The Globalization of Antisemitism

By Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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Antisemitism is evolving. After a period of remission owing to the horror of the Holocaust, the ancient prejudice has recently been reactivated, catalyzed by the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has entered a new era in which its main focus has shifted from the domestic to the international. Always protean in quality, always changing to take on the idiom of its day, antisemitism has been globalized.

Antisemitism has always had domestic and international components. During the long era of Christian antisemitism, the transnational institution of the Catholic church spread the belief that Jews as Christ-killers were a cosmic force for evil. But the principal target of anti-Jewish prejudice was local, the Jews of one’s town, region and country who allegedly harmed their Christian neighbors.

In its second era during the 19th and 20th centuries, antisemitism took on a secular and more racist cast, in which an international conspiracy of Jews worked against humanity. Still, most of the antisemitic fire was aimed locally — by Germans at German Jews, by French at French Jews — for the harm that they allegedly inflicted on their countrymen. The “Jewish Problem” — one of the most burning political issues of the day — was overwhelmingly about what Germans, French, Poles and others should do with the Jews within their countries.

Globalized antisemitism is a new constellation of features grafted onto old ones. Varied and complex, it is oriented to the global stage. In most of Europe, and certainly in the West, the domestic “Jewish Problem” is all but dead. Only fringe elements in Germany, France and elsewhere believe that local Jews are causing great harm — financial, professional, moral — to their non-Jewish neighbors, and that a radical response is necessary.

The focus of the animus against Jews has shifted overwhelmingly to Jews of other countries — of Israel and the United States — as the alleged central moral and material culprits of the international arena. Zionism has become, for many, a mythical entity, a destructive agent in the world, and anti-Zionism has become interwoven with anti-Americanism to the point where Russian nationalist politicians can express their fear of American domination by saying that Russia is in danger of being “Zionized.”

The center of antisemitism and directions of its transmission are also new. In the previous eras of antisemitism, the demonology about Jews flowed first from the Christian, and then the European, center to the periphery. Today, there are many antisemitic centers and multidirectional flows from Europe, to the Middle East and elsewhere, and back. Essentially, Europe had exported its classical racist and Nazi antisemitism to Arab countries, which they applied to Israel and Jews in general, suffusing it with the real and imagined features of the intensive local conflict. Then the Arab countries re-exported the new hybrid demonology back to Europe and, using the United Nations and other international institutions, to other countries around the world. In Germany, France, Great Britian and elsewhere, today’s intensive antisemitic expression and agitation uses old tropes once applied to local Jews — charges of sowing disorder, wanting to subjugate others — with new content overwhelmingly directed at Jews outside their countries and their continent.

The imagery characterizing globalized antisemitism is new. Rambo Jew has largely supplanted Shylock in the antisemitic imagination. The sly and stealth corrupting Jew of the first two eras of antisemitism, now armed with his new military and political power, has become the subjugating, brutalizing and killing Jew, either doing the dirty work himself, as in Israel, or employing others to do it for him, as the Jews, fantastically, are said to do with the Bush administration and the “East Coast” establishment is purported to do with the United States generally.

An emblematic image of globalized antisemitism is of Donald Rumsfeld wearing a yellow star inscribed with “sheriff,” followed by a cudgel wielding Ariel Sharon who is flanked by a golden calf. (Please see photograph, below.) That this scene, expressing the putative globalized nature and predations of the Jews, was created for an anti-globalization demonstration in Davos is no mere coincidence.

Globalized antisemitism has other important and new features, including its instantaneous, global transmission through the Internet and by television’s biased stories and inflammatory images of Palestinian suffering, which are incorporated into the antisemitic narrative; its unification of elements of the European left and right, and its semi-concealing cloak of anti-Zionism.

Perhaps most distinctive, though, is the unmooring of antisemitism from its original sources. It is detached from Christianity, even if there are still powerful Christian sources of antisemitism. It is detached from its 19th-century European sources of nation building, reactions against modernity and pseudo-scientific notions of race and social Darwinism, even if that era’s demonology is still potent in somewhat transposed form.

Globalized antisemitism has become part of the substructure of prejudice of the world. It is free-floating, located in many countries, subcultures and nodes, available in many variations, and to anyone who dislikes international influences, globalization or the United States. It is relentlessly international in its focus on Israel at the center of the most conflict-ridden region today, and on the United States as the world’s omnipresent power. It is self-reinforcing, with its fantastical constructions of Jews and Zionism — which are divorced from the fair criticisms that can be made of Israel’s policies — and by being located totally outside people’s countries and experience. And it is only a few clicks of a mouse away.

After the Holocaust and after Vatican II, it seemed that antisemitism had diminished and might eventually atrophy. It had indeed declined, and in most European countries, including Germany, the publics’ conception of their domestic Jews was de-demonized. Many people in Europe and elsewhere today also reject the new antisemitic fantasies.

Yet the reawakening of antisemitism in its new globalized form meant that antisemitism succeeded again in metamorphosing and in extending its reach — even to Africa and Asia. So far the new globalized antisemitism has not proven to be as dangerous as earlier forms, except in the Middle East, but its disquieting features suggest that it has the potential. A genuine settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict would take some of the wind out of this new antisemitism. But antisemitism’s deep roots in the ever more globalizing consciousness, and its proven tenacity and plasticity, make its dissipation unlikely.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, an affiliate of Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, is the author of “A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair.” He will be appearing at “Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-Semitism in the West,” a conference being held May 11-14 at the Center for Jewish History.






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