ANTI-SEMITISM is an ancient derangement, the oldest of hatreds, so it is strange that it lacks a more meaningful name. The misnomer "anti-Semitism" -- a term coined in 1879 by the German agitator Wilhelm Marr, who wanted a scientific-sounding euphemism for Judenhass, or Jew-hatred -- is particularly inane, since hostility to Jews has never had anything to do with Semites or being Semitic. (That is why those who protest that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic since "Arabs are Semites too" speak either from ignorance or disingenuousness.)
Perhaps there is no good name for a virus as mutable and unyielding as anti-Semitism. "The Jews have been objects of hatred in pagan, religious, and secular societies," write Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager in Why the Jews?, their classic study of anti-Semitism. "Fascists have accused them of being Communists, and Communists have branded them capitalists. Jews who live in non-Jewish societies have been accused of having dual loyalties, while Jews who live in the Jewish state have been condemned as 'racists.' Poor Jews are bullied, and rich Jews are resented. Jews have been branded as both rootless cosmopolitans and ethnic chauvinists. Jews who assimilate have been called a 'fifth column,' while those who stay together spark hatred for remaining separate."
So hardy is anti-Semitism, it can flourish without Jews. Shakespeare's poisonous depiction of the Jewish moneylender Shylock was written for audiences that had never seen a Jew, all Jews having been expelled from England more than 300 years earlier. Anti-Semitic bigotry infests Saudi Arabia, where Jews have not dwelt in at least five centuries; its malignance is suggested by the government daily Al-Riyadh, which published an essay claiming that Jews have a taste for "pastries mixed with human blood."
Esther Confounding Haman (Engraving by Gustave Doré, 1875)
"There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among ... all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of other peoples, and the king's laws they do not keep, so it is of no benefit for the king to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed." After winning royal assent, Haman makes plans "to annihilate, to kill and destroy all the Jews, the young and the elderly, children and women, in one day . . . and to take their property for plunder."
What drives such bloodlust? Haman's indictment accuses the Jews of lacking national loyalty, of insinuating themselves throughout the empire, of flouting the king's law. But the Jews of Persia had done nothing to justify Haman's murderous anti-Semitism -- just as Jews in later ages did nothing that justified their persecution under the Church or Islam, or their expulsion from so many lands in Europe and the Middle East, or their repression at the hands of Russian czars and Soviet commissars, or their slaughter by Nazi Germany. When the president of Iran today calls for the extirpation of the Jewish state, when a leader of Hamas vows to kill Jewish children around the world, when firebombs are hurled at synagogues in London and Paris and Chicago, it is not because Jews deserve to be victimized.
Some Jews are no saints, but the paranoid frenzy that is anti-Semitism is not explained by what Jews do, but by what they are. The Jewish people are the object of anti-Semitism, not its cause. That is why the haters' rationales can be so wildly inconsistent and their agendas so contradictory. What, after all, do those who vilify Jews as greedy bankers have in common with those who revile them as seditious Bolsheviks? Nothing, save an irrational obsession with Jews.
At one point in the book of Esther, Haman lets the mask slip. He boasts to his friends and family of "the glory of his riches, and the great number of his sons, and everything in which the king had promoted him and elevated him." Still, he seethes with rage and frustration: "Yet all this is worthless to me so long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king's gate." That is the unforgivable offense: "Mordechai the Jew" refuses to blend in, to abandon his values, to be just like everyone else. He goes on sitting there -- undigested, unassimilated, and for that reason unbearable.
Of course Haman had his ostensible reasons for targeting Jews. So did Hitler and Arafat; so does Ahmadinejad. Sometimes the anti-Semite focuses on the Jew's religion, sometimes on his laws and lifestyle, sometimes on his national identity or his professional achievements. Ultimately, however, it is the Jew's Jewishness, and the call to higher standards that it represents, that the anti-Semite cannot abide.
With all their flaws and failings, the Jewish people endure, their role in history not yet finished. So the world's oldest hatred endures too, as obsessive and indestructible -- and deadly -- as ever.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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