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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012



Q: Which is preferable – the antisemite or the philosemite?

A: The antisemite. At least he isn't lying.

Is there such a thing as philosemitism? The concept is often met with skepticism, as this characteristically terse Jewish joke exemplifies. The term is certainly an awkward one, and it has an awkward history. Coined in Germany in 1880 as the antonym to another neologism – antisemitism – the word “philosemitism” was invented by avowed antisemites as a sneering term of denunciation for their opponents. Almost all late nineteenth-century opponents of antisemitism strenuously sought to defend themselves from the charge of philosemitism, insisting instead that they regarded the Jews neutrally and were untainted by prejudice either for or against them. This normalization of attitudes toward Jews has remained the aim of almost all liberal engagements in the field of Jewish–non-Jewish relations, both by Jews and by non-Jews, and from this dominant perspective philosemitism is almost always regarded as deeply suspicious, sharing with antisemitism a trafficking in distorted, exaggerated, and exceptionalist views of Jews and Judaism. Taking these distortions as the essential hallmark of antisemitism, it has seemed reasonable to many to regard philosemitism as a counterfeit benevolence, and philosemites, as Daniel Goldhagen has described them, as “antisemites in sheep's clothing.”

Yet this negative assessment of philosemitism is itself one-sided and prejudicial. Since the period of antiquity favorable characterizations of the Jewish people have recurrently formed a quiet counterpoint to the more familiar hostile stereotypes.

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