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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Intercultural Lexicon
IT Monday, 20 November 2006


Anna Foa

The use of the expression anti-Semitism to indicate hostility towards the Jews – only the Jews and not as generally thought towards all “Semitic” people – dates back to the second half of the 19th Century, when the word, a neologism derived from linguistics, was spread throughout Europe by an anti-Semitic German agitator, the journalist Wilhelm Marr.

Hostility towards the Jews was of course far more ancient, already present in ancient times, to then become consolidated in different forms during the Middle Ages, when the Jews settled all over the European territory, as small minority communities within a totally Christian majority context. It is however significant that the use of a specific word to designate anti-Jewish hostility arose only when this hostility ceased to be a natural element within society, and when the Jews were integrated in external society, undistinguishable from others and citizens in every sense. To tell the truth, even in previous eras, those in which more or less visible barriers separated the Jewish minority from the external world, it was hard to distinguish clearly anti-Judaism, hence purely religious hostility seeing in the Jew the deicide and obstinate denier of the Messiah, from anthropological hostility, which sees in him a naturally perverse being to whom one can attribute real or imaginary sins of all kinds, ranging from the Easter killing of children to poisoning wells, and to spreading the plague.

However, during the 19th Century new elements were added to the anti-Jewish stereotype with religious characteristics, all addressed at defining a Jew as different also as a physical person and not because a believer in a different religious faith: the idea of the existence of a Jewish “race”, inferior to the so-called “Arian” one; the idea of a Jewish plot addressed at world predominance, or in a complementary manner the idea of the Jews’ natural inclination to revolution; the idea of the Jews being physically different, distinguished by their noses or their uncontrollable sexuality, or their feminine nature, or even by their cleverness and intelligence. This because the myth of the intelligent Jew is also part of the anti-Semitic paraphernalia, just like the idea of the special charm of Jewish women, beautifully portrayed in its ambiguity in the novel by Gregor Von Rezzori, entitled Memoirs of an anti-Semitic.

During the last decades of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th this anti-Semitic agitation conquered a significant part of public opinion in Western Europe and led to violence and pogroms in Eastern Europe where the Jews continued to be deprived of all political and civil emancipation. In the years preceding the First World War the anti-Semitic movement seemed to end, to the extent that it seemed a residual phenomenon destined to vanish with the progressing of civilisation and science. The material and moral devastation of World War I and totalitarianisms brought back anti-Semitism and led to World War II and the Shoah: an attempt to physically destroy all Jews, never even imagined before Hitler, not even during long centuries of anti-Jewish hostility.

After the Shoah, anti-Semitism seemed a phenomenon destined to never return, such was the awareness of its catastrophic consequences. Simultaneously however, it assumed an increasingly paradigmatic value, to the extent that it broadened to include all forms of rejection of those who were ‘different’. Fighting anti-Semitism became a way of also fighting racism, hostility shown to foreigners, to black people, to immigrants. After having been a symbol of this mistake, the Jews became a symbol of persecution. However, within this transformation, while on one hand anti-Semitism broadened and universalised its meaning, as the interpretative benchmark of hatred of what is different, on the other it lost concreteness and reality.

Hence the risk of not seeing new phenomena of anti-Semitism, and its new political use in propaganda used by Islamic extremism, the new forms it inevitably ends up assuming in what the French historian Jean-Michel Chaumont defined “the competing of victims”, hence the tendency of each victim to exalt the primacy of his own suffering. But in spite of the risks, how can one renounce drawing universal meanings from the memory of the Shoah and compare its mechanisms to the modalities and forms of all genocides, both past and present? Becoming a symbol has always involved serious risks, and the Jews know this well, having given rise to greater hostility when they were absent or imaginary rather than when they were real and present people. Let us hope that this too belongs to the past.


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