The Evolving Anti-Semitic Language That Makes Anti-Semitism Acceptable

For those studying modern anti-Semitism, 1879 is a watershed year, as this is when the term “anti-Semitism” first appeared. A reaction to the benighted Judeo-phobia prevalent in medieval Europe, the term “anti-Semitism” aimed to address the growing concern over Jews and modernity: a battle to overturn the emancipation of German Jewry as well as shed light on the fast rate of Jewish visibility among high-ranking professional positions in Germany.

The architect of modern anti-Semitism, Wilhelm Marr, who came up with the term, was very much a product of the Enlightenment enterprise. As such, he favored the emancipation of all oppressed groups, was skeptical about religious thinking, and favored evolutionary biology. Disenchanted by the failures of his political career, Marr turned his attention onto the Jews, claiming that their hasty emancipation led to a corruption of German institutions and the subsequent subjugation of the German national character. His 1849 political manifesto, “The Victory of Judaism over Germandon” warned that “the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness have overpowered the world.” A wily character, Marr knew that in order to sell his post-Enlightenment brand of anti-Semitism, he dare not employ medieval tropes such as blood libel or Christ-killers; indeed, he abhorred such ignorance as it was rooted in religious bigotry.

One may call it great marketing, but coming up with a new language to address age-old hatred of the Jews was, to Marr’s credit, both strategic and effective. It was strategic because Marr directed the hatred rooted in the racial character of the Semite, or Jew, instead of hatred rooted in religious ideology, which would have alienated him from his intellectual colleagues. It was effective because by 1880, anti-Semitism was normalized and therefore, socially acceptable.

Fast-forward to 1946 and we find a similar example of a new language created in order to express age-old Jew-hatred. Known, among many things, for their gift in crafting with words, or what George Orwell called “newspeak,” the Soviet Union saw two major peaks of government-sponsored anti-Semitism. The first coincided with Stalin’s final years during the immediate post-World War II years. Regardless of Stalin’s attitudes towards Jews and anti-Semitism, he spearheaded an anti-Semitic campaign that codified “rootless cosmopolitan” for Jew, for to be openly anti-Semitic in the Soviet Union was to go against the Lenin-Marxist Doctrine (in 1924-25, Lenin outlawed anti-Semitism). Like Marr, Stalin understood that in order to promote Jew-hatred, he had to package this animus in a language spoken by a Soviet Union recuperating from a largescale war where Soviet nationalism was quickly growing. A euphemism for Jew-hatred, the “battle against rootless cosmopolitans” aimed to disenfranchise ethnic Jews by showing them to have loyalties outside of the Soviet Union.

To put Stalin’s “rootless cosmopolitan” campaign in dialogue with Marr’s creation of the term “anti-Semitism,” both men sought to address problems facing their countries by justifying Jew-hatred as a recourse to, in the case of Stalin, a growing distrust of the Jewish populace in the post-war years and in Marr’s case, the rushed emancipation of Jews and the failures of the 1848-49 German revolution.

Later, Stalin’s fears regarding Jewish loyalties transmogrified with the birth of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, as he undertook a major effort to extend anti-Semitism beyond the Soviet borders, claiming that “dangers inherent in the world Zionist movement” pose a threat to the world. Although Stalin’s death temporarily stopped the threat facing Soviet Jews (it has been strongly suggested that in 1951-52 Stalin was concocting a plan to either eliminate or exile Soviet Jews), the anti-Zionist campaign relaunched after the Six-Day War in 1967, with slogans such as “Zionism is racism.”

What is fascinating in this evolution of euphemisms for Jew-hatred is that each form of bigotry is justified as a recourse to the highest source of authority within the historical and cultural moment. As such, if in medieval Europe, Jew-hatred was rooted in religious bigotry, the post-Enlightenment Jew-hatred of Marr’s time was deeply entrenched in science and social Darwinism. Following, Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitan campaign was validated by a leading concern over Jewish allegiance to the Soviet Union. Finally, anti-Zionism in Soviet Russia was justifiable as it was a remedy for colonialism, an affront to Marxist ideology.

Anti-Semitism is both the most ancient form of hatred and the most successful for it appeals to a society’s anxieties and is able to continuously evolve into the source of all of society’s wrong-doings. The Russian adage, loosely translated as “lessons from history are those lessons from which no one has ever learned,” points to the larger question of what we may or even can learn from history. As my professor of Soviet history, Peter Kenez, once said to a room-filled with college students, “history does not teach us lessons. But we can become a little wiser.”

If we are, therefore, to become a “little wiser,” we may identify a pattern in the evolution of anti-Semitic language: Marr countered that he was most certainly not a Judeophobe (the term prevalent during the 1870s was Judenhaas), but rather an anti-Semite; Stalin shirked off claims of anti-Semitism by claiming that he was not an anti-Semite, but more accurately, skeptical of the “rootless cosmopolitans”; Soviet officials in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s were not anti-Semitic, but rather against colonialism and therefore, anti-Zionist. Each form of Jew-hatred therefore, points to a moral compass that guided the anti-Semites: religion, science, nationalism, and Marxism.

Our wisdom to detect the pattern informs how we treat contemporary anti-Semitism and the coded language used to express age-old Jew-hatred. In the post-Marxist world, anti-Zionism remains a leading form of Jew-hatred because the moral authority guiding our prejudice and remedies to fix injustices has shifted. Bound by a common belief that society is governed largely by hierarchies of power, the moral authority guiding our principles thus places Israel and by extension, Jew, in the position of the powerful and therefore, unjust.

Furthermore, here in American within the social justice movement guiding our moral compass, Jew is synonymous with power for they have “white privilege.” To be a “little wiser,” therefore, means having to take into account the trajectory of cultural and linguistic coded Jew-hatred and realize that today’s form of bigotry against Jews is simply a mutation of its earliest self to fit today’s cultural and historic moment.

Q&A with Naya Lekht

Where are you from?

I was born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to America with my family in 1989. I came from a very Zionist-oriented family. My grandfather, who was born in what was then Poland, met Zev Zhabotinsky and spoke to me about his Jewish life growing up; he imbued in me a love for Israel, Judaism, and the Yiddish language. Like many Soviet Jewish families, my family was secular. For our family, Judaism manifested itself in pride over the Jewish people and our history. When we came to America, my parents sent me to a Jewish day-school. It was there that I learned Hebrew, stories from the bible, and gained a deeper awareness of my Judaism.

After high school, I went to UC Santa Cruz, where I studied Comparative Literature and Jewish History. It was there, unfortunately, that I also first encountered anti-Semitism directed against Israel. Although I am a firm believer in criticism, the invectives directed against Israel alone was without a doubt a sign of anti-Semitism. Dissatisfied with the silence coming from university officials and even from Jewish organizations regarding anti-Israel animus, I started a pro-Israel student group, Students for Peace in the Middle East. In an attempt to inject a balanced perspective regarding Israel, our group brought speakers such as Dennis Prager to campus. Although we faced several set-backs and attacks, we were fearless and as such were able to grow.

After college, I continued to pursue my love for literature and received a PhD in Russian Literature from UCLA. Although I was not as active during graduate school in terms of Israel advocacy, I continued to be repulsed by the growing animas against Israel and anyone who was a Zionist. My journey has been punctuated with a series of periods in which I devoted time to education and teaching. As such, I believe that Club Z brings together three majors passions that fuel my professional and personal growth: teaching, studying, and loving the Jewish people unconditionally.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee. Without. A. Doubt.

Why did you join Club Z?

I joined Club Z because I am a firm believer in education and am passionate about Jewish continuity and Israel. As a student of history, I am particularly attuned to the struggles and obstacles encountered by the Jewish people. Furthermore, my personal experience confronting anti-Israel animus on college campuses—both as an undergraduate and graduate student—shaped my desire to seek justice for the Jewish people.

Students often ask me why, for instance, I chose to devote much of my time and energy to anti-Semitism. I shrug my shoulders and respond, “I did not choose to study anti-Semitism. But its glaring presence has forced me to stand up. I have been called upon to stand up for justice and truth.” I therefore see Club Z as an amazing opportunity to bring my personal experience and depth of knowledge to future leaders—to help them stand up for justice and truth when the Jewish people may need them most.

What would you change about general education in the US about the Middle East?

I am constantly bewildered by the fact that when someone talks about the Middle East conflict, they mean the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To begin, the Middle East encompasses lands much wider than tiny Israel, Gaza, and the disputed territories. Second, and perhaps more important are the larger issues such as women’s rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of press which are largely missing from leading Arab countries in the Middle East. In part, I believe that the success of Western civilization rests on the shoulders of liberty, democracy, and educational reforms. To wit, these are generally absent from many Arab-majority countries in the Middle East. As such, when we teach about the Middle East, we must zoom out of the tiny Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has very little to do with obstacles facing countries such as Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.

What do you wish Israelis living in Israel understood about American Jewish life?

In terms of world history, Jews, and the United States, the American-Jewish experiment is without precedent. It is not accidental that at one point in Jewish history, America, and not Israel, was referred to as the goldene-medine (Yiddish for the “golden land”). But unlike Israel, American Jewry faces the threat of assimilation. Indeed, in a recent Pew Research poll, American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 75%. Likewise, if just 20 years ago Israel was one of four top foundations to unite American Jews, today its significance for American Jews is waning and for others still, divisive.

Israelis, therefore, must understand that the obstacles facing American Jews are not theirs: American Jews are not threatened by daily rocket launchings and menace from genocidal regimes such as Iran. Their threat is dormant and much more hidden. Likewise, American Jews should understand that when they try to “solve” the conflict, they do so from the comfort and safety of their American homes. My goal is for Israeli Jews and American Jews to recognize each other’s geographical context and unite, for regardless of our current moment in history, we are bound by a similar fate.

What advice do you have for freshmen going to college this fall?

My advice is to first and foremost, have a great time learning. Read the great books, criticize the critics, and engage with the philosophers! Don’t go to college on guard. Be open to all possibilities. But, when it comes to your Jewish identity and Israel, know that Israel is strong and can stand up for itself. However, if that moment ever comes when you feel the need to defend the Jewish homeland, know that when you stand for Israel, you are standing up for the basic right of being a Jewish person.

Three years from now, what would make working at Club Z the best decision you’ve ever made?

Although I am no seer, I know that an investment in education is a venture that grows exponentially. However Club Z isn’t just an investment in knowledge, it is a community of budding leaders who will, no doubt, contribute to the fabric of Israel and Zionism by ensuring the continuation of a vibrant, diverse, and strong Jewish people. I am proud to be a part of this community.