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Anti-Semitism, as it has existed historically in Europe, is generally thought of as having been a phenomenon of the political right. To the extent that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century leftist movements have been found to manifest anti-Semitism, their involvement has often been suggested to be a mere fleeting and insignificant phenomenon. As such, this study seeks to examine more fully the role that the historic European left has played in developing and espousing anti-Semitic views. The authors draw upon a range of primary and secondary sources, including the analysis of left- and right-wing newspaper reportage, to trace the relationship between the political left and anti-Semitism in France, Germany, and Great Britain from the French Revolution to World War II, ultimately concluding that the relationship between the left and anti-Semitism has been much more profound than previously believed.
Over the centuries, Jews have been variously characterized as miserly, manipulators of money, ultra-materialist, and possessors of extraordinary wealth. The pervasiveness of the link between Jews and unsavory economic practices can be seen in the not-too-distant past in the usage of such unflattering verbs as “to Jew” (to cheat or to overreach) and “to Jew down” (to drive down the price unfairly by bickering) and in one of the definitions of the word “Jew” (i.e., “applied to a grasping or extortionate usurer”) found in the authoritative Oxford Universal Dictionary, at least until 1955.
The history of the economic root of anti-Semitism, while not quite as long as that of the religious root, dates back to the Christian medieval period in Europe. Warnings against middleman practices are found in the writings of early Christian fathers such as John Chrysostom and Augustine. It wasn't until the twelfth century, however, that the Catholic Church at the Lateran Council of 1139 assigned a negative significance to usury. Usury had originally referred to the cost to be paid for the use of borrowed money. In the decisions reached at the Lateran Council, usury took the meaning of charging excessive or illegal interest on a loan. The Lateran Council asserted that those who practice usury, or those who practiced it but failed to repent, would be refused a Christian burial.
How did the levels of anti-Semitism in the 1930s compare to those of earlier decades? Did anti-Semitism vary in content and intensity across societies? In other words, were Germans more anti-Semitic than their European neighbors, and, if so, why? How does anti-Semitism differ from other forms of religious, racial, and ethnic prejudice? In this 2003 book, William I. Brustein offersa truly systematic comparative and empirical examination of anti-Semitism within Europe before the Holocaust. Brustein proposes that European anti-Semitism flowed from religious, racial, economic, and political roots, which became enflamed by economic distress, rising Jewish immigration, and socialist success. To support his arguments, Brustein draws upon a careful and extensive examination of the annual volumes of the American Jewish Year Books and more than 40 years of newspaper reportage from Europe's major dailies. The findings of this informative book offer a fresh perspective on the roots of society's longest hatred.
At various times throughout the modern period, the myth of a “Jewish world conspiracy” has attracted adherents. Jews have been accused of plotting to take over the world by undermining the existing social and political order. The myth of the “Jewish world conspiracy” springs from diverse sources. As one source of the myth, Yehuda Bauer has pointed to the medieval anti-Jewish Christian accusation that, as the people of the devil, Jews, like the devil, aim to control the world. Others have highlighted the charge that Jews aim to avenge their century-old oppression by Christians, or the idea that Jews inherently strive for national and/or world power. Before the emergence of revolutionary socialist parties in the last decades of the nineteenth century, subscribers to the myth that the Jews covertly planned to take control of the world believed they had proof in what they perceived was the inordinate Jewish presence as “court Jews,” advising and financing rulers; in the role Jews allegedly played as leaders and members of the supposedly antichurch and liberal Freemasons (a secretive international fraternity for mutual help, advancing religious and social equality); and in the establishment by prominent Jews in 1860 of the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle (the first international organization to represent worldwide Jewish interests). In more recent times, Jews were assumed to be the backers or originators of radical and subversive movements whose chief aim was allegedly to bring down the reigning national political order.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Jews were increasingly depicted as members of a unique race rather than as members of a separate religious group. Spurred on by European colonialism, nationalistic fervor, and fear of immigration, the new science of race dug deep roots into European mass culture. “Scientific racism,” or “race science,” referred to the ideology that differences in human behavior derive from inherent group characteristics, and that human differences can be demonstrated through anthropological, biological, and statistical proofs. During the nineteenth century, race science rose and gained respectability. To assert that race science won wide acceptability by no means overstates the case. Between 1870 and 1940, race science was not merely the ideology of an extremist fringe of rabid anti-Semitic demagogues. The belief in the existence of separate races and that fundamental differences among races derived from physical and psychological attributes was shared by all social classes and ethnic groups, including well-educated Jews. Proponents of racial theory held a firm belief that there are inexorable natural laws, beyond the control of humans, governing individuals and cultures. Arguments that territorial national sovereignty should be based on a culturally identifiable nation and that the superior cultures of Europe had the right and duty to colonize non-European areas of the world found justification in scientific racism.
The impact of scientific racism on European Jewry would be profound, for race science permitted anti-Semites to attire their hatred of Jews in the disguise of science.