YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 18, 2015

Is antisemitism ‘rational’ or ‘irrational?’

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 8:12 pm
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The Big Sleep: Bacall and Bogie

The Big Sleep: Bacall and Bogie

This blog continues the theme of my last blog: https://clarespark.com/2015/01/15/antisemitism-vs-anti-zionism-is-there-a-difference/.

There is a hot debate among academics over whether antisemitism is rational or irrational. My own position is that antisemitism is both “rational” and “irrational.” Above all, it is the intellectual combativeness of “the Jews” that makes us eternal wanderers, moderns avant la lettre, hence threatened with extinction. https://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/.

The rational position: Historian Alfred S. Lindemann, author of Esau’s Tears: Modern Antisemitism and the Rise of the Jews (Cambridge UP, 2000), comes perilously close to antisemitism when he demonstrates through statistics that newly emancipated Jews were over-represented in the European professions and businesses. I have seen this over-representation argument before, as if meritocracy rather than bean-counting was a Bad Thing. But Lindemann, now emeritus, taught at UC Santa Barbara, and the UC system is not noted for its Jew-friendly atmosphere, unless its “Jewish” professors are on the Left.

Lindemann’s book is not that different from Hannah Arendt’s linking of European Jewry with the Rothschild family, whose grossness presumably rubbed off on them—a detail in The Origins of Totalitarianism that I have not seen challenged, even among Arendt’s critics.


A somewhat less obnoxious position would be found in Christian antisemitism: that Biblical Jews remained guilty of deicide; while after the Reformation, those unwilling to convert were a constant threat to the credibility of Christianity in Europe. Uriel Tal pointed this out in Christians and Jews in Germany (Ithaca and London: Cornell U.P., 1975): 16 on post-Reformation class anxieties. Tal describes two strategies to deal with the corroding skepticism fostered by persistence of the obdurate Jew: one should either convert them or humiliate them so that their “abject state” testified to “the triumphant religion of Christianity.” (It was not until after WW2 that “the Judeo-Christian heritage” was devised to reconcile Judaism with Christianity: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judeo-Christian. By emphasizing the Ten Commandments, the drastic differences between the two religions were erased, and a measure of organic unity was achieved, notwithstanding some differences over immortality and worldliness.)

II. Irrationalist explanations:
In British press coverage of The Wandering Jew exhibition in Germany (der ewige Jude, linked above), journalists frequently described Goebbels as the gentlemanly “moderate”, relegating Streicher to the extremist pile. It is most peculiar that the Western press could have separated Goebbels from Streicher; in the spring of 1937, Goebbels propaganda department distributed a pamphlet to students and party leaders, calling for the recapture of “a lost identity” (to overcome the skepticism and despair of an industrialized world). Uriel Tal wrote, “political faith needs an anti-hero,” a scapegoat, a devil. Indeed it was the Jew who “having been a degraded sufferer for ages” was supposed to make the myth somewhat tangible and acceptable. Through the “universal conspiracy of the Jew” as well as the “defilement of his blood” the Jew brings about “the systematic decomposition of the Aryan race and the Germanic Folk.” In “Political Faith” of Nazism Prior to the Holocaust” (Annual Lecture of the Schreiber Chair of Contemporary Jewish History, Tel Aviv University, 1978): 19. But would such appeals have had any impact unless they benefited individuals and social classes in material ways?


Finally, George Orwell, to my dismay, knew little about antisemitism in his wartime essays, but considered antisemitism to be a “neurosis,” hence irrational. To this day I wonder why he gave his Trotsky character the name of “Emmanuel Goldstein” in his masterwork Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949). Perhaps Orwell, the anti-“totalitarian” par excellence, was unaware that his politics were populist, hence opposed to the evil “money power.” I can’t account for his hostility to Jesus (a.k.a. Emmanuel), however, for he lamented the modern loss of faith in immortality, which vitiated the distinction between good and evil, encouraging the search for power as an end in itself.



All scapegoating explanations for antisemitism are irrationalist, assuming mass political emotions to be instigated by demagogues and the mass media who facilitate them. I have written about “projective identification” here: https://clarespark.com/2014/09/08/why-progressive-social-psychologists-make-us-crazy/. The illustration for this blog emphasizes the seductive mother, who has too much power in the modern world. Both men and women may be troubled by this usually unexamined ambivalent bond. Is Woman the Jew of the Home?



  1. I don’t know,Clare.I think the answer lies somewhere in a dark corner of the Human Soul.To quote Conrad,or Kurt; “The Horror.”

    Comment by Ron Grant — February 3, 2015 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

    • You know that I disagree with that formulation: there is no such thing as “the Human Soul” ahistorically considered. You might also want to consult Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. In any case, the notion that there is “horror” lurking in “the Human Soul” is not a Jewish idea. We consider bad actions as something to be rectified or “fixed.”

      Comment by clarelspark — February 3, 2015 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

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