How, Why, Who Hates Us

Various Takes on Old and New Antisemitisms

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.
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Varieties of Antisemitism: History, Ideology, Discourse
Edited by Murray Baumgarten, Peter Kenez and Bruce Thompson
University of Delaware Press, 248 pages, $75.00.

Efficient Calumny: This Indian entry to the Iran Holocaust Cartoon Contest distills many antisemitic anti-Zionist bigotries. (click for zoom)
Efficient Calumny: This Indian entry to the Iran Holocaust Cartoon Contest distills many antisemitic anti-Zionist bigotries. (click for zoom)

Historian Victor Tcherikover used to say that there are few phenomena in history that have a history of 2,000 years. Antisemitism is one of those phenomena. The cultural antisemitism of the ancient world; Christian religious antisemitism; the racist forms of the modern era, beginning with Voltaire and culminating in the horrors of the destruction of European Jewry — all add to these the “new” antisemitism of radical Islam and virulent forms of “Israelophobia,” and you have a cluster of issues and events that we, in 2009, cannot adequately address. For scholars, it is not merely of theoretical interest to grapple with these issues, but it is also crucial to know how to face them, both now and in the future.

The recent literature on antisemitism has been unusually rich; nevertheless it is deficient in a solid historical and sociological context for the range of 20th-century antisemitica. “Varieties of Antisemitism: History, Ideology, Discourse” (all the book’s editors come from the University of California, Santa Cruz) goes beyond most recent works and fills much of this gap. The varied essays in the volume pick up on a dynamic long known to students of the field: that antisemitism is not a unitary experience; that there are protean aspects of the phenomenon that make it tough to grasp, and that we need to distinguish among the different intensities of antisemitism in specific historical settings and situations. The authors whose works appear in “Varieties of Antisemitism” have the expertise for this analysis. They understand a simple, eternal verity of antisemitism. As a prominent contemporary scholar pointed out, antisemitism is not a “Jewish” issue; it is a “non-Jewish” issue. This is made clear in chapter after chapter.

“Varieties of Antisemitism” is extensive, yet compactly contoured. The book’s three sections cover the range of antisemitism worldwide. In “Rethinking the Holocaust,” the editors wisely use the Holocaust as a vehicle for exploring the impact of antisemitism from new and often unexpected perspectives, and look at “ways in which the Holocaust received its impetus from antisemitism and also, conversely, gave antisemitism a new energy.” Sounds like a no-brainer? The essays in “Rethinking the Holocaust” offer startlingly fresh perspectives. They range from the connections that David Biale makes between the venerable blood libel and Nazi antisemitism, through István Deák’s fascinating trip (in “Hungary and the Holocaust”) across a few months in 1944 — puncturing more than a few balloons of conventional wisdom along the way — to Joshua Zimmerman’s noteworthy analysis of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Unlike most academic essays, each of the six chapters in “Rethinking the Holocaust” is a page-turner.

Page-turners also populate the second section — the eponymous core of the book — “Varieties of Antisemitism,” which examines 20th-century antisemitism across a sweep of countries. Using Poland, Hungary, Russia and South Africa as exemplars, the section analyzes political issues, historical events (Carol Fink’s comparison of the 1918 and 1919 Lemberg and Pinsk pogroms, and Anthony Polonsky’s “The Jedwabne Debate: Poles, Jews, and the Problems of Divided Memory,” are especially thoughtful) and representations of antisemitism, both in fiction and in film. On fiction, Phyllis Lassner’s chapter “The Necessary Jew: Modernist Women Writers and Contemporary Women Critics” connects the dots of antisemitism in a number of literary genres and in two writers — Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes — and is a good example of what this volume does best: It opens up arenas that the reader thinks he knows something about, and illumines the terrain in a fresh manner.

The third section, “Contemporary Antisemitism After the Holocaust,” will be of most interest to the general reader. In 70 exceptionally concentrated pages, the five essays bring the story to the present day, analyzing post-Holocaust antisemitism. Especially noteworthy is historian Yehuda Bauer’s “Problems of Contemporary Antisemitism,” which challenges the reader’s “received wisdom” on antisemitism’s history and on new realities. Bauer connects the issue of “anti-Israelism” and the condition of the Jew in the Middle Ages, analyzes religious fundamentalism and explores radical Islam.

Is there such a thing as the “New Antisemitism”? These essays make a strong case for an answer in the affirmative.

Curatorial choices in an edited volume are always subjective, indeed idiosyncratic, but “Varieties of Antisemitism” demonstrates the near perfect pitch of its editors. Most of the authors are gedolim, recognized experts in their fields — few say it as well as Deák, Biale and Bauer — and they, among other contributors, survey new territory in terrain that we thought had been well mapped. Not only is almost every chapter in “Varieties of Antisemitism” a contribution to our understanding of the history and sociology of the phenomenon, but there is also a cadence in, and coherence to, the ordering of the chapters, which is a tribute to the skill of the editors.

“Varieties of Antisemitism” moves the conversation beyond the usual discussions of antisemitism’s origins, going well beyond its historical religious, and later, racial, aspects. As the volume’s editors elegantly put it, “Jewishness does not exhibit the plasiticity of Proteus. Antisemitism, alas, does.” And the essays in the collection argue this point well.

Unfortunately, this superb volume is too pricey for most academics and general readers. Moreover, even at this steep price, the volume is missing an index and, more serious, a bibliography. This last is especially lamentable. In the one place where bibliographic references about scholarship on antisemitism are offered — a long note at the end of the otherwise estimable introductory essay — the references are at best misleading and at worst woeful.

For one thing, an endnote does not substitute for a bibliography. Worse, however, is the content of the note: The editors promise us “the best recent surveys” of antisemitism; then they visit upon us Gabriel Schoenfeld’s irresponsible “The Return of Antisemitism” and Ron Rosenbaum’s valuable but ultimately hysterical anthology, “Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism.” These, in the company of solid works by Walter Laqueur, David Kertzer, Salo Baron, David Berger, and others, mislead the reader and raise questions about the editors’ judgment. A service to readers, including scholars, would be, at the least, a well-considered freestanding bibliographic note.

But one endnote ought not diminish the accomplishments of this splendid book. The essays in this volume give us much new information; what’s more, they give us fresh analysis. The best contributions, however, of “Varieties of Antisemitism” are the questions that are raised for us on every page. Prepare to be challenged.

Jerome A. Chanes is a contributing editor to the Forward, and author of the award-winning “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages” (Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 2001).

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