An in-depth interview by Lenny Giteck, publisher and editor / This is an encore presentation of the incisive comments by Dr. Rosenfeld, which we first published in 2020.
Dr. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University, is a recognized expert on the subjects of antisemitism and the Holocaust. Among other things, he is the Director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.
Over the past decades, Dr. Rosenfeld has penned many scholarly articles about antisemitism — including the Holocaust — and has authored, edited, or co-edited numerous books on the subject.
Three of the book titles are: The End of the Holocaust (2001, author), Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (2013, editor); and Deciphering the New Antisemitism (2015, editor).
We spoke with Dr. Rosenfeld to gain his insights into the phenomenon of antisemitism in general, and into the recent upsurge of Jew-hatred in particular.
Here are his thoughts:
Dr. Rosenfeld, in your view, what has been the chief motivating factor behind antisemitism?
Antisemitism dates back a very long time. But the motives for antisemitism haven’t always been the same. Over the centuries, at least in the Western world, what has driven hatred of Jews, suspicion of Jews, fear of Jews, distrust of Jews, envy of Jews — you name it — has been religion. Specifically, certain Christian beliefs about Jews demonize the Jewish people forever as criminals who pulled off the greatest crime imaginable: deicide.
In Christian teachings, Jews have been accused of killing no less a figure than God himself. In addition, Jews have been distrusted and scorned because they refused to accept the supposed truth of the Christian gospels and held stubbornly to their own religion.
So for these two reasons — Christian accusations that Jews murdered Jesus and would forever bear that guilt; and Christian objections to Judaism’s continuing to exist despite the appearance of Christianity, which made claims to absolute truth — a great deal of hostility grew up towards the Jewish people.
This hostility often was modulated by other things. It wasn’t the case that always, whenever and wherever Jews lived in the Western world, they were scorned, distrusted, and hated. There were times when relations between Jews and non-Jews were better than that. But owing to economic tensions at times, and political tensions at times, these accusations against the Jews were brought up time and again, and the result often was terrible for the Jewish people.
Something I’ve never understood is this: According to Christianity, God the Father sent his son to the earth so he would be crucified in order to save humanity from its sins. Is it not logical, therefore, to conclude that whoever crucified Jesus was doing the Lord’s will? If anything, they should be praised — no?
Unfortunately, Christians’ view of the crucifixion of Jesus’ didn’t run along those lines. Christians held on to the act itself, never mind the logic of what you just said. And those terrible accusations persisted for a very long time, waxing and waning. As I’ve said, there were periods when Jews lived in relative harmony with their Christian neighbors, and other periods when they were the focus of awful actions and murderous deeds.
Coming into the period of the Enlightenment — in the 18th and 19th centuries, let’s say — religion began to weaken. Consequently, the anti-Jewish bigotry that I’ve described, while never fully disappearing, did lose some of its hold.
However, the notion that Jews were a “racial type” — not necessarily a religious community but an ethnic community with common identities — that notion then took hold. Of course, such thinking culminated in the crimes against the Jews during the Nazi period. Among other things, Nazism was triggered in large part by racist ideology.
In our own day, Christianity has ceased being the major source of Jew-hatred. In part that’s because the Christian religion no longer holds quite the sway in the lives of many people as it once did. Also, some Christian denominations have reformed their thinking about Jews. Racial thinking that dubs the Jews an inferior group, a menacing people — because we have “bad blood” and the like — has weakened as well.
Have all forms of antisemitism during all periods had anything in common?
The commonality among religious hatred of Jews, racial hatred of Jews, and political hatred of Jews is that they all define Jews collectively. It’s been a constant in history: The animosity towards Jews and the strong reactions against them, which flow from the animosity, are still with us even though the motivating push may have changed.
Regarding the peoplehood of the Jews, one disturbing claim — among many — is that Jews are not really Jews. The “so-called” Jews, according to this theory, are really Khazars — Turkic people who converted to Judaism in the 8th century. Hasn’t genetic testing disproved this notion?
It has. What you refer to is not a majority thinking, but it does show up from time to time. As I’m sure you know, not too long ago there was an attack against a kosher market in Jersey City. The people who carried out that attack belonged to a small sect called the Black Hebrew Israelites. They believe that they — not you and I — are the real Jews. The rest of us are impostors or frauds and should be dealt with accordingly. In Jersey City they dealt with us by going in with guns, shooting up the place, and killing people.
I’ve heard of an old Russian saying: “The Jews will always tell you what happened to them, but they’ll never tell you why.” The implication being, of course, that the Jews themselves are the cause of the hatred. It’s a perfect example of blaming the victim.
This gets to the heart of something fundamental about antisemitism: In a great many cases, people who hate Jews hate imaginary Jews. They may never have even met a Jew. They don’t know Jews. They don’t live with Jews. Their daily lives don’t cause them to cross paths with Jews. But there are certain Jewish phantasms that live in their heads and hearts, and those imaginary Jews are often associated with the devil.
It’s odd for us to think about that nowadays, because we live in a largely
secular age when it’s difficult for people even to talk about God, let alone the devil. But for many, the devil is more alive than God is. They see Jews as “the people of the devil,” a satanic people. And if you’re supposedly related to Satan, of course, people are going to distrust you, be suspicious of you, and hate you.
Ironically, antisemites accuse us of contradictory things. On the one hand, they say Jews are behind capitalism; on the other hand, they say that in their heart of hearts, Jews are really communists. Are there Jews who have been successful capitalists? Sure. Are there Jews who have held leadership positions in the communist parties of Eastern Europe? Sure.
But most Jews are not wealthy capitalists or ideological communists. Unfortunately, that is not relevant to people who are hostile to Jews.
What you were saying about antisemitism being phantasmagorical -— another way of putting it is that antisemitism is not rational.
Antisemitism is never rational. It’s made up. It’s artificial. Right now, for instance, we’re living in a tough time. Coronavirus is menacing humanity in a very indiscriminate way: It’s hitting all people all over the globe. But there are kooky individuals who are blaming it on the Jews and the Israelis.
The idea is that Jews have developed this particular germ as a form of biological warfare against other kinds of people. Or, of course, Jews are rapacious and are doing it in order to make money. They’ll invent an effective vaccine or therapies and then sell them at very high prices.
The whole thing is absurd and obscene, and most people don’t hold to this view. But we’re living in a time when conspiracy thinking of various kinds has gained ground, in part because of the popularity of the Internet and social media. By the way, this is not a new phenomenon: Back in the medieval period, Jews were blamed for the Black Death.
Obviously, the Internet has had a huge impact on the recent upsurge in antisemitism. The hatred can be disseminated with the click of a button on your computer.
Absolutely. We’ve talked about the ways in which antisemitism today resembles past antisemtism and ways it differs. There are some things that are new, the Internet being one. At the same time, there are continuities regarding conspiracy theories and phantasmagoric thinking about imaginary Jews.
One of the new components of antisemitism is Holocaust denial — and the reason it’s new and discontinuous with past antisemitism is, obviously, the Holocaust took place fairly recently.
The Holocaust may be the most copiously documented crime in history. We don’t lack documents. In fact, it’s impossible for any single individual to master all the materials out there that tell us what happened, where it happened, when it happened, who caused it to happen, how they did it, and so forth.
All of that is part of the historical record, so to deny it is totally irrational. No one can win an argument — a plausible argument, a rational argument, an argument based on evidence — that claims the Holocaust never happened. Nonetheless, it has appeal in some circles.
The question we ask ourselves — because this is dumbfounding to the rest of us — is, what in the world is the nature of this appeal? That’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s so far afield of anything that most people can associate themselves with.
Here’s one answer: If antisemites can make Holocaust denial stick, and convince people that the Jews are inventing this history of genocidal crime, then you remove what should be an important defense against new antisemitism.
No one in his right mind can be an antisemite today knowing what happened to the Jews during the Second World War. But if that history can be erased, or diminished, or diluted, or relativized — whatever you want to call it — and you want to go against today’s Jews, you’ve just done away with one of the safeguards we thought had been in place to help protect Jews. That’s about the only thing I can say to make sense of it.
There’s also the other ugly notion: the accusation of Jewish mercantilism. The claim is that the Holocaust is used as a profitable Jewish business enterprise, that Jews are bringing it up to reclaim property lost in Europe, to get art collections that were stolen back into their possession — basically to hold up people for mercantile gain. That, too, is preposterous and horrible, but one hears it from time to time.
This concludes Part One of our in-depth interview with Dr. Alvin H. Rosenfeld.