Book Review: Perry and Schweitzer, ‘Antisemitic myths: a historical and contemporary anthology’ – David Hirsh

Antisemitic mythsThis Review is from Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 32 No. 4 May 2009 pp. 749-750

Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, ANTISEMITIC MYTHS: A HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY ANTHOLOGY, 2008, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 384 pp., $24.95 (pb).

To subvert the Queen’s Christmas Message to her subjects this year, Channel 4 Television hosts, unchallenged, Holocaust denier and antisemite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, so its viewers can benefit from hearing his ‘alternative world view’. A friend in South America emails this New Year: ‘Today there’s a big banner just outside my place (very central location, as you remember) by the Communist Party saying ‘‘Israel the Nazis of the Middle East’’ and showing the Israeli flag with a swastika inside the Magen David . . . made me tremble, to be honest.’

The children and grandchildren of the Jews who fled to Israel from anti-Jewish racism in Europe, in the Middle East and in Russia have not yet found peace and neither has the antisemitism from which they fled been defeated. Israelis act and they interact with their neighbours; wisely and stupidly, aggressively and defensively, employing racist ways of thinking and antiracist ways of thinking.

When Jews act in the world their actions are often understood within antisemitic discourse and are often narrated using antisemitic language, but these processes are not usually conscious and are not usually clearly understood. Even many antiracists are only dimly aware of the nature of the rich resources of antisemitic assumption, trope and image which lie deep in the cultural unconscious and which sometimes shape the way that they themselves think about actually existing Jews who act in the world.

It is for this reason particularly that the material presented by editors Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer in Antisemitic Myths: A Historical and Contemporary Anthology is important. ‘The Jewish Question’ is again high on the agenda, is a live issue, for much respectable, intellectual and anti-bourgeois thought, although it is not at the moment so important in mass culture. ‘The Jews’ are thought to have thrown their lot in with imperialism in the Middle East, to have succeeded in joining a white ‘Judeo-Christian’ elite in America and to have dodged the line of racist fire in Europe by constructing Muslims as the ‘new Jews’. The Holocaust piety of the 1990s is being smashed up by the taboo-breaking excitement of Holocaust blasphemy. Constructions of ‘the Jews’ in terms of ultimate morality or absolute victimhood are being replaced by more apparently radical ones. It again appears to be respectable to think of ‘the Jews’ as powerful, secretly cohesive, disproportionately influential and susceptible to the temptation of committing cold-blooded acts of childkilling.

Perry and Schweitzer offer us a compilation of Jew-hatred’s greatest hits across the centuries. They give us extracts from texts demonstrating Christian demonization of Jews and blood libel; Jewish responsibility for Plague and how the Jews were expelled from Spain; from Martin Luther to Voltaire, the Catholic Church to Marx, the Dreyfuss affair to the pogroms, conspiracy theory to the Holocaust, Soviet antisemitism to Islamist and African American antisemitism.

This is material that every antiracist should know. This is material that everybody who wants to talk about Israel and Palestine should understand. This is material with which anybody who wants to be able to judge whether or not a contemporary text is antisemitic needs to be familiar.

Yet I fear that the material is presented in this ‘anthology’ in a form which is as likely to repel as to absorb contemporary antiracists. This is not only because today’s anti-Zionist Zeitgeist contains within itself a significant degree of auto-immunity against a serious consideration of antisemitism. It is also because the book is constructed within a political and sociological framework which is not going to be able to educate a new generation of antiracist activists and scholars on the nature and history of antisemitic mystification.

The book presents antisemitism less as a racism alongside other racisms and more as an ahistorical and unchanging fact of human history. While the aim of the work is not to offer a sociological or historical account of the causes and natures of distinct manifestations of Jewhatred in different times and different places, it is not as concerned as it might be to problematize similarities and differences or to grapple with the complexity of geographical and historical contingencies. The material seems to respond to the characteristically antisemitic view which positions ‘the Jews’ at the centre of world history by attempting to thrust instead the antisemite into that pre-eminent position. It offers little explanation as to why and how the central themes of Jew-hatred reappear and reinvent themselves in radically different times, contexts and places.

Perry and Schweitzer repeat a standard misreading of Marx’s On the Jewish Question, arguing that Marx was an antisemite, and in doing so they miss a key wider point of which Marx himself was acutely aware. Antisemitism is not only bad for Jews but when it is found within radical thought it is also an indicator of a wider sickness. In my view antisemitism is to be found, now hidden, now less so, as a potentiality within much contemporary antihegemonic, radical, liberal and socialist commonsense, and its presence there should be taken seriously by those of us for whom such political movements are important.

It is because antisemitism is a live and virulent threat that sociologically and politically sophisticated engagement with it is required. This book offers much necessary material but it does so within a framework which will not help to regenerate radical thought as much as it could do.

©  2009 David Hirsh Lecturer in Sociology Goldsmiths, University of London

This Review is from Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 32 No. 4 May 2009 pp. 749-750

5 Responses to “Book Review: Perry and Schweitzer, ‘Antisemitic myths: a historical and contemporary anthology’ – David Hirsh”

  1. Ariel H Says:

    That reminds me – I’m supposed to review this book as well!

    My take on this collection is a little different from the reviewer quoted here, but then I’m looking at it as an historian rather than a sociologist. I do agree though that the editors needed to do more work for the non-specialist reader in the introduction. But by the same token I’m not sure that the work’s target audience is ‘a new generation of antiracist activists’ so much as university undergraduates.

  2. Michael Ezra Says:

    David, I know it is a controversial subject and I have not read Perry and Schweitzer’s book but I really must come back on your point that it is a “standard misreading” of Marx to argue that “Marx was an antisemite.”

    A number of scholars would disagree with you. See, for example, the highly interesting essay on the matter by Paul Johnson published in Commentary in 1984. Johnson states categorically that “There can be no doubt that as a young man Marx was anti-Semitic.” In specific relation to Marx’s essay, On The Jewish Question, Johnson notes that the essay contains what is “almost a classic anti-Semitic tract, based upon a fantasied Jewish archetype and a conspiracy to corrupt the world.”[1] Max Geltman argued similar in the pages of Midstream: “Marx, the atheist, lashed out at Jews, telling them, and them only, that it was their Judaism that had to be expunged from the world, and not anybody’s Christianity.[2] Chaloner and Henderson wrote scathing attack on “Marx’s anti-semitism” in Encounter denouncing him for his frequent “derogatory epithets” to Lassalle such as referring to him as a “Jewish nigger” and for Marx complaining to Engels that there were “many Jews and fleas” in Ramsgate. [3] Robert Wistrich argued that “the net result of Marx’s essay [On The Jewish Question] is to reinforce traditional Jewish anti-Jewish stereotype – the identification of the Jews with money-making – in the sharpest possible manner.” [4] And so it goes on. Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that it cannot be denied that in his essay On the Jewish Question, Marx expressed views that “were part of the classic repertoire of anti-Semitism.” [5] In fact, so common is the view by scholars that Marx was an antisemite, that in 1964, Shlomo Avineri, a leading commentator on Marx, stated, “That Karl Marx was an inveterate antisemite is today considered a commonplace which is hardly ever questioned.” [6]

    None of this should be surprising given that Marx’s infamous essay contains the following:

    What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities…. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange…. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general. [7]

    I would argue that it would be a wilful misinterpretation of Marx to argue anything but his essay contained the standard antisemitic trope about Jews and money.

    Notes:

    [1] Paul Johnson, “Marxism vs. the Jews,” Commentary, Vol. 77. No. 4 (April 1984) pp. 28-34
    [2] Max Geltman, “On Socialist Anti-Semitism,” Midstream, Vol. 23. No. 3 (March 1977) pp. 20-30
    [3] W. H. Chaloner & W. O. Henderson, “Marx/Engels and Racism,” Encounter, Vol. XLV No. 1 (July 1975) pp. 18-23
    [4] Robert S. Wistrich, “Karl Marx and the Jewish Question,” Soviet Jewish Affairs, Vol. 4 No.1 (1974) pp.53-60
    [5]Gertrude Himmelfarb, “The ‘Real’ Marx,” Commentary, Vol. 79 No. 4 (April 1985) pp.37-43
    [6] Shlomo Avineri, “Marx and Jewish Emancipation,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25, No. 3 (July – September, 1964) pp. 445-450
    [7] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” 1844, Reproduced on line at
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/

  3. Larry Ray Says:

    I agree with Michael Ezra and argued similarly in ‘Marx and the Radical Critique of difference’ in Engage Journal 3 (though the link to this doesn’t work anymore). Not only does Marx peddle the stereotype of the ‘mauscheln’ (money-grabbing) Jew but even a more favourable reading of ‘The Jewish Question’ (he was using ‘Jewishmess’ as a metaphor) leaves no doubt that to achieve genuine human emancipation, Jews must be emancipated from Judaism. So the price of freedom is assimilation – Marxism was part of a movement in modernity that was highly intolerant of difference – as I said in the Engage Journal – for Marx ‘there is no room within emancipated humanity for Jews as a separate ethnic or cultural identity’, and he advocates ‘a society where both cultural as well as economic difference is eliminated’. This is not simply an arcane debate about a long dead theorist but is relevant to the current resurgence of antisemitism on the ‘left’ that embraces ‘identity politics’ yet is susceptible to the tacitly-held stereotype of the scheming Jew as the epitome of capitalist modernity.

  4. Michael Ezra Says:

    Thank you for your comment Larry. I can add that I am in no way a fan of either the work or political views of Joel Kovel, but even he, in his essay, “Marx on the Jewish Question,” published in Dialectical Anthropology (Vol. 8. No. 1-2, 1983 pp.31-46) ridiculed those who exonerate Marx of anti-Semitism such as Hal Draper who view was that Marx was only using the language common in their time and should not be judged by current standards. He ponders whether on the same logic Goebbels would be exonerated for “only repeating what other Nazis said about Jews.” Kovel goes on to state explicitly:

    By anti-Semitism I mean the denial of the right of the Jew to autonomous existence, i.e., to freely determine his/her own being as Jew. Anti-Semitism therefore entails an attitude of hostility to the Jew as Jew. This is an act of violence, addressed to an essential property of humanity: the assertion of an identity, which may be understood as a socially shared structuring of subjectivity. To attack the free assumption of identity is to undermine the social foundation of the self. Judged by these criteria, OJQ [On the Jewish Question] is without any question an anti-Semitic tract – significantly, only in its second part, “Die Fähigkeit.” No attempt to read these pages as a play on words can conceal the hostility which infuses them, and is precisely directed against the identity of the Jew.

  5. NIMN Says:

    ENGAGE: Issue 2 – May 2006
    Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism – Robert Fine

    Let us explode the myth that Karl Marx was in some sense anti-Semitic in his critique of capitalism. The myth arises in part out of the inability of a very diverse array of commentators to read Marx in the original, in part out of a deafness to the uses of the ironic style in Marx’s writings, and especially out of the presupposition of an intimate association between revolutionary socialism and anti-Semitism. From his earliest writings Marx sought to develop a radical critique of all existing conditions which distinguished itself from other forms of radicalism by its complete and explicit rejection of any anti-Semitic coloration.

    There were to be sure, strong anti-Semitic currents on the European left in Marx’s time, but Marx defined himself and his own radicalism in opposition to such currents. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the ‘left’, if we can call it thus, was a battle ground on which anti-Semitic and anti-anti-Semitic currents battled with one another right up until the Dreyfus case in France. The position of Marx was one which clearly and distinctly had no truck with anti-Semitism in any form and his particular supplement was to show that anti-Semitism was a symptom of deep political problems within what might broadly be called the communist or anti-capitalist movement. On the whole, Marx did not see anti-Semitism as a motivating force on the left but rather as a sign of other political and intellectual deficiencies.

    Marx’s 1843 essay On the Jewish Question was an important and early case in point. In this essay Marx’s aim was to defend the right of Jews to full civil and political emancipation (that is, to equal civil and political rights) alongside all other German citizens. The target of Marx’s critique was one of the mainstays of the young Hegelian movement, a well-known radical by the name of Bruno Bauer. In the previous year Bauer had written a text called The Jewish Question, in which he argued that Jews had to give up their Judaism if they were to become worthy of equal rights. His core argument was this: that as long as Jews remain Jewish, they are too consumed by Jewish self-interest and communalism to be worthy of full citizenship. In effect, Bauer was calling for opposition to the nascent movement for Jewish emancipation in Germany. His long essay was replete with anti-Semitic themes: if Jews were ill-treated in the Christian world, they provoked this mistreatment by their obstinacy; Jews were not hated because they were misunderstood since true understanding ought to lead to hatred; Jews had lost interest in the progress of man and concentrated entirely on personal advantage; Jews had evolved no moral principle from their suffering; and so forth.

    Marx affirmed the claim of Jews to full civil and political rights regardless of whether or not they choose to remain Jewish. While Marx was a critic of all religions and religious sects, including Judaism, he affirmed the right of everyone to practice religion freely without state privilege or discrimination. There was no reason to make an exception of the Jews. There could be no freedom from religion without the freedom to be a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Moslem, etc. while at the same time being a full citizen of the state. While Bauer echoed the generally prejudicial representation of the Jew as ‘merchant’ and ‘moneyman’, Marx’s riposte was that in the modern world ‘money has become a world power and the practical spirit of the Jews has become the practical spirit of the Christian peoples’. In other words, why pick on the Jews? If the practical spirit of Judaism is moneymaking, as Bauer suggests, this hardly distinguishes Jews from the great array of non-Jewish entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers who have risen to ascendancy in contemporary society. The idea that the Jew is fundamentally more rooted in money making than the Christian is as wrong-headed as the idea that the Jew is less eligible for civil and political rights. Historically, it is true that many Jews played a significant role as ‘middlemen’ – between landowners and tenants, state and tax payers, capital and consumers – and that a few Jews (like the Rothschild family) played a significant role as international bankers; but Marx insisted that this progressive role played by Jews in the development of capitalism was coming to an end and the practical spirit of money-making was as general as the growth of nation states, national banks and national capital.

    The quotations from the second part of Marx’s critique of Bauer, which have so shocked those who read Marx as an anti-Semite, are clearly instances of Marx’s ironising about Bauer’s basically anti-Semitic claims. It might be worth quoting one of the most offending passages:

    Let us consider the real secular Jew – not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew… What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling. What is his secular God? Money. Well then! Emancipation from haggling and from money, i.e. from practical, real Judaism, would be the same as the self-emancipation of our age. An organisation of society that abolished the basis upon which haggling exists, i.e. the possibility of haggling, would have made the Jew impossible… The emancipation of the Jews is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.

    What Marx is doing in this passage is tearing apart Bauer’s argument for why Jews should not be given full civil and political rights. He is doing this in the form of an immanent, witty and deeply ironic critique of the notion that there is a special relationship between Jews and the commodification of social life. In other words, if we take Bauer at his word and identify Jews with haggling, money, self-interest, etc., even so his argument falls apart. One of the comments Bauer made was that the Jew, ‘who is merely tolerated in Vienna, determines the fate of the whole (Austro-Hungarian) empire through the financial power he possesses’, and that the Jew ‘who can be without rights in the smallest of the German states, decides the fate of Europe’. Marx responded to this early instance of rank conspiracy thinking thus: ‘the Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish way not only by acquiring financial power but also because through him and apart from him money has become the practical spirit of the Christian peoples’. Interestingly, he cites Thomas Hamilton’s Men and Manner in America to the effect that, for ‘the pious and politically free’ inhabitant of New England ‘Mammon is his idol … the world is nothing but a Stock Exchange and he is convinced that his sole vocation here on earth is to get richer than his neighbours’. In North America, Marx adds, the society par excellence of political freedom, ‘the very proclamation of the Gospel, Christian teaching, has become a commercial object… The bankrupt businessman is just as likely to go into evangelising as the successful evangelist into business.’ So much for the image of the Jew as huckster. If money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may stand, as Bauer maintained, this god of the Jews has become the god of the world. Christianity overcame Bauer’s ‘real Judaism’, that is money-making, only in appearance. What it had on offer was only the ‘sublime thought of Judaism’.

    There is no reason to think, as most commentators claim (including Julius Carlebach in his wonderfully erudite book Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Judaism), that Marx for a moment accepted the ‘real Jew’ of Bauer’s anti-Semitic imagination to be empirically well grounded or an authentic image of Jews and Judaism. The line of attack Marx adopts is not to contrast Bauer’s crude stereotype of the Jews to the actual situation of Jews in Germany. Moses Hess, an influential figure for Marx, had already exposed Bauer’s ‘total ignorance’ of present-day Judaism and argued that his condemnation of Jews as ‘narrow-minded ‘ and ‘separatist’ knows nothing of the patriotism of emancipated Jews in Holland, France and Belgium or of the interest of German Jews in the land that offers them protection. What Marx did was far more challenging than this affirmation of Jewish loyalty and high-mindedness. It was to reveal that Bauer has no inkling of the nature of modern democracy.

    Marx rooted the origins of Bauer’s radical anti-Semitism in his incapacity to understand the nature of modern civil and political society. Bauer blames the Jew for the ‘Judaism’ of civil society, that is, for the fact that self-interest and money are the principles of civil society. Bauer declares the Jew unworthy of civil and political rights because of the ‘Judaism’ of his loyalties, that is, for putting Jewish self-interest and money first. The political emancipation of the Jew means the emancipation of the state from all religion – i.e. the abolition of all religious qualifications for participation in public life – even if the overwhelming majority of Jews remain strictly Jewish. Legal equality for Jews does not of course abolish social inequalities between Jews and Christians, but it declares Judaism a non-political distinction. It is not only the Jew who leads a double life as Jew and citizen, Sabbath Jew and everyday German. Today everyone leads a double life: one in the political community and one in civil society, one in heaven and one on earth, as Marx put it. Division is the principle of modern society. If the civil rights of Jews guarantee their right of withdrawal from the larger community, there is not one of the rights of man that ‘goes beyond egoistic man … an individual withdrawn into himself’. Political emancipation is not the last word in human emancipation, but Marx is unequivocal that the political emancipation of Jews would be a great step forward: ‘we do not tell the Jews that they cannot be emancipated politically without emancipating themselves from Judaism, which is what Bauer tells them.’

    The French revolution had provided the first example of the complete emancipation of Jews in Europe. When the question of Jewish emancipation re-emerged in Germany in the 1840s, after a long period of German national reaction, political lines were not at all neatly drawn. There were some Catholic conservatives who supported Jewish emancipation and some apparent ‘leftists’, people like Bruno Bauer, who actively opposed it. Bauer even seems to have favoured shipping out Jews to ‘the land of Canaan’ on the grounds that the Jewish religion does not allow a people to be free and that Jews would otherwise form a nation within the nation. It is perhaps none too surprising that Bauer did not stay long on the left and later seemed to embrace a kind of scientific racism when he described Jews as ‘white Negroes’ whose racial characteristics made conversion to Christianity virtually impossible (Carlebach p.147). Marx, however, took Bauer’s radicalism at face value and criticised it on its own terms.

    Marx never eschewed his repudiation of the ‘socialism of fools’. Indeed, I would say that the critique of anti-Semitism was absolutely central to his understanding and definition of socialism. A reading of Hal Draper’s four volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution reveals that together with Engels, Marx campaigned against anti-Semitic prejudices rife among the French Comptean Positivists (some of whom, like Alfred Naquet, were Jewish), protagonists of ‘feudal socialism’ (such as Thomas Carlyle and Feargus O’Connor), anarchists (such as Bakunin and Guillaume), as well as the explicitly racist anti-Semitism of Adolf Stöcker’s Christian socialism in Germany and then the Drumont movement in France. Bakunin is an interesting case in point. He came to embrace a radical, pan-Slavist ideology in which he advanced a virulent version of the myth of Jewish conspiracy to control the world. In his Study on the German Jews he wrote:

    The Jewish sect constitutes a veritable power in Europe. It reigns despotically in commerce and banking, and it has invaded three-quarters of German journalism and a very considerable part of the journalism of other countries. Then woe to him who makes the mistake of displeasing it!’ (quoted in Draper p. 293).

    In his letters to the Bologna section of the International he pursued the same theme in stronger language:

    This whole Jewish world, which constitutes a single exploitative sect, a sort of bloodsucker people, a collective parasite, voracious, organised in itself, not only across the frontiers of states but even across all the differences of political opinion – this world is presently, at least in great part, at the disposal of Marx on the one hand and of the Rothschilds on the other… Jewish solidarity, that powerful solidarity that has maintained itself through all history, united them… In all countries the people detest the Jews. They detest them so much every popular revolution is accompanied by a massacre of Jews: a natural consequence… (quoted in Draper 296)

    What is equally little known is how central the confrontation with anti-Semitism was to the critiques of Proudhon and Dühring which Marx and Engels also elaborated.

    The anti-Semitism of the Left that Marx confronted was not a marginal detail nor was it limited to his in-fighting with Bakunin and others over leadership of the Communist International. What was at stake was something far more fateful. In all cases what was at issue, according to Marx, was not only the Jewish question as such, nor indeed the anti-Semitic motivations of the individuals concerned (to the best of my knowledge Bruno Bauer and Bakunin always denied being motivated by anti-Semitism), but rather the link between anti-Semitism and the development of thoroughly reactionary forms of anti-capitalism: ‘anti-Semitism serves only reactionary ends under a speciously socialistic cover’, Marx wrote, ‘with that we can have nothing to do’ (Draper 193). As Hannah Arendt correctly saw in her extended commentary on the Jewish question, the rise of anti-Semitism was one of the key elements in determining the origins of totalitarianism (‘Anti-Semitism’, first part of The Origins of Totalitarianism).

    I don’t want to draw any direct connection between Marx’s battles with left-wing anti-Semitism in his time and the battles with anti-Semitism which go on in our own times. Much has changed since the radical thinkers of the nineteenth century confronted tradition on the one side and the emergence of a thoroughly modern barbarism on the other. Not least there has been the advent of totalitarianism, the fact of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. However, I would wish to draw the following loose connections. First, modern, political anti-Semitism is a creature of the left as well as the right. We should abandon any fond hope that the universalism of the left inures it to anti-Semitic temptations. Second, there is a strong tradition of anti-Semitism on the Left. Indeed, the most intelligent and radical currents of left (including Marx) have placed the battle against anti-Semitism at the centre of their political thinking. Third, the significance of anti-Semitism on the Left lies not only in what was known as the Jewish question as such, but in helping to sow the seeds of totalitarian thinking and practice in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist circles. And finally, there is a deep and enduring connection between the reconstruction of socialism as an enlightened, cosmopolitan radicalism and the overcoming of anti-Semitism in all its shapes and forms.

    Robert Fine is chair of the Sociology Department at Warwick University


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