Prof. Shmuel Almog

Theorizing about Antisemitism, the Holocaust and Modernity

We may rightfully call antisemitism "the longest hatred" as did Robert Wistrich a few years ago1, yet the systematic study of this subject has a surprisingly short history. It began mainly with the rise to power of Nazism in Germany, and did not gather momentum until after the Holocaust. Although Jew-hatred was prominent enough at the end of the 19th century to warrant a name of its own, antisemitism, it was not regarded as a proper object for academic research. It belonged to the street, to everyday politics and was not respectable enough to justify more than a polemic approach. Even when great scholars discussed it, as they did in 1879, during the Berliner Antisemitismusstreit, they engaged in public debate, not in a scholarly endeavor2.

To be sure, biblical scholars were involved in the study of the Old Hebrews; medievalists did not completely ignore the tribulations of the Jews in Christendom. Yet a persistent discrepancy pointed to the borderline between the world of science, so to say, and mundane public affairs.

Perhaps rightly so: we too feel uneasy about the use of the current term "antisemitism", when referring to the older phenomena of anti-Judaism. Add the enormous respect for objective science that encompassed all academic disciplines then and you may visualize the gulf between historical Jew-hatred and modern antisemitism.

Modern antisemitism was almost a contradiction in terms: did not the Great French Revolution put an end to the discrimination against the Jews? The growing trend towards universal emancipation of the Jews made antisemitism look like a remnant of the Dark Ages. Jew-hatred was attributed mainly to clerical bigots and absolutist reactionaries. Only ex-revolutionaries like Dostoyevsky and Wagner were bold enough to announce their antisemitic beliefs.They, and smaller luminaries of the same ilk, made the unsettling discovery that the real enemy was not the old-type Ghetto Jew, but rather the assimilated, modern Jew. Here was the dividing line between two opposing trends of Jew-hatred: one rejected the unassimilated Jew because he was conspicuously different; the other condemned the assimilated Jew as a sham gatecrasher. Liberals of course rejected all this out of hand, as did socialists and other supporters of Jewish emancipation. Decent people, Jews and non-Jews alike, did not attribute much weight to the so-called Jewish Question.

Enlightened people usually believed in the inevitability of progress. Despite the inroads made by Romantics and Neo-Romantics in the 19th.century, progress still reigned supreme; whether as a process of gradual advancement, thanks to education, or the improvement of society through economic and political means. Even the struggle of the working class was incorporated into the march of progress. Some die-hard reactionaries may have been fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitable, clinging to their outdated privileges. They were doomed of course to end up on the mythological dust-heap of history. Notwithstanding the personal antipathy some liberals may have felt toward Jews, they still entertained the hope that everything would come out right at the end. The so-called Jewish Problem would eventually be solved, as should all other outstanding issues: the Eastern, the Social, or the Agrarian questions.

The triumphant march of progress came to a complete standstill only with the takeover of Germany by the Nazis. This event refuted all theories about the world as an ever-growing reign of reason, or social justice or, if you will, human kindness. General confusion accompanied every successful step of the new German regime. Statesmen and simple folk, philosophers and artists were highly impressed by the sweeping audacity of this heightened sacro egoismo. Some were frightened, others were taken in by the power and glory; many had mixed feelings.

Among the first to analyze the far-reaching implications of the new situation in Europe was the Frankfurt school, known for its Critical Theory. On the eve of Hitler`s downfall, two of its members, Adorno and Horkheimer, made the first breakthrough, doing away with the old Marxist cliches, that had long served them as an explanation for both Nazism and antisemitism.4   Jew-hatred was no longer a mere class struggle in disguise. The Third Reich ceased to be one more manifestation of the death pangs of Capitalism. The two authors doubted the happy-end that awaits us all at the fulfillment of the historical process. They cast a shadow on the hallowed tradition of the Enlightenment. There and in later writings Horkheimer and Adorno established a link between Auschwitz and modernity, and gave rise to a new evaluation of both.

In their footsteps followed Hannah Arendt, who placed antisemitism in the context of totalitarian society. She saw antisemitism as being intertwined with imperialism and totalitarianism, all three phenomena reflecting the downfall of traditional bourgeois values5. Hannah Arendt wrote in the midst of the Cold War and enlarged her scope to transcend Auschwitz, referring to a larger variety of oppressive regimes. Her outlook was universal and not at all confined to a particular Jewish viewpoint. Arendt undertook to lay bare the origins of totalitarianism, and inadvertently enhanced the importance of the Jewish Question. She went back to nineteenth century antisemitism, and presented the entry of the Jews into European society as a test case of sorts.

A completely different approach was that of George Steiner, who presented the Jewish tragedy under Nazism as a clash between two sets of opposing values. Jews were persecuted and killed, he claimed, because they exemplified principles that were rejected by the Nazis, such as monotheism, early Christianity and social Messianism.6 In Arendt's analysis, on the other hand, Jews played no lofty role. Hannah Arendt used the catchphrase "between Pariah and Parvenu" to portray the Jew as a symbol of the declining nation-state. According to her, the new era of imperialism and totalitarianism just made the Jews redundant.7

All these ideas sprung from the heads of German-Jewish intellectuals, whose double identity was challenged by the terrible events. They tried to find some sense in the fate that had befallen them, while at the same time extracting from it a universal message. Not only did they attempt to explain a world-shaking occurrence that contradicted all previous theories. They were out to find the significance of the disproportionate prominence Hitler bestowed upon the negligible "Jewish Problem". Each would come up with a different answer, but all alike referred to two fundamental questions: how had Europe returned, as it were, from civilization to barbarity, and why were the Jews chosen as the primary victims.

George Steiner offers some consolation to Jewish readers. He depicts a confrontation between good and evil, between the Judeo-Christian civilization, on the one hand, and the revaluation of all values (to use a famous saying) on the other8. The terrible fate of the Jews is no longer meaningless, according to Steiner. For him, no banality of evil was at play during the Holocaust.9 On the contrary, his is a clear distinction between the good Jews and their evil enemies. Unlike his predecessors, Steiner does not place his confrontation in the context of the thirties, or even during the nineteenth century. Jewish contribution to civilization, as he sees it, compasses Jewish history in its entirety. Thus Jew-hatred turns into an age-old struggle between good and evil. It somewhat approaches the traditional image of Israel as a sheep, surrounded by seventy wolves.10

Steiner is an enthusiastic proponent of spirituality and morality as the outstanding qualities of Judaism. Despite the apparent similarity, however, he is quite remote from the teachings of Hermann Cohen or Franz Rosenzweig. These thinkers were interested in the innate values of Judaism11. Steiner, on the other hand, raises the banner of spirituality as a dividing line between Jews and their enemies. In any event, he too - like those eminent predecessors of his - keeps his distance from Jewish nationalism. Moreover, one could detect a common feature in Horkheimer, Adorno, Arendt and Steiner: despite their preoccupation with Jewish issues, they usually entertained a tenuous relationship with Jews as a group. Indeed, they may all perfectly fit Isaac Deutscher`s classification of the "Non-Jewish Jew".12 Their attitude toward the Jews, as well as their approach to the Holocaust shows a preoccupation with universal issues and not so-called parochial interests.

Now, George Steiner has still much to say to this day. He keeps dazzling worldwide audiences with his brilliance, but his ideas on the Jewish contribution to civilization are rarely heard today. Hannah Arendt is reread and much admired now. This unsettling thinker left many marks on the intellectual scene of our time. Yet not her analysis of antisemitism attracts the attention. Strangely enough, it is the rather cumbersome book by Adorno and Horkheimer, "Dialectic of Enlightenment", that regains popularity nowadays. Half a century after its appearance it has found new readers and more importantly: new interpreters. The message that was difficult to grasp at the time apparently found its proper climate of opinion at the close of the 20th century.

Events that occurred in the second half of the 20th century led to a renewed interest in the Adorno-Horkheimer approach. The exposure of the Stalinist terror at the 20th conference of the USSR Communist party, and the works of Nobel Prize winner Solzhenitsyn, made the Gulag into a striking symbol, of similar magnitude to that of Auschwitz. The two symbols alike are now at the forefront of Western public discourse. Furthermore, the so-called Sixties brought about a mental revolution, which gradually changed our outlook in many respects. The present generation tends to put on the same footing all atrocities committed against "The Other", past and present. Intellectuals nowadays are eager to find the culprit, and accuse him of all injustices. The blame is usually put on Western civilization, symbolized by the specter of the "White Man". All that went wrong supposedly originated in the Enlightenment and its corollary, the idea of progress.

A very able exponent of the new trend is a Leeds sociologist of Polish-Jewish origin, by the name of. Zygmunt Bauman. He alludes to his own family experience in a book entitled "Modernity and the Holocaust".13 Bauman is of course not alone in attacking the Enlightenment legacy, but he is particularly pungent and direct. He sees a straight line emanating from the 18th century philosophes to the 20th century atrocities. On the face of it there is some resemblance between Bauman`s approach and Jacob Talmon`s "Totalitarian Democracy".14 Yet Talmon confined himself to a certain thread in 18th century political history. He did not reject modernity as such out of hand. And lest we forget: in the forty years that had elapsed between the two books, many idols of civilization " as we know it" have fallen crumbling down. This must have changed the outlook of us all, even unawares.

More recently Bauman published an essay, which makes short shrift with the Enlightenment, that had supposedly laid the foundation to the 20th century "Camps". Beside Auschwitz and the Gulag, he enumerates many ugly events, such as happened in East Timor ,Rwanda and the like. Eventually, Bauman points to the large number of Blacks that fill American prisons, as an example of "totalitarian temptations - - - endemic in modernity".15 This great sweep may even remind you of the shock reaction caused some two hundred years ago by the French Revolution.

Then as now, not only die-in-the-wool conservatives, but also moderate reformers were appalled by the turn of events. A personage of the stature of Edmund Burke condemned the French Revolution, because it believed in the ability of man to forge his own destiny. He made a mockery of the revolutionaries, who were speaking of "Philosophy, Light, Liberality" and "the Rights of Men".16  Not unlike present-day critics, Burke condemned the employ of "geometric demonstration" in human affairs.17 This idea goes back at least to the 17th century, when Pascal distinguished between "l`esprit de g?om?trie et l`esprit de finesse"18. In the same vein, but with a vengeance, Bauman portrays the 20th.century as an endless series of rigid systems that defy the human spirit, subjecting it to absolute uniformity. The "camps" are part and parcel of the system, as is persecution and extermination.

Bauman sees anyone as a target for exclusion from society: in one case it might be done on racial grounds, in another for economic, cultural or political reasons. The choice of the victim and the specific blemish in each particular instance are rather trivial in his eyes. Suffice it to say that according to Bauman, (and here he uses a quote from Cynthia Ozick, of all people), the Jewish Holocaust is compared to "the gesture of an artist, removing a smudge from the otherwise perfect picture".19

Now we have come full circle to the point of departure, prior to the understanding that the Holocaust was different in kind from other calamities. The targeting of the Jews is presented as an arbitrary choice. By the same token it could have been anyone at all. The history of antisemitism thus becomes completely irrelevant. In fact, history itself is reduced to a mere rhetoric: the Enlightenment pronounced certain ideas, and these were implemented in turn, even if it took them two centuries to mature. Ideas seem to be floating in the air, awaiting an appropriate moment to be executed. May I remind you that Bauman set out to criticize the application of abstract ideas to life. Yet his own approach suffers from the same lifeless theorizing, which he condemns so harshly.

At this point one may ask, what is the importance of  Zygmunt Bauman; how many people have read his paper on the 20th.century camps; why dwell so long on this writer? The answer is that I have chosen this particular author as a test case, because he best exemplifies a certain trend prevalent among Western intellectuals. Although he happens to be familiar with the study of the Holocaust, he tends to trivialize it within an overall picture of modernity and its discontents. This rhymes-in with a rather widespread quest for a better sense of perspective, in view of so much injustice and violence committed in our time. Let us remember that this is the age of the underdog. Various underprivileged groups strive for recognition as the victim who suffered the most. Jews hardly fit today the image of a collective victim, and the remembrance of their past sufferings is often resented, whether overtly or covertly.

Besides, the wholesale rebuke of the Enlightenment, so popular among present-day critics, is rather ironical. Attributing to the 18th. century Philosophes any responsibility for sins committed in the 20th. century, dispenses with the rather real shortcomings of the Enlightenment itself. Did not the great luminaries, who fought against bigotry and discrimination, stop short before the traditional "Other", the Jew? Not only were the Jews continually kept as outcasts, but such figures as Voltaire and Diderot held them in great contempt. On top of all the long-standing charges against the Jews, those philosophers also made them responsible for the infamy they themselves attributed to Christianity.20

Did Voltaire`s antisemitism transcend his time and affect generations to come? This is an interesting question, but there are no means at our disposal to furnish a definitive answer, one way or another. Yet Bauman and his like would have us go beyond that supposition, and make the 18th. century responsible, as it were, for all the ills of our time. Thus, various factors that may have come into play in the meantime are not accounted for at all. The lumping together of past and present, under the heading of "the Camps", meaning imposed uniformity and the suppression of individuality, offers no satisfactory explanation.

Moral indignation against all kinds of evil does not clarify the issue at hand. Eventually, one can find no way to better understanding than to painstakingly delve into historical reality. A good theory, may I add, helps you to make sense of the facts, but not just explain them away.

1  Robert S.Wistrich, Antisemitism, the Longest Hatred, New York 1990;
2  Walter Boehlich,(ed.), Der Berliner Antisemitismusstreit, Frankfort a/M 1965;
3   Shmuel Almog, Nationalism and Antisemitism in Modern Europe 1815-1945, Oxford 1990,pp.24-26;
4  Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, New York 1944;
5  Hannah Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1960,p.ix;
6  George Steiner, In Bluebird`s Castle, London &Boston 1978, pp. 36-41;
7  Arendt, id., pp.14-15;
8  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, New York 1968, p.xvii;
9  see: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York 1963;
10  Esther Rabba, section 10, p.5;
11  E.g.: Paul Mendes-Flohr, "Franz Rosenzweig`s Concept of Philosophical Faith", Leo Baeck Yearbook xxxiv, 1989, pp. 368-369;
12  See my "The Non-Jewish Jew" in Sicsa Annual Report 1998, pp.8-12;
13  Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge & Oxford 1991, pp. vii-viii;
14  J.L.Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, London 1952;
15  Zygmunt Bauman, "The Camps, Western, Eastern, Modern", Studies in Contemporary Jewry, vol. X111, 1997, p.39;
16  Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, Chicago 1955, p.167;
17  idem, p.246;
18  Blaise Pascal, Pens?es, Paris 1960, p.52 (section 1,1);
19  Bauman, "The Camps", p.35;
20  C.Lehrmann, L`El?m?nt juif dans la litt?rature fran?aise,vol.1, Paris 1960, p.136; Arthur Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews, New York 1968, pp. 310 - 312;

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