The evolving anti-Semitic language that makes anti-Semitism acceptable

If hierarchies of power govern society, and Israel and the Jews are powerful, then they are automatically unjust

For those studying modern anti-Semitism, 1879 is a watershed year, as this is when the term “anti-Semitism” first appeared. A reaction to the benighted Judeo-phobia prevalent in medieval Europe, the term “anti-Semitism” aimed to address the growing concern over Jews and modernity: a battle to overturn the emancipation of German Jewry as well as shed light on the fast rate of Jewish visibility among high-ranking professional positions in Germany.

The architect of modern anti-Semitism, Wilhelm Marr, who came up with the term, was very much a product of the Enlightenment enterprise. As such, he favored the emancipation of all oppressed groups, was skeptical about religious thinking, and favored evolutionary biology. Disenchanted by the failures of his political career, Marr turned his attention onto the Jews, claiming that their hasty emancipation led to a corruption of German institutions and the subsequent subjugation of the German national character. His 1849 political manifesto, “The Victory of Judaism over Germandon” warned that “the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world.” A wily character, Marr knew that in order to sell his post-Enlightenment brand of anti-Semitism, he dare not employ medieval tropes such as blood libel or Christ-killers; indeed, he abhorred such ignorance as it was rooted in religious bigotry.

One may call it great marketing, but coming up with a new language to address age-old hatred of the Jews was, to Marr’s credit, both strategic and effective. It was strategic because Marr directed the hatred rooted in the racial character of the Semite, or Jew, instead of hatred rooted in religious ideology, which would have alienated him from his intellectual colleagues. It was effective because by 1880, anti-Semitism was normalized and therefore, socially acceptable.

Fast-forward to 1946 and we find a similar example of a new language created in order to express age-old Jew-hatred. Known, among many things, for their gift in crafting with words, or what George Orwell called “newspeak,” the Soviet Union saw two major peaks of government-sponsored anti-Semitism. The first coincided with Stalin’s final years during the immediate post-World War II years. Regardless of Stalin’s attitudes towards Jews and anti-Semitism, he spearheaded an anti-Semitic campaign that codified “rootless cosmopolitan” for Jew, for to be openly anti-Semitic in the Soviet Union was to go against the Lenin-Marxist Doctrine (in 1924-25, Lenin outlawed anti-Semitism). Like Marr, Stalin understood that in order to promote Jew-hatred, he had to package this animus in a language spoken by a Soviet Union recuperating from a largescale war where Soviet nationalism was quickly growing. A euphemism for Jew-hatred, the “battle against rootless cosmopolitans” aimed to disenfranchise ethnic Jews by showing them to have loyalties outside of the Soviet Union.

To put Stalin’s “rootless cosmopolitan” campaign in dialogue with Marr’s creation of the term “anti-Semitism,” both men sought to address problems facing their countries by justifying Jew-hatred as a recourse to, in the case of Stalin, a growing distrust of the Jewish populace in the post-war years and in Marr’s case, the rushed emancipation of Jews and the failures of the 1848-49 German revolution.

Later, Stalin’s fears regarding Jewish loyalties transmogrified with the birth of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, as he undertook a major effort to extend anti-Semitism beyond the Soviet borders, claiming that “dangers inherent in the world Zionist movement” pose a threat to the world. Although Stalin’s death temporarily stopped the threat facing Soviet Jews (it has been strongly suggested that in 1951-52 Stalin was concocting a plan to either eliminate or exile Soviet Jews), the anti-Zionist campaign relaunched after the Six-Day War in 1967, with slogans such as “Zionism is racism.”

What is fascinating in this evolution of euphemisms for Jew-hatred is that each form of bigotry is justified as a recourse to the highest source of authority within the historical and cultural moment. As such, if in medieval Europe, Jew-hatred was rooted in religious bigotry, the post-Enlightenment Jew-hatred of Marr’s time was deeply entrenched in science and social Darwinism. Following, Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitan campaign was validated by a leading concern over Jewish allegiance to the Soviet Union. Finally, anti-Zionism in Soviet Russia was justifiable as it was a remedy for colonialism, an affront to Marxist ideology.

Anti-Semitism is both the most ancient form of hatred and the most successful for it appeals to a society’s anxieties and is able to continuously evolve into the source of all of society’s wrong-doings. The Russian adage, loosely translated as “lessons from history are those lessons from which no one has ever learned,” points to the larger question of what we may or even can learn from history. As my professor of Soviet history, Peter Kenez, once said to a room-filled with college students, “history does not teach us lessons. But we can become a little wiser.”


If we are, therefore, to become a “little wiser,” we may identify a pattern in the evolution of anti-Semitic language: Marr countered that he was most certainly not a Judeophobe (the term prevalent during the 1870s was Judenhaas), but rather an anti-Semite; Stalin shirked off claims of anti-Semitism by claiming that he was not an anti-Semite, but more accurately, skeptical of the “rootless cosmopolitans”; Soviet officials in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s were not anti-Semitic, but rather against colonialism and therefore, anti-Zionist. Each form of Jew-hatred therefore, points to a moral compass that guided the anti-Semites: religion, science, nationalism, and Marxism.

Our wisdom to detect the pattern informs how we treat contemporary anti-Semitism and the coded language used to express age-old Jew-hatred. In the post-Marxist world, anti-Zionism remains a leading form of Jew-hatred because the moral authority guiding our prejudice and remedies to fix injustices has shifted. Bound by a common belief that society is governed largely by hierarchies of power, the moral authority guiding our principles thus places Israel and by extension, Jew, in the position of the powerful and therefore, unjust.

Furthermore, here in American within the social justice movement guiding our moral compass, Jew is synonymous with power for they have “white privilege.” To be a “little wiser,” therefore, means having to take into account the trajectory of cultural and linguistic coded Jew-hatred and realize that today’s form of bigotry against Jews is simply a mutation of its earliest self to fit today’s cultural and historic moment.

About the Author
Naya Lekht obtained her PhD in Russian literature from UCLA. Naya writes on Russian-Jewish literature, the Holocaust in the Soviet context, and contemporary anti-Semitism. Most recently, Naya has joined as Director of Education at Club Z Institute.
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