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Defining Anti-semitism

Jeffrey Goldberg's review of Walt and Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby is superb. Hopefully it will receive wide attention. I would add this historical note regarding the nature of anti-Semitism.

Goldberg writes:

"But since many people in the West are queasy about attaching the label of anti-Semitism to almost anybody, regarding the charge of anti-Semitism as itself proof of prejudice, let me begin by describing bin Laden's view of history less inflammatorily--not as anti-Semitic, but as Judeocentric. He believes that Jews exercise disproportionate control over world affairs, and that world affairs may therefore be explained by reference to the Jews. A Judeocentric view of history is one that regards the Jews as the center of the story, and therefore the key to it. Judeocentrism is a single- cause theory of history, and as such it is, almost by definition, a conspiracy theory. Moreover, Judeocentrism comes in positive forms and negative forms. The positive form of Judeocentrism is philo-Semitism, the negative form is anti-Semitism."

In my book, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust I argued that the distinctive and defining feature of Nazism's radical anti-Semitism was precisely the idea that Jews were at the center of mid-20th century history, that they had started World War II, made possible the alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, and conducted the war as one of extermination aimed at the German people. That is, what Goldberg calls a negative form of "Judeocentrism" was the core of the radical anti-Semitism that accompanied and justified the mass murder of the Jews of Europe. Radical anti-Semitism was a conspiracy theory that first and foremost defined the Jews as a political actor. To be sure, racial biology played a role in the Nazi worldview, but the most dangerous aspect of Nazi anti-Semitism concerned what the Jews were alleged to have done, not what they looked like.

Goldberg is quite right that many people in the West are reluctant to attach the label of anti-Semitism to arguments. Yet this may also be due to a deficiency of historical knowledge about what radical anti-Semitism amounted to in the 20th century. The attribution to Jews of enormous power used for evil purposes, what Goldberg plausibly calls Judeocentrism stood--and stands--at the center of anti-Semitic arguments.

Goldberg is right to draw attention to the depressing decision of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux to publish the Walt/Mearsheimer book.

Perhaps Goldberg's ironic suggestion that publishing the work will undermine such arguments is the case. But the book is there with the imprimatur of a prestigious press. The publication of this book should contribute to a diminution of that prestige. Perhaps the editors at one of our previously finest publishers are simply ignorant of the history and nature of anti-Semitism. Whatever the case may be, Goldberg's review deserves a wide reading and discussion.

--Jeffrey Herf