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Anti-Semitism has been called the oldest hatred. In its long and dark history, it has taken many forms – tribal hatred, religious hatred, racial hatred and national hatred. 

In a book review for Tablet, Adam Kirsch looks at a new historical account, which suggests that an age-old intellectual hatred had its part to play too:

  • “The title of David Nirenberg’s new book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, uses a term pointedly different from the one we are used to. The hatred and oppression of Jews has been known since the late 19th century as anti-Semitism—a label, it is worth remembering, originally worn with pride by German Jew-haters. What is the difference, then, between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism? The answer, as it unfolds in Nirenberg’s scholarly tour de force, could be summarized this way: Anti-Semitism needs actual Jews to persecute; anti-Judaism can flourish perfectly well without them, since its target is not a group of people but an idea.”

By Judaism, Nirenberg doesn’t mean the religion as such, but rather a range of intellectual ideas associated (often falsely) with Jewish religion and culture. It is a fascinating and complex theory, but when Kirsch provides specific examples of what Nirenberg is getting at, what they suggest isn’t so much an ideological war as a class war:

For instance, in Ptolemaic Egypt:

  • “…in which a large Jewish population was sandwiched uneasily between the Greek elite and the Egyptian masses. In a pattern that would be often repeated, this middle position left the Jews open to hostility from both sides, which would erupt into frequent riots and massacres.”

Or in medieval Europe:

  • “With the rise of Catholic polities in the Middle Ages, anti-Judaism took on a less theological, more material cast. In countries like England, France, and Germany, the Jews held a unique legal status as the king’s ‘servants’ or ‘slaves,’ which put them outside the usual chain of feudal relationships… King after king plundered ‘his’ Jews when in need of cash. At the same time, being the public face of royal power left the Jews exposed to the hatred of the people at large. Riots against Jews and ritual murder accusations became popular ways of demonstrating dissatisfaction with the government…”

Though racist and eugenic ideologies came to dominate anti-Semitism in the 19th and 20th centuries, a strong class-based element persisted: 

  • “…Nirenberg shows how Marx recapitulated ancient anti-Jewish tropes when he conceived of communist revolution as “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism”—that is, from money and commerce and social alienation.”

Of course, class hatred is just one ingredient in a vile mix. But we shouldn’t overlook the contribution that it has made not only to anti-Semitism, but other instances of man’s inhumanity to man. 

Consider the famines that Stalin deliberately unleashed against the Kulaks, Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, the pogroms suffered by the ethnic Chinese in 1960s and 70s Indonesia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the killing fields of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

The extent to which ethnic hatred was involved differs from case to case, but the constant factor is that the victims were singled out, either on an individual or a communal basis, because, though lacking in political power, they had dared to better themselves by their own efforts.

We should never forget that class hatred – in particular, hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ – is one of the most murderous forces in history.

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