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Our common inhumanity: anti-semitism and history

: The Longest Hatred by Robert S. Wistrich, Thames Methuen, 1991

.Hieronymus Bosch, Christ carrying the cross, c1490  

‘POSSIBLY,’ WROTE THE THEOLOGIAN, Rosemary Ruether, ‘anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure.’ It is partly because its implications are so terrifying that we have sometimes been reluctant to face up to the history of anti-semitism. Among Christian scholars one of the earliest and most notable exceptions was James Parkes who did much to draw attention to the relentless anti-Judaism of early Christian literature and to the origins of this anti-Jewish attitude in the bitter conflict between the Church and the Synagogue. In addition to his more specialised books Parkes also wrote a history of anti-semitism in which he traced the disastrous consequences of these early Christian attitudes in medieval and modern European history.

But for more than twenty years, ever since James Parkes’s Antisemitism went out of print during the 1960s, there has been no concise history of anti-semitism for the general reader with anything like the breadth and authority of Parkes’s work. As the years went on the need for such a book became increasingly urgent, and its failure to materialise began to seem both puzzling and worrying. This need has at last been met by the distinguished historian Robert S. Wistrich, himself a former winner of the James Parkes prize for his research on anti-semitism. Wistrich’s book, which was written to accompany Rex Bloomstein’s Thames Television series, is both scholarly and lucid. It is also a small miracle of compression which manages, in the space of eighteen brief chapters, to indicate the relative positions, and the relative importance of almost every single thread among the many which make up the complex and terrible tapestry of Western anti-semitism.

Wistrich recognises the role which was played by anti-semitism in pagan Antiquity, but he also recognises, as have many Christian scholars, that an even more important, and ultimately more potent source of anti-semitism is to be found in the New Testament – not only in the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John but in the account of the crucifixion given by all four gospels. It was the gospels and not the Church which first cast the Jews in the role of the deicide people. Wistrich succinctly establishes the importance both of this charge and of the demonisation of the Jews which began with John, was continued by the Church Fathers, and which subsequently became the basis of modern anti-semitic fantasies.

In his condensed history of the development of anti-semitism Wistrich is particularly interesting on Luther, on the mixed blessings of the Enlightenment and on the anti-semitism of Voltaire and Marx. One of the things that Marx’s socialism had in common with Hitler’s National Socialism was that both grew out of the traditional demonological view of ‘the Jew’ as the personification of greed, acquisitiveness and capitalism. Wistrich notes that Hitler, in his early years as a political agitator, ‘frequently played on the deicidal myth and on his own messianic role as a militant German saviour bearing a sword rather than a crown of thorns, who would drive the Jewish capitalists from the Temple of the Lord. “The task which Christ began but did not finish,” he told a Munich audience in 1926, “I will complete.”’

The Holocaust, according to the analysis offered here, grew out a fatal combination of Christian demonological anti-semitism and a new atheistic ideology which ruthlessly secularised this demonology at the same time that it destroyed the traditional restraints of the Christian conscience. In effect National Socialist leaders ‘subverted Christianity from within’. For ‘by continuing to use a long familiar language about the diabolical Jew, they could guarantee themselves the collaboration of the Christian churches and of millions of ordinary laymen throughout Europe.’ ‘Collaboration’ is not quite the right word here and Wistrich seems to forget about the significant minority of Christians who courageously and actively opposed Hitler’s policies. But there is nevertheless too much truth in this general judgment for it to be easily dismissed.

In the second part of his book Wistrich offers a number of illuminating surveys of the development and resurgence of anti-semitism in a variety of countries, including France, America, Poland and the Soviet Union.

He then turns to consider the history of the Jews in Islamic lands. From his perspective as Professor of Modern European history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem he can see very clearly that some of the more extreme anti-Zionist propaganda by which Israel is surrounded in the Middle East is but another form of anti-semitism. What has happened, as he suggests, is that a body of anti-semitic myths and stereotypes which grew up within Christendom has been grafted on to the more moderate anti-Judaism of the Koran both by Islamic fundamentalists and by pan-Arab nationalists.

The amount of destructive violence which is contained in this new, culturally hybrid Arab anti-semitism should not be underestimated, and Wistrich is right to devote so much anxious attention to it. But, because of the cultural perspectives involved, a scholarly survey of such Arab anti-semitism can all too easily become a subtle form of pro-Zionist propaganda. Wistrich bends over backwards in order to acknowledge that there are legitimate arguments against Zionism and that some Palestinians have put these arguments with both reason and passion. But this section of his book remains, understandably enough perhaps, tilted towards the Zionist point of view.

It is interesting in this respect that on several occasions, both in the text of his book and in the glossary, Wistrich characterises Muslims as belonging to an exclusivist faith which is committed to Jihad, ‘until such time as the non-Muslim world submits to the supremacy of Islam, the only “true” religion.’ In recognising that Islam is an ideology of world-domination Wistrich is, of course, absolutely correct. But according to any ordinary reading of their scriptures, so too are Judaism, Christianity or, for that matter, Marxism. The point is an extremely important one. For it leads – or should lead – to the recognition that anti-semitism is rooted in beliefs about covenant and divine election which are to be found not only in Christianity and Islam but in Judaism as well.

Ultimately indeed, the terrifying theological questions raised by the Holocaust concern the Old Testament just as much as the New Testament. For, in its pre-secularised form, anti-semitism never took the form of a quarrel between one religious tradition and another tradition which was alien to it. It was a quarrel which took place (and continues to take place) inside a religious family. In this quarrel, as perhaps in all family disputes, no single tradition emerges as wholly sinful. Neither does any emerge as wholly virtuous. All three of the religious traditions involved (or four if we include Marxism) have scriptures which can encourage exclusivism, intolerance and cruelty. It is perhaps only when we have acknowledged this – our common inhumanity – that we will come a little closer to recognising our common humanity

Like Jewish history itself Wistrich’s book begins and ends in Palestine. Throughout it there is scarcely any relief from what amounts to a catalogue of human callousness and human cruelty. This, perhaps, is what we should expect from such a compressed account. The courage of Karl Barth, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and of Father Bernhard Lichtenberg, who prayed openly for the Jews at his Berlin cathedral and died on the road to Dachau, has, after all, been recorded elsewhere. So too has the role of the womanising industrialist Oskar Schindler who saved more than a thousand Jews from Auschwitz. Yet their roles remain important. For, as one Jewish survivor, Pierre Sauvage, put it: 

If we do not learn how it is possible to act well even under the most trying circumstances, we will increasingly doubt our ability to act well even under less trying ones. If we remember solely the horror of the Holocaust, we will pass on no perspective from which to confront and learn from that very horror … If Jews do not learn that the whole world did not stand idly by while we were slaughtered, we will undermine our ability to develop the friendships and alliances that we need and deserve … If the hard and fast evidence of the possibility of good on earth is allowed to slip through our fingers and turn into dust, then future generations will have only dust to build on. If hope is allowed to seem an unrealistic response to the world, if we do not work towards developing confidence in our spiritual resources, we will be responsible for producing in due time a world devoid of humanity – literally.

Wistrich’s book lacks resonance partly because it omits the kind of perspective which is provided by the words of Pierre Sauvage, or the deeds of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Lichtenberg and Schindler. But he does tell the rest of the story with rare skill. This story needs to be told for the simple reason that without a profound understanding of the history of anti-semitism – a history which has been deeply repressed – it is impossible to comprehend the course of Western history itself. For this and for many other reasons Robert Wistrich’s book is both necessary and important. I hope it will be widely read and deeply pondered.

A shorter version of this review appeared in The Tablet in 1992. 


© Richard Webster, 2002