Understanding the Building Blocks of Antisemitism

By Dwight Owen Schweitzer

It has endured like a virus that mutates faster than science can find a vaccine to end it, and I have long pondered what it is that keeps the virus of Antisemitism alive. At the risk of hyperbole I think I have finally come to an understanding of the common denominators that span the ages, the cultures and the societies where this phenomenon in varying degrees has endured and too often flourished.

My epiphany, if that is what it was, came about, oddly enough, when I saw an email informing me that Jews, who comprise a mere one tenth of one per cent of the worlds population, were awarded over a third of the 350 or so Nobel Prizes during their 120 odd year history, and in disciplines as diverse as peace, economics, literature and physics. It brought to mind a simple question, “what explains such an outpouring of creativity and innovation and is it a cultural or genetic imperative?”

I have concluded that to a certain extent it is because we as a people are non- conformists. Our emphasis on education began with study of the meaning of the bible but came with a bi product, the need to push the envelope, to see things that never were and ask why not. This quality in turn makes us a dangerous people to those to whom non-conformity is anathema, and that covers a lot of ground historically, religiously and sociologically.

The Holocaust came at the hands of a regime to which non-conformity was the ultimate crime and the most profound threat. The hallmark of National Socialism was the unquestioning submergence of the individual to the interests of the state. Throughout the history of the common era, we are marked by innumerable instances demonstrating our innate rebelliousness.

Indeed Christianity itself, a religion steeped in conformity and dogma was the creation of non-conformist Jews who carried that non-conformity to the point of abandoning circumcision and therefore their Jewish identification with the covenant in order to further the ease of adding to their ranks despite the fact that their founder had not only been born a Jew, but lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. Indeed for three generations after his crucifixion you could not be a follower of his non-conformist brand of Judaism without first becoming a Jew.

If we look at the points in history where Antisemitism was at its worst it is not surprising that those are also times and places where the demands for conformity were the most stringent. The suppression of the natural urge of humankind to innovate, to be in a very real sense ‘free’, is bound to focus the vengeance of those who are oppressed and who feel powerless in their ability to obtain redress from their oppressor, to seek to punish those who are seen as somehow getting away with what the greater society is unable to achieve. To simply be different in an environment demanding of conformity is to hold a mirror to the face of the oppressed and by comparison force upon them the Hobson’s choice in dealing with the rage oppression engenders, between surrendering to the oppression or gravitating towards the relatively safe outlet of hating those who appear to have a higher degree of freedom simply by being different.

Likewise, for the oppressor, having a suitable distraction to focus that rage away from them, whether purposeful or simply as a convenient shifting of blame, then elevates Antisemitism to the level of statecraft and adds to it the patina of legitimacy and socially acceptable action.

I was surprised to learn that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was not based on a wish to remove Jews from Spain simply because they were Jews. The intent, and in fact expectation, was that most would simply convert to Catholicism, and thereby be welcomed into Spanish society because the Jews would then have conformed to the norm demanded of the remainder of the population. Those who embraced Catholicism and did so by true choice were not only spared the Inquisition, they could and did become the social, religious and political equals of other Spanish Catholics however much suspicion attached to whether their conversions were heartfelt and sincere. If thought not, the penalties were harsh to say the least as the history of the Inquisition amply demonstrates.

It is therefore not surprising that the absence of Antisemitism is found where the greatest levels of personal freedom exist and only surface within those segments of a society that see themselves as the most oppressed either economically, religiously or educationally. Upward mobility, if truly open to all, is the greatest deterrent to Antisemitism while feelings of powerlessness offer it the greatest impetus. Just examine the “accomplishments” of those who gravitate to the Aryan Nation neo-Nazi movement.

Is it any wonder then, that within the Muslim world the acceptance of Jews went from the most integrated status during the Moorish zenith of Islam to the degree of Antisemitism today in much of the Muslim world, especially in Arab countries where the populations are the most oppressed by their rulers. Rulers who regrettably, are seen as the legacy of Western imposition and support. It is within those regimes whose rulers see Israel as a convenient and indeed necessary focus for their people’s innate and suppressed rage against a ruling caste that offers them little hope for a better future. On that basis it is not difficult to understand why so many of the participants in the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11th were from Saudi Arabia, a country whose population sees the ruling class as both illegitimate, and supported and kept in power by the United States.

The foreign policy implications of this assessment I will leave to another time but I hope this one will provoke a better understanding that our common enemy is not Islam or even the radical Islamists. Rather it is in supporting those regimes that are responsible for creating and perpetuating the primordial soup out of which terrorism and Antisemitism are uniquely encouraged to breed, fester and evolve; repression and dictatorship.


One thought on “Understanding the Building Blocks of Antisemitism

  1. I agree with your thesis. Those of us who grew up in democratic countries have the great fortune that we can usually better our lot through hard work – in other areas of the world this is incredibly difficult if not impossible. So much easier then to put them blame on someone else, go along with the party line – since any introspection/self-improvement will likely come to naught anyway, or will induce one to emigrate.

    I would add that smaller and/or commercially-thriving regions have tended to be more hospitable to Jews in the past. The ‘dictactors’ of England, France and Spain kicked them out, while they were allowed to live in certain small states of Italy (albeit usually in ghettos). Livorno (Leghorn) is the most astounding example: the Medici wished to create a flourishing port, so they permitted escaping Spanish and Portuguese Jews to settle there without having to live in a ghetto, granting them in fact equal rights as citizens. I’ve lived in Italy for over ten years, and a number of Italian Jews I know have emphasized the fact that the antisemitism that developed elsewhere in Europe never took root here since Jews had lived here for so long and (notwithstanding the ghettos) often had constructive relations with their Christian neighbors. This is attested by the comparative liberty Jews enjoyed despite Mussolini’s racial laws of ’38 (compared of course with the horrors committed elsewhere in Europe at that time – things only started getting tragic when the Nazis swept through Northern Italy in the fall of ’43).


    Note that recently a lot of research has been done on the Conversos, and the difficulties they sustained in subsequent generations, even those who were believing, practicing Catholics. The entrenched ‘old Catholics’ were apparently jealous at their rapid social rise after conversion, and many Conversos were forced to emigrate, well over a century after 1492. At least this is what I’ve seen so far, though I haven’t made a study of this.

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