Recently, the artist formerly known as Kanye has issued an apology “to Jewish people” for his antisemitism. Given that the apology was written in Hebrew – a language that most Jews around the world do not necessarily understand – it has itself attracted some criticism. This might be an opportunity consider why that is, and the curious relationship that antisemitism has always had with language.
The first person in history to use the word antisemitism (antisemitismus, in German) was a Czech-Jewish scholar named Moritz Steinschneider. A scholar of Semitic languages, and a speaker of German, Czech, Slovak and Yiddish, he used the word in 1860 to negatively characterise the views of his contemporary, Ernst Renan.
Renan was a French scholar of Semitic languages, and heir to a view common amongst many linguists at the time: that the language one speaks affects the manner in which one thinks. There was such a rich tradition of Greek and Roman philosophy, thought many linguists, because Greek and Latin lend themselves to a higher mode of thought.
Although Renan specialised in the Semitic language family (languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Maltese), he nonetheless took a somewhat jaundiced view towards them, thinking them inferior to their Indo-European cousins.
Renan felt that the languages in which he specialised were less conducive to abstract thought than were the ones that should perhaps have been the focus of his scholarship, and he denigrated their speakers as people of little intellect. Quite rightly was this view ridiculed, but the term by which Steinschneider was to do so would soon take on a life of its own.
In 1879, Wilhelm Marr popularised the word antisemitism with the publication of a political tract in which he promoted antisemitism as an antidote to the ‘anti-Germanism’ of Jews. There was a battle, he argued, for the very soul of the nation, and if Jews would be allowed to triumph they would shape the nature of Germanic identity forever.
Marr’s tract was titled “The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism” and it was – to put it simply – a call to arms. Jews (and the Jewish spirit) were winning, and their victory was owed to the fact that most Germans were too naive or too complacent to detect the threat. It was vital, Marr asserted, that people wake up to the dangers posed by cultural subversives in their midst.
“Antisemitism”, though briefly a pejorative term, invented to ridicule the bizarre linguistic prejudices of bigoted scholars, had now become a legitimate political posture. While it might have started as a charge from which one so indicted may have sought to distance himself, it was now a label that a person could chose to wear with pride.
Beyond this, while Renan’s bigotry was directed against all speakers of Semitic languages, Marr’s was exclusively directed against Jews. When one takes a moment to consider this, it is certainly peculiar, for the overwhelming majority of Jews in Europe were speakers of Indo-European languages like Yiddish, and not of Semitic languages like Hebrew.
When Marr formed the Antisemitism League (a loose confederation of antisemitic organisations within the German Empire), it was against Jews exclusively that they agitated. When those diverse organisations were to unite under the banner of the swastika, that symbol (which was previously an Indian – or “Aryan” – symbol) would become associated with a hatred of Jews most murderous and profound.
This hatred of Jews had moved away from concerns around Jewish religion and Jewish culture, and now manifested more in beliefs around Jewish blood. That composers like Wagner, for example, could accuse composers like Felix Mendelssohn of being “Jew musicians”, preternaturally motivated by greed – in spite of Mendelssohn’s having been baptised and in spite of his being an atheist – means that we had now entered the era of racial antisemitism. (Mendelssohn’s grandfather, of course, having been the famous Rabbi.)
And yet, in spite of these late 19th and early 20th century anxieties around race and racial purity, the allegation that Jews thought differently, and that their thinking was in some way related to language, never truly disappeared.
Even prior to the National Socialist (NSDAP) takeover of Germany, student organisations in Germany were formulating their own responses to what they saw as Jewish control. Alas, universities have always been hotbeds of radical politics, and antisemitism was attractive to many young people then, as it is now.
In 1933, the National Socialist German Student League published a list of proposals by which they hoped to limit the degree to which they were being controlled by Jewish faculty members and by their Jewish peers. Perhaps in the spirit of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, these were to be publicised, and were supposed to set the tone at universities throughout Germany.
Needless to say, the nascent NSDAP embraced them enthusiastically, and Joseph Goebbels made approving reference to them in his speech at a major book burning, held in Berlin in May of the same year.
Article 5 in the list of student proposals reads as follows:
A Jew can only think Jewish. If he writes in German, he is lying.
Article 7 goes on to stipulate that:
Jewish writings are to be published in Hebrew. If they appear in German, they must be identified as translations.
Here we see, yet again, the assertion that Jews think differently to others because they speak a foreign language that causes them to think differently – even when they very obviously do not actually speak that foreign language at all.
Some Jews in Germany were studying Hebrew, and some were learning to speak the language. That number, it must be said, was vanishingly small. Even in Poland, where the vast majority of Jews were living, some 80% of their youth were attending state schools, where the only language of study was Polish. Of the 20% that went to Jewish schools, the majority went to schools run by Agudas Yisroel, in which the only language that they spoke was Yiddish.
To allege that Jews “think in Hebrew” is a prejudice with no basis whatsoever in reality, but one that brings racial antisemitism in line with the linguistic prejudice with which the word itself originated.
Nonetheless, in spite of this echo of Renan’s “antisemitism”, the National Socialist variety was exclusively anti-Jewish – as were all expressions of antisemitism from Wilhelm Marr onwards. It was largely in contradistinction to Jews that the Nazis defined themselves, and in spite of an antipathy towards a great many different groups, it was for Jews that they reserved their greatest animus.
The Mufti of Jerusalem (himself, a speaker of a Semitic language) was warmly received by Hitler and by Himmler in 1941, and Himmler even went so far as to allow for the formation of a non-Germanic division of the SS in 1943, made up mostly of Bosnian Muslims. While Renan might have been spinning in his grave, his ideological descendants may have been singing in theirs.
Antisemitism has gone through a number of iterations in its long, slow metastasis that commenced more than a millennium before it even had a name. Some of the deep-seated ideas on which antisemitism is predicated continue to persist – notably the charge that Jews are alien even when assimilated, and the allegation that Jews are united by a commonality of purpose.
As before, it is in universities that these allegations are currently the loudest. In recent months, universities around the world have been observing a spike in incidents of antisemitism. The collective blaming of Jews for the actions of the Israeli military has been coupled with an assumption of Jewish duplicity. When Jews defend themselves, they are lying; when they speak on their own or their community’s behalf, they are being insincere.
In the midst of this upsurge, and mindful of the small but not inconsiderable role that he has played in exacerbating it, Kanye West has issued his apology. Most regrettably, by choosing to do so in a foreign language, he has further (albeit perhaps unintentionally) contributed to the very phenomenon that he ostensibly seeks to decry.