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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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A Convenient Hatred:  The History of Antisemitism, by Phyllis Goldstein.  Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves, 2011.  405 pp.  $17.95.


Phyllis Goldstein’s survey of the history of antisemitism, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism, admirably fulfills the goals and objectives of its publisher, Facing History and Ourselves: “linking the past to the moral and ethical questions of our time through a rigorous examination of the root causes of antisemitism, racism, and other hatreds.” Likewise, its companion volumes have also sought the same goal through the exploration of other themes and issues. Goldstein’s reflection on her desire to produce a volume on antisemitism began with the expansion of that phenomenon following the 9/11 catastrophe and she has been working on the book over the past five years.

An interesting and well written survey—not simply a reference book—the impact of the book results from reading it entirely. While this is a powerful book, the problem of dealing with so comprehensive a problem as the history of antisemitism is reflected in the many approaches to the subject in the course of the twentieth century. James Carroll’s very fine book, Constantine’s Sword (2001), for example, focuses on Christian antisemitism, as do many other treatments of the topic. This perspective of Jewish-Christian relations has been only one way of addressing antisemitism—there have been others. In his book The Changing Face of Antisemitism (2008), Walter Laqueur provided an excellent, but brief analysis of the topic and mentioned that there are some 40,000 volumes on modern antisemitism. His book emphasizes the “changing” face of antisemitism. A major question is why another book on antisemitism is needed. Part of the answer to that question lies in Langer’s view of the “changing face” and Goldstein’s increasing awareness of the changing and increasing state of antisemitism since 9/11. Given the growth of racism and hatred, including antisemitism, as documented in 2011 by Anti Defamation League and by Southern Poverty Law Center surveys of the growing incidence the activities of hate groups in the United States and similar studies of antisemitism abroad, Goldstein’s goals and those of Facing History and Ourselves to illustrate the changing face of antisemitism is fully justified.

The early part of the Goldstein treatment, while setting the tone of the book, is too brief to provide a full understanding of the early history of the subject. The treatment often gives the impression of jumping from one topic to the next with too little coverage. The far more comprehensive treatment of the evolution of Judaism and Christianity in James Carroll’s book is, of course, much more substantive. In his interesting book, AD 381, Charles Freeman clarifies the importance of Theodosius in utilizing the power of the state in insisting on the Nicene Creed, allowing the Bishop, Ambrose, to persecute pagans and Jews alike, and ultimately placing the power of the state behind the codification of Christianity through the work of Augustine of Hippo. This radical change represented a rejection of the toleration that had previously been part of the Roman Empire and helps to explain the tragic history of Jewish-Christian relations.

Goldstein’s discussion of Jewish-Muslim relations is interesting and, although brief, does a creditable description of the development of the Muslim empire, the role of the Jews in that empire, and treatment of Jews by Muslims. While coverage of the early to high middle ages is traditional, Goldstein focuses on the dangerous incitement of anti-Jewish mobs and pogroms by priests who made clear to the Christian populace the appropriateness of attacking Jews. This antisemitism was augmented by the development of the standard changes of ritual murder, the allegation of blood libel, the argument that Jews were somehow responsible for the Black Plague, and growing concerns about Jewish money-lending, and these charges were used as justification for the pogroms perpetrated by the crusaders on their way to wrest control of the Holy Land from the Muslims. Goldstein leads us through the difficult medieval period culminating in both growing antisemitism in expulsions of the Jews from England, France, and Spain, with all of the terrible consequences of this legacy. Equally problematic was the Protestant Reformation and the bitter attacks, especially of Luther and his followers, on the Jews. In the face of such discrimination, Jews sought toleration in Poland and the Ottoman Empire.

About two-thirds of Goldstein’s book covers the period from the Enlightenment to the present, and she considers the significance for Jews of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Napoleon, during the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and citizenship conferred on the Jews by Napoleon were not always supported, for in France and Germany the forces of liberal treatment of the Jews struggled against deeply entrenched religious antisemitism. This is part of the story told in Frederick Brown’s elegantly written book, For the Soul of France (2010), in which the Enlightenment’s and Bismarck’s attacks on the Catholic Church moved Pope Pius IX strongly to the right and expanded his authority. In 1854 the immaculate conception became an official dogma of the Church; the Pope promulgated the Syllabus of Errors condemning secularism in 1864; and Pius IX declared papal infallibility in 1870 and, in opposing secularism, Pius IX and the Church attacked both Jews and Masons, regarded as supporters of Enlightenment secularism. This growing conflict eventuated in France in the Dreyfus Affair and, by the start of the twentieth century, in growing antisemitism.

Goldstein provides a thoughtful and fairly extensive analysis of Russian antisemitism in the late nineteenth century resulting in pogroms under Tsar Alexander III and the growing efforts of Russian Jews to attain the full rights of citizenship, an effort that drove many Russian Jews to the political left. In discussing the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Goldstein’s book provides too limited coverage of the “scientific” development of racial ideas into racism which resulted in the eugenics movement that encompassed the intellectual community of the United States and much of Europe, and that culminated in Nazi racial policy. Goldstein’s coverage of the Holocaust is comparatively brief and, in the immediate post-war period, focuses on Jewish refugees, antisemitism in Poland, the Muslim opposition to Jews, and growing Muslim antisemitism resulting from the establishment of the State of Israel.

The two major themes of antisemitism during the post-war period involved the Cold War and the Muslims. As a consequence of Soviet efforts to expand influence in the Middle East, the Soviets encouraged antisemitism around the world, clearly promulgating hatred and spreading such documents as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. From his alliance with Hitler, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin el Husseini, had regularly broadcast Nazi propaganda and provided literature to induce Arab opposition to the Allies in Africa and to urge the murder of north African Jews. The legacy of that antisemitism has continued through powerful efforts of Middle Eastern Arabs. Goldstein holds that for the present, antisemitism has continued through such efforts as Holocaust denial, continued publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and many of the traditional lies that have been the historic basis of antisemitism. Consistent with the objectives of Facing History and Ourselves, Goldstein underscores the importance of teaching the history of antisemitism, the purpose of her book. While not a new approach to the subject, Goldstein is to be commended for having written a valuable, solid, highly readable, and powerful survey of the history of antisemitism about the changing faces of a far too “convenient hatred.”

Saul Lerner

Purdue University Calumet