent thought pogroms were “somewhat likely” and 3 percent thought they were “very likely” to occur soon. Among the Jewish respondents, 44 percent thought that pogroms were “very likely,” and 27 percent thought they were “somewhat likely” in 1991. In fact, there were no pogroms in the former USSR during that tumultuous year.

The fears of the Jews are often connected with memories of the Holocaust. The sight of even a handful of skinheads in Nazi uniforms shouting “Juden ‘raus” can seem highly threatening. Moreover, those who are fearful of renewed anti-Semitism assert with some plausibility that anti-Semitic attitudes can’t adequately be detected by public opinion polls, since many people hide their deepest prejudices when questioned by poll-takers. These latent anti-Semitic feelings could be awakened one day by overt anti-Semites.

A pattern emerges from the many sociological studies on anti-Semitism that have been produced during the last year or so (see box). Almost everywhere in the West, anti-Semitism can be found among two groups: poor people who feel dispossessed, or are afraid of being dispossessed, and a variety of ideologues for whom anti-Semitism is a useful weapon in what they believe is a political struggle, whether the campaign in the US for black power or the campaign against the reformers in Russia. In dozens of countries today, anti-Semites continue to publish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and denounce the domination of the world by Jews through their alleged control of the press and power in international finance. But the fiercest expression of anti-Semitism can be found in places like Slovakia, where there are very few Jews.


Today’s anti-Semites do not see the world as the scene of eternal conflict between the Aryan and the Semitic races, or between the truth of Christianity and the satanic error of Judaism, or between Jewish monotheism and paganism. The conflict over anti-Semitism is therefore no longer a cosmic battle between “us” and “them.” Whether in Europe or in the US, anti-Semitism is used by people who want to show they are the truly loyal and pure representatives of their ethnic group or nation. In Europe anti-Semites themselves admit, according to almost all the available studies, that they do not feel most threatened by Jews. In France their principal enemy is the growing Muslim minority from Algeria; in Germany it is the Turkish “guest workers.” In this new situation, the consequences for the Jews are still little understood.

First, contrary to the fears of many Jewish leaders that anti-Semitism has recently increased, the evidence from opinion polls seems to support the optimism of Jerome Chanes. This is true not only in the United States but also in Europe, especially in those parts of Russia and the Ukraine where there is a large Jewish population. It is true that an increasing number of speeches have been made on American campuses during the last year by black anti-Semites; and that Pamyat and its allies in Russia published more anti-Jewish leaflets in 1992 than they had previously. But if we look at the many studies of black anti-Semitism in America that have been made during the last twenty years, we find it has been decreasing. As for Russia, Dr. Michael Chlenov, the co-president of the main organization representing Russian Jews, told me a few months ago that there has been no visible increase in anti-Semitism there.

Jews in the United States react, and often overreact, to inflammatory speeches at colleges, such as those by Leonard Jeffries and Muhammad Khalil; and Russian Jews react angrily to some of the anti-Semitic signs displayed at Pamyat rallies. But the position of Jews in American society is unchanged, and anti-Semitism has remained marginal in Russia, even though the new freedom of opinion there protects anti-Jewish propaganda.

Indeed, if we look at the ADL’s study itself, not the sensational interpretation of it issued by the organization, it shows that belief in the classic stereotypes about Jews has fallen sharply since 1964. A generation ago 42 percent of Americans thought that Jews were more willing than others to use shady practices in order to get what they want; according to the ADL survey, that number fell in 1992 to 21 percent. In 1964, 35 percent thought Jews were particularly pushy, but 19 percent did so in 1992. Three decades ago two out of five Americans thought that “Jews have a lot of irritating faults,” but by 1992 the number had fallen to one in five. These answers reflect the acceptance of Jews in American business and cultural life. This part of the study could have been used by the ADL not as a call to action but as proof of the decline of anti-Semitism in America.

The authors of the ADL study make much of the new stereotypes about Jews that have arisen since 1964, when, for example, only one in ten Americans thought Jews had too much power in the US. In 1992, three out of ten held this view; but, according to the study, almost half of the American public also believes that whites have too much power. Both of these answers are less representative of traditional anti-Semitism or reverse racism than of the envy of the underclass. About half of those surveyed believe that “Jews stick together more than other Americans,” but this is nothing new: the same percentage thought this in 1964. So did the percentage who believe “that Jewish employers go out of their way to hire other Jews.” These figures have remained constant for thirty years, while all the other indices of anti-Semitism fell dramatically.

Moreover, are these responses proof of anti-Semitism? The Jewish establishment has been asserting for a generation that it wants political power beyond its numbers, and it has been getting it. Why is it anti-Semitism if non-Jews are aware of this desire? One of the main tasks of the organized Jewish community is to maintain Jewish identity in the American melting pot; and members of Jewish organizations take special pride in the claim that Jews value continuity more highly than other ethnic groups do. Among most Jews, moreover, it is clearly a virtue to feel closer to other Jews than to anyone else. Why is it an index of anti-Semitism if other Americans are aware that many Jews feel this way?


All of the surveys made during the last few decades have shown that black Americans are markedly more anti-Semitic than whites. In the ADL survey, nearly two out of five blacks agree that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America” and that Jews “still talk too much about the Holocaust.” Among better educated and more progressive blacks one in four has anti-Semitic views such as “Jews have too much power in business.” This evidence suggests that black anger at Jews is associated with economic status and that it diminishes among blacks who have become part of the educated middle class, the approximately 30 percent of blacks who have had some higher education or whose family incomes are above $35,000 a year.

That middle-class blacks are less anti-Semitic than poorer blacks emerges more clearly in the ADL survey than in any other previous study, although virtually all the investigations made during the last thirty years also suggest the same conclusion. All of the earlier studies had shown that college education resulted in a decrease of anti-Semitism among blacks, even though, as has long been the case, dislike of Jews was substantially greater among blacks who had some higher education than among educated whites.2 Those who made the recent ADL survey must have been aware that their picture of the anti-Semitism of the black middle class—which was confirmed by interviewing two hundred additional American blacks—was the most positive that has yet been made.

Within the educated black middle class, there is a wide range of opinion and feeling about Jews. Intellectuals such as Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West have been calling for a constructive dialogue with Jews; Jesse Jackson wants political accommodation and alliance with them. At the other extreme, Professor Leonard Jeffries has attacked the Jews as the historical enemies and exploiters of blacks, and some black anti-Semites spread venomous tales, for example, that the Jews are the ones who sold the blacks into slavery, and that Jewish doctors are now infecting black babies with AIDS. When Louis Farrakhan, who is regarded by Jews as their archenemy among blacks, recently played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in public, he seemed to be making at least a gesture to move away from conflict with Jews.

In dozens of colleges and universities, there are unpleasant encounters between white students and black students who want dormitories and cultural centers of their own. Many university officials are yielding reluctantly to this separatism in order to avoid trouble. The black separatists on campus are often pro-Palestinian and anti-Jewish. These fights on the campus are very visible, and get much attention from college dailies, national newspapers, and wire services. But the reality, on campus, is certainly not one of unrelieved black–Jewish confrontation. In the seven years that I taught at Dartmouth, a group of black students continued to press for a separate enclave, in which they would live apart from the rest of the campus, except for taking part in classes and other activities, such as sports. Campus opinion was divided between those who were outraged at such separatism and those who felt that blacks had the right to live within their own community. But it soon became clear that most of the black students on campus wanted no part of separate housing, notwithstanding pressures on them by the militant minority. These students tended to eat together in the dining halls and to have many black friends, but they also made it clear that they had come to college to take part in the general culture and to increase their chances of good jobs and careers; they did not want to be cut off from white students. Many found their first white friends on campus among the Jewish students. Colleagues have told me that the story on other campuses is much the same.

In the midst of the turmoil of anti-Semitism in America, Louis Farrakhan’s theatrical gesture may be a symbol of a deep change (although he has yet to retract his anti-Semitic statements and should not be credited with any change of heart until he does so). During the late 1960s Stokely Carmichael insisted that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee no longer had any use for its Jewish members; in 1984, Jesse Jackson’s overheard remark referring to New York as “Hymietown” resulted in his being accused of hostility toward Jews. But Carmichael and Jackson and other black leaders apparently realize that Jews are now at or near the center of the American political, economic, and intellectual establishments, that white American anti-Semitism is not going to dislodge them, and that blacks have something to gain by disassociating themselves from anti-Semitism. Partly as a result, anti-Semitism has decreased significantly among middle-class blacks, as their numbers have grown from roughly 10 percent to 30 percent of all blacks during the last three decades.

About white anti-Semites the authors of the ADL claim that “contrary to popular myth, political and economic alienation appear to have only a modest impact on an individual’s propensity to accept anti-Semitic beliefs.” But according to the ADL’s own research, the Americans most likely to hold anti-Semitic views are over sixty-five and have a high-school education or less. These are precisely the people who tend both to be less well-off and resentful about it.

The ADL’s leaders are not the only ones who want to avoid the conclusion that contemporary anti-Semitism is linked to economic deprivation. Yehuda Bauer, the head of the Vidal Sassoon Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, which is based in Jerusalem, took the same view at the meeting in Brussels last July. Anti-Semitism, according to Bauer, is not the result of economic distress or social disorder; it is a longstanding disease of Western culture rooted in the demonizing of the Jews by Christianity. Bauer asserted that anti-Semitism “doesn’t seem to go together with the economic crisis and perhaps only partially with political ones.” Anti-Semitism is a kind of cultural malaria, a disease which “rises occasionally like a hydra” from a long existing “atmosphere and ambiance” which was created by Christianity.

For people who claim that anti-Semitism has no relation to economic distress, the campaign against it can be conceived as a self-contained cause, insulated from the actions and passions of the rest of the world. It is no accident that this view prevails among the major Jewish agencies devoted to combating anti-Semitism. To suggest that anti-Semitism occurs more frequently among the poor and uneducated implies it might be diminished by economic and social programs on behalf of the poor. One could then argue that the best way of reducing black anti-Semitism is to help blacks gain more stable, respected, and well-paid places in the larger society, and that “affirmative action,” if conducted so as to give qualified people a chance, is good for Jews. Such thoughts might lead to the conclusion that the battle against anti-Semitism is best waged not by professional anti-anti-Semites, but by social reformers. There would, however, be persistent opposition to this view from many officials of large Jewish organizations and from the vocal minority of Jewish conservatives, old and new.


A sharp division of opinion among Jews about anti-Semitism is a new and very serious development. In recent centuries, as Jews have been more and more divided among themselves, people such as the regretful apostate Heinrich Heine and the completely assimilated Theodor Herzl had only one cause in common with believing Jews: resistance to anti-Semites. Much of the support for the Jewish “defense agencies” comes from Jews who have no other significant connection with the Jewish community. More important, a great many Jews really do believe that there is some unique, intransigent element in anti-Semitism which sets it apart from other prejudices and makes it immune to improvements in social conditions. But just what that element is and how it should be addressed remain troubling questions, especially in Europe, where anti-Semitism evokes immediate memories of the Holocaust.

Still, many recent studies show that in Europe, too, negative attitudes toward Jews become more intense as economic and social conditions deteriorate. In Germany, according to a recent survey by Der Spiegel, 13 percent of the population is overtly anti-Semitic. The figure is based on statements such as “Jews have too much influence in the world” (36 percent agree), “The Holocaust is exaggerated” (15 percent), to “The Jews are one of the most negative influences in Germany” (9 percent). But even their enemies do not imagine this small number has any real power in Germany. Those who said something positive about the Nazi regime also said they disliked Jews and Turks equally. Two thirds of Germans today believe that foreigners—that is, refugees and “guest workers”—were taking too great advantage of the social system in Germany. But although more than half of Germany’s 40,000 Jews were Ostjuden who had come from Poland or the other Eastern European countries, Jews were not mentioned among such foreigners, except by the small faction of anti-Semites, many of the unemployed skinheads, who claim that the German government is neglecting them and spending its money on aliens.

This account of the situation in Germany is confirmed in a recent report by Helsinki Watch on xenophobia and right-wing violence in Germany. In a survey broadcast on German television on September 14, 1992, based on a sample of two thousand people, one third believed that “Germans must defend themselves against foreigners in their own country,” and more than half the sample believed that “Germany belongs to the Germans.” In East Germany, violent outbreaks that began last autumn are connected, the Helsinki Watch survey found, with “uncertainty, disorientation, and fears for the future,” which cause foreigners to be seen as competitors for jobs and welfare. According to the report, foreigners are now seen as scapegoats who can be blamed for general “economic and social” difficulties, and xenophobia is a way of ventilating “one’s own fear and insecurity by aggression against weaker persons.”3

Anti-Semitism in Germany is one expression of these fears, but active anti-Semites do not seem to be numerous. The most careful account of them I have seen comes from an Israeli reporter, Yaron Svoray, who, for a study sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, infiltrated several neo-Nazi organizations in Germany and rose to a high rank in one of the groups. He reported in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot (April 23, 1993), and in interviews in other Israeli newspapers, that there were perhaps 40,000 neo-Nazi sympathizers throughout Germany, but that there were fewer than a thousand organized neo-Nazis, and these were divided into many groups which were not centrally directed. After his five months with the most virulent Jew-haters in Germany, Svoray was convinced that the neo-Nazis are potentially dangerous and should be closely watched, but that they are not an immediate threat either to Jews or to German democracy.

The situation is more complicated in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the states of the former Soviet Union.4 From all of the evidence of anti-Semitism in these countries one conclusion emerges: anti-Semitism flares up when society is in turmoil, but it is no longer the principal way of expressing hatred of people who are “different.” Early in 1991, the American Jewish Committee found that in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia there are fewer negative feelings toward Jews than toward other minority groups, including “Gypsies, former Communist officials, international business representatives, Arabs, Asians, blacks, etc.” The people surveyed were nearly unanimous in agreeing that the state of Israel has a right to exist, but over 75 percent of the people in all three countries joined in agreeing that “Zionism is racism.”

These answers suggest that the myth of world Jewish power is still alive in Central and Eastern Europe; those who argue that “Zionism is racism” also say that they are afraid of a Zionist conspiracy to dominate the world. On the other hand, the Jewish state is acceptable because it represents “normalcy.” That the Jews have a state of their own is reassuring to people who fear that the Jews will appear to reclaim the property that was taken from them or their parents by their neighbors. Dozens of people who have gone back to visit the towns where their families had lived have told me they had a hostile reception, from people who were afraid that they wanted to take back their former houses and businesses, or get compensation for them.

Contemporary anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe seldom involves conflict with Jews themselves, since, except in Hungary, there are very few Jews left. But memories of the Jews who once were active in business and trade still haunt these societies, and, as a result, Jews are said to control Europe and the world, but not the local economy. Such claims are made with particular vehemence in Poland, where, according to many surveys, the most anti-Semitic people in all of Eastern Europe are Polish farmers. Almost two thirds say they don’t want any Jewish neighbors and half believe that Jews have too much influence in Poland’s political life.

It is also true that to the question “Who has the most influence over government in the country?” only 1 percent in Poland named the Jews. Nonetheless, the farmers say they feel threatened, even though there are now fewer than 10,000 Jews in all of Poland and hardly a single Jew still lives in any of the hundreds of towns and villages which are the commercial centers for the outlying farms. Before the war, these small urban centers (I was born in one of them) were heavily Jewish; the traditional conflict between farmers and small-town shopkeepers and townspeople was further embittered by the insistence of anti-Semites that Jews were aliens, by religion and culture, and that they could never become true Poles.

The notion that the Jews remain a tribe of their own and not part of a national majority continues to be widespread everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe, except in Hungary where, according to recent surveys, three quarters of the Magyars feel the Jews are part of the nation and that the difference between Jews and the rest is one of religion. During the last few years, however, Hungarian anti-Semites have been making open attacks on Jews. The ruling party recently demoted Istvan Csurka from the post of vice-president for saying that the Jews “stand behind the financial elite” that wants to strangle Hungary. Nonetheless, in a recent report in which he emphasized the dangers of anti-Semitism in contemporary Hungary, the German journalist George Hodos writes that the visible and continuing attacks by skinheads there are not against Jews but “against black students, guest workers and gypsies.”5 The Hungarian Jews may be deluding themselves but only a few want to leave. During 1990, when the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the nationalists had become strident, no more than 440 people emigrated to Israel.

The country that now seems to have the most pervasive anti-Semitic sentiment is the new state of Slovakia, whose population of six million includes some three thousand Jews, most of them neither well-to-do nor prominent in Slovakian politics. Still, according to a poll taken in June 1992, six months before Slovakia became a separate state, 57 percent of the Slovaks believe that Jews have too much economic influence, and 42 percent think that Jews have too large a part in political life.6 Here too, the experience of the war years, when Father Joseph Tiso, backed by the Nazis, became the first president of a modern Slovak state, still infects current attitudes. Some Slovak nationalists have attempted to rehabilitate Tiso’s memory and look back upon the fascist state that he headed as a model for the one that has just been created.

The immediate problems for the Slovaks are both ethnic—the new country is one sixth Hungarian—and economic: unemployment in Slovakia is said to be as high as 30 percent, and the new country’s industrial base is antiquated and not competitive in the world market. Facing ethnic turmoil and a declining standard of living, Slovaks blame the difficulties on outsiders. Powerful Jews, they say, in statements reported in the Slovak press, must be plotting to punish Slovakia for its sins during the Second World War. Zora Bútorová, a sociologist at the Comenius University in Bratislava, found that Slovak anti-Semites are particularly insecure about their economic future, fear declining social status, and dislike all foreigners, including Czechs.7

In Poland and Slovakia, such strongly anti-Semitic views were found among one in four people, in Hungary among one in seven, and among the Czechs one in ten. In the republics of the former Soviet Union, in which most Jews live, some 10 percent of the 280 million people in the region expressed strong anti-Semitic feelings. Anti-Semitism was most likely to occur among older people, those with relatively little education, unskilled laborers, and country people. (Notwithstanding the huge differences between the two countries, these characteristics are similar to those reflected in the ADL’s survey of American anti-Semites.)

In Russia there are, of course, educated, ideological anti-Semites, such as the leaders of Pamyat, who blame the Jews for the Bolshevik revolution and for the country’s current problems. But 80 percent of the people who have anti-Jewish views come from the poorer parts of society. When asked what they dislike about Jews, two out of five Russians said that “Jews are likely to overstate their misfortunes, sufferings, and sacrifices.” But, notwithstanding the recent revival of pre-1914 Orthodoxy with its anti-Semitic theological views, only one in seven felt that “Jews must answer for killing Christ.”

In fact this survey found a remarkably favorable opinion of Jews throughout the former USSR; they were fourth in the order of approval, behind Russians, English, and Germans, and ahead of all other groups. Three out of four of the respondents agreed that “there are many able and talented individuals among Jews” and very nearly as many added that “most Jews are well bred and educated.” On the other hand, three out of five agreed that “Jews avoid manual labor” and that “Jews are richer than others.” These last comments are true: Jewish income is significantly higher than the average, and four out of five Jews in the former USSR have whitecollar jobs. More than half have graduated from secondary school and one third have some higher education. The image of the Jews as an elite group in the former USSR is therefore based on reality, but the talents and the qualifications of the Jews seem to have created more respect than envy.

In Ukraine, with a population of atleast 300,000 Jews, immigration to Israel fell from 39,000 in 1991 to 12,000 in 1992 because, in spite of the increase in anti-Semitic articles in newspapers, the Ukrainian government has acted energetically to support the Jewish community. In Kiev there are now Sabbath services in a former synagogue, which is also being used by a puppet theater. Other buildings that the Communist regime confiscated have been returned to Jewish communities in various parts of Ukraine. The central government includes a Jew, Yuli Yoffe, as minister of fuel and energy, and in Odessa Jews have participated in opening a new shipping line to Israel.

Despite the fears of Russian Jews and American Jewish organizations, such groups as the Petlura Nationalists in Ukraine and Pamyat in Russia have so far not had much effect in the former USSR. The “Jewish problem” is relatively unimportant when so many other national hostilities have become fierce and violent. The recurrent fear everywhere in the former USSR is that the worsening economic situation might bring with it an anti-Semitism increasing to serious proportions.


In all of the recent studies I have seen, both in the United States and in Europe, Christian doctrine has figured as the least important among the immediate reasons given by anti-Semites for their feelings. But this result cannot be accepted entirely at face value. Christianity has for centuries promoted the view that the Jews were alien and dangerous people, who were responsible for killing Jesus; and this has left a residue throughout Western culture. So has the biological racism that culminated in Hitler’s Aryanism. Even if one accepts that contemporary anti-Semitism is not directly caused by Christian or racist doctrines, and that it derives in large part from the resentments of people who feel they have been left out or left behind, the explanation of the “longest hatred in history” remains elusive. Historians of the subject continue to be divided about it.

The most ambitious study of anti-Semitism in modern times was undertaken by Léon Poliakov, a survivor of the Holocaust who lives in Paris. During thirty years of work, he produced five volumes describing anti-Semitism from ancient times to our own day, in which he concluded that hatred of the Jews was a social disease deriving largely from the Western tradition that insists there is only one Truth.8 Poliakov ascribed the central responsibility for anti-Semitism to Christianity, which, as the official religion of the West since the fourth century, has claimed until the last few decades that the Jews have lived in unforgivable error, in continuous rebellion against God’s own truth.

But how can one explain the anti-Semitism of the last two centuries, particularly in countries where the power of the Church declined? Here Poliakov wrote of those enlightened thinkers, led by Voltaire, who regarded the Jews as incorrigible, and of the left-wing revolutionaries, who, beginning with some of the Jacobins, hated Jews on economic grounds, seeing them as oppressors of the poor. As a survivor of the Hitler years, Poliakov also had much to say about racist claims that Jews were biologically alien or inferior. He tried to connect such expressions of anti-Semitism to Christianity by arguing that they represented, in secular form, the deep and continuing influence of a Christian tendency to claim exclusive truth. Revolutionaries of the right and left were monists: they insisted that their visions of the world had to prevail; they could not allow minorities to be themselves.

Poliakov’s explanation of anti-Semitism has recently been restated in much more polemical fashion by the writer Joel Carmichael, who also insists that anti-Semitism is almost entirely a disease of Christianity.9 It has, he writes, demonized the Jews by explaining in both the fourth Gospel and in the teachings of the Church Fathers that Jews rejected Christ because the synagogue had become the Temple of Satan. The attacks against the Jews in Graeco-Roman times, in Carmichael’s view, were not a form of anti-Semitism but the “normal” abrasions of group conflict. Carmichael, who is known for his hard-line views of the Israel-Arab conflict, does not accuse Muslims of anti-Semitism and has nothing to say about the fundamentalists of Hamas. The tensions between Jews and Islam, he suggests, will disappear with a political settlement between Israelis and Arabs, but the threat of Christianity to the Jews can be solved only with a revision of the fundamental doctrine as defined in the New Testament.

To blame Christianity and only Christianity for most anti-Semitism has certain advantages for Jews. Their sufferings through the centuries can be conceived as noble martyrdom; the attacks on Jews are not to be connected with their own distinctive beliefs, culture, and patterns of behavior, and, in some cases, their faults, but only with their faith. Modern historians who follow Poliakov’s thinking are thus essentially repeating the lamentations of medieval Jews, who said that, while Jews may be guilty of many sins, they are being persecuted for their principal virtue, their fidelity to their God. According to this view, we must concentrate on the behavior of those who bear hatred, not on that of the victims. If anyone dares to suggest, on virtually any ground, that Jews have some responsibility for their own difficulties, as Hannah Arendt did thirty years ago in Eichmann in Jerusalem (or, for that matter, Theodor Herzl in The Jewish State), Jewish organizations and spokesmen tend to react with explosive anger. Such suggestions contradict the thesis that anti-Semitism is a disease spread by others.

Most important, if anti-Semitism is rooted in religious ideology, then it can be dealt with by education and by public discussion that will reveal religious prejudices; one need not get involved in turbulent social issues such as the relations between anti-Semitism, poverty, and feelings of hopelessness and frustration. In medieval times, Jews tried to defend their faith in disputations with Christianity, but of course they could never win these, for the debates were controlled by Christian kings and prelates. In modern times, so the official Jewish argument runs, there is hope of better results before the court of free opinion.

No doubt Jews can feel that their ancient grievances have to some extent been redressed now that they are able to condemn Christianity for its sins of anti-Semitism, especially during the last few decades when popes have been admitting some guilt on the part of the Church for those sins. Yet the catharsis made possible by the recent, friendlier, encounters between Jews and Christians suggests that modern anti-Semitism is a post-Christian development. The Vatican and the World Council of Churches have repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism, but its sources have not dried up. The explanation of anti-Semitism as deriving almost entirely from Christianity cannot be sustained.

A more convincing interpretation of anti-Semitism was first put forward in the 1890s, by the French Jewish radical Bernard Lazare, who wrote the first history of anti-Semitic thought. Lazare made two basic points: anti-Semitism has been continuous from pagan times until the modern era; Christianity defined its own version of this hatred but it did not invent it. Even more boldly, Lazare gave historical importance to the view put forward by Haman, the archenemy of the Jews in the Book of Esther, that the Jews were to be hated for being the one people who lived apart, followed their own customs, and would not acknowledge the gods of other people. These arguments are exactly those used by Greek and Roman writers in ancient times.

Most contemporary writers about anti-Semitism, including Poliakov and Carmichael, avoid, or only touch on, the question of the source of this Jewish otherness, which their enemies kept attacking. In his otherwise excellent recent book on anti-Semitism,10 Robert Wistrich takes the view that the source of anti-Semitism is forever shrouded in mystery; he denies that the “great hatred” could have arisen in reaction to the ways the Jews defined themselves. This sharply differs from the view of Lazare, who had the intelligence and courage to find the first cause of anti-Semitism in the very essence of Biblical Judaism, which declared that the gods of all other nations were false. The Jews had been instructed amid thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai that “thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Even earlier, Jewish history began with Abraham, who broke the idols of his father, Terah. Jews were not only the sole dissenters from paganism; they were its active enemies. They alone had fought against the cult of kings, emperors, and divine beings. This, in fact, is the explanation of anti-Semitism offered in the Book of Esther and in the Talmud.

With the triumph of Christianity in the West, Jews were the major opponents of the religion that had been proclaimed in the New Testament. Jews resisted persecution as best they could, but they agreed with both pagans and Christians that they were “other” in a deep, unalterable sense, for which they claimed divine sanction. This definition, acknowledged by themselves and their enemies, was called into question only in recent centuries as Jews left the ghetto, but the stereotype, that the Jews remained “other,” was taken up among modern anti-Semites.

Lazare wrote that in the contemporary age the Jews who were truly faithful to their heritage remained critics of injustice and of the hypocrisies of conventional society. The continuing radicalism of a minority of Jews, he argued, irritated their enemies, who then attacked even those Jews who tried to assimilate into the established classes. This was Lazare’s explanation of the Dreyfus Affair, when the assimilated French Jew Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of betraying his country, essentially on the grounds that he, the single Jewish officer attached to the French General Staff, was the only one who could have been guilty of treason.

Lazare’s interpretation of anti-Semitism has been echoed in this generation by Israel’s preeminent modern Jewish historian, Shmuel Ettinger, who studied anti-Semitism throughout his career as a scholar. In 1979, writing in Hebrew, Ettinger summed up his basic position:

Anti-Semitism began in ancient times, in the Hellenistic period, when a large Jewish Diaspora spread and became prominent as a result both of migration and of the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism. Judaism thus became an enduring force among the nations and cultures of ancient times. A monotheistic minority had appeared on the scene, and it soon turned into a competing force…. The enemies of the Jews were determined to find fault with Judaism, to prove the superiority of the religions and the social values of the polytheistic majority.

Ettinger thus agreed with Lazare that the ultimate source of anti-Semitism was anger at the uncompromising Jewish version of monotheism.

But even if one accepts the interpretations of Lazare and Ettinger, why does anti-Semitism persist in our own day? Most Jews in the world today have ceased being breakers of idols; they want to be at ease in contemporary secular society. To argue, as Ettinger did, that contemporary anti-Semitism represents the continuing force of an older stereotype raises the question of how long it will persist. The most ingrained of all stereotypes, older even than anti-Semitism, that women are less intelligent than men, has recently been challenged and shaken. Whatever may be the result of the feminist revolution, this stereotype will not persist in its inherited form. Perhaps anti-Semitism is now at a comparable point in its long history. All the premises of the older forms of anti-Semitism have been undermined: it would be foolish to say it is dead, but it seems to be dying out and to have force only when it is redefined.

In its history of twenty-five centuries, anti-Semitism has been redefined three times: by pagans, by Christians, and by modern ideologues on the right and left. During the last two centuries there have been signs of a new transformation, in which anti-Semitism no longer refers just to Jews but has become associated with the dominant hatred of the age. As early as 1843, Karl Marx attacked the Jews in his essay “On the Jewish Question” for being, as he quite wrongly claimed, the founders of capitalism. (Marx softened this statement, explaining that he used the word “Jew” to mean capitalist of any ethnic origin or religious persuasion.) In our own day, the enemy tends to be the stranger, especially if that stranger belongs to another nationality: Turks in Germany, Arabs in France, Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, or Hungarians in Slovakia. It does not matter whether the alien is newly arrived or has been living among the majority for centuries. Those who attack the alien may even make exception for the few Jews who dwell among them, but anti-Semitism is often part of the rhetoric used by many of these haters.

Robert Wistrich is no doubt right that, despite all the explanations, there is a mystery at the core of anti-Semitism, but the survival of the Jews is equally a mystery. It is clear that there is no specific cure for this endemic disease. We know only that it will flare up in troubled times. It is most likely to appear among those who resent their low and precarious place in society. Hate will lessen among the poor only if they are helped to have better lives.

Of course it continues to be important to combat as effectively as possible all forms of anti-Semitism and especially intellectual anti-Semitism, including the revisionist history of the Holocaust, which claims that it never happened, and the lie that Jews were the dominant element in the international slave trade. But there is an essential difference between these new canards and the century-old Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which spoke about a continuing conspiracy by Jews to dominate Europe and assumed the world remained divided into two camps: we, the Gentiles, and they, the Jews. The contemporary canards seem quite different. To accuse Jews of once having been the leading slave traders fits with the current claims that the white race is inherently genocidal or, at the very least, the oppressor of other cultures. Jews must certainly expose anti-Semitic lies, but who believes them? According to the evidence from surveys, these lies have little effect on the educated classes and gain acceptance mainly among the angry poor.

The principal threat now is not to Jews as such but to people who are considered strangers. The most cheering of the recent findings about anti-Semitism is not about anti-Semitism at all but can be found in a 1992 survey of opinion in New York about immigration to the United States. A plurality, some 49 percent, continue to believe that immigrants are good for this country, as against 29 percent who do not, even though most new immigrants are neither white nor European. The results are an assertion of faith in American principles—and in the capacity of the economy to continue to absorb newcomers to America.11

But a new study of opinion in California (published in the Fresno Bee on May 18) is much less positive. Nearly 57 percent felt that immigration is “very responsible for the growth problems of the state,” and two thirds were in favor of “adopting laws that would limit state services for new state residents.” In 1992, 303,000 foreign-born new residents, the highest number on record, arrived in California, and the governor has appealed for federal help in dealing with them. In both surveys, in New York and in California, the least well-off, regardless of ethnic background, are the least hospitable. These answers, taken together, show that the growing ambivalence about newcomers is based on economic fears; this is the tinder for ethnic conflict.

The ethnic and economic convulsions that are increasing in the world today dwarf the ancient issue of anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews seems likely to diminish if ways can be found to quiet the ethnic angers that have become widespread with the end of the cold war, to relieve the condition of the resentful poor, and to help the less developed nations to support their own people. The Jews were long hated as outsiders. Today, for the most part, they are no longer weak or alien, but their destiny remains linked to the destiny of the displaced and of those who are seen as strangers.

This Issue

June 24, 1993