What is a surface phenomenon


Prof. Dr. Werner Bergmann

Prof. Dr. Werner Bergmann

To person

Born 1950, works at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the TU Berlin. Main areas of work: sociology and history of anti-Semitism and related areas such as racism and right-wing extremism; Social movement theory; Forms of collective violence (pogroms, genocide), prejudice research.

Anti-Semitism is more than xenophobia, it is also more than a social or religious prejudice. It is an anti-modern worldview that sees the cause of all problems in the existence of the Jews.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. (& copy AP)

The term anti-Semitism today describes all historical manifestations of hostility towards Jews, although it was first coined in 1879 to justify a new form of a scientifically understood and racially justified rejection of Jews. This new word expresses a changed view of the Jews, who are no longer primarily defined by their religion, but as a people, nation or race. The word formation anti-Semitism is based on linguistic and ethnological distinctions of the late 18th century, in which the term Semitism was used to attempt to grasp and devalue the 'spirit' of the Semitic peoples in contrast to that of the Indo-Europeans. From the Indo-European and Semitic language families, one inferred the existence of corresponding races, i.e. the Semites and the Indo-Europeans or Aryans, whereby a narrowing of the term to the Jews on the one hand and to the Teutons on the other can be observed. In this respect, the objection often heard today that there can be no Arab-Islamic anti-Semitism by definition, since the Arabs themselves are Semites, ignores the point, since anti-Semitism only refers to anti-Semitic attitudes and actions.

Explanatory approaches

Since anti-Semitism has become the overarching term for every form of hostility towards Jews, its particular historical, religious, political or psycho-social manifestations are specified in each case using additions and speak of ancient, Christian, ethnic, racist, secondary, latent, Islamic or anti-Zionist anti-Semitism. This broad and vague use of the term anti-Semitism is not without problems, as it suggests a historical continuity and apparent omnipresence of hostility towards Jews - from the biblical Haman to Hitler, so to speak - and reduces the relations of Jews to other peoples to a pure history of persecution. In fact, there are explanatory approaches (substantialist explanation) that understand the inner essence of anti-Semitism, which remains the same at all times and in all places, as a hatred of Jews that arises from their mere existence as an outgroup with deviating customs among other peoples. The changing forms of hostility towards Jews would be mere surface phenomena.

This thesis of "eternal anti-Semitism" is rejected by others as absurd and dangerous, especially in view of the Holocaust, because neither the ancient image of the Jews, which moved between the poles of idealization and rejection, nor the later Christian hostility towards Jews or the nationalistic and Racist anti-Semitism is to be understood as a mere reaction to the foreignness of the Jews. How can it be explained that, despite the far-reaching integration of Jews into European Christian societies after 1880, enmity grew rather than declined? In contrast to the assumption of "eternal anti-Semitism", functional explanations of anti-Semitism assume that the causes, goals, forms and contents of hostility towards Jews change in the individual epochs and regions in response to specific social conflict situations and interests that do not necessarily depend on behavior and must be related to the position of the Jewish minority. Of course, the recognizable continuities must not be overlooked, as a culturally deeply anchored stock of anti-Jewish motifs builds up from the early Christian accusations to the racist enemy images, which can be updated and functionalized again in every epoch.

Forms of hostility towards Jews

If one wants to understand current anti-Semitism in its various forms, one has to briefly look back at the history of hostility towards Jews, in which a negative image of the Jew was formed. This picture has several layers, whereby the older prejudice layers were not "forgotten" in the next phase, but only superimposed by new ones and thereby transformed and adapted to the new situation (the medieval usurer became the modern finance capitalist).

Religious hostility towards Jews

The earliest layer is the religious hostility of Christianity towards Judaism (to distinguish it from modern anti-Semitism one often speaks of anti-Judaism). The degradation of the people and faith of the Jews became an integral part of Christian teaching and religious prejudice with the following elements: The Jews were considered blind and obdurate because they did not want to recognize Jesus as the Messiah; the accusation of murdering Christ and hostility towards Christians was raised and it was alleged that God had rejected them.

Since the 13th century, with the preaching of the doctrine of transubstantiation, which assumes that bread and wine are "real" transformed into the body and blood of Christ at the Lord's Supper, the Christian population also feared that Jews would become "enemies of Christ" Pierce wafers in order to injure the body of Jesus again (reproach of the host evil), and they would need blood from Christians for ritual purposes, which is why they would rob or buy Christian boys and then murder them (ritual murder legend). These fears of threat, which - around the time of the plague in the middle of the 14th century - also included the fear of well poisoning, turned the Jews into a demonized minority who allegedly had conspired against the Christians.

Economically justified hostility towards Jews

The special occupational structure of Jews enforced by Christian society since the Middle Ages, who are excluded from the guilds, property and civil service, specialize in the financial and commercial sector (money lending), leads to a second layer: the economically justified hostility towards Jews, in who were branded as usurers, deceivers, and later as exploitative capitalists and speculators. Closely related to this is the notion that the Jews formed a powerful conspiratorial group that determined events worldwide with their money. This is where the stereotype of the "wire-puller" belongs, the belief in a Jewish world conspiracy. Since the French Revolution, and again reinforced by the Russian Revolution of 1917, this has been linked to the idea that Jewish interests are also hidden behind political upheavals such as revolutions and wars.

Racially motivated hostility towards Jews

A new thought introduced racial theories and the social Darwinism connected with it, which transferred the theory of the "survival of the fittest" to human society and the "struggle for existence" between "higher" and "lower" races reinterpreted. Since the 1880s, the "Jewish question", which had previously been based on religion or economy, was declared a "race question". According to this, the "Aryans" were facing the inferior "mixed race" of the Jews in a historical final battle in which there could only be victory or annihilation. Racial homogeneity was raised to the highest value compared to a "chaos of races and peoples" that allegedly served the interests of the Jews. Racist ideas also shaped the body image of the Jews: from the weak, unsoldatic (stereotype of the "slacker"), ugly, stooped and hook-nosed Jews, on the other hand the fantasies of sexually threatening Jews. As for the Jewish women, the exotic image of the "beautiful Jewess" dominated.

All these dimensions of anti-Jewish prejudice have remained more or less effective up to the present and can be found in the updated form today. This also applies to the "right-wing extremists", the "left", the "secondary" or anti-Israel / anti-Zionist anti-Semitism.