From Judaeophobia to Islamophobia

Many books have been written on anti-Semitism. The past decade has seen the publication, in today’s Europe, of a flood of writings on hostility to Arabs and Islam. And yet, very few researchers have located the Judaeophobia which appeared during the second half of the 19th century at the root of contemporary European nation-building. Similarly, very few research proposals have examined the role of Islamophobia in today’s effort to construct European unity. Of course, works have been published on the emergence of hostility to Islam, but the issue has not been investigated in depth, on the cultural level, for Europe as a whole. Even rarer are studies comparing the Judaeophobia of the past with modern Islamophobia, as companion phenomena to the formation of modern societies.
The Jew served as a sort of boundary marker for the nation, a feature of the anti-Semitic century from around 1850 to about 1950. Mass democratisation in Europe opened the way to a political Judaeophobia that gradually replaced the traditional popular hostility inherited from Christianity. The modern national mass society needed different adversaries to define its new outlines. In general this role fell to the closest geographical neighbours differentiated either by a specific dialect, or by their former inclusion in other kingdoms. The need for an internal enemy depended on whether the areas in question had formed part of a common prenational kingdom able to establish the foundations of a cultural and linguistic unity, or whether they were ruled by regimes whose culture and politics were less securely integrated.
The image of the hated Jew as an element not forming part of the nation is obviously rooted in the persistence of a number of Christian beliefs. For Catholics, as for Orthodox Christians, Jews still appear as deicides, deserving to be chastised for their sins. At the dawn of Christianity this hostility was directed against the proselytizing Jew; in the modern era the stigma fell on the Jew cultivating his particularism, wrapping himself in his religion and considering himself God’s elect. The loosening of the churches’ grip and the spread of secularism shook the walls behind which the Jews were kept, and behind which they sheltered. Their emergence from the ghetto gave rise to new symbioses, and after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests the way was open for the integration of Jews under the new social arrangements.
In some respects, the Jews quickly appeared to be important carriers of the national idea. A significant proportion of Jews, petty-bourgeois and even bourgeois town-dwellers, figured among the leading citizens in England, France and Germany. At a time when few peasants, in Europe, could understand the administrative languages that would soon be established as national languages, a large segment of the Jews had already mastered spoken and written official French and High German; the same was true in other countries of western and central Europe. So the characterization of the Jew as an enemy of the nation was not necessarily based on visible differences, at least in western and central Europe. In eastern Europe, by contrast, ‘Yiddish’ Jews differed from their neighbours not only in their religious observances but in some of their secular cultural practices. The first expressions of nationalism in the late 19th century Russian empire (in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania) specifically excluded Yiddish-speaking Jews living in their territories from the national group. This rejection was accompanied by severe discriminations and even pogroms. The pioneers of the new nations undertook to drive out the Jews, who started to migrate into central and western Europe in very large numbers. This mass migration had the effect of fuelling anti-Semitism in the metropolitan heartlands. The new local urban masses, in the process of national integration, were now confronted with the wandering foreign Jew, who could easily be represented as a threat to the still-fragile national identity. The communications apparatus, that essential nation-building instrument, used anti-immigrant friction to shape and smooth out the collective identity serving as a cornerstone of the nation state.
All roads may lead to Rome but they don’t all lead to Auschwitz. The role of anti-Semitism in the constitution of nations did not give rise, in the majority of cases, to murderous fury or extermination plans; but it obviously permitted some level of collaboration with these things. In Europe, apart from the barbaric cultural genocide, the anti-Semitic century had the effect of hampering the integration of Europeans of Jewish descent, and even expelling numbers of them from the continent. Anti-Semitism cooled with the arrival of the ‘cold war’, synonymous with the identification of new enemies in both East and West, and seems to have been consigned to the dustbins of history. While it still persists in Europe, today’s anti-Semitism is no longer political, but exists predominantly in the psychological and cultural spheres, and is corralled on the fringes of society.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the ‘cold war’ accelerated European integration and, correspondingly, generated the need for a new common enemy. The bitter taste left in European countries by decolonization, as well as the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived over thirty years of unprecedented economic growth, and who, absorbed into the world of labour, settled permanently in a Europe in crisis, marked out the trail for the emergence of a ‘new demon’. A political Islamophobia has started to snort and kick the sides of its stall, more or less everywhere in Europe. A fashionable new concept — ‘Judaeo-Christian civilization’ — is attempting to redefine the frontiers of European identity. The Muslim or Arab is the new enemy, against whom the process of unifying a federation of ‘Enlightenment’ cultures can take solid form. Like the head of the Italian government, the Pope in a sermon, the French president expressing his understanding for the Swiss referendum on minarets, none of the political elites have hesitated to add their voices to the rising clamour against the new outsiders. The instrumentalization of popular anxieties about Islam has become an accepted phenomenon, propagated by the media. Cultural dam gates have been opened and the far right, once anti-Semitic, has changed the banner it marches under, now choosing more and more openly an anti-Islam, anti-Arab standard.
It is certainly true that the two phenomena are not the same, and we all know that History never repeats itself. Yet, although they are not identical, it is worth asking: can the role played by political Judaeophobia in nation-building in Europe be compared with that of Islamophobia in the renewed continent-building effort?

Shlomo Sand

Shlomo Sand

Shlomo Sand studied history at the University of Tel Aviv and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. He currently teaches contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv. His other books include L’Illusion du politique: Georges Sorel et le debat intellectual 1900, Georges Sorel en son temps, Le XXe siècle a l’ecran and Les Mots et la Terre: Les Intellectuels en Israel.

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