Enlightenment, Emancipation and Racial Antisemitism

by Ron Schleifer and Gila Ansell Brauner

(1)  Introduction


With the exception of Spain under the Inquisition - where descendants of converts continued to be as suspect as their Jewish forbears - all European Antisemitism until the 17th century was religious in character, rather than a racial or blood phenomenon. The many myths and libels engendered before that time by Church and State in Europe are discussed in the article on Christianity and Antisemitism.

A new wind blew across Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, as political changes and revolutions brought Emancipation and Enlightenment.

The Jews were first granted equal rights in the 17th century, in Holland.

Next came England, the United States and post-revolutionary France.

In "Semites and Anti-Semites" Bernard Lewis emphasizes that rights in the USA and France were granted to Jews, but not to blacks, and points out the simultaneous development of a so-called "anthropological science", seeing in this an attempt to justify black slavery.

 

(2)  From Anthropological Pseudo-Theory to Aryan Supremacy

This new and popular "science" initially classified races by color and body structure on a racial scale, which placed white men at the top, with all others lower down. The implications were that even education would be wasted on such persons, as the potential for progress in the inferior placements was naturally limited. Thus, the theory of white supremacy was established and acquired respectability.

It is easy to understand how a popular interpretation of this pseudo-theory, coupled with Darwinism, could lead to broad acceptance of racist and - more specifically - antisemitic doctrine, in an increasingly secular intelligentsia. Against this must be weighed the number of scholars who were indeed philosemitic: Lord Byron, Anatole France, Lessing, Zola and other famous names of the 17th to 19th centuries.

Most of society continued to cling to the old, religious prejudices against Jews, excluding them socially and limiting them to certain occupations. Many Jews sought to cross these barriers through conversion to Christianity. This was still acceptable, as the pseudo-scientific claims continued to exert a relatively insignificant influence on Europe at the time. However, they later became the subject of a specialized literature, particularly in France and Germany, where much of it was devoted specifically to the Jews. In outline, it stated that the Europeans were Aryans and the Jews were Semites, ranking lower on the evolutionary scale. Those at the top of the scale risked contamination by inferior groups through the mixing of blood: in other words, the Jews constituted a racial threat to the purity of Aryan blood.

It is noteworthy that the term "Antisemitism" was first coined in this period by the apostate Wilhelm Marr (Vienna, 1839) and that Hitler attributed much of his theoretical basis for Mein Kampf to French writers of the 19th century.

Racial antisemitic theories played a secondary role in this period of increasing liberalization for another reason: they were competing with a number of other successful bases for Antisemitism: Classical satanic images and the "conspiracy" theory.

 

(3)   Classical and Other Bases for Antisemitism

An article, first written in French as a political satire (1812), became known to Russia - and later, the world - in its revised version: an infamous forgery about Jews, under the title of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not that the Russians needed further justification for persecuting the Jews in the mid-late nineteenth century, but the book was used to fuel deliberately the reactionary and repressive policies adopted by the Tsarist regime and to spark off pogroms in many densely populated Jewish areas.


(3A) Classical Blood Libel

These accusations were on the wane by the early twentieth century in Western Europe (after the Dreyfus saga). The last case was the Beiliss trial of 1913 in Russia, which was more an expression of internal Russian politics than, a true blood libel.


(3B) Allegations of a Jewish Search for Hegemony - New Versions*

  • European society had been transformed in the capitalist era. No longer was it necessary to be born an aristocrat to gain social prominence, nor was social acceptance essential to prosperity. Accusations were made that the successful and emerging, new Jewish business class of attempting to overrun Christian society - a highly effective tactic.
  • In addition to the Jews, who supposedly sought power through money, there were others whose opposition to the existing system. Whether through socialism, communism, or participation in the various European revolutions (attempted or successful!), they were viewed as an additional threat to society. The same socialists, who wanted to destroy the capitalist monster at all costs, also used the Jews as an easy target for their polemics against the system and capitalism.

 

(4) Racial Antisemitism, Crisis and Nazism

Each era and country has had its prevalent basis for and type of Antisemitism. From a historical perspective it can be said that the different currents have always reinforced latent Antisemitism and the danger point is where it has reached the intelligentsia or ruling elite.

Furthermore racial Antisemitism became more effective and pervasive in the economic, social and political climate of the early and mid 20th century, as nationalism reached an all-time peak.

In the case of Germany and the Shoah (Holocaust), Antisemitism became the cause c?l?bre of the opinion-makers and the ruling elite. Within a short time it reached unimaginable and horrific proportions via a popular, legislative and physical process. Jews were presented as sub-humans, with repulsive characteristics and progressively dehumanized through repressive measures. Meanwhile, the masses were brainwashed into believing that not only were Jews sub-human and the cause of all evils, but that they represented a threat of contamination, which had to be removed in order to prevent society's disintegration.

Jew-murder in Germany was the "natural" outcome of this philosophy.

It would, however, be misleading to classify racial Antisemitism as the only type that prevailed in Germany under Hitler. Although largely secular in nature, Nazism was based on a pseudo-science form of paganism. Nazi Germany glorified and identified with Norse mythology, as a means to encourage nationalism and alienate its citizens from the moral influence of the 20th century Church. Reasons of morality were not the only consideration: folk mythology was more easily manipulated, while the Church, after all, worshipped a Jewish founder in Jesus.
Direct attack on the Church would have been unthinkable: bypassing it was far simpler.

 

(5) Conclusion

Many of these elements and phenomena can be found in contemporary expressions of Antisemitism: latent Antisemitism has once again emerged at a time of crisis. Antisemitism should not be ignored; while there are no grounds to cry "Shoah", there is definitely reason for concern - and its various underlying causes should be addressed.

 

References


- Lewis, Bernard, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry Into Conflict. W.W. Norton & Co. 1986
- Wistrich, Robert S., The Longest Hatred / Antisemitism
Pantheon Books 1991
- Yad Vashem - Various


* Allegations of Jewish Hegemony, which appeared in the nineteenth century and through the twentieth century, are essentially identical to those appearing in the media and on campus today.


 

 

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