Anti-Semitism: Philosophical, Historical & Literary Perspectives


7 June 2009




Rabbi Eli Brackman, Director of Oxford University Chabad Society




Dr. Brian Klug, St Benet’s Hall, Philosophy, Oxford

Dr. Peter Claus, Pembroke College, History, Oxford

Dr. Beth Tovey, Magdalen College, Old English Literature, Oxford

Stephen J. Ross, St John’s College, Modern English Literature, Oxford

Guy Sela, Keble College, Legal Philosophy, Oxford


Dr Brian Klug: The Concept of Anti-Semitism


I wish my talk today could be light-hearted, but the subject we are discussing is no laughing matter.


Which reminds me of a Jewish joke. That’s not quite as paradoxical as it sounds, when you remember that irony, and especially self-mockery, is a staple of Jewish humour. Why, I’m not sure. But I know it’s true, not just because I grew up in a Jewish household but because Freud says so; and he took humour very seriously. In his 1905 treatise Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious he said this about the Jews: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”


Be that as it may, the joke of which I am reminded is about Moishe the pedlar. Moishe was pushing his cart down an alley in Vitebsk, minding his own business, when he was stopped by an antisemite. “Hey, Jew!” yelled the antisemite, jabbing Moishe’s tattered gabardine with his finger. “Who gave you the right to control the world?” Moishe looked puzzled. “You mean me, personally?” he asked. “Don’t be a wise guy,” retorted the antisemite, jabbing him again. “I mean you, the Jews.” Moishe was amazed. “You know something I don’t know?” “You know perfectly well what I mean,” said the antisemite gruffly. “I’m talking about your cousins, the Rothschilds.” Suddenly Moishe’s face lit up with pleasure. “The Rothschilds!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea they were mishpachah!”


We know, because the joke labels him this way, that the person confronting Moishe is an antisemite. But in the real world, people don’t always go around wearing labels telling you who or what they are. Besides, there is no point in having a label if we don’t know what it means. So, what do we mean by ‘antisemitism’? This evening I invite you to join me on an imaginary London bus ride in which we shall explore the concept together. The bus is the no. 73, whose route passes through Hackney, the London borough that includes the district of Stamford Hill, home of Europe’s largest population of Haredi Jews To assist us in our enquiry, I have brought along a cast of imaginary characters: Lucy, the non-Jewish conductor; Rabbi Cohen, a passenger, and the ubiquitous Mrs. Goldstein, also a passenger, the unofficial representative of the mainstream Jewish community. We shall consider five scenarios in which Lucy, as it were, jabs Rabbi Cohen’s gabardine.


Let us begin with a good, simple working definition of antisemitism: hostility towards Jews as Jews. This definition has the virtue of ruling out the case where Lucy angrily throws Rabbi Cohen off the bus for smoking. Even if smoking is something Rabbi Cohen does religiously, even if he is wearing a kipah  identifying him as Jewish: even so, his situation is no different from that of Jane Smith or Ahmed Khan or Bhupinda Singh or any of the other passengers that Lucy evicts that morning from her bus for smoking. His crime is that he is a smoker, not that he is a Jew. This is the first scenario.


It is a little more complicated if Lucy’s hostility to Rabbi Cohen is based on the fact that he is singing zemiros on the upper deck at the top of his voice. But is it because he is singing zemiros or is it because he is singing, full stop? Suppose he would have been singing ‘All you need is love’: would Lucy have taken the same action? In other words, which is he guilty of being: loutish or Jewish? (And if you see no distinction, then you’re an antisemite!) Let us give Lucy the benefit of the doubt: let us say that she is a liberal, tolerant, broad-minded woman, but rules are rules and she throws him off the bus because he is creating a nuisance. The fact that he is Jewish is neither here nor there – for Lucy. But for Rabbi Cohen it matters. I mean specifically that it is the reason why he is singing zemiros. Rabbi Cohen is not merely a person who happens to be Jewish and happens to be singing. He is singing as a Jew. But she evicts him as a lout. This is the second scenario. Mrs Goldstein, who is watching this scene from the back of the bus, smells antisemitism. She is wrong.


But now let us not give Lucy the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume the worst and suppose she is bigoted. But about what or whom exactly? What does she know from ‘Jewish’? Rabbi Cohen is singing in Hebrew. Does she know it is Hebrew? It could be any foreign lingo. She looks at Rabbi Cohen, with his foreign appearance and foreign ways, and she sees a figure that she recognizes clearly from the pages of The Sun or Daily Express: an asylum seeker. And under the guise of enforcing the rules against creating a nuisance, she deports him from her bus. Even if she is aware of the fact that he is Jewish, it is not his Jewishness per se that bothers her, but what she sees as his alienness. We might call this ‘xenophobia’, hatred of strangers or of anyone ‘different’; but it is not antisemitism. This is the third scenario.


However (fourth scenario), perhaps Lucy’s prejudice is more specific. She is not an ignorant woman. One look at Rabbi Cohen’s black garb and long flowing beard and Lucy knows precisely what he is: one of them mullahs. ‘Clear off, Abdul’ she shouts in his ear as she shoves him on to the pavement. As Rabbi Cohen picks himself up off Stoke Newington High Street, he reflects philosophically that he is the victim of Islamophobia. But Mrs Goldstein is convinced that all London bus conductors hate Jews.


But suppose now that Mrs Goldstein is right, not about London bus conductors in general but about Lucy. Suppose, in other words, that Lucy knows Rabbi Cohen is Jewish and that this is why she ejects him from her bus. This is the fifth scenario: she knows he is Jewish and she feels contempt or hatred for him because he is Jewish. What does this mean? Knowing he is Jewish, what exactly does Lucy think she knows? She is antisemitic: she despises him because he is a Jew. But what is a Jew?


In his essay ‘The Freedom of Self-Definition’, Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-Jewish writer who survived a Nazi concentration camp, reflects on Jewish identity in the light of his wartime experience. “In 1944,” he writes, “they put a yellow star on me, which in a symbolic sense is still there; to this day I have not been able to remove it.” What he is unable to remove is the meaning of the word ‘Jew’ that the Nazis invested in the badge. Kertész recalls Montesquieu’s dictum “First I am a human being, and then a Frenchman” and comments: “The racist … wants me to be first a Jew and then not to be a human being any more.” In a brilliant dialectical riff, he works through the implications for the victim: “[A]fter a while,” he says, “it’s not ourselves we’re thinking about but somebody else.” That is to say, the self that we think about is not our own: I am not my own person. “In a racist environment,” he concludes, “a Jew cannot be human, but he cannot be a Jew either. For ‘Jew’ is an unambiguous designation only in the eyes of anti-Semites.”


This is how I understand Kertész: he is saying that the yellow star was not just a form of identification, picking him out as a Jew, but a whole identity, projected onto him as a Jew. Pinning the star to his breast, they were pinning down the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’, determining what it means. This meaning or identity – this ‘unambiguous designation’ – belonged to the Nazis, not to the Jews, not to him.


Kertész observes that “no one whose Jewish identity is based primarily, perhaps exclusively, on Auschwitz, can really be called a Jew”. What he means is that they cannot call themselves a Jew – they cannot define themselves as Jewish – because the word is not theirs to use: it is someone else’s brand stamped on them and they are stuck with it: ‘Jew’. This appears to be how Kertész sees his own condition. Recall his words: “to this day I have not been able to remove it.” But (to get back to the 73 bus), Rabbi Cohen, singing zemiros at the top of his voice on the upper deck, is Jewish on his own terms: he ‘can really be called a Jew’. So, Lucy knows Rabbi Cohen is Jewish. Rabbi Cohen knows Rabbi Cohen is Jewish. But do they know the same thing? They do not. For he is not the ‘Jew’ – the figment – that Lucy perceives and despises.


Let us recap. We began with a working definition of antisemitism: hostility towards Jews as Jews. In the light of the 73 bus, we need to amend this as follows: hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews.’ Adding the scare quotes around ‘Jews’ might seem like a detail, but they transform the meaning of our definition. Spelling it out, it comes to this: antisemitism is hostility towards Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are. Or more succinctly: hostility towards Jews as not Jews. For the ‘Jew’ to whom the antisemite feels hostile is not a real Jew at all. Thinking that Jews are really ‘Jews’ is precisely the core of antisemitism.


Antisemitism is best defined not by an attitude to Jews but by a definition of ‘Jew’. Defining the word in terms of the attitude – hostility – rather than the object – Jew – puts the cart before the horse. Indeed, hostility is not the only ‘cart’ that the horse can ‘pull’ behind it. Envy and admiration are also possible. The German journalist Wilhelm Marr, who founded the Antisemiten-Liga (League of Antisemites) in 1879, described Jews as “flexible, tenacious, intelligent”. These are not in themselves terms of contempt. However, their antisemitic bent is evident when they are read in context: “We have among us a flexible, tenacious, intelligent, foreign tribe that knows how to bring abstract reality into play in many different ways. Not individual Jews, but the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world.” This ‘Jewish spirit’ and ‘Jewish consciousness’ is what Marr meant by Semitism. It is the main element in the word he popularised: antisemitism (antisemitismus). It is the horse that pulls the cart.


What manner of beast is this horse? To begin with, whatever its origins might be, the antisemitic concept of a ‘Semite’ or ‘Jew’ is essentially a priori: it is a construction, not a description. No doubt there are Jewish individuals – even groups – who fit the stereotype. (There are non-Jews who fit it too.) But the stereotype is normative: it does not describe what Jews are like but prescribes what they must be like.


And what might that be? Here is a thumbnail sketch of the antisemitic figure of the ‘Jew’:


The Jew belongs to a sinister people set apart from all others, not merely by its customs but by a collective character: arrogant yet obsequious; legalistic yet corrupt; flamboyant yet secretive. Always looking to turn a profit, Jews are as ruthless as they are tricky. Loyal only to their own, wherever they go they form a state within a state, preying upon the societies in whose midst they dwell. Their hidden hand controls the banks, the markets and the media. And when revolutions occur or nations go to war, it is the Jews – cohesive, powerful, clever and stubborn – who invariably pull the strings and reap the rewards.


Not all these themes need to be present; not all receive equal emphasis in a given case; and there are variations on each. But such, more or less, is the semitism of antisemitism. This is how Moishe looks in the eyes of the antisemite in the joke; it is who Lucy sees when she ejects Rabbi Cohen from the 73 bus; and it is what Kertész became when, stripped of everything except the badge they pinned on him, he was made a ‘Jew’ in Auschwitz.


In short, antisemitism is the process of turning Jews into ‘Jews’.


This analysis applies whether Jews are seen as a people, an ethnic group, a religious community, a racial type or whatever. Wilhelm Marr conceived of Jews in biological terms: he saw them as a race. But his idea of the ‘semite’ is detachable from his racial ideology. And he did not invent it. He inherited it; for, in one form or another, it has been around a long time – long before anyone dreamed up the newfangled theory of race – as I expect we shall hear from other speakers this evening. The figure of ‘the Jew’ has been transmitted from generation to generation in popular culture. Nor is it likely to disappear overnight.


However, it occasionally happens (if you will pardon the understatement) that we Jews see antisemitism when it isn’t there. (I hope it isn’t antisemitic of me to say this.) Which brings me to my closing anecdote. Mendel went with Mary, his Catholic friend, to a comedy club one evening, where the non-Jewish entertainer told one racist joke after another. It was unrelenting. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Kurds, Arabs, Muslims, Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians from Fife: just about every ethnic and religious group on the planet were the butt of his humour; except Jews. “You got off lightly,” said Mary, when the show was over. “What do you mean?” asked Mendel indignantly. “I was deeply offended. Once again we see how the world is against us.” “Against you?” asked Mary incredulously. “But there wasn’t a single antisemitic joke.” “Exactly!” exclaimed Mendel meaningfully. “Always we are excluded.”


Thank you, Rabbi Brackman, for including me.




Stephen J. Ross: T.S. Eliot and anti-Semitism


Passages from Poems, 1920:


from “Gerontion”:


My house is a decayed house

And the Jew squats in the window-sill, the owner,

Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,

Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.

The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;

Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.

The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,

Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.

I am an old man,

A dull head among windy spaces.


from “Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar”:


But this or such was Bleistein’s way:

 A saggy bending of the knees

And elbows, with the palms turned out,

Chicago Semite Viennese.


A lustreless protrusive eye

Stares from the protozoic slime

At a perspective of Canaletto.

The smoky candle end of time


Declines. On the Rialto once.

The rats are underneath the piles.

The Jew is underneath the lot.

Money in furs. . .


from “Dirge” (later excised from The Waste Land)


Full  fathom five your Bleistein lies

Under the flatfish and the squids.

Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!

When the crabs have eat the lids.

Lower than the wharf rats dive

Though he suffer a sea-change

Still expensive rich and strange.


Some prose passages:


In a letter to Eleanor Hinkley, March 1915, Eliot (age 26) writes of the “clever Jew undergraduate mind at Harvard,” one that is characterized by “wide but disorderly reading, intense but confused thinking, and utter absence of background and balance and proportion.”


Perhaps the most infamous prose passage comes from his Virginia Lecture of 1933, later published as After Strange Gods (1934):


“The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and agricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.”


The Jewish Response:


Emanuel Litvinoff and “To T.S. Eliot” (ca.1950):


I am not one accepted in your parish.
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats


So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.


George Steiner in an April 1971 letter to Listener: “The obstinate puzzle is that Eliot’s uglier touches tend to occur at the heart of very good poetry (which is not the case of Pound).”


Anthony Julius, T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (1995): 1) Eliot wrote anti-Semitic poetry and prose, which makes him an anti-Semite; 2) Eliot’s anti-Semitic poetry is original and imaginative, and therefore cannot be dismissed as an inconsequential blemish in his oeuvre.


Gabriel Josipovici in a 1996 Jewish Chronicle review: “[Jews like Anthony Julius] do themselves (us) a disservice when they undertake this sort of task. . .I would urge [Julius] and other Jews obsessed with unearthing anti-Semitism to turn the spotlight on themselves occasionally and ask whether their activities are motivated solely by the impeccable scientific desire to bring out the truth.”