What is Anti-Semitism?

tags: anti-Semitism, antisemitism

This piece was adapted from a speech given at Moment‘s first annual Judaism & Science Symposium on April 12 in Palo Alto. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He is the author of the upcoming book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.

Anti-Semitism is the least creative thing you can think of and the most destructive. But in a sense, anti-Semitism survives because of a weird and dangerous kind of creativity. Let me explain why.

It seems to me that if you actually ask, “What is anti-Semitism? What do anti-Semites believe?” you will immediately see that the answer is a series of contradictions. Jews were hated in the 19th century because they were rich and because they were poor, because they were capitalists and because they were communists. Because they kept to themselves, and because they infiltrated everywhere.

Voltaire hated Jews because of their superstitious faith. Stalin hated Jews because they were rootless cosmopolitans who believed nothing. So anti-Semitism is a series of internal contradictions, and it can be understood only on the model of epidemiology. Anti-Semitism is a virus that infects the body politic.

Now, the body has the most remarkable, sophisticated system for detecting and defeating viruses that one can imagine: the human immune system. And of course, the way viruses survive is by mutating. And anti-Semitism is a virus that, by my calculation, has mutated three times in the course of 2,000 years, and we are living through the fourth mutation.

So the return of anti-Semitism to Europe within living memory of the Holocaust is an extraordinary effect, because after the Holocaust, Europe made the most determined attempt that any civilization has ever made to create an immune system that would guarantee “Never again.” So anti-Semitism has returned despite at least 50 years of anti-racist legislation, more than 50 years of interfaith dialogue, and 50 years of Holocaust education. And yet it has returned by mutating.

And let me therefore explain to you what makes the new anti-Semitism different from its predecessors. Three things. Number one, in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th and early 20th century, they were hated for their race. Today they are hated for their nation-state, and that is radically new, and that is what makes anti-Zionism. Not criticism of Israel. I mean, for heaven’s sake, I don’t know any Israeli who doesn’t criticize Israel, so criticizing Israel does not make you an anti-Semite, but anti-Zionism. The idea that Israel alone — I mean, there are 102 countries of the United Nations in which a majority of the population is Christian. There are 57 members of the [Organization of Islamic Cooperation]. That Jews should have one country of their own is one too many — that is the new mode of anti-Semitism....

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