Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

On Contemporary Jew-Hatred and Mistakes to Avoid

Bigots and bigotry are notoriously impervious to logical consistency.

In Judeophobic thinking and politics, Jews are capitalists, the inventors and manipulators of money, par excellence (the Rothschilds, Soros; possessors and manipulators of “Benjamins”); and communists, the inventors and manipulators of economic wreck and ruin (Karl Marx; Trotsky; Soros). Jews are religious primitives, and intellectualized atheists, out to destroy decent (read: Christian, or Muslim), society and families.

Leftists; radical leftists; centrists; right-wing; extreme right-wing; religious conservatives, and anti-Christians, were all part of the constellation of Jew-hatred in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany that made hating Jews socially and politically normal and acceptable across the spectrum, a reality historian Uriel Tal demonstrated conclusively in a classic work on this subject. There was such a thing as anti-Christian antisemitism, which a rational person might think impossible.

The term “anti-Semitism”, now used in pious negation, as in, “I am not one who harbors such views,” was invented by a Jew-hater in the late-nineteenth century to distinguish between allegedly primitive, out-dated, religious superstitions about and prejudice against Jews, and the new, “scientific” kind, against “Semites,” who have racially inherited objectionable characteristics, to whom resistance is entirely justified. No one should now be using this term, certainly not in its hyphenated English, which asserts that there is such a trait as “Semitism”, to which one can legitimately be opposed. “Jew-hatred” says it; or when it fits, “Judeo-phobia.”

To seek intellectual consistency in Jew-hatred in all its bewildering multiplicity of expression, or to imagine that exposing illogic or lack of facts will defang it, is to betray the proclivities and emotional need some of us have for rational, logical thinking, along with dangerous projection about how bigots operate. It expresses an utter failure to grasp that some minds work very differently from ours and that a lack of logic does not necessarily translate, at all, into a lack of social traction. As we know from so many contexts, large and trivial, nonsense sells. Fear-mongering, in particular, sells.

When I have taught courses on the Shoah, it was not so that students would leave declaring, “Never Again” (not that I have anything against that much-violated position); but so that they would be disabused of well-meaning, rational presumptions—and above all, of their projections– and confront what people and polities are actually capable of and have actually done. Shearing that innocence was among the painful experiences of such courses. But, I believe, the one most likely to inoculate against dangerous assumptions; assumptions, indeed, that proved fatal in the not-so-distant past.

The ideological underpinnings of the various positions of modern Jew-haters did not matter except to purists. What did– and does– matter is the spread of such thinking, across ideological, political, religious, and socioeconomic lines. When it spreads and becomes normal is when things get very dangerous. White-supremacist, David Duke, just applauded Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments about Jews and “Benjamins.”

To expect consistency from prejudicial thinking or from people who harbor it is really to miss the point and, despite all historical experience and evidence, to imagine that rationality and logic, if only marshaled well and repeated, will counter them.

This dynamic has to be called out for what it is. There is no choosing sides between “good” spouters of anti-Jewish canards– that is, so goes the astoundingly patronizing defense– those who are “young”, “inexperienced,” “uninformed,” and members of out-groups, who also just happen to be women; and “bad” ones who’ve done their homework and really mean it.

To adopt any version of that choosing of sides, as opposed to adopting zero-tolerance for any Jew-hating expression, any use of shop-worn but obviously, still potent stereotypes, no matter the source, is to be played by this dynamic rather than confronting it effectively.

By “effectively” I do not necessarily mean that any position will miraculously do the job; despite what is projected about us, we are not, in fact, omnipotent. But we would not be working from a false, and wasteful, position that is sure to fail and, however inadvertently, allow Jew-hatred to gain social force while we flail with false, and desperate, positions.

And yes, we would actually be learning from history.





About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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