The issue of Israel and Jewish nationalism is the very center of the contemporary antisemitism, according to philosopher and academic Steven T. Katz, from Boston University, who considers antisemitism today as a combination of ideology and psychological pathology.
To mark the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, Steven T. Katz shares with Wide Angle his reflections on the stages of the development of anti-Semitism from the New Testament to today.
Let me start with a comment on the New Testament in order to advance one fundamental claim that is relevant to our present considerations. I discern in the New Testament itself – in its anti-Jewish theology of fulfillment, displacement, and negation – the point of origination of the long-standing and tragic conflict between Judaism and Christianity.
The Hebrew bible is read by the New Testament as the source of a promise that is betrayed by its intended beneficiaries, the Jewish people. Accordingly, God turns His face to a New Israel and Christianity becomes the transforming paradox whose very existence indicts Jewry; whose very essence reveals Jewry’s spiritual blindness. The Jewish exposition of revelation stands condemned and Jewry’s infidelity and guilt are exposed as conscious acts that demand recompense. Israel and the Church stand against each other and are separated by divisive and elemental alternatives -- law versus spirit, death versus life, old versus new, judgment versus grace, apostasy versus faith, perdition versus salvation, sin versus salvation, worthless works versus love, the realm of the devil versus the kingdom of God – that only the eschaton will transcend. (Paul, Romans, 9-11)
We must, however, exercise extreme caution in transporting back into the rhetorical conflict of these early generations the later anti-Jewish violence of the medieval era – and even more the extreme criminality of our own century.
It must be explicitly noted that Paul and the authors of the various Gospels – with the exception of Luke – as well as almost all the people mentioned in their narratives, including Jesus, would have been maligned as racial criminals by the biocentric norms of the Third Reich and would therefore be marked for inevitable murder. (The only exception would be by the Aryan Jesus movement.) The extermination of thousands of Jewish Christians (that is, Jews who had converted to Christianity) in the Death Camps indicates that something fundamental was operative in the Nazi Weltanschauung that had no place in its Christian predecessor. The Nazi mythos, though not wholly sui generis, was more than – and different from – the mere recycling of the Pauline-Gospel soteriological derogation of Judaism. It is more than its natural development For although Paul, Mark, Matthew and John, and their master, Jesus, wasted to save the Israel of the flesh – however corrupt and blind this Israel be and however severe the Christian message toward this end – Hitler wished only to annihilate the Jewish people. The New Testament, for all its punishing discourse, never ceases to maintain a two-sided construction of the mysterious bond between the “New Israel” and the “Old Israel,” both understood as creature of the One God – Marconism always being the classic heresy.
To say that the New Testament is the primary source of anti-Semitism in the Western tradition is not equivalent to asserting that the New Testament equals Auschwitz. Guilt and responsibility come in many forms. There is a necessary, and I would argue unintended, connection between Paul and the Holocaust, but the connection is neither simple, direct, nor unmediated.
All the negative anti-Jewish tendencies inherent in the New Testament take increasingly rich and full form in the patristic Adversus Iudaeos tradition that runs from the Epistle of Barnabas to Chrysostom and Augustine. The scriptural theology of supersessionism, when preached after the Bar Kokhba Revolt (135 C.E.) by an increasingly Gnetile Church over against the ever-more-alien Jew, produced a doctrinal rhetoric that was now less complex but, at the same time, more monolithic and menacing.
Nazi Antisemitism and the Holocaust
In contrast to the image of Christian anti-Judaism that I have drawn, let us now move to the character of Nazi anti-Semitism and its culmination in the murder of European – and potentially world – Jewry. The Holocaust, the name given to the immolation of European Jewry and the intended extinction of world Jewry, was not, first and foremost, the consequence of traditional anti-Semitism, or of modern technology, or of modern bureaucracy, though all three were essential to its actuality and implementation. Nor again is it to be explained by functional and psycho-historical approaches, fashionable and often informative as these have become. Rather, the Holocaust must be understood, first, as the “Solution” to a debate about the possibility of “separating Jews from their Judaism,” so they could be accepted as citizens of modern European states. Jews were overwhelmingly linked to a religious identity, not a national one -- though everyone, Jews and Christians like, knew that Jews were a nation, but one that was dependent on religious values and norms.
Second, it must be understood by recourse to its determining ideology, the ideological superstructure that created and governed the daily machinery of the Nazi state. This ideology was centered on denying Jews citizenship and equality because they were “racially inferior” and so they were by nature “outsiders.” And worse, they were “parasites,” and still worse, they were “untermenschen,” that is, sub-humans.
Hitler’s message was clear and uncompromising: the struggle against world Jewry was not only a subjective sentiment, a personal matter, but was also and essentially a fundamental principle of politics and meta-politics, nature and meta-nature, history and meta-history. “If” as he said, “the Jew is victorious [...] his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity, and this planet will [...] move through the ether devoid of men.” The struggle between Jew and Aryan is not only necessary and inevitable but also a clash of world-historical (more than historical) significance. Though actualized through blood in time, the depth of this homicidal encounter is rooted in eternity. In conformity with the recognition of this ontological truth, killing Jews or, more precisely, eliminating “the Jews” becomes a sacred obligation. The radical circumstance that must constantly be recalled is that the Holocaust was intended as, and received its enormous power from, the fact that it aimed at nothing less than restructuring the Cosmos anew – now without “the Jews”. “Those who see in National Socialism nothing more than a political movement,” Hitler accurately commented, “know scarcely anything of it. It is more even than a religion: it is the will to create mankind anew.”
For Hitler, the rise and fall of empires no less than the corruption and pollution of individuals was “caused” by racial factors manifesting themselves, one the one hand at a micro-organic level, and on the other hand, at the macro-historical level. Racism needs to be understood now as biology, now as metaphysics, for only the first principles of a philosophy of history can correlate large-scale cycles of historical activity, of the development and decay of nations and civilizations, with dogmas of “blood.” In other words, the concept of race, although it keeps its natural primordiality, gains an ontological primacy as well. Race is not only the cause of difference, even of conflict, but the bearer of value.
What makes this Aryan myth genocidal, compared, for example, to the earlier Christian myth in which anti-Judaism proved non-genocidal, is the fact that Hitler insists that the recognition of this supreme truth lead to actual, non-compromising assaults on “the Jews” as a manifestation of Aryan racial seriousness. No hypocrisy is allowed, the saying of X and the doing of Y. Having discerned the root cause of evil, morality and rationality see the logic of the racial struggle and unite to impel action. The Aryan must undertake unlimited racial warfare. In a striking inversion of classical Gnosticism, Nazism insists that salvation, here configured in racial terms, emerges from and becomes universal – not through the repression of the active and the physical but through the purification of the physical and historical, that is, through the creation of Auschwitz.
Today, extensive and serious anti-Semitism has returned to western society. What distinguishes it from prior manifestations of Judeophobia is, first of all, the absence, outside of the Muslim world, of governmental support. Though anti-Semitism is not without political influence in many contemporary European (and other) countries, it has not been adopted by any European state as national policy, supported by state police power.
However, it is increasingly present in familiar social and cultural locations – for example, in the universities, pockets of the press, leftist trade unions, some marginal churches, and in Holocaust deniers. And it is very common in its anti-Zionist forms like BDS, and again, the recent UNESCO vote on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. And this has become incarnate, primarily but not only, in street violence organized by Muslim individuals and groups.
However, the key to this “new anti-Semitism” is, simultaneously, on the one hand distinctive anti-nationalist views that are held in certain circles, and on the other hand, nationalist political goals that are held in very different circles.
In the view of all these anti-Jewish groups – recycling classical anti-Semitic themes – Jews control the press, own the banks, manipulate the markets, corrupt politics and politicians, and, via Israel, oppress other groups and peoples. More significantly, it is believed that the Jews conspire, à la the Protocols of Zion, to dominate the world for their own benefit. In particular, this self-interest is now understood to mean primarily the interests of the State of Israel. In this connection, the Holocaust is especially thought of as a form of “blackmail” in support of Israel and Israeli actions that are considered to be illegal. In fact, the very State of Israel is said to be illegal and defended primarily by recourse to the Holocaust. The Jews are the “new Nazis,” and all the traditional anti-Jewish canards are recycled.
Here is the very center of the new anti-Semitism – the issue of Israel and Jewish nationalism. For anti-Semites today, whatever their politics, Israel represents a violent, aggressive, reactionary, national state in opposition to all the new central liberal values. Thus internationalism, globalism, individualism, open borders, and human rights, are here utilized in a perverse way.
In a number of European states today anti-Semitism is political, and openly so, in the old-fashioned way. In certain other European states (and in some states in the Americas), anti-Semitism is essentially political in this modern, anti-nationalist sense. In these countries they do not obsess over Jews because of the charge of deicide, or fear of the "blood libel," or that Jews are a sub-human race. Rather it is Jewish nationalism and Israel that is always center stage.
Here I would just emphasize the following, in response to this new cycle of anti-Semitism:
The new anti-Semitism, like the old, is a mythological construction. It is not based on actual Jewish actions or beliefs but, rather, on “myths” and negative stereotypes about Jews, Jewish behavior, and especially the State of Israel.
Like Christian doctrine and Marxist theory, contemporary anti-Semitism must be seen not only as a psychological aberration but also as a well-conceived, political ideology. Therefore, to respond to it one must attempt to mount a relevant ideological campaign.
Antisemitism today, as in the past, is not primarily the result of factual errors regarding Jews. It is a combination of ideology and psychological pathology. Thus the response needed is not primarily normal education about Jews – though this never hurts – because this is a failed strategy as old as the apologetic works of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. Instead what is needed are sophisticated, psychological understandings that seek, insofar as possible, to dissolve the psychological bases of the paranoid conception of the Jew. But I say this very tentatively, for it is not at all evident how one can falsify mythological and paranoid beliefs.
Also relevant is not letting anti-Semitism find “free” space. Confronting anti-Semites in court and pursuing them to the full extent of the law, depending on the specific laws of each country, is very important, as the trial of David Irving [English author and Holocaust denier] in London showed.
It is crucial to recognize that contemporary anti-Semitism is a powerful force across the political spectrum, and occurs on the left as much as on the more usually suspect political right. And it needs to be confronted accordingly.
In consequence, we need a deeper, contemporary analysis of current Judeophobia and a new strategy for responding to it.
Steven T. Katz
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Steven Theodore Katz is the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University in Massachusetts, United States, where he holds the Alvin J. and Shirley Slater Chair in Jewish and Holocaust Studies.