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March 4, 2004

Panel Explores Roots of Anti-Semitism

roots of hateTraditional religious anti-Semitism is virtually dead, and no one (not even Mel Gibson) is likely to resurrect it in the 21st century, says William I. Brustein, director of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies (UCIS).

Vatican II’s absolution of Jews for the death of Jesus — combined with the rise of pro-Israel evangelical Christianity in the United States and a general decline in religiosity among Europeans — fatally undercut religion-based hatred of Jews in the West, according to Brustein.

“The continuation of anti-Semitism today is largely of the left. Much of the right-wing basis of anti-Semitism has eroded since 1945” he concludes in his book “Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust” (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Except among the lunatic fringes, racial anti-Semitism was debunked with the fall of Nazism, and the once-popular view of Jews as congenital communists collapsed at the end of the Cold War, says Brustein, a professor of sociology, political science and history.

In “Roots of Hate,” Brustein applied empirical methods to a survey of the traditional religious, racial, economic and political rationalizations given for hating Jews.

He examined — for the first time — average Europeans’ opinions of Jews in the 19th and early 20th century, as reflected in dominant newspapers such as Britain’s Daily Mail (pre-World War II circulation: 2 million), books and pamphlets; legal restrictions on Jews; incidents of anti-Semitic crime and violence, and economic data.

“Roots of Hate” was the subject of a Feb. 27 book presentation sponsored by Pitt’s Center for West European Studies and European Union Center. The presentation included a panel discussion featuring Brustein and three other Pitt scholars who praised his book but, in a few cases, questioned his methodology.

For example, panelist Vivian Curran wondered aloud about Brustein’s heavy reliance on newspapers in comparing public opinions from one country to another. “Are newspapers in different countries the same kind of source, or even a comparable source?” asked Curran, a law professor. The French monarchy began sponsoring a national press as far back as the 17th century, she noted, and by the 19th century a growing French bourgeoisie was reading the country’s comparatively uncensored newspapers. Is it valid, Curran asked, to compare the French press’s coverage of anti-Semitic incidents during the 1930s with that of, say, the German press?

Brustein replied that, lacking public opinion survey data, he wanted “to measure attitudes, and I chose the largest daily newspapers because I felt that these papers both reflected popular opinions but also shaped popular opinions.

“I wanted to know what the average citizen was reading about Jews, whether that information was doctored or not” and regardless of whether the dominant newspaper was rightist, leftist and/or state-controlled, Brustein said. “One of the things I found was that when it came to talking about Jews in the press, there were few restrictions and prohibitions.”

Panelist Ilya Prizal, a professor of political science and UCIS research professor of East European studies, said Brustein’s “extraordinary” analysis of European newspapers’ coverage of anti-Semitism “debunks the notion that Germany was pre-destined to be the leader of the Holocaust that took place between 1939 and 1945. That contribution in itself is, to me, enormous and indeed is going to be long-lasting.”

Most post-Holocaust writing suggests that the slaughter was inevitable, complained Prizal. But he insisted: “Personalities do matter. If Stalin had not died in March 1953, a Holocaust would have occurred in the Soviet Union. He died, and it didn’t.”

Panelist John Markoff, a professor of sociology, history and political science and UCIS research professor, suggested that “hatred of Jews both drew on, and contributed to, a more general murderousness” among Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

He cited atrocities committed by German colonial masters in southwest Africa: the killings of tens of thousands of native Africans, including many imprisoned in German concentration camps. Two of the German doctors who conducted medical experiments on imprisoned natives went on to become college professors, Markoff noted. Among their students would be Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death.”

German colonial administrators in southwest Africa “spoke of the extermination of racial inferiors,” Markoff said. “The colonial governor, by the way, was the father of Hermann Goering,” Hitler’s second-in-command. Markoff concluded: “The enmeshment of anti-Jewish hostilities with other hostilities is, I suppose, another very large project.”


Today, anti-Semitism is mainly to be found among Western leftists and in the Islamic world, said Brustein.

Hatred of Jews on the left puzzled him at first, Brustein admitted. Hadn’t Jews fought discrimination and exploitation? Weren’t they over-represented in left-wing political parties?

But then Brustein identified a critique, dating back to Voltaire and Marx and continuing to the present day, which criticizes Jews for refusing to assimilate. In addition, many leftists perceive Jews as controlling economic globalization, Hollywood and U.S. foreign policy — all forces of evil, to a lefty.

The dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in Muslim countries began with the creation of modern Israel and the subsequent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Brustein stated. Prior to the 1930s, he said, “Jewish-Muslim relations were much more benign than Jewish-Gentile relations. During the Spanish Inquisition, the Ottoman sultan gave refuge to Jews fleeing Spain. The pogroms seen in central and western Europe did not occur in the Islamic world.”

Brustein recalled that during Ramadan in 2002, Egyptian state TV broadcast an extraordinary series based on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a notorious forgery cooked up by Czarist secret police in the 1890s. The book purported to be the minutes of a secret group of powerful Jews plotting to sow discord around the world and eventually seize global power.

The Egyptian TV series was a huge hit.

What fascinated Brustein about the series was that it began with the narrator acknowledging that the book itself was a forgery. “What they said was, ‘We’re not going to argue that [“The Protocols’] is a forgery or not. What we’re saying is that the predictions of it, the plans, have come true and are coming true, and the Jews are doing this.’”

According to Brustein, many Arabs, appalled by images of Muslim Palestinians being killed by Israelis, asked: “‘How else can we explain the fact that the most powerful nation in the world, the United States, the superpower, has such an unbalanced policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue?’ — unbalanced, in their view.”

Opposition to Zionism or to the policies of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitism, Brustein said, although it’s not always easy to differentiate among the three.

Prizal argued that the tide of anti-Semitism has ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of Western liberalism.

When liberalism has been ascendant (for example, the period from 1910 to 1914, during which new gold deposits were discovered in South Africa and the world economy at last rebounded from the great depression of 1873), “harsh anti-Semitic outbursts are confined to what we would today call the Third World, the periphery, and viewed as barbarous, irrational things,” Prizal said.

But as liberalism fails (in the aftermath of World War I, for example), anti-Semitism and other ideas hitherto perceived as barbarous “migrate to the center and gain legitimacy,” he said.

That pattern has held true in the post-Cold War era, according to Prizal.

First came euphoria, as the Berlin Wall fell to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and communism imploded more or less peacefully (except in Romania). “It looked like the final triumph of liberalism,” Prizal said. But then came the Asian economic meltdown of 1997 — which Malaysia’s prime minister promptly blamed on a liberal Jewish conspiracy.

Since that time, Prizal pointed out, fundamentalism has been on the rise not only among Muslims but also among Jews in Israel, evangelical Christians (who increasingly dominate politics in such traditionally Catholic nations as Brazil, Guatemala and the Philippines) and Hindus in India (where, in recent years, it has become acceptable for politicians to speak of “Indian” science and genetic supremacy).

“History never repeats itself,” Prizal said of these trends. “But history does ‘similar’ itself.”

—Bruce Steele

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