Review: Walter Laqueur’s The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism*

The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism, by Walter Laqueur
Oxford University Press, 228 pages, $22.00

Book Review by Mark Goldblatt / first published in the Claremont Review of Books, 2007
The Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible recounts what is perhaps the world’s first attempted pogrom. The fanciful tale of the persecution and deliverance of the captive Jewish people during the reign of the Persian King Ahasuerus (often identified as Xerxes I, who reigned from 486-465 B.C.) tells the story of Haman, the king’s second-in-command, who plots to kill all the Jews under Persian rule. Haman feels slighted because the Jewish leader Mordecai won’t bow down to him and urges Ahasuerus to authorize genocide: “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction…” (Esther 3:8-9). Haman’s plot is eventually foiled by the king’s favorite wife, Esther, herself a Jew and Mordecai’s cousin. Haman is hung on the king’s orders, Mordecai is promoted in his place, and “for the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor.”
Rarely since then have things turned out so well for the Jews, as Walter Laqueur recounts in his new book, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism.Laqueur, a historian and author of Fascism: Past, Present, and Future (1996) and The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction (1999) sets for himself the daunting task of chronicling the long history of anti-Semitism from biblical times to the present. That he mostly succeeds, in just over 200 pages, is a remarkable achievement.
According to Laqueur, the roots of anti-Semitism can be traced, at least in part, to the historical fact of the Diaspora—the scattering of Jewish people throughout the ancient world after the destruction of the state of Judea by the Romans in 73 A.D. Of course, many ethnic and religious groups have been dispersed by calamity and conquest—Laqueur cites the example of the Kurds—but they have tended to remain in roughly contiguous territories, awaiting an opportunity to coalesce again into an autonomous state; Jews, by contrast, actually did disperse, forming recognizable minority communities across the globe—each of which seemed to reinforce, to outsiders, the distinctive nature of Jewish society. Even though Jews often assimilated, they seemed to do so for strictly pragmatic reasons; in matters of the heart, or when push came to shove, they “stuck to their own, isolated themselves, and (so it appeared to outsiders) considered themselves somehow better than others because of being the chosen people and having a special connection with their god.”
If anti-Semitism in the first few centuries after the Diaspora was exceptionally far-flung, it was, as Laqueur notes, only “one of many national and ethnic antagonisms.” Hostility towards Judaism acquires its peculiar status with the ascendance of its rival sect, Christianity—which became, by decree of Theodosius, the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. Jews, after all, had rejected Jesus and were believed by many Christians to be the main culprits in his death. “There is no doubt,” Laqueur writes, “that the advent of Christianity and…its subsequent interpretation present the turning point in the history of anti-Semitism and the Jews.” Whenever and wherever Christianity reigned during the Middle Ages, anti-Semitism was likely thrive. Even as thoughtful a figure as St. Augustine implores God to slay the Jews so that none would be left to oppose His word. Christian communities were rife with rumors of Jewish treachery; Jews, it was believed, butchered Christian children to bake into their Passover bread, poisoned local wells, and spread disease. Denunciations, persecutions, and forced expulsions became so frequent during this period that it comes as a surprise when Pope Clement VI issues a papal bull in 1348 insisting that the Black Death was not specifically the fault of the Jews but rather a divine punishment against all mankind for its sins.
Jews fared slightly better under Islam after its rise in the 7th century. Though relegated to second-class citizenship under Muslim rule, the Jews were nevertheless spared the relentless suspicion and concerted assaults they suffered in Christian Europe. According to the Koran, Muhammad himself had Jewish friends; Muslims regard Moses, as well as Jesus, as genuine prophets, and both Jews and Christians are ahl al-kitab—People of the Book. On the other hand, the Koran also specifically instructs Muslims to kill Jews and refers to them as “sons of apes and pigs.” A 9th-century hadith (commentary on the Koran) states that the “last hour” will not come until Muslims fight against Jews, until the trees and stones themselves cry out, “O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.” The status of Jews under Muslim rule, in short, if slightly more secure than under Christian rule, remained tenuous.
The Protestant Reformation brought with it improved circumstances for the Jews of Europe. Luther, it is true, was rabidly anti-Semitic, and authored a 1543 pamphlet called “The Jews and Their Lies” in which he suggested that synagogues be burned, Jewish homes be destroyed, and the remaining Jews be put under one roof so that “they realize that they are not masters in our land as they boast but miserable captives.” On the contrary, Calvin’s attitude towards Judaism was more enlightened. He noted that the “seed of Abraham” was part of the body of Christ and that God’s divine calling of the Jews could not be rendered null and void, insisting that “our differences with them were purely theological.” Throughout the Reformation, where Calvinism took deepest root—most conspicuously in the Netherlands—Jews fared relatively well.
The idea of Judaism as a foreign entity, a kind of contagion within the body of humanity, rather than merely as a religious sect, began to emerge during the Enlightenment. Speaking of Jews, Voltaire wrote, “I would not be in the least surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.” Kant and Hegel also held low opinions of Jews, and such sentiments were to acquire the whiff of scientific respectability with the advent of race theory in the late 18th century. Racial categorization was, from the outset, more than just anthropological color coding; each race was assumed to possess innate behavioral characteristics. The Jews, by their very nature, were parasitic. It wasn’t merely their beliefs or traditions that were alien; alienation was their essence. They insinuated themselves into a society like a cancer and began to suck the life out of it.
The term “anti-Semitism” first came into common use in the second half of the 19th century, popularized by Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist, who meant it not as moral critique but as a policy recommendation. Marr argued that it was ignorant, and strategically foolish, to attack Jews as “Christ-killers” or for their alleged ritual murder of Christians. He believed that the real danger posed by Jews lay in their disproportionate influence in upper strata of German society and, related to that, the effects on the national culture of the “Jewish spirit”—a sense of cosmopolitanism (or, if you prefer, statelessness) that undermined traditional notions of German identity. Unless the people could defeat the Jewish spirit—that is, enact anti-Semitism—Marr concluded, they had no future: “Finis Germaniae.”
We are now within sight of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is the shadow that looms over Laqueur’s work; indeed, it is hard to read any narrative of the persecutions of Jews without a sense of dread, of the gathering momentum of collective animus and theoretical justifying which culminates in the hell of Nazi Germany. The singularity of the Holocaust derives not from its body count. What makes the Holocaust unique is the methodology, the step-by-step legal process enacted by the Nazis which identified Jews under their control, isolated them in ghettoes, deported them to concentration camps, and then systematically exterminated them. History is rife with shallow graves. But only in the Holocaust did the blundering ham-fisted brutality of the human species take up a scalpel. This is the first and final truth of the crematoriums. Laqueur’s account of the Third Reich’s campaign of liquidation, though brief, is undoubtedly the highlight of his book.
That said, the book is not without faults, the most glaring of which is a function of its length. This is mostly a mentioning book. It is short on both anecdote and analysis, which makes it a consistently dry read. Indeed, at times it has the feel of an extended encyclopedia article. But like a good encyclopedia article, by the end you sense you’ve gotten a thorough overview of the subject. For that, Laqueur is to be applauded.
*Originally published in the Claremont Review of Books