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Is Anti-Semitism Unique?


The Brandeis Brief (March 2013)

March 3, 2013
 

Review of Clemens Heni, Antisemitism: A Specific Phenomenon (Berlin: Edition Critic, 2013)

Among anti-Semitism scholars, nothing clears a room faster than the question of whether Jew-hatred is unique.  One school of thought says that it is uniquely evil, qualitatively distinct in both severity and character.  Let us call all them the Exceptionalists, because they argue that anti-Semitism is a singular phenomenon.  The second school says that Jews should get over themselves:  anti-Semitism is bad, but it is not entirely different from other aversions, such as racism, sexism, homophobia or heterosexism.  Let us call them the Genericists, since they consider Jew-hatred to be nothing more than a particular instance of a broader phenomenon, such as xenophobia or group-based animus.  For all their mutual commitment to the same ostensible goal of combating anti-Semitism, Genericists and Exceptionalists are embroiled in civil war.

The battle was joined rather dramatically during the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism’s December anti-Semitism conference in London when some speakers forcefully denounced the rise of Muslim anti-Semitism.  Members of the Genericist school rose in protest, marching out to express their view that anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim discrimination must be equally denounced as kindred forms of racism.  Shortly afterwards, one Genericist made a point of praising the late Edward Said, the leading figure of the post-colonialist school, in a gesture of catholicity.  Thereupon two Exceptionalists returned the favor by walking-out in their own protest over the mention of a scholar who is known for outspoken anti-Zionism. It would be a mistake to imagine that the dispute concerned only attitudes towards, say, Muslim anti-Semitism, Jewish anti-Islamism, or Saidian post-Colonialism.  Rather, the over-arching question is whether anti-Semitism is merely a particular form of racism or whether it is a unique social evil.

This debate may be particularly acute today, but it is by no means new.  The Genericist view rose in influence within the Jewish communal world immediately after World War II as Jewish Americans sought to assimilate into the broader American culture.  In fact, the adoption by major of Jewish organizations of this “theory of the unitary character of prejudice” has been described as one of the hallmarks of the evolution of Jewish communal organizations.  The Genericist theory is that prejudice divides the world into in-groups and out-groups, directing a generally negative mindset towards out-groups.  It is based on the observation that people who are prejudiced against members of one group tend to be prejudiced against other groups as well. 

By the late 1940’s, this Genericism was hardening into an orthodoxy within the Jewish communal world.  For example, Stephen S. Wise, as President of the American Jewish Congress, told Congress in 1947 that, “We regard ethnic discrimination, whether directed against Jews, Negroes, Chinese, Mexicans, or any other group, as a single and indivisible problem and as one of the most urgent problems of democratic society.”  In the same year, the American Jewish Committee adopted a resolution resolving “that there is the closest relation between the protection of the civil rights of all citizens and the protection of the civil rights of the members of particular groups…” 

The unitary theory became similarly dominant in academia during this period.  This is not entirely coincidental, as the Jewish communal world, and especially the American Jewish Committee, funded influential research that articulated this Jewish communal orthodoxy.  In particular this took the form of the American Jewish Committee’s five-volume series of Studies in Prejudice.  This series was anchored by Horkheimer and Adorno’s landmark treatise on The Authoritarian Personality, which was announced that anti-Semitism “probably is not a specific or isolated phenomenon but a part of a broader ideological framework.” 

Such Genericism treats anti-Semitism as distinguishable only in its objects from other forms of discrimination such as anti-black racism or anti-Hispanic ethnocentricity, rather than identifying a peculiar characteristic of the hatred of Jews.  Conceptually, such work reveals the common underlying anxieties that arise from the stranger, in the sense that any other being of human life is foreign and dangerous.  This often stirs antipathy, which may provoke aggressiveness or defensiveness.  By focusing on anti-Semitism’s common aspects, Genericists are able to perceive not only Judeophobia’s continuities with other animus but also the ways in which distrust of otherness can engender negative attitudes towards Jews. 

Genericism also squares well with grand theories or ideologies, such as Marxism.  Such theories are typically founded on the conviction that one cannot resolve any particular social conflict without resolving all of them; that is to say, without resolving the fundamental antagonisms which lie at their base.  Thus, for example, Marxists may argue that the rights of women, the condition of the environment, the health of democracy, and the establishment of peace all ultimately require a global resolution without which their underlying conflicts cannot be resolved.  Alternatively, some other movement may play the role of paradigmatic case, such as radical feminism, radical environmentalism, or even some forms of psychoanalysis.  In any of these grand theories, anti-Semitism is merely a generic manifestation of a broader phenomenon that is best understood in terms provided by a seemingly unrelated ideological movement or theory.

The tendency to blur the lines among forms of prejudice also has certain practical advantages and functional usefulness.  Analytically, it facilitated research, particularly in the period immediately following World War II, which demonstrated similarities among the divergent forms of hatred directed at different groups.  Politically, it provides a basis for coalition-building activities by various minority groups. Legally, it supports the development of parallel regulatory regimes to protect persons who face discrimination under different suspect classifications.  In Europe, where Jews are the paradigmatic case of a persecuted minority, other historical out-groups may seek legal protections by comparing their lot to the Jewish condition.  In the United States, however, where African Americans are the paradigmatic case, other groups tend to achieve protection by comparing their status to that of American blacks. 

In the end, however, these definitions served not so much to broaden academic focus on anti-Semitism, as to eliminate it altogether.  One impact of this thinking was the virtual disappearance of anti-Semitism studies after the first golden age of research in the 1940’s and 1950’s – and until the renewed attention that the field has found in the wake of a global resurgence of Jew-hatred since the turn of the twenty-first century.  In the interim, anti-Semitism studies were largely replaced by studies of “generalized prejudice.”  Commenting on the impact of such studies, one law professor penned a law review article entitled, Wharever Happened to Anti-Semitism?  That article observes that “anti-Semitism has faded from our consciousness, in part because theorists began to view anti-Semitism as part of a larger phenomenon of prejudice.”  Interestingly, the study of other forms of prejudice did not disappear during this entire period: whole literatures emerged to study discrimination against women, blacks and other groups.  In these literatures, the distinctive forms of each prejudice emerge.

The most obvious problem with such general definitions, however, is that they suggest that anti-Semitism may be different from other forms of ethnocentrism or xenophobia only in the choice of persecuted out-group, rather than in the nature or intensity of hatred.  To this extent, they fail to account for anti-Semitism’s distinctive features, including its exceptional virulence.  Historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu recognized the difference in intensity when he defined anti-Semitism as an animus which combines “hatred of the other, hatred of the alien and hatred of the weak” but “in a more forceful and consistent form than in any other form of hatred of minorities.” 

Beyond the question of intensity, moreover, anti-Semitism differs from other animus in ubiquity, depth, complexity and persistence.  For this reason, some scholars insist that anti-Semitism “is much more than mere prejudice about or discrimination against Jews.”  Leon Poliakov, in his magisterial multi-volume history, stresses this uniqueness in his definition of “anti-Semitism” as “an effective sui generis attitude of the gentiles towards the Jews…”  Gavin Langmuir expressed this insight when he admonished that the kind of hatred symbolized by Auschwitz must be distinguished in more than intensity from the hostility represented by a swastika on the Eiffel Tower. Langmuir’s comment reflects a recurring theme among those who have struggled to craft a proper definition of this elusive term.  To wit: there is an intuition, shared by many engaged in this effort, that any proper definition of anti-Semitism – and certainly any workable explanatory theory – must account for anti-Semitism’s exceptionality.  That is to say, many scholars of anti-Semitism insist that a basic characteristic of anti-Semitism is the extent to which it is fundamentally different in character than other forms of hate or bigotry.  Langmuir’s notion is that we cannot properly understand anti-Semitism – indeed we cannot even name it – without conveying something of what has made it capable of such extraordinary evil. 

The contemporary intellectual heirs of Poliakov and Langmuir include such luminaries of anti-Semitism scholarship as Robert Wistrich and Alvin Rosenfeld.  But it has fallen to a younger German scholar, Clemens Heni, to devote an entire, massive new volume to articulating the Exceptionalist argument.  In Antisemitism: a Specific Phenomenon, Heni reveals his wide and deep immersion in the English-language and Germanic scholarship of anti-Semitism and prejudice, as well as his courage, energy and passion.  To be sure, Heni’s book also reflects the rancorousness of the contemporary debate, and it is as pugnacious as it is learned.  Some will no doubt find some of Heni’s judgments to be unfair, mean-spirited, or even brutal.  But that is not to say that he is wrong, at least in his major thesis on anti-Semitism’s singular character.

Heni argues that anti-Semitism is exceptional not only because of its severity but also because of its very nature.  “No single group of people, except for the Jews,” Heni argues, “has been singled out and blamed simultaneously for mutually exclusive developments like capitalism, communism or liberalism and humanism.”  Heni observes that some Genericists appear to believe that their position has the virtue of neutrality.  Heni dispatches this view sharply:  “Ignoring the Iranian threat is taking a position, not remaining neutral.  Remaining silent on Islamist anti-Semitism is not being neutral either.”  As Heni’s Antisemitism nicely demonstrates, the debate over anti-Semitism’s singular character parallels a similar debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust.  In both cases, the debate among scholars reflects a broader political contest over the meaning of major events in modern history.

At the end of the day, Heni’s new volume will not end the current disagreement over anti-Semitism’s putatively exceptional or generic character.  It is instead a stick of dynamite ignited in the midst of the debate.  More analysis would be helpful on the relationship between anti-Semitism and the related ideologies in which it is often enmeshed.  As Heni observes, anti-Semitism nowadays is often connected in disturbing ways with anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Israelism.  A Genericist who shared this view could explain the inter-connectedness by identifying the broader animus which all of these aversions exemplify.  For obvious reasons, that method is unavailable to Heni or to any Exceptionalist.  The challenge for Exceptionalism is to explain both anti-Semitism’s singularity and its interconnectness.  This would require a theory of how anti-Semitism functions as an ideology.  But this must await another day.

 



 
 
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Campus Anti-Semitism
Over 40% of Jewish American college students report that they have experienced or are aware of anti-Semitism on their campuses. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has announced that campus anti-Semitism “is a serious problem which warrants further attention.” Campus anti-Semitism can include subjecting Jewish students to different treatment, harassment, violence or a hostile environment. In some cases, campus anti-Semitism is related to anti-Israel sentiment. In other cases, it is not. For most purposes, we define anti-Semitism according to the EUMC Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, as endorsed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and U.S. Department of State.
 
 
 
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L. Rachel Lerman, Esq.
L. Rachel Lerman is a partner in Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, where she focuses on appellate and trial strategy in complex civil and financial restructuring cases.
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