Reflections on Some Aspects of Jewish Self-Deception: Part 3. Self-Deception in Jewish Historiography (continued)

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.

Part 1
Part 2

Self-Deception in Jewish Historiography (continued).

As Wistrich turns his attention to the early medieval period, further examples of self-deception become evident. Language euphemisms and lies of omission remain prevalent. For example, Wistrich describes as “humiliating” the canonical restriction on Jews entering Churches without asking himself whether any Jew would in fact have wanted to do such a thing.[1] Similarly, Wistrich agonizes over regulations which prevented Christians from living, eating or engaging in sexual relations with Jews even though the very tenets of Judaism were designed to maintain just such a segregation.[2]

Language euphemism is rife in his description of power relations. These restrictions on Christian-Jewish relations, which simply mirrored those in Judaism, amounted to “ideological warfare waged by the Church against the Synagogue.”[3] Independent, wealthy Jewish capitalists and usurers become mere “economic instruments of the royal power.”[4] According to Wistrich, the Talmud, which in addition to its general anti-Gentile tenor informs Jews that Jesus will be punished in hell by being immersed in boiling excrement and instructs Jews to publicly burn any copy of the New Testament that comes into their hands, merely contains a few “anti-Christian statements.”[5]

Another manifestation of Wistrich’s self-deception is his persistent recourse to ‘images’ and ‘stereotypes’ as a way of explaining anti-Jewish attitudes. This is by no means rare among Jewish historians. In my analysis of historiography concerning the riots in nineteenth-century Russia, I noted that “those historians who have accepted that economic issues have played a role in provoking anti-Semitism fail to engage in actual case studies of economically provoked anti-Jewish actions, preferring instead to probe ‘images’ or stereotypes which allegedly infuse the consciousness of non-Jews.” I argue that this focus on ‘images’ allows Jewish scholars to only superficially acknowledge the economic role, while really lending more weight to their argument that European society has suffered some kind of neurosis. Such arguments deftly offer us a scenario in which Jews and economics play a role in the development of an anti-Semitic “image,” without placing the Jew in anything but a passive role.

I also noted that these images are devoid of gradation — Europeans, if they hold to economically motivated anti-Semitism, are said to either view Jews as pauper savages or global financiers—this despite the fact that most European peasants simply didn’t need to have these extreme conceptions of Jews, and probably didn’t. Exploitative economic practices by local Jewish capitalists, the existence of local Jewish monopolies, and the Jewish practice of in-group/out-group ethics would be more than sufficient to provoke anti-Jewish resentment. Kevin MacDonald notes the great reluctance of Jews to acknowledge real conflicts of interest in which their less than pristine moral condition may be brought to light. For example, commenting on criticism levelled at some portrayals of Jews in the works of Philip Roth, MacDonald writes in CofC that “the shame resulting from awareness of actual Jewish behavior is only half-conscious, and any challenge to this self-deception results in a great deal of psychological conflict.”[6]

Wistrich’s work is replete with efforts to avoid such psychological conflict via the replacement of analysis of real conflicts of interest with “images” and a great deal of psychoanalytical jargon. He writes that a “central stereotype which came to shape attitudes towards Jews and Judaism in this period was that of the usurer. Amazingly, he does this” without any discussion of the real impact Jewish usury had on Christian populations, or even the mechanics of that relationship.[7] He states that Jews were essentially forced into moneylending in part because they were prohibited from owning land.

However, as Lindemann states, “they were not moneylenders or merchants simply because they were forced to by the dominant non-Jewish powers; since ancient times they preferred these roles to others, for example, that were tied to the land or that required heavy manual labor.”[8] Lindemann also adds that “the belief that Jews could not own land ranks as one of the most often heard oversimplifications about their status.”[9]

Wistrich also avoids contending with real Christian interactions with the Talmud by stating that as soon as Christians discovered it, they became ‘infected’ with “the image of the mysterious Talmudic Jew, plotting and scheming against Christianity.”[10] The fact that Christians could simply be incensed by the demeaning, obscene, and to use Albert Lindemann’s term “proto-racist,” contents of the Talmud escapes Wistrich altogether.[11]

Wistrich further argues that the medieval period saw “stereotypes” emerge of Jews as “sorcerers” and “magicians,” and presents this as evidence that medieval Christians were repressed pagans or simply suffering from a mass delusion.[12] However, we have an abundance of evidence that such estimations of medieval Jewish populations were accurate and well-founded. Don Schwartz writes in Studies in Astral Magic in Medieval Jewish Thought that “astral magic” was “a major influence in Jewish medieval thought.”[13] Howard Schwartz adds that medieval Jewish folk tales were also replete with allusions to their own people as capable of sorcery, and were often based on real “rabbi-sorcerers” such as Rabbi Samuel the Pious of Regensburg and his son, Rabbi Judah the Pious.[14] In short, as evidence of an anti-Semitic “virus,” Wistrich’s recourse to such “stereotypes” is once more severely lacking.

Very similar is Wistrich’s treatment of the ‘blood libel’ issue. He claims that this “fantasy” was invented in Norwich, England in 1144 and encouraged “the most virulent Jew-hatred in subsequent centuries.”[15] Wistrich roots it in “fantasies arising out of the notion that the Christ-child was actually present in the wafers of the Eucharist. Guilt feelings associated with the act of cutting up and eating a small child, must have preoccupied Christian believers in the twelfth century at an unconscious level and would have been easier to handle once they were projected onto Jews.”[16]

Wistrich employs Freudian language more explicitly in his later work Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia (1999), in which he asserts that “if Jews came for many Gentiles to represent the repressed id of European Christian culture (its repressed lusts) they could also embody the intolerable constraints of its Christian superego, which were unconsciously blamed on Judaism.”[17] As usual among the psychoanalytically inclined, no evidence is provided for such a transference.

The employment of crude Freudianism is very common among self-deceiving Jewish historians, and the typical scholarly methodology of history writing is often abandoned altogether in favor of unadulterated psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis provides self-deceiving Jewish historians with the means of subverting traditional historical methods while maintaining some pretence to ‘scientific’ objectivity. Kevin MacDonald writes that “one way in which psychoanalysis has served specific Jewish interests is the development of theories of anti-Semitism that bear the mantle of science but deemphasize the importance of conflicts of interest between Jews and gentiles.”[18]

The influence of psychoanalysis on Jewish history writing is particularly strong in relation to the allegation that Jews have at one time or another murdered Christians in a ritualistic fashion. The American Jewish psychoanalyst Jacob Arlow wrote that the “the blood libel accusation originates from the projection of infanticidal and cannibalistic wishes from the Christian upon the Jew.”[19] Arlow either ignored or was ignorant of the fact that accusations that Jews ritually murdered gentiles, and cannibalized them, pre-dated Christianity by centuries, and that such gory accusations were commonly made between competing groups in that era.[20] He further attributed all antipathy shown toward Jews to a “psychodynamic constellation … a psychological predisposition associated with persistent unconscious fantasies, reactions to primitive, irrational, childhood wishes.”[21] Avner Falk, in his tellingly titled Anti-Semitism: A History and Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Hatred, described the ‘blood libel’ as a “collective psychosis.”[22] No better examples could be found of the malleability of psychoanalysis in the service of attaining ethnic goals.

Setting aside the important issue of bringing the anti-scientific methods of psychoanalysis into the writing of history, it needs to be said that the knowledge of Wistrich and his fellow self-deceiving historians is itself lacking. Norwich was not the site of the first accusation that Jews had killed Christians in ritual fashion, and rather than being a medieval “invention” it was in fact centuries old by 1144. The reason earlier incidences are ignored by self-deceiving historians is that such murders, which first emerged in AD 415 are almost universally agreed by experts to have taken place. The historian Socrates reported that on Purim AD 415 in the Syrian town of Imnestar, between Antioch and Chalsis, a crowd of Jews erected a set of “Haman’s gallows” in the shape of the cross. The Jews “intoxicated with wine” then “fastened a Christian boy to it and abused him until he died.”[23] Edward Flannery notes that even the Christian arch-apologist for the Jews, James Parkes saw “no reason to doubt the authenticity of the account.”[24] The culprits were later punished by the Emperor.[25] The actions of this mob were apparently the culmination of increasingly violent Jewish demonstrations “against Church symbols” in the region, which had recently involved the burning of crosses and the massacre of Christians at Alexandria.[26] Implying that Jews have never murdered Christians is as absurd as claiming that Christians have never murdered Jews. It is likely that some folk memory was retained of such events.

Other than the fact the accusation had a basis in reality, other arguments against the ‘irrationality’ of the ‘blood libel’ claim are rooted in other aspects of Jewish behavior. John Aberth writes that “as early as 1096 crusaders in Germany had witnessed Jews sacrificing their own families, including children, rather than submit to conversion … an event that was replayed in England in 1190. Therefore medieval Christians may have considered it just as likely that Jews would sacrifice their children as they had their own kind.”[27] In this reading then, fanaticism and irrationality do play a role – but in the psyche of Jews rather than Christians.

Finally, as I noted in my article on Jews in medieval England, because Jews enjoyed protected status during this period, “an attack on the Jews was seen as an attack on the king.” As a result, “some pretext had to be sought. A religious pretext, which might offer the protection of the Church, was thought viable, and in this atmosphere the allegation of ritual murder emerged. Gillian Bennett, a fine historian of medieval England and an expert on the use and reception of folklore, concluded in 2005 following years of research into these allegations that ‘where accusations of ritual murder where made in this period … it is more probable that they were cause celebres around which anti-Jewish feeling could crystallize, rather than the cause of anti-Semitism in the first place.’[28] A pretext — a ‘safe’ pretext under which one could forge an attack on a hostile, heavily protected elite.” Thus, through the application of logic, simple deduction, and sound methodology we can do away with talk of ‘the id,’ ‘psychodynamic constellations,’ and ‘superegos’ which leads those peddling such jargon into believing their ancestors were loveable victims of a psychopathic continent.

Moving into the Enlightenment and the modern era, Wistrich becomes entangled in the increasingly complex and bizarre, self-deceiving “Christian virus” theory. Attempting to explain why anti-Semitism persisted into a period in which adherence to Christian dogma weakened radically, he proposes that the Christian virus remained dominant but had “pagan, pre-Christian anti-Semitism grafted on to the stem of medieval Christian stereotypes of the Jew which then passed over into the post-Christian rationalist anti-Judaism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[29]

This is certainly an impressive mouthful, but in the absence of evidence it is completely ad hoc; it actually means and proves nothing and is instead typical of the attempts of Jewish historians to evade the rather obvious fact that in all eras and in all places the themes of anti-Semitism are unwaveringly similar. Talk of anti-Semitic themes “grafting” onto “stems” which ‘evolve’ and “pass over” into new forms simply can’t explain away, for example, the fact that we find evidence and complaints of Jewish avarice from ancient Rome, early Christian Syria, medieval England, and early modern Germany. Anti-Semitism is immutable.

In his discussion of the nineteenth century, Wistrich devotes particular attention to the radical German Protestant theologian Bruno Bauer (1809–1882). Again using the viral imagery, Wistrich describes Bauer as a “virulent racist anti-Semite,”[30] and his tract Die Judenfrage (The Jewish Question) as “polemical.”[31] Wistrich presents Bauer’s work as tracing “all the flaws in Judaism to an allegedly immutable essence,” and as “opposed to Jewish emancipation.”[32]

Reading this analysis of Der Judenfrage I was left pondering whether or not Wistrich had actually consulted the work, which has always struck me as an old-fashioned but decidedly reasonable deliberation on the position of Jewry within Germany at that time. Bauer doesn’t mention race at all, and his primary grievance with the Jews of Germany was that they appeared to be pushing very hard against “privilege” while simultaneously desiring to maintain Judaism’s “privilege of unchangeability, immunity, and irresponsibility.”[33] This is, in essence, a critique of hypocrisy that will be all too familiar to readers here at TOO.

Wistrich presumably also finds Bauer’s thoughts on the responsibility for inter-group violence to be more than unpalatable. Bauer asserted that “Of the Jews it will at least be admitted that they suffered for their law, for their way of life and for their nationality, that they were martyred. They were thus themselves to blame for the oppression they suffered, because they provoked it by their adherence to their law, their language, to their whole way of life. A nothing cannot be oppressed.”[34]

Of course, this runs against the grain of almost every Jewish work of history in existence — all of which do attempt to present Jewish populations as a ‘nothing’ — a ‘nothing’ which does not act, does no harm, and bears no responsibility—as a completely passive nothing beset by evil. Indeed, Wistrich’s book barely mentions Jews at all, and maintains that anti-Semitism doesn’t need Jews; when it comes to conflict, in the self-deceiving ‘Christian virus’ theory, Jews are literally a ‘nothing.’ Bauer argues against this very strain of thought, stating with conviction that “wherever there is pressure something must have caused it by its existence, by its nature.”[35]

Nor can Bauer be dismissed out of hand as anti-emancipation, or as calling for the oppression of Jews. Bauer points out that the very concept of “human rights” is a novel one, and one which is “not a gift of nature or of history.” Rather, it is a prize “which was won in the fight against accident of birth and against privilege which came down through history from generation to generation. Human rights are the result of education, and they can be possessed only by those who acquire and deserve them.”[36]

Bauer’s critique of Judaism in this respect was that a sense of equality and kinship was crucial for the concept to work. Instead, Bauer argued that Judaism demanded that Jews place their Jewishness above their humanity and that this was proven by the extent and tenacity with which Jews clung to their segregation.[37] Bauer took issue with the possibility of a section of the population maintaining the privileges of segregation while simultaneously reaping the benefits attached to civil equality. However, this was itself part of a larger critique of the manner in which he saw privilege complicating the spread of human rights within the state. Indeed, Bauer wrote that “Not only the Jews but we, also, want to be emancipated.”[38]

Bauer’s tract, far from seeming “polemical” actually strikes me as plodding, dated and old-fashioned. Bauer saw the solution to ‘the Jewish Question’ in both Jews and Christians abandoning religion: “This is the solution of the contrast, that it dissolves into nothing. The Jews cease to be Jews without the necessity of becoming Christians, or rather, they must cease being Jews and must not become Christians.”[39] Obviously Bauer lacked the foresight to anticipate the rise of secular intellectual movements, which facilitated a far more elaborate chimerical Jewish existence than anything he himself had encountered.

Conclusions on Self-Deception in Jewish Historiography

One of the main enablers of self-deception is the employment of language euphemisms, and this enabler is very prevalent in the examples of Jewish historiography presented here. Through careful use of language, Wistrich disguises the stories he tells us and himself, editing out information which may have negative ethical or moral implications for historical Jewish populations. Language euphemisms employed to describe the actions of Gentiles and Christians are uniformly negative, regardless of their mundane features or the real context behind them. Reasoned critiques of Judaism become “attacks.”[40] Attempts to regulate obviously exploitative relationships between Jews and Christians become “persecution and discrimination.”[41] Animosity driven by Jewish actions becomes irrational “hatred.”[42] Typical and unremarkable ecclesiastical edicts on Jews become “theological polemics.”[43] Restrictions on Christian-Jewish relations, which simply mirrored those in Judaism, become “ideological warfare waged by the Church against the Synagogue.”[44] Small-scale violence, in which a sizeable proportion of casualties were Jewish murder-suicides, becomes “massacres” and “slaughters.”[45]

Wistrich claims that the European critique of Judaism, which could boast the contributions of such eminent minds as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Richard Wagner, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Jakob Friedrich Fries, Hartwig Von Hundt-Radowsky, Bruno Bauer, Karl Eugen Duehring, Edouard-Adolphe Drumont, and Heinrich Von Treitschke was nothing more than a “disreputable, vulgar street movement.”[46] This is an excellent example of the Jewish self-deception described by Lindemann, whereby Jews are reluctant to admit that they have been “disliked for many reasons by a very wide variety of normal people, many of whom were neither emotionally unstable nor intellectually unsophisticated, and a few of whom were men and women of great ability.”[47]

By contrast, language euphemisms employed to describe the actions of Jews are unfailingly positive, and work to ameliorate negative aspects of Jewish behavior. For example, the tenacity with which Jews clung to their group status, which was taken to the point of murder-suicide by whole families, fanatical by anyone’s estimation, is described by Wistrich as “unusual social cohesion” and “isolationist particularism.”[48] Jewish usurers engaging in clearly self-interested exploitation of gentiles are described as mere “instruments” that perform an “essential function.”[49]

Overall though, Wistrich ensures that complicated questions of Jewish responsibility are avoided by keeping discussions of Jewish populations to an absolute minimum. Indeed, Jews are notably absent from the vast majority of Wistrich’s book — they are a ‘nothing’ which exists only to absorb undeserved “persecution” and “slaughter.” Far from rare, Jews are treated as a ‘nothing’ in most Jewish-authored works on the history of anti-Semitism. One great example in addition to Wistrich’s would be Jacob Katz’s Harvard-published From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700–1933.[50]

In common with many works of Jewish history Wistrich appears convinced that he possesses great objectivity, and that his work is impeccably scholarly. He describes his own work as an “empirically valid discussion,” despite the myriad methodological flaws, factual errors, and blatant biases which run through it.[51] Wistrich seems incapable of seeing the irony and contradictions in much of what he says. For example, he complains that Bauer attributed immutable characteristics to Jews while at the same time he himself posits that non-Jewish Europeans have “embedded in the psyche” an ineradicable ideological disease.[52]

Wistrich can’t see his own self-interest in the attribution of blame. This is a scholar ignorant of the influence his leftist parents, and their own tales of anti-Semitism, had on his psyche. He appears equally ignorant of the warped perception of anti-Semitism he would have derived from being immersed in the propaganda organ known as ‘Wiener’s Library,’ a facility built on the very premises of deception and self-deception.

This doesn’t even take into account the impact of Wistrich’s own strong sense of Jewish identity, manifested in his ardent Zionism and work for organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the ADL. These influences and others do in fact imbue Wistrich’s work with a great deal of personal and group self-interest. Finding his subject matter already “painful, often shocking,” Wistrich, like other Jewish historians, resorts to some of the standard features of Jewish historiography on anti-Semitism: an extremely narrow focus on individuals and individual incidents, and repeated acts of omission. Although most of the specific examples here are from Wistrich’s work, these ‘enablers’ are generic to the genre.

Having examined some of the key features of self-deception in Jewish historiography, we can now move forward to an analysis of Jewish self-deception in culture and politics.

Go to Part 4 of 5.

[1] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.26.
[2] Ibid, p.25.
[3] Ibid, p.27.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, p.26. See also I. Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (Pluto Press, 2004), pp.20-21.
[6] MacDonald, CofC, p.15.
[7] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.26.
[8] Lindemann, Esau’s Tears, p.17.
[9] Ibid, p.63.
[10] Wistrich, p.26.
[11] Lindemann, Esau’s Tears, p.72.
[12] Wistrich, p.29.
[13] D. Shwartz (ed), Studies in Astral Magic in Medieval Jewish Thought (Brill, 2004), p.10.
[14] H. Schwartz (ed), Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural (Oxford University Press, 1988), p.16.
[15] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.30.
[16] Ibid, p.31.
[17] R. Wistrich (ed) Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia (Routledge, 1999), p.7.
[18] MacDonald, CofC, p.145.
[19] P. Buirski, Practicing Intersubjectively (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), p.94.
[20] B. Bar-Kochva, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period (University of California Press, 2010), p.253.
[21] Ibid.
[22] A. Falk, Anti-Semitism: A History and Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Hatred (Praeger, 2008), p.51.
[23] E. H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism (Paulist Press, 1985), p.59.
[24] Ibid.
[25] H. Graetz, History of the Jews, Vol. II (Cosimo Books, 2009), p.621.
[26] S. Dubnow, History of the Jews, Vol. 2 (Thomas Yoseloff, 1968), p.191. See also Flannery, p.60.
[27] J. Aberth, From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague and Death in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2000), p.160.
[28] G. Bennett, “William of Norwich and the Expulsion of the Jews”, Folklore 116:3, 311-314 (p.313).
[29] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.44.
[30] Ibid, p.52.
[31] Ibid, p.49.
[32] Ibid.
33] B. Bauer, The Jewish Problem [Die Judenfrage, 1843], ed. Ellis Rivkin and trans. Helen Lederer (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, 1958), pp.2-3.
[34] Ibid, pp.5-6.
35] Ibid, pp.11-16.
[36] Ibid, pp.22-26.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.xxi.
[41] Ibid, p.xxvi.
[42] Ibid, p.xvi.
[43] Ibid, p.xviii.
[44] Ibid, p.27.
[45] Ibid, p.23 &32.
[46] Ibid, p.59.
[47] Lindemann, Esau’s Tears, p.xiii.
[48] Ibid, p.xx, & 53.
[49] Ibid, pp.26-7.
[50] J. Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (Harvard University Press, 1980).
[51] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.xvii.
[52] Ibid, p.xix.

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