Anti-Semitism Research Paper

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Is anti-Semitism a new name for an ancient, uninterrupted phenomenon? It is a recent name, no doubt—its 1878 coinage being attributed to Swiss radical Wilhelm Marr. Yet, new names have become one of the curious features of problems that either refer to a long and obstinate history (e.g., the hatred of the Jews through the centuries) or indicate sites of resistance, the refusal to confront diverse and changing phenomena. Understandably, different interests seeking to isolate and refute or, alternatively, contextualize “anti-Semitism” necessarily run the risk of sacralizing or banalizing it. Thus, inseparable from the study and elusive comprehension of such an object (or objects), the politics of anti-Semitism have involved most manifestly the definition of the word Semite (along with its companion, Aryan, a term that was invented in German Protestant theological circles circa 1771 and quickly spread to England, France, and their respective empires) and most covertly the very representation of the West vis-à-vis its others.


Scholars and ideologues differ in invoking, for different periods and regions of the world, terms such as Jewhatred, anti-Judaism, Judeophobia, more recently including even anti-Zionism. Is there, then, one history of antiSemitism through the ages (Almog 1988)? Should one not attend instead to the distinct histories of relations between Jews and the populations among whom they have lived? A further claim has been made that some forms of antiSemitism have thrived, in fact, in the complete absence of Jews. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, famously asserted that anti-Semitism is essentially independent of the Jews, that it rather “makes the Jew” (“c’est l’antisémite qui fait le Juif”) (1948, p. 84). Indeed, it now seems as if anti-Semitism has become a unified and universal, indeed global, phenomenon, one that has spread and radiated from its historical center in early Christian theology (borrowing from earlier Greek and Latin writers) and in western Europe to all corners of the planet. When considering the genocidal paroxysm that hostility to Jews reached in Europe (and, incidentally, only there), the temptation has increased to read all prior hostility toward Jews as prefiguring the horrors of the Holocaust (Bernstein 1994).


Clearly, anti-Semitism demands explanation—and refutation—and many compelling cases have been made in this direction. Some have sought to testify to anti-Semitism’s quasi-eternal nature (Netanyahu 2001; Bein 1990) or account for its specific persistence (the recurrence of Christian theological prejudice). Others have explored vectors of change (the well-known, modern shift from religion to race described by Léon Poliakov; the teleological understanding of Daniel Goldhagen) and tried to account for historical distinctiveness (Amos Funkenstein on the changing and proximate nature of the Jewish-Christian dispute; Gavin Langmuir’s criterion of “socially significant chimerical hostility” [1990, p. 341]; Jeremy Cohen’s description of the medieval transformation of the Jews from “theological witness” to “demonic” figures) and geographical or cultural difference (Poliakov, again, as well as Mark Cohen). At times, Jewish thinkers themselves have gone so far as to consider Jewish “antisocial behavior” as a major source of anti-Jewish hostility (Bernard Lazare; Israel Yuval on Jewish collective suicide in the eleventh century).

Other reasons, equally contentious, have been proposed: materialist reasons, for example, and chief among them, socioeconomic ones (“Jews and money,” as the old topos goes, but see also Abram Léon’s notion of the Jews as a “people-class”), and political reasons (Karl Marx, but also Hannah Arendt’s theory of the modern state and the role of “political anti-Semitism” in it) and psychological reasons as well (Sigmund Freud on sibling rivalry and castration, and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno on mimesis). Historians of science have shown the importance of new categories of thought and classification, including those operative in Jewish self-perception (Gilman 1986; Hart 2000). There are those who have sought to locate anti-Jewish hostility within the larger frame of attitudes toward “outsiders” (Mayer 1982) or as one among numerous features of a “persecuting society” (Moore 1987). A recurring dispute continues to separate those who wish to distinguish exclusionary practices on the basis of their (real or fantasmatic) targets and those who uphold the strategic usefulness of conducting a unified analysis of (and struggle against) all agents of exclusionary practices. Should all racisms be studied and fought as the different guises of one essence or should differences be acknowledged and exposed?

Recent Developments

Hannah Arendt (1958) insisted on the numerous elements and structures that relate attitudes toward the Jews with issues of state formation, modern racism, imperialism, and colonialism. After Arendt, however, the most significant breakthrough in the study of anti-Semitism was made by Edward W. Said (1978). Arguing that the history of Orientalism (and prominent among them “western views of Islam”) is the history of anti-Semitism, Said has enabled a novel understanding of the emergence of the category of “Semites” as the most obvious manifestation of an enduring theologico-political problem. This problem, which antedates modernity, is at the heart of the West’s own constitution as a historical subject. Relating theological premises to political endeavors, and religion to race, Said demonstrates the necessity of understanding the distributive and dynamic distinctions between Jews and Arabs, between Judaism and Islam, strategically associating and dissociating the two from within the standpoint of Western Christendom and, later, of European colonialism (Anidjar 2003). This dynamic approach also means taking the measure of the late eighteenth-century invention of “Semites” as the unity of race and religion, of Jew and Arab (Olender 1992; Hess 2002). From this novel perspective, it becomes possible to better understand the spread of European anti-Semitism to the Arab world (described, for example, by Bernard Lewis and Geneviève Dermenjian), as well as phenomena like Zionism in its different figures, at once emancipatory and potential manifestations of covert self-hatred (Gilman 1986).

The intricate connections that tie modern antiSemitism to Zionism may further explain the continued contaminations we witness today between the two (Wistrich 1990; Finkelstein 2005). The Zionist “negation of exile” also participated in the project to reinscribe and undo the unity of the Semites and recast it from within as either a separation of Jews from Arabs (anti-Semitism from Orientalism) or as a binational perspective—advocated by Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Arendt, and other members of Brit Shalom, a Jewish group founded in 1925 dedicated to promoting coexistence—seeking to invent and promote collective rights for both Jews and Arabs (Raz-Krakotzkin 2001). The debate over the persistence of anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism can therefore be better understood as the enduring effort to maintain Jews and Arabs as separate and opposed, indeed as objects of different, unrelated, exclusionary practices. Reframed as the unity of a theologico-political complex that manages both hostility to Jews and hostility to Arabs, anti-Judaism and the war on Islam, anti-Semitism and Orientalism, are revealed as indissociable: one and the same in their very difference.


  1. Almog, Shmuel, ed. 1988. Antisemitism Through the Ages. Nathan H. Reisner. Oxford and New York: Pergamon.
  2. Anidjar, Gil. 2003. The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  3. Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2nd ed. New York: Meridian.
  4. Bein, Alex. 1990. The Jewish Question: Biography of a World Problem. Translated by Harry Zohn. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
  5. Bernstein, Michael-André. 1994. Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  6. Cohen, Jeremy. 1982. The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  7. Cohen, Jeremy. 1999. Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  8. Cohen, Mark R. 1994. Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  9. Dermenjian, Geneviève. 1983. Juifs et Européens d’Algérie: L’antisémitisme oranais, 1892–1905. Jerusalem: Institut BenZvi.
  10. Finkelstein, Norman G. 2005. Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  11. Freud, Sigmund. 1967. Moses and Monotheism. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage.
  12. Funkenstein, Amos. 1993. Perceptions of Jewish History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  13. Gilman, Sander L. 1986. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  14. Goldhagen, Daniel. 1996. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf.
  15. Hart, Mitchell B. 2000. Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  16. Hess, Jonathan M. 2002. Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  17. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  18. Katz, Jacob. 1980. From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700–1933. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  19. Langmuir, Gavin I. 1990. Toward a Definition of Antisemitism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  20. Lazare, Bernard. 1995. Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  21. Léon, Abram. 1970. The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. New York: Pathfinder.
  22. Lewis, Bernard. 1986. Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. New York: Norton.
  23. Mayer, Hans. 1982. Outsiders: A Study in Life and Letters. Dennis M. Sweet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  24. Moore, R. I. 1987. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950–1250. Oxford: Blackwell.
  25. Netanyahu, Benzion. 2001. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain. 2nd ed. New York: New York Review of Books.
  26. Olender, Maurice. 1992. Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  27. Poliakov, Léon. 1965. The History of Anti-Semitism. Richard Howard. New York: Vanguard.
  28. Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. 2001. Binationalism and Jewish Identity: Hannah Arendt and the Question of Palestine. In Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, Steven E. Aschheim, 165–180. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  29. Said, Edward W. 1978. New York: Vintage.
  30. Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Anti-Semite and Jew. George J. Becker. New York: Schocken.
  31. Wistrich, Robert S., ed. 1990. Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism in the Contemporary World. New York: New York University Press.

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