Antisemitism and the mythological Jew…writes Chuck Volpe

June 21, 2016 by Chuck Volpe
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Time and again Jews have found themselves accused, ‘in the dock’, as defendants facing accusations as bizarre and irrational as those faced by Joseph K in Frans Kafka’s classic novel The Trial.

Chuck Volpe

Chuck Volpe

The accusations are multiple and diverse, and if by chance one is put aside, another springs up in its place. Always there is a sense that the verdict has been reached in advance.

It is hard to deny that antisemitism is a far more complex phenomenon than most people imagine. There is not much we can do about the hatred but we can alleviate the distress and confusion it causes in Jews by exposing its deceptions and the way it works.

I will start by drawing a distinction between what I call ‘antisemitism lite’ and full-blown antisemitism. While the distinction is not always clear-cut, it is helpful to distinguish between the antisemitism you can walk away from and the antisemitism you can’t.

‘Antisemitism lite’ is social antisemitism, sometimes called golf club antisemitism. This prejudice or racism manifests as a disdain or contempt for Jews. It is antisemitism at its mildest and can be compared to contemporary racism against others like Blacks or Asians, although this is where the similarity ends. It ends here because, unlike the Jews, no one accuses any other race of conspiring to take over the world or of manipulating the world’s financial systems or American foreign policy. Nor does anyone speak of other races as being inherently evil or in league with the devil. While I don’t wish to minimise the seriousness of any form of racism, full-blown antisemitism is different in certain significant ways.

At the heart of full-blown antisemitism lies the notion of delegitimisation. We are familiar with delegitimisation in the context of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its goal of delegitimising Israel, but delegitimisation is not a new notion when it comes to Jews. It describes what antisemites have always attempted and in many cases succeeded in doing.

People have a natural right to define themselves, but in the case of Jews, this right is denied by the antisemite. He appropriates to himself the right to define Jews and he defines them always as being deficient or lacking in some essential way, whether religious, racial or national. His definition, ipso facto, places them outside the framework of acceptability. Religious antisemitism placed Jews outside the body of the faithful, racial antisemitism placed them outside the body of humankind – as untermenschen or subhuman – and the antisemitic anti-Zionist places Israel outside the family of nations, as a people conceived in sin and therefore illegitimate. In all cases Jews are treated as being beyond redemption.

History has demonstrated the consequences of delegitimising people, whether as individuals or as a group. Just as genocide is the physical dismemberment of the idea of a shared humanity, so the delegitimisation of Jews and Israel is the metaphysical dismemberment of the idea of a shared humanity. To be denied rights that other people take for granted implies that Jewish membership of the species ‘humankind’ is provisional. It places Jews outside the human realm, and to place Jews outside the human realm is to place them outside the moral realm, for the human and the moral realms are coterminous. Finally, to place them outside the moral realm is to say that as far as the treatment of the Jews is concerned, anything goes.

How is antisemitism constituted and how does it work?

The first component of antisemitism is the lie. Just as Kafka’s predicament begins with the lie, so does antisemitism; the lie is its essence, and the more defamatory and extravagant the lie, the better. The lies are never intended to be statements of empirical fact so trying to refute them is pointless.

The second component of antisemitism is the ‘pointing finger’. Jews are singled out, placed in the spotlight and a leading question or statement is directed at them. From the start, the pointing finger sets the antisemite up as plaintiff, prosecutor, witness and judge, with the Jew as defendant. Examples are: ‘Jews wish to control the world’ or ‘Is Israel an Apartheid state?’ The question or statement itself has embedded in it the assumption of guilt.

The third component of antisemitism is a Frankenstein-like abstract construct which has emerged in stages over the last 2000 years. I call it the mythological Jew and this construct casts a fatal shadow alongside all flesh-and-blood Jews.

Antisemitism is not just a concatenation of isolated events but builds upon itself, over time adding accretions from Christian doctrine, folklore, superstition and pure malice. The result is a mythological representation of the Jew often referred to in the singular as ‘The Jew’ or in German ‘Der Jude’. This singular representation stands opposed to the plurality of flesh-and-blood Jews. Its most complete exposition can be found in the early 20th-century fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols depict ‘the Jew’ as a powerful and malevolent force conspiring against all humanity in a fanatical drive to take over the world. Often aligned with supernatural forces like the Devil, it is depicted with tentacle arms, a hooked nose and long teeth dripping with blood, a depiction clearly intended to frighten. With this in mind and under the guise of self-preservation, the antisemite feels licensed to ‘defend himself’ with extreme brutality.

This distinction between ‘the mythological Jew’ and flesh-and-blood Jews serves to explain why the antisemite is not necessarily being disingenuous when he says that “Some of my best friends are Jews”. He often has Jewish friends and he likes them. It is the mythological Jew lurking somewhere in the back of his mind that he fears and hates.

It is said that good people will do good things and bad people do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes an ideology. This hodgepodge of beliefs around Jews is just such an ideology and one which in the 20th century came within a whisker of annihilating Jews and Jewish culture from Europe. While its rivals, Communism and National Socialism imploded, antisemitism has survived into the 21st century.

How are Jews to defend themselves against a mythology so deeply embedded in Western culture and spreading?

We have to start by recognising that Jews are not responsible for antisemitism. They cannot get rid of it by going to charm school nor diffuse it by any amount of explaining, clarifying and pleading. Antisemitism is a non-Jewish pathology. They invented it and practice it and only they can eradicate it.

The study of antisemitism as politics against the Jews should become part of the Western academic curriculum. More than Holocaust studies, antisemitism as a contemporary political ideology should become part of syllabuses in political science, sociology and philosophy. It is a virus which constitutes a danger not only to Jews but to Western civilisation. Not to recognise this is to put everyone at risk.

Chuck Volpe is a retired businessman from South Africa where he served on the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and in the field of Jewish education. He is a staunch Israel advocate.


4 Responses to “Antisemitism and the mythological Jew…writes Chuck Volpe”
  1. Alexandra Landau says:

    Dear Chuck,

    I have very much enjoyed reading your article and do agree very much with your comments. I have moved to Australia from Vienna, Austria – my home town, you can imagine that there we are very much exposed to this sickening outlook about our race. Now living in Hobart since beginning of June I am looking for a new Jewish community in Tasmania. I was a member of B’Nai Brit living in Melbourne.
    Hope to hear from you again soon



  2. Ron Jontof-Hutter says:

    Hi Chuck, nice surprise to hear from you after so many decades!
    You are right about taking a new approach to combating antisemitism. Interfaith meetings have not had great results. I am sometimes told that Nostra Aetate which exonerated Jews as a people from the death of Jesus, has been the “solution.” However, apart from it not really making much difference, it does not apply to the non-Catholic churches. It also does not address the antisemitism of European culture and folklore found in art, literature, opera, music, fairy tales and of course politics including the Shoah, AFTER the Enlightenment. The basis of antisemitism is theological much of which evolved from Church founder Augustine. His insistence that Jews be forever pariahs, has never been repudiated. That should be the point of departure as it also involves Israel.
    Ron Jontof-Hutter author of the satire on antisemitism, “The trombone man:tales of a misogynist”

  3. Marta Mikey Frid says:

    Anti-Semitism is not a disease. By calling it a mental disorder we exempt its perpetrators from their responsibility for their hideous crimes There is no basis for designating it as a pathology. We have yet to find a scientific psychiatry that could provide empirical evidence to such a claim. It is the product of a political ideology masking itself as a religion in order to legitimate its economic interests. Its impulse is nothing more than the raw greed for power, and the ‘Fear of the Enemy” it deems necessary to mobilize toward the attainment and defence of that purpose.

  4. Shirley Zauer says:

    While I agree with the thrust of this well-written treatise on anti-Semitism, I have always been puzzled by the ubiquitous claim that anti-Semitism is a danger to Western civilisation. Why is it? It seems to me, perhaps naively, that it is a direct danger only to the Jews and to the State of Israel. The West seems to be just fine, other than the imminent danger of it being enveloped by determined Islamism.

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