Why anti-semitism persists

By David Solway on May 6, 2009

In his 1995 book [1] Assimilation and Its Discontents, Israeli political historian and prolific author Barry Rubin speaks of a time when “anti-Semitism became too minimal to inspire fear or defiance.” Indeed, for both the Israeli sabra and the diaspora Jew, particularly in America, “anti-Semitism’s rout and the acquisition of equality … raises the question of what to do next.” Only a little more than a decade has passed since Rubin wrote those lines but the “question of what to do next” has taken on a completely different complexion. For once again anti-Semitism has returned with a vengeance.

I suspect that Rubin’s cheerful temperament may have clouded his view and caused him to forget that anti-Semitism is unlike other forms of irrational hatred and operates under a different set of laws. One might put it this way: because it has happened before, it will happen again, which is not the tautology or unverifiable assumption that it appears to be. We need to recognize the mechanics that operate in this past-future homology.

Anti-Semitic sentiments, outbreaks, pogroms, and holocausts, in virtue of their millennial repeatability, have become entrenched in human consciousness as a “natural” inevitability, as something that must happen again because it has consistently happened before. Anti-Semitism and its consequences, as they act themselves out in the social and historical realms, have gradually come to acquire the character of a deeply harbored expectation, a necessary effect of an immutable cause, as if it were a part of the phenomenal world, the prolonged absence of which dimly registers as a gap in the normal sequence of events. This gap or hiatus must be filled to restore the equilibrium of things, which is why anti-Semitism is felt as somehow legitimate. It is its recession that is intuited as unnatural.

The subsidence of anti-Semitism for an extended period is tantamount to the moon undergoing a protracted eclipse: something is wrong in the natural order, producing uncertainty and apprehension and requiring that the balance of nature be restored and reaffirmed. The moon has its familiar cycles because, according to the laws of the physical world, it must have them; an eclipse is a rare and temporary event. Anti-Semitism, too, will have its eclipses, but they are necessarily ephemeral. The primordial hatred of which we are speaking will continue to circle and shine and proceed through its phases because it has always done so — and therefore it always will. This remains the case whatever may have given it its original impetus.

True, a brief obscuring of this lunatic radiation may also be regarded as an aspect of natural process, but it is its brevity rather than its occurrence that is considered natural and which renders it acceptable. Hatred of the Jew has come to be understood across the great wave of time as a function of how the world works and, therefore, of how the world is supposed to work. The colloquial mind thinks: it has gone on for so long, there must be something to it.

This constitutes its justification — an irrational hatred masking as a rational presumption. It is something that has occurred so often in the past, and has kept on happening wherever Jews have settled, that it is perceived in the depths of the psyche to have moved from the dimension of history over into the structure of nature. It is as if anti-Semitism has now become part of our synaptic equipment, which is why it will persist until the last Jew.

Rubin believes that the greatest threat to Jewish continuity is the specter of assimilation, whose “logical culmination will extinguish … Jewish identity among millions of people.” He need not worry. In the final analysis, anti-Semitism will always trump assimilation, as untold numbers of perfectly assimilated, more-German-than-German Jews learned to their cost. It is sheer folly to assume that it can’t happen here.

The profound anxiety and sense of desolation that Jean Améry (a.k.a. Hans Meyer) records in At Mind’s Limits is real and ineluctable. This is a world, he declares, “whose still unresolved death sentence I acknowledge as a social reality.” And as George Steiner wrote in Language & Silence, “Somewhere the determination to kill Jews, to harass them from the earth simply because they are, is always alive.” Let no Gentile justifier or temporizing Jew take false comfort in mere denial, self-delusion, the bromides of pliable rhetoric, or the seductions of sweet reason. The Jew must remain alert, always ready to defend himself, and never submit to an unfounded belief in some eventual bucolic resolution.

In this sense, the past is larger than the future. And the proof is all around us in the present.


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