Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1995 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(4) (1995) 92-97

The History of Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred

Release Information: Films for the Humanities and Sciences (WGBH Collection), VHS, 150 min.

Why the Jews!?

Over the last century and a half, the question of 'the Jewish Problem' has assumed many forms. Originally, it was raised in the council halls of the newborn European States regarding the emancipation of their Jewish populations. How, the leaders of fin de siecle Europe asked, would we rid them of their provincialism, their strange manners and their bizarre attire, and make good citizens of them? Later, the phrase was invoked by the Nazis: 'the Jewish Problem' was now a question of their existence, Jews exist; this is a problem. How can we solve it? In both cases, the 'Jewish Problem' was a problem of the Jews. They are the problem.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the term has assumed a new meaning. 'The Jewish Problem' has come to mean 'our Jewish Problem.' That is, what is our problem with the Jews? These new scholars, Europeans of both Jewish, and Christian extraction, have sought to try to define what failure, what character flaw, what series of hurts and insults need be rectified to solve the Jewish Problem, now redefined as 'What shall we do about our attitude toward the Jews?'

Into this new and more enlightened 'Jewish Problem' enters a new PBS documentary entitled The Longest Hatred: A History of Anti-Semitism. Divided into two parts, it treats the issue of Anti-Semitism in both the Christian and Islamic worlds. Starting with Christianity, The Longest Hatred provides some interesting insights into the origins and nature of Anti-Semitism in Medieval Christendom and Modern Europe, culminating with the Holocaust.

The basic premise is well-known: the Jews betrayed and killed God. They must be punished. Following these lines, we can trace generations of government and church backed violence against the Jews, their ghettoization, their exclusion from all fields and professions except as middlemen, tax collectors, and usurers. The popular dislike for Jews caused by these impositions creates a soil fertile for the Jew-baiting of the Medieval Church, and leads to such atrocities as [End page 92] the Russian pogroms, the York Massacre in England, and the slaughter of Jews during the Crusades in France and Germany. The rise of nationalism, the failure of Jews to integrate fully, and the rise of their own national consciousness, fed latent Anti-Semitism in the West, and so gave rise to the idea that Jews are a different race, genetically incapable of integration, and requiring more drastic measures such as disenfranchisement, expulsion, and a host of other discriminatory policies.

The problem comes when The Longest Hatred tries to use this logic to explain the Holocaust. While 'classic' anti-Semitism denounced the Jews as heathens and sinners, it was unwilling to destroy them. Not because of practical or technological considerations, (the war in Rwanda has proven that genocide can be effected with even the most primitive tools) but because of the nature of Christian anti-Semitism. Christ, himself a Jew, had created a faith based on personal responsibility and personal morality. The Europeans, having internalized this God, had trouble living with it. The Jewish Messiah was the one who limited their behavior, brought guilt and doubt, and destroyed the pagan's joie de vivre, This was a new religion, and Christ, the moralizing, internalized Jew-turned-God, indicted mankind with the curse of original sin. We were all evil, the Jew Jesus said, we must all be in a constant state of atonement. But he was God, he had become the immortal and untouchable 'Jew Within'. The Europeans therefore turned to hating the 'Jew Without,' the bearer of this curse of monotheistic, pacifistic morality. By killing the Jew without, they were trying to kill the Jew within.

There is also the issue of defining by contrast. The Christian Church needed the Jews as a foil. By persecuting or demeaning the 'Chosen People' one proves that they are not truly 'Chosen' after all; the exploitation and degradation of the Jews can be contrasted with the glory, beauty and order of the Church. The Jews helped this process along. By eschewing physical manifestations of their God, ignoring aesthetics and physical beauty, by employing a literate and abstract vision of God in a largely illiterate Europe that valued power and visible wealth, they seemed to support the glory of the Church through their own outward state of decay. Jews did not create great art; Jews did not dress nicely; they had no physical proof of their deity, nor anything to point to as proof of his love for them, and yet believed in spite of it. Indeed, it was a point of pride. How [End page 93] obstinate they must have seemed as adherents to the sinister powers, and how paradoxical their logic in the eyes of the Europeans! Nevertheless, the 'Jewish Problem' was solvable: conversion 'cured' the Jew, thus proving that his disease and moral decay was only a confessional failing and not a human one. This is in stark contrast to the racist formulation, 'once a Jew, always a Jew' central to the ideology of Nazi Germany.

Indeed the problems come when The Longest Hatred tries to document the rise of Nazism. Germany, and its Nazi leaders were not following Christian doctrine when they killed the Jews; even if Jew-baiting had always been fair game, Christianity had reached a kind of perverse symbiosis with Judaism. Moreover, even though many Europeans didn't like Jews, they had never undertaken to kill them off en masse. Fundamentally, Nazi Germany took concepts of nationalism, tribalism and Aryanism as its intellectual base -- a blend of old Germanic mythology and modern nationalism. Hitler indeed had to de-Christianize his followers, and the whole Nazi propaganda and training machine, whether consciously doing so or not, was devoted to that aim. The S.S. were the Teutonic Knights; the Lord's Prayer was adopted as a hymn to der Fuhrer; mass rallies and pseudo-religious ceremonies at Nuremberg, and the conscious tearing down and rebuilding of the young men who were to make up the cadres of the SS, were utilized to this end. It appears that The Longest Hatred seems to make the mistake of viewing Europe as a 'Christian' society and nothing else, ignoring other, often more deeply felt social values in Germany at that time.

It was Nietzsche, and especially Wagner, who tapped into an atavistic German mythology, and created, or re-created the ubermensch , the super-being who had thrown off the shackles of the Christian 'slave' morality. He had shed the weakness that Judeo-Christian guilt had thrust on him, and allowed him to strive for 'greatness'. It was this greatness that the Nazis saw. Hitler was, at least in his own eyes and in those of his followers, a Zarathustra coming off the Mount to cleanse the people. The normative barriers of Christianity were a weakness, and should be eradicated, preached the Nazi Church. If we all hate Jews, why don't we just kill them off once and for all? It was a task that would require devotion, single-mindedness, and no pity. It would rid the masses of their complacency. By killing the Jews, Nazism reasoned, we are building a newer, stronger nation. Only when Jesus, the weak-minded Jew from within was eliminated would Auschwitz be made possible. [End page 94] The Longest Hatred, though providing a revealing and unique view of Christian anti-Semitism, ignores this. In viewing Europe through a lens that focuses on Christianity only, it ignores the other cultural legacies alive in modern, nationalist Europe. Christianity, while providing a fertile field for the seeds of Anti-Semitism, did not bring about the Holocaust, nor does being baptized erase other more atavistic beliefs. The Longest Hatred's insight is valuable; that anti-Semitism was practiced by the Medieval Church or written about in the Gospels is true. That the theological basis for it comes from an attempt by the early church to expurgate the Romans and implicate the Jews, in order to cater to the Roman masses that it hoped to convert is an interesting and daring assertion. It is not, however, the whole story, and to lay the blame for Anti-Semitism at the door of Christianity alone can do nothing but make many good Christians defensive.

The second section, which deals with Anti-Semitism in Islam, is even more problematic. We begin with the question: is Anti-Semitism in the Islamic world a knee-jerk reaction to the State of Israel, or is it more pervasive? In this section, The Longest Hatred does everything right, but comes to no conclusions. It begins with a discussion of the, Qur'an, and of early Islamic society. True to history, as in the first section, The Longest Hatred again provides the same careful examination of history: we learn that there was Anti-Semitism in the Islamic world at times, that Jews lived under what was known as dhimmi status (a minority status that denied Jews certain rights but guaranteed them their basic rights of life and property), and that there are Anti-Semitic texts in the Qur'an, but that basically the status of Jews in the Islamic world was good, until the founding of the State of Israel. Islam, which triumphed over the Jews, could afford a certain expansiveness towards the Jews which Christianity, reeling from the assassination of Christ (ostensibly by the Jews) could not. The Jews were a respected part of society. Again, nothing new here, but the representation is fair, well researched, and well presented.

The problem with Anti-Semitism after the founding of the Jewish State is also discussed. We see copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Arabic, we see Anti-Semitic caricatures in Arabic newspapers that are reminiscent of Der Sturmer, the Nazi anti-Semitic scandal sheet; shouts of death to Jews, and Jews denounced by Mullahs and Imams. [End page 95]

But the arguments seem to lead to nowhere. We hear denunciations of Jews that sound purely Anti-Semitic; we hear others in which Anti-Zionism is couched in Anti-Semitic rhetoric. Is Anti-Semitism in the Muslim world religious or political? We are given no real conclusion, nor a real way of getting to one. Fundamentally, since The Longest Hatred does not seem to wish to take sides in a political-territorial debate, there is nowhere for it to go. That Israel has not itself consciously decided what it is, but rather allowed a state to emerge out of as yet unreconciled splits and feeds within the Zionist movement does not help the matter, for the State itself is often unable to distinguish itself where the line falls between Zionism and Judaism. As America seems to find its way into the pages of foreign newspapers as a fat, drunk Uncle Sam, or a bullying cowboy, is it not surprising that the Star of David and the pictorial stereotype of the thieving, hooknosed Jew become distorted into representing for Israel the Anti-Zionist or the Anti-Semitic? This is the question whose answer never comes.

And so we are left to speculate. It is absurd and insulting that, as Hanan Ashrawi asserts in The Longest Hatred the Jews as a persecuted people should know better and be more sensitive to the Palestinians. Quite the opposite. Jews as a persecuted people are determined, first and foremost, to bring an end to that persecution. This is Israel's raison d'etre; it is absurd to think that it would allow the Palestinians, until recently avowed enemies of the State, the chance to harm it. The issue here is not one of 'I know how you feel' but rather 'once bitten twice shy.' In any case, the issue is more complex than The Longest Hatred seems willing to admit. It involves politics in which all the relevant actors are alive and well, playing on the stage, when the outcome of the play is not known. It involves the forging of new truths, rather than the reporting of old ones; we cannot separate religion and politics here. If the Jews were slaughtered for no reason other than for being Jews, the Palestinians would claim, we were made refugees for no reason other than because we are not Jews and do not wish to live under their rule; the Holocaust is not our fault.

In any case, when The Longest Hatred is good, it is very good indeed; it is clear, interesting and well documented. The issues it handles, particularly in Europe it handles well, even if it ignores many other relevant factors; its treatment of Christianity is balanced and true to facts. Likewise, with Islam, it [End page 96] deals with history fairly and comprehensively, a significant achievement in light of the Western media's tendency to demonize that religion. What it fails to do, in both cases, perhaps for lack of time, perhaps for lack of desire, is to ask the necessary questions.

Shlomo Shoham and Daniel Levine
Tel Aviv University
Faculty of Law [End page 97]