Making Sense of Anti-Semitism

'Convenient Hatred' Traces Bigotry From Ancient Times to Now

Ugly Convenience: Russian soldiers raid a Jewish-owned wine store.
ivan vladimirov, 'pogrom of wine shop,' 1919
Ugly Convenience: Russian soldiers raid a Jewish-owned wine store.

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published May 30, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism
By Phyllis Goldstein
Facing History and Ourselves, 432 pages, $17.95

Historian Victor Tcherikover used to say that there are few things that have a history of 2,000 years. Anti-Semitism is one of them. And indeed, in our own day, the taxonomy of anti-Semitism yet includes religious and secular varieties, political and cultural varieties, theological and ideological varieties. The antisemitism of the right still blames the Jews for modernity (I take this as a compliment!); the anti-Semitism of the left, seeking shelter, most recently, in anti-globalization, still trots out old New Left dogmas about capitalism. And anti-Zionism is the most dangerous, since it denies the legitimacy of a normal life for Jews.

All this has been well rehearsed over the years; indeed, I am told that there are more than 1,000 books on anti-Semitism. Do we need another book on the topic?

The fact is, even with all the books out there, the global history of anti-Semitism has not been sufficiently reported. There is, of course, the classic four-volume work “The History of Anti-Semitism” by Léon Poliakov, wonderfully idiosyncratic, but woefully dated. There is Walter Laqueur’s splendid short book, “The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day.” And there is Robert Wistrich’s early excellent work, “Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred,” crafted for the general audience. There is my “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages,” which sets a historical context for understanding anti-Semitism. But there has long been a need for a truly comprehensive, detailed and analytical narrative tracking the often complex history of anti-Semitism and, more important, contextualizing that history in a coherent manner.

In “A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism,” educator Phyllis Goldstein offers much valuable detail, and what Goldstein says, she says very well indeed. The book is, for a one-volume work, unusually comprehensive; the chapters are of ideal length for classroom use and, even with facts flying off the page, the writing is unusually clear. The many maps — almost always missing in histories of anti-Semitism — are of inestimable value in helping to set a historical context for the subject. Lest we forget, the history of anti-Semitism is, after all, about history. And Goldstein has not forgotten this verity.

“A Convenient Hatred” gets the history mostly right — mostly right, therefore partly wrong. There are frustrating lacunae in Goldstein’s narrative. The detailed discussion of what led to the anti-Jewish riots in first-century Alexandria is fascinating; the missing crucial point is that the event was the first pogrom in history. Goldstein’s retelling of the First Crusade is fuzzy, both in the crusade’s origins (the Byzantine ruler of Jerusalem wanted the pope to send him a few hundred soldiers to protect pilgrims; what he got — oops! — was the crusade) and in its nuanced implications. Many bishops and princes in Europe in fact made every effort to protect their Jews, not an insignificant historical matter. The blood libel is covered by Goldstein, and covered well. But the parallel libel — the libel of the desecration of the Host — arguably at least as important in the history of anti-Semitism, reads as a mere footnote.


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