Anti-Semitism without Jews

The ultimate 'full-circle' irrationalism of anti-semitism as an ideology is that it does not actually need Jews. There can be anti-semitism without a single Jew. This is precisely because anti-semitism is an ideology which claims to provide cosmic understanding. Central to the ideology are demonic notions which quite clearly transcend the material presence of Jews. Many examples can be given of this. Thus the identification of Jewry with the devil makes Jewry responsible for all satanic influences, including humanity's original sin—the Fall in Eden—which, even according to Judeo-Christian mythology, took place before the identifiable existence of Jews.

Again, if the almost unimaginable had occurred and the holocaust had been successful in its declared aim, then it would be ludicrous to think this would have been the end to anti-semitism. If anything, it would have been its historical triumph. The ideology would have remained, and if Nazism would ever have felt the need for a material presence of Jews it would simply have designated particular individuals as Jews. Indeed, Nazi law did invent its own definition of Jewry which did not necessarily relate to Jews' self-definition. Apparently in the Warsaw ghetto there was a Catholic church which opened for practising Catholics, who were designated as Jews by the Nazis, and who were destroyed in the same gas chambers as Jews (see David Ruben, 'Marxism and the Jewish Question', Socialist Register 1982). Similarly, in Poland today anti-semitism, under the guise of anti-zionism, exists even though the bulk of the Jewish population has been destroyed. Anti-semitism is apparently unique in that not only does it perceive its victim, the Jew, as having ultimate power, but this perception also remains even when there are no victims left alive.

Perhaps the ideologies of all class societies are based on a completely negative form of irrationalism—because such societies combine both irrationalism and negativity. Maybe if all other assumptions were swept away, then sexism and anti-black racism would also be exposed as resting on the fear by men, or white people, that women or black people had ultimate control. However, sexism and anti-black racism are different phenomena which operate in different ways from each other, and both operate differently from anti-semitism.

The distinguishing feature of anti-semitism is that for its ideologues the conspiracy theory operates on the surface—it is visible. No other assumption has to be pulled away for it to be revealed—it is the assumption. For instance, according to National Front mythology, even the very presence of black people in the U.K. is part of a Jewish conspiracy.

It is of course true that there have been historical periods where sexism has operated as an almost explicit conspiracy theory. For example, in medieval times, witches and homosexuals, men and women, formed, along with Jews, the unholy trinity of the Antichrist. In particular, images of Jews and of witches as sorcerers and defilers, were often interchangeable. Again, beneath the surface of much anti-black racism lurks fear of voodoo and occult rituals.

What gives sexism and racism their own unique irrationalism, however, is precisely the fact that notions of conspiracy are rarely explicit. They are normally quite hidden and therefore in this way harder to combat. It is not coincidental, nor any more reassuring, that there is not a plethora of explicit literature on a supposed world conspiracy of women, gays or black people. Indeed medieval witch massacres had to make a profoundly nonsensical distinction between witches and "good" women. There is no hierarchy of oppression but each operates in its own frightening way.

There is no reason to assume that individual anti-semites have an explicit world conspiracy theory—just as there is no reason to assume, for example, that capitalist traders have a fully worked-out theoretical appreciation of bourgeois economics. Many Jew-haters just seize on particular anti-semitic images of Jews—as bloodsuckers, usurers or whatever. These images have been within Christendom and accumulating, one on another, for nearly two millennia. In terms of individual psychology, false consciousness of the conspiracy theory is usually quite fragmented—individuals will carry around some anti-Jewish images in an ad hoc manner.

The distinguishing feature of anti-semitism is the success and persistence of the attempts which its most powerful ideologues, from the early Christian fathers, to the crusaders, to the Protocols, to the Nazi philosophers, have made to theorise it in terms of the conspiracy of Jews. The anti-semitism of daily life, whether or not it is understood by its adherents, all takes place within this theoretical framework. Moreover, popular consciousness about Jews, however individually fragmented, is sufficiently potent to be regularly stimulated by demagogues into a mass psychology—by demagogues who have genuine awareness of conspiracy theory. Fascist politicians in this century have well understood this.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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