Monday, February 20, 2012

Phyllis Goldstein's A Convenient Hatred: A Short History of Antisemitism Reviewed

Impervious to Truth

With some one-thousand books currently in print on the subject, does the world desperately need another tome on anti-Semitism? Who will read it and what difference will it make? After all, in Europe prejudice against Jews persists in its historic ebb and flow with anti-Israelism joining the roster of "reasons" why Jews are held in contempt. Across the Atlantic, 35 million Americans reportedly hold deeply anti-Semitic views. And worldwide 90 percent of Muslims surveyed by the Pew Research Center hold negative attitudes toward Jews.

What makes the appearance of Phyllis Goldstein's A Convenient Hatred: A Short History of Antisemitism nevertheless timely is that she writes not primarily as a historian or polemicist but as a teacher of tolerance. It is left to Sir Harold Evans's foreword to acknowledge outright that anti-Semitism "is a mental condition conducive to paranoia and impervious to truth." Still, the hope seems to be that the book, published by the liberal-minded "Facing History And Ourselves" educational foundation, can inoculate against incipient anti-Semitism among high-school and college students. On the premise that human beings are capable of both good and evil there is every incentive to continue this battle no matter the odds of victory.

Writing in a lucid style that is accessible without being condescending, Goldstein synthesizes and contextualizes the history of the Jews as she describes the relentless hatred they have confronted. Did anti-Semitism begin because Jews stood apart refusing to embrace the same Gods that more powerful civilizations did? Or did it start when they lost their sovereignty and were scattered onside the boundaries of the Land of Israel in the Diaspora? Both possibilities are proffered.

This much the author makes clear: anti-Semitism is as ancient as the Jewish people. The first pogrom – or regime orchestrated rioting against Jews – dates to Greek-dominated ancient Alexandria which also has the distinction of spawning the first blood libel. Soon enough Greek and Roman stereotypes "dehumanized and demonized Jews as a group."

By 325 C.E. as Roman Christianity solidified its hegemony, Church fathers taught their flock to detest the Jews. St. Augustine initially preached they should not be destroyed completely so that they might serve as an example for Christians about the consequences of rejecting Jesus. With the birth of Islam in Arabia (circa. 570), Jews found themselves at the mercy of yet another imperial empire which mostly tolerated them so long as they accepted their place of dhimmi inferiority and paid tribute. Within 200 years of the religion's emergence, 90% of all Jews lived under Islamic rule. "How Jews were treated in a particular place always depended on who was king or caliph. A ruler who was tolerant of Jews …might be followed by one who was greedy, cruel, or just weak," writes Goldstein.

Later, when Christian crusaders sought to roll back Islamic advances Jews invariably paid the price. Between 1096-1149 scores of Jewish communities in Europe were decimated by Christians on their way to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. For Christian civilization subjugating the Jews wasn't enough. Over a 300-year period beginning in 1144, Christians in England, France and Germany promulgated the calumny that Jews needed the blood of Christians for ritual purposes. When in 1347 bubonic plague struck in Italy the Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells. Without a country of their own, a perpetual defenseless minority, thousands of Jews were scapegoated and murdered. Take the French Christians who marked St. Valentine's Day in 1349 by burning Jews alive. Barred from owning land and with many professions prohibited to them all Jews were demonized because a minority turned to the "sin" of money lending. All the while, fanatical Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit orders competed in their cruelty against the Jews.

In the rogues gallery of haters, Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella go down in history as having ordered the forced deportation in 1492 of the Jews from an Iberian Peninsula newly liberated from Muslim control. Yet, as Goldstein shows, this expulsion was by no means unique; Jews were repeatedly expelled from France, Germany, Hungary and Lithuania and once from England. They headed for the Muslim countries or toward Eastern Europe. Neither offered safe haven for long.

In Europe, by 1537 the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther only deepened Christianity's teaching of contempt against the Jews. Paradoxically, there were interludes when the Catholic Church found it expedient to protect Jews under its domination. And yet when Polish rulers in 1200 invited Jews to settle in their towns hoping their presence would bring economic prosperity, it was the Church that preached against granting them even limited rights. Jews who settled further east in rural areas of the Ukraine faced a no less malicious and violence-prone Orthodox Church.

With modernity came the prospect of acceptance. If only Jews would acculturate, even assimilate, anti-Semitism might atrophy. Yet, to paraphrase Napoleon, even where Jews abjured claims of nationhood they were nevertheless not fully accepted as individuals. European Jews who converted to Christianity in hopes of blending in discovered that "the 'age of enlightenment' ended some of the isolation, discrimination, and humiliation Jews had experienced" even as new obstacles surfaced. Nationalisms emerged that viewed the Jews, conversions notwithstanding, as foreign within the body politic.

Goldstein paints on a broad historical canvas though with welcome vignettes of human interest. We meet Wilhelm Marr who invented the term "antisemitism" not to describe pathology, but to explain his hostility to the Jews. Economics, too, played its role then as now. The dislocation engendered by the industrial revolution made Jews the target of antagonism. And readers are reminded that Jews are hated for fomenting capitalism and communism; for being clannish and cosmopolitan.

Old lies never fade away they just metastasize. Though the Russian Czar's secret police fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1907 this nefarious conspiracy falsehood has thrived ever since first under the Nazis (and with a small push from Henry Ford in the United States) and today remains widely fashionable in the Muslim Mideast. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt hardly invented the insinuation that Jews are culpable of dual-loyalty. That falsehood was in vogue already by the end of World War I when German Jews were charged with helping the enemy and stabbing the Fatherland in the back.

Wisely, Goldstein does not dwell on the Final Solution beyond reporting what is necessary in the context of the overall narrative. While not overlooking the alliance between the Palestinian Arab mufti of Jerusalem and Hitler, she moves swiftly on to post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Her capsule history of the Arabs' rejection of Israel is meticulously fair-minded reporting that in the course of the 1948 fighting Palestinian Arabs became refugees while noting that "less attention" has been paid to the 875,000 Jews in the Arab world who were forced from their homes. Nor does she gloss over the continuing Muslim penchant for anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories including the cant that Jews carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The torture murders of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and Ilan Halimi in a Paris suburb are given their due.

Goldstein also covers left-wing anti-Semitism born in Stalin's USSR at the start of the Cold War and now morphed into the "progressive" anti-Zionism most glaringly on display at the 2001 UN's Durban Conference. "Nearly every slander hurled at Jews over the centuries was expressed," at that forum she writes. Anti-globalization sentiment on the right is explained by its xenophobic opposition to "the opening of national borders to ideas, people, and investments." The author might have said more about the no less dangerous left-wing strain.

This is a remarkably concise work (360 pages) covering an extensive period so there is room to quibble. About, for instance, Goldstein's kumbayah description of the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States as a largely ecumenical affair; her view that the movement enjoyed the support of American officialdom is at variance with secretary of state Henry Kissinger's determination to put détente first. Goldstein's rather facile description of the five-year first intifada as "dominated by young Palestinians who threw stones at soldiers" underplays a violent frenzy that claimed 160 Israeli lives and over 1,000 Arab dead (many murdered as "collaborators" in internecine slaughter).

None of this detracts from Goldstein's central thesis: "Words have power, and the link between the language of extremism and actual violence remains as strong as ever." Ultimately, she argues, what has made anti-Semitism "a convenient hatred" is that it serves to mobilize and unite otherwise disparate haters behind a common cause diverting attention away from their own shortcomings.

Over the millennia, anti-Semitism has taken on a metaphysical character making it "impervious to truth." It may be hoisting hope over experience, but let A Convenient Hatred be read worldwide in schools committed to teaching broadmindedness and combating bigotry. Even the jaded have a right to wish that this worthy book will contribute to overcoming the terrible lies told about the Jews.


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