The Clare Spark Blog

January 18, 2015

Is antisemitism ‘rational’ or ‘irrational?’

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

The Big Sleep: Bacall and Bogie

This blog continues the theme of my last blog:

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.

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 adherence to standards 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 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: 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?

November 16, 2010

Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews

Wandering Jew, 1901

I have written a great deal on antisemitism, often in a more comprehensive and experimental fashion than others, including academics. For an index of blogs on the website see

One Facebook friend has asked me to explain the Wandering Jew trope, so I am excerpting a few lines from my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. The paragraphs are from chapter one. It is important to know that Melville was not a Jew, but his radical puritan characters evoked the image of the Bad Jew in some of his academic readers. When I refer to Christian Europe or conservative Christians, I mean those Catholics and Protestants who were asserting hierarchy as natural in the face of upsurges from below in the modern period. (When I use the term Bad Jew, I do not mean non-observant Jews as judged by Orthodox Jews. Similarly, “Good Jews” refers to those Jews who are seen favorably by philo-semites.)

[Book excerpt:] Since I use the terms Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews throughout this study, some explanation is in order. Traditional Christian images of the Jews have varied since their gradual emancipation after the French Revolution, but there is still no mythic representation of the Good Jew, nor can there be, for the “Jewish” hammer smashes myths and all other illusions.


For conservative Europeans throughout the Christian era, all Jews were bad; good Jews annihilated this badness by converting to Christianity. The patristic Church fathers had railed against Judaism; it was not the parent religion, but their demonic antithesis, their negative identity. The Jews were materialistic, sensual, incestuous, hypocritical, legalistic yet antinomian, hypercritical of religious leaders, cannibals of their own children, money-mad, spiritually blind, and liars.[i]

The Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment exalted singularity, materialism, and natural rights, heretofore qualities or claims condemned in the Jews. Corporatist Christians deployed the late medieval myth of the Wandering Jew to attack the “Hebraic” radical puritan adversary. Ahasver or Cartaphilus, a cobbler, having refused and mocked Christ on the way to the crucifixion, was cursed by Him to “tarry till I come.” The sleepless, footsore, indestructible Wandering Jew, longing for death, was a fixture in European folktale; he was sighted all over Europe and understood as witness to the Incarnation, a corrective to excessive skepticism in the lower orders.

However the left Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley) and the French rural poor of the early 19th century appropriated and transformed the counter-revolutionary myth, constructing the figure of the Romantic Wandering Jew, the Napoleonic hammer-swinging little man who represented anticlericalism and hatred of abusive, illegitimate authority.[ii]

For writers of the Terror-Gothic genre, he was both Promethean and demonic, able to pass through closed doors and the thickest walls: like the repressed facts of the material world, he could not be excluded, contained, or incarcerated. To Byron and Shelley (and later, Yeats), the Wandering Jew represented their idealistic selves, the fully feeling and thinking adolescent who would never sell out, whose probing gaze punctured all myths to construct accurate pictures of social reality as the first step in ameliorating needless human suffering.

There was no European myth of the Good Jew, then; for rebels, the Romantic Wandering Jew was Good because he was Bad, and in moments of remorse, could be disavowed by his champions. For ex-left Romantics returning to classical order, genteel religious antisemitism, with its distinctions between convertible Good Jews and unconvertible Bad Jews, shaded into nineteenth-century scientific racism, rendering all Jews evil by nature. The ideology of scientific racism (still extant today), was a reaction to eighteenth-century liberalism and republican democracy.

Correlating “the rise of the Jews” (really market society) with modernity, scientific racists rendered all Jews incorrigibly evil, conspiratorial, and money-mad, religious Jew or apostate, capitalist or communist alike. It would have been easier to spot them if ethnologists knew what the all-too-protean Jews looked like. Could Herman Melville, religion, genes, and physiognomy to the contrary, have been a crypto-Jew? [End, book excerpt. For more on Melville and his revivers, see]

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

                [i] 38. See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: the Theological Roots of Antisemitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), Chapter Three, 219, 258.

                [ii] Champfleury, “French Images of the Wandering Jew,”The Wandering Jew: Essays in the Interpretation of a Christian Legend, ed. Galit Hasan-Rokem and Alan Dundes (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), 68-75. “Since the beginning of the century, [Ahasverus] has decorated every poor hovel, balanced by a picture of Napoleon. It seems that the common man gave an equal place in his imagination to these two great marcheurs.”(my emph.,  i.e., the Wandering Jew cannot be a conqueror or despot if Champfleury has to call attention to the pairing with Napoleon.) For the Wandering Jew as alienated modern artist see Edgar Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali; Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960). Rosemary Ruether sees the patristic fathers’ use of the Cain legend to represent the reprobate Jewish people as the typological ancestor of the medieval myth of the Wandering Jew, Faith and Fratricide, 133-134. See Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975), 16, 232, for descriptions of Christian strategies for dealing with the corroding skepticism fostered by persistence of the obdurate Jewish people: they must be either converted or humiliated so that their “abject state would then bear witness, testes veritatis nostrae, to the indefeasible claims of the triumphant religion of Christianity” (16). Christians might abjure rabble-rousing massacres, while excluding Jews from positions of authority.

Blog at