All this week, spiked is publishing articles on the Jewish Question in the twenty-first century. Here, Frank Furedi traces the recent mutations of anti-Semitism.
Throughout Western history, anti-Semitism has had various different meanings and has expressed itself in diverse ways. From 1850 to 1940, it mutated from its essentially religious, largely Christian Judaeo-phobic form into a more modern racial anti-Semitism. What endowed this anti-Semitism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with its ferocious intensity was the emergence of a virulent Social-Darwinist racialism, combined with the rise of mass politics. For demagogues of different political persuasions, targeting the Jews became a useful way of exploiting the anxieties and insecurities of the European masses. Anti-Semitism helped to consolidate the identity of European elites and provided rabble-rousers with a prime target for popular suspicion and loathing. So, paradoxically, the democratisation of public life provided an opportunity for the politicisation of anti-Semitism.
After the end of the Second World War, however, political ideologies that were explicitly racialist were discredited. Revelations of the horrific scale of human destruction in the Nazi death camps undermined the legitimacy of racial anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was forced into the margins of Western society, and anyone who openly expressed this old prejudice faced cultural and sometimes political sanctions. Indeed, the revulsion against the Holocaust in Western societies was so profound that in the four decades from 1945 onwards, Jews enjoyed a trouble-free existence. During these decades, as a consequence of its association with the Holocaust, Judaism came to occupy the moral high ground. The Holocaust became sacralised, turned into a unique symbol of evil. In such circumstances, open anti-Semitism was stigmatised, and those who never forgave the ‘Christ-killers’ and ‘hucksters’ were forced to keep their sentiments to themselves.
The moral rehabilitation of the Jew from 1945 to 1985 represented a kind of cultural atonement for the civilised world’s lapse into barbarism. Millions of Europeans, particularly in the West, felt a genuine sense of remorse for the crimes of the Holocaust and adopted a tolerant and liberal orientation towards Judaism. However, this institutionalisation of anti-anti-Semitism had an essentially elitist and bureaucratic character and it frequently relied upon official propaganda and illiberal laws for its authority. Instead of winning hearts and minds, it promoted administrative solutions to the problem of lingering anti-Semitism.
The feeling of revulsion against the barbarity of the concentration camps still persists today. The continuing impact of the Holocaust is strong enough to ensure that anti-Semitism can rarely be communicated in its traditional racialist form. However, a new, twenty-first-century version of anti-Semitism is being expressed today, through the language of bad faith. As existentialist thinkers remind us, people express bad faith when they feel under pressure to adopt and voice values that actually go against their inclinations. So when people say ‘I am not a racist, but…’ or ‘I don’t hate the Jews but these people are far too powerful’, they are communicating their sentiments through the narrative of bad faith. Bad faith often involves self-deception, self-censoring or cynical dissimulation.