The Causes of Anti-Semitism: Preliminary Discussions

Date 2011/8/16 17:55:49 | Topic: 2008

As I have mentioned in another essay, Andrew G. Bostom, author of the excellent The Legacy of Jihad, has asked me to do a review of his upcoming book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism, which I will publish in early June. Before this, however, I intend to write about the causes of Christian anti-Semitism. I will probably publish the full essay about this at Atlas Shrugs, the website of Pamela Geller, but before I do so I will arrange a preliminary debate at the Gates of Vienna blog.

Eccentric Culture by Rémi BragueI know this is a sensitive subject, but writing about sensitive subjects is our business. In his book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, Rémi Brague explains how the Romans admired the earlier culture of the Greeks. Christians also recognized that the Jews had an older religious tradition than they did themselves and that they were greatly indebted to it. Christian Europeans thus inherited a twin “cultural secondarity“ in relation to their Greek and Hebrew parent cultures. Brague sees this phenomenon of cultural secondarity as the very essence of the West, and dubs it “Romanity.” As he says, Christians recognize that the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) is still valid and authentic, and Jews recognize that Christians have adopted the entire Hebrew Bible unchanged. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that Christians and Jews have falsified their texts, which accordingly have no specific value in themselves:

One should be careful, therefore, not to make an implicit analogy between what one calls, with an expression that besides is quite superficial, the “three monotheisms.” Islam is not to Christianity (not even to Christianity and to Judaism) what Christianity is to Judaism. Admittedly, in both cases, the mother religion rejects the legitimacy of the daughter religion. And in both cases the daughter religion turned on its mother religion. But on the level of principles, the attitude toward the mother religion is not the same. While Islam rejects the authenticity of the documents on which Judaism and Christianity are founded, Christianity, in the worst case, recognizes at least that the Jews are the faithful guardians of a text that it considers as sacred as the text which is properly its own. In this way, the relationship of secondarity toward a preceding religion is found between Christianity and Judaism and between these two alone.


MaimonidesTo name one example, the leading Jewish medieval physician and philosopher Maimonides directed that Jews could teach rabbinic law to Christians, but not to Muslims. For Muslims, he said, will interpret what they are taught “according to their erroneous principles and they will oppress us. [F]or this reason… they hate all [non-Muslims] who live among them.” But the Christians, he said, “admit that the text of the Torah, such as we have it, is intact.”

Maimonides lamented the aggression and humiliation Jews faced from Muslims: “You know, my brethren, that on account of our sins God has cast us into the midst of this people, the nation of Ishmael, who persecute us severely, and who devise ways to harm us and to debase us… No nation has ever done more harm to Israel. None has matched it in debasing and humiliating us. None has been able to reduce us as they have… We have borne their imposed degradation, their lies, and absurdities, which are beyond human power to bear.”
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This is quite interesting, given that he lived in the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic occupation and that we are now told how Spain and Portugal under Islamic rule were beacons of tolerance. Islamic apologist Karen Armstrong says that “until 1492, Jews and Christians lived peaceably and productively together in Muslim Spain — a coexistence that was impossible elsewhere in Europe.” The U.S. State Department has proclaimed that “during the Islamic period in Spain, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace and mutual respect, creating a diverse society in which vibrant exchanges of ideas took place.”

A PogromNevertheless, it is certainly true that Jews did suffer from repeated attacks and pogroms in Christian Europe over many centuries, and they were expelled from Spain and Portugal after the Reconquista. Because of this, Rémi Brague believes that although individual Jews have been important throughout European history after Rome and have in some cases been intellectually influential (Maimonides, for instance), Judaism as a religion was forced to play a low-key role in European societies:

Judaism as such has only been able to exercise an influence on European culture from a rather late date. The Jewish communities have been excluded for a long time from any participation in political power that goes beyond the private role of certain of its members. In order for Judaism to make itself understood publicly and get away from the confidential character imposed on its written productions by the exclusive use of Hebrew, one had to await the emancipation. This arrived in the eighteenth century, first in Germanic countries (Austria and Prussia), and then continued on in the wake of the French Revolution. During this period, Europe was already a cultural reality, and it was already conscious of its unity on this particular level. In this way, Judaism has been able to leave its mark, a decisive mark, on an already constituted Europe, but it has contributed only a little to making Europe.


The chess playersThe emancipation led to an explosion of Jewish creativity in nineteenth century and pre-Holocaust twentieth century Europe. By far the most important reason for this was the secularization of the Christians, which allowed the Jews a more equal place in society, but was it also a result of a secularization of the Jews themselves? According to The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy by Joel Mokyr, “the failure of European Jews over many centuries to contribute to useful knowledge (as defined here) in anything like a proportional amount in view of their literacy and learning remains something of a puzzle.” To Mokyr, the creation of useful knowledge presupposes that the research agenda “is not entirely dominated by knowledge with no conceivable immediate application (as was the case, for instance, for Jewish rabbis).” He also writes that “Many societies in antiquity spent a great deal of time studying the movements of heavenly bodies, which did little to butter the turnips (though it helped work out the calendar). For many generations Jewish sages spent their lives on the exegesis of the scriptures, adding much to wisdom and legal scholarship but little to useful knowledge as defined here.”

I think Mokyr is being a little bit too harsh here. There is not necessarily a contradiction between being a religious scholar and a secular scholar. A number of Christians have managed this well, and so have quite a few Jews, both in ancient and in modern times. Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that Jews have in certain periods focused too much on scriptures alone, as opposed to secular knowledge. A similar example on a much larger scale is to be found in medieval and early modern China, where the imperial examination system ensured that a significant proportion of talented men had access to literacy and learning. However, these examinations tended to focus on Confucian classics instead of engineering, mathematics and science, and thus added less to the development of useful knowledge than might otherwise have been possible.

Was the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War an extension of traditional anti-Semitism in Europe? Robert Spencer in Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t argues that it was not, although the Nazis certainly tapped into traditional anti-Semitism to shore up support for their actions. According to Spencer:

Robert Spencer: Religion of Peace?Historian Daniel Jonah Goldenhagen minces no words: ‘The main responsibility for producing the all-time leading Western hatred [of Jews] lies with Christianity. More specifically, with the Catholic Church.’ However, Rabbi David G. Dalin, a historian of the Catholic Church’s relations with the Jews, says this is ‘bad history and bad scholarship.’ Malcolm Hay, who chronicles in searing detail the mistreatment Jews suffered in Europe at the hands of Christians, notes also that the most basic right, the right to live, was ‘one which no Pope, no Catholic theologian, has ever denied to the Jews — a right which no ruler in Christendom ever denied to them until the advent of Adolf Hitler.’ Clearly, however, the Nazis sought justification for their actions from Christian anti-Semitism.


Dalin points out that the papal record is not monochromatic: “The historical fact is that popes have often spoken out in defense of the Jews, have protected them during times of persecution and pogroms, and have protected their right to worship freely in their synagogues. Popes have traditionally defended Jews from wild anti-Semitic allegations. Popes regularly condemned anti-Semites who sought to incite violence against Jews.”

Pope Leo X ordered the entire Talmud to be printed by a Christian printer in Rome so as to discourage anti-Semitic rumors about its contents. This is good, but it is also indirectly a testimony to the fact that anti-Semitism was widespread enough to constitute a real problem in many parts of Europe. In early Christian times, clear anti-Semitism was expressed by some Christian leaders, for instance John Chrysostom.

According to Robert Spencer, “the Nazis reprinted John Chrysostom’s words in support of their activities. There is nevertheless a large gulf between the anti-Judaism of Chrysostom and other Christian leaders, and that of the Nazis, who were for the most part anti-Christian and certainly anti-Catholic. Their anti-Semitism was rooted in Darwinian racial theories that posited the Aryans as the master race and the Jews as untermenschen.” He also points out that “While Christian anti-Semitism has been minimized, it still exists, particularly in the Middle East where some Christians have absorbed the anti-Semitism of the Islamic culture which surrounds them.”

The rabid rhetoric of the Nazis regarding Jews is widely supported by Muslims today. The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called the Jewish state of Israel a “filthy bacteria.” This is now sometimes presented as something Muslims have “imported” from Europeans. Historian Bernard Lewis in his book What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East states that “The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among the Christian minorities, and can usually be traced back to European originals.”

This is clearly nonsense. Christian hatred of Jews does exist, but Jew hatred has a much stronger scriptural basis in Islam than it has in Christianity. The Australian Jihadist David Hicks, who has trained with Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan, writes that “Muslims fight against Jews and they kill them.” He can base this directly in Islamic religious scriptures, both the Koran and the hadith. For instance, one authentic (according to Sunni Muslims) hadith states that: Allah’s Apostle said, “The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. “O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.” (Bukhari 4.52.177)

There is nothing like this in the Christian Gospels. After all, Jesus of Nazareth was himself as Jew, as were many of his early disciples. Muhammad was not. He spent his days murdering many Jews, among them the Medinan tribe of Banu Quraiza. Jesus never killed anybody, nor did he encourage others to do so for him.




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