Reflections on Some Aspects of Jewish Self-Deception: Part 2. Self-Deception in Jewish Historiography

Part 1: Introduction.

Part 2: Self-Deception in Jewish Historiography

In the introduction to this essay it was argued that Jewish historiography plays host to a number of key features of self-deception, particularly errors in perceptual causation brought about by neglect of contexts or ‘systems,’ self-interest in the attribution of blame, lies of omission, and exaggerated claims to objectivity. Here is it hoped to examine these facets of self-deception in more detail through a case study of a typical example of Jewish historiography on anti-Semitism. That Jewish historiography is rife with serious methodological problems, and generally suffers from a marked lack of scholarly objectivity, is fairly well-known. Some of the most astute comments in this regard can be found in Lindemann’s Esau’s Tears. Although not explicitly doing so, Lindemann clearly references neglect of contexts and exaggerated claims to objectivity when he writes that “many accounts of pre-twentieth century Jewish history move from one pogrom to the next, from expulsions to plunders, from hostile legislation to anti-Semitic manifestos –providing ‘just the facts,’ yet ignoring so many other facts and finally providing accounts that seriously lack depth and balance…it becomes easier to maintain – and relish – a narrowly moralistic and judgmental stance.”[1]

To these comments I would add only that in some cases, as will be demonstrated below, even the ‘facts’ provided by some of these historians should be treated with extreme caution. Lindemann identifies Robert Wistrich’s Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred [2] as a prime example of self-deceptive Jewish history-writing but refrains from giving it serious attention. This section of our analysis will therefore devote some effort to applying what we know about self-deception to this work, though other works will be brought into our discussion from time to time in order to demonstrate the widespread nature of some of the features being referenced.

Robert Wistrich (born 1945) is the current Neuburger Professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the head of the University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Born to Polish leftist Jews in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Wistrich emigrated to France and then Britain while still a youth. He grew up in England, and received his PhD from the University of London in 1974. Between 1974 and 1980 he was Director of Research at the Wiener Library, a piece of biographical information which is quite significant in itself.

The origins of the Wiener Library go back to 1920s Germany. In 1919 Alfred Wiener, a German Jew, was growing increasingly concerned at the rise of anti-Semitism following the end of the First World War. Wiener began working with the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (whose name was meant to suggest that Jews were simply a community of religious faith) to combat anti-Semitism through a vast number of propaganda efforts. From 1925 he perceived a greater threat from the Nazi Party than any other anti-Semitic group or party, and under his influence an archive was started to collect information about the Nazis, which subsequently formed the basis of Jewish campaigns to undermine their activities. Wiener and his family fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam. Later that year he set up the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO) at the request of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association.  The JCIO essentially continued the work of the earlier archive — disseminating pro-Jewish propaganda and conducting espionage and surveillance activities on activists known to be fighting Jewish influence. The ‘archive’ and the base of operations arrived in Britain in 1939. Increasingly the JCIO was referred to as ‘Wiener’s Library’ and eventually this led to its renaming. Still active today, the ‘Library’ plays a key role in shaping ways of seeing the Jewish past and present. In short, it remains an organ of propaganda.

In 1980 Wistrich left his role as Director of the Wiener Library and moved to take up a position at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where eleven years later he produced Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred. The book won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize and was the basis for the PBS documentary, The Longest Hatred — a three-hour TV film which was also scripted and edited by Wistrich. However, despite the plaudits and the widespread consumption of its central tenets, the book is shot through with falsehood, inaccuracy, lies of omission, and analysis so weak it strikes one as astonishing that it was produced by someone with academic credentials. Lindemann describes it, generously I would suggest, as a prime example of Jewish history-writing which features “a colourful and indignant narrative, accompanied by weak, sometimes tendentious analysis.”[3]

In common with many Jewish historians, Wistrich shows signs of a real or feigned hyper-emotionality in contending with his subject matter. In SAID Kevin MacDonald points out that “strong personal statements reflecting deep emotional attachment to Judaism are frequently found in the historiography of Judaism written by Jews. Books often begin with emotionally charged dedications to victims of anti-Semitism.”[4] This is certainly the case, but when dealing explicitly with the subject of anti-Semitism the emotionality of Jewish historians takes on a slightly different character. Jewish-produced accounts of anti-Semitism often begin or conclude with maudlin claims that the subject is ‘difficult,’ ‘emotional,’ or ‘trying’ for them to approach. At the extreme end of the spectrum one finds Anthony Julius who describes studying the subject at the conclusion of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England as “immersing oneself in muck. Anti-Semitism is a sewer.”[5] Wistrich refers to his “long-standing concern with the nature of anti-Semitism,” and describes his study of the subject as a “difficult enterprise,” which was “painful, often shocking.”[6] He describes the problem of why Jews have been disliked over such a span of geography and time an “agonising question.”[7] Given the emotional nature of such statements, which indicate a kind of ongoing trauma, the neutral scholar should already have serious doubts about the objectivity of these authors in approaching their subject matter.

There are two key elements to Wistrich’s theory of the causes of anti-Semitism. The first is that anti-Semitism is fundamentally linked to Christianity, and the second, related, element is that Christianity itself contained within it the seeds of an ideological ‘virus’ which infected Western civilization and continues to do so. In his articulation of these ideas, both of which absolve Jews of any role in provoking anti-Semitism, Wistrich’s theorizing is incredibly weak and often confused. For example, Wistrich concedes that “there was a significant form of hostility to Jews in Antiquity which preceded the birth of Christianity.”[8] Indeed, he even concedes that this hostility was provoked in large part by Jewish exclusivity. However, he argues that “this does not mean that the cause of anti-Semitism lay in the Jews themselves.”[9] The reason Wistrich gives for this exculpation of the Jews is that hostility was only “one possible response to the reality of Jewish exclusiveness,” other responses being admiration or indifference.[10]

This is incredibly facile reasoning. Essentially Wistrich is arguing that in the case of an obnoxious drunkard harassing three friends, if one friend finds it amusing and another just wants to ignore it, the drunk is completely innocent if he happens to anger the third. As an exercise in the logic of responsibility, this is deeply flawed, and it has more than a little resonance with the used car salesman who shifts moral responsibility from himself by issuing the warning “Buyer Beware.” It is, however, an excellent example of Wistrich’s error in perception of causation and his skewed manner of making judgments about responsibility. If anti-Semitism isn’t caused by Jews then, according to Wistrich, it is rooted in Christianity, and by extension Western civilization. Wistrich argues that anti-Semitism “became deeply embedded in the Western psyche.”[11] It became “an integral part of European and Western culture.”[12] It “no longer needed the presence of Jews at all.”[13] Even anti-religious Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Bruno Bauer, Richard Wagner and Eugen Düring somehow “inherited the pervasiveness of the Christian antagonism to Jewry while no longer believing in its scheme of salvation.”[14] Anti-Semitism, claims Wistrich, is a “virus.”[15]

In my comments on the ADL’s drive to indoctrinate our youth with a highly inaccurate history of anti-Semitism, I noted that influential Jews are keen for the problem of anti-Jewish feeling to be seen simply as one of “myths” and all that is required to combat anti-Jewish attitudes is enough “education.”

Underlying this simplistic and deeply problematic reading of the relations Jews and the peoples they have lived among over the centuries is a rather more sinister undercurrent. The offending “stereotypes” or “canards” themselves are viewed as being on a par with a highly infectious disease — with inoculation, in the form of aggressive “educational” treatment, at an early age seen as the surest remedy.

The concept of anti-Semitism as a virus is appealing to Jews for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that it shifts all blame away from Jews — Wistrich claims that it doesn’t need the presence of Jews at all. The second is that it is conducive to another aspect of Jewish self-deception — what Lindemann calls “the parallel instinct to view surrounding Gentile society as pervasively flawed, polluted, or sick.”[16] The specific grievances which go into provoking anti-Semitism are actually striking in their persistence and uniformity. Indeed, Kevin MacDonald notes that “the remarkable thing about anti-Semitism is that there is an overwhelming similarity in the complaints made about Jews in different places and over very long stretches of historical time.”[17] However, Jews have engaged in the self-deception that anti-Semitism is instead constantly evolving and mutating to catch up with them, and that this ‘disease’ is constantly threatening to reach pandemic proportions among the Gentiles. Jews avoid facing the necessity of changing their behavior by convincing themselves that no matter what steps they might take to change their behavior, the ‘anti-Semitic virus’ will adapt or mutate in order to target them.

Evidence for the acceptance of this self-deception at the group level, and the rampant employment of the discourse of disease in relation to those of European origin, is widespread.

In Resurgent Anti-Semitism: Global Perspectives, Bruno Chaouat calls anti-Semitism a “mutant virus.”[18]

The veteran Zionist and self-styled ‘anti-Fascist’ Michael Curtis wrote in his Jews, Anti-Semitism and the Middle East that “the virus of anti-Semitism is alive and well in Eastern Europe. … It is disconcerting that a younger generation in Romania, as elsewhere, should be infected with the virus.”[19]

In 2004 Ariel Sharon told the Israeli Knesset that “the anti-Semitism virus has woken again in Europe and is beginning to infect large parts of the continent.”[20]

David Birnbaum writes in his Jews, Church and Civilization: Volume II that the Church Fathers created a “uniquely destructive diabolical theological lethal virus.”[21]

Michael Fineberg asserts that “anti-Semitism is not a belief but a virus…Anti-Semitism mutates.”[22]

Nancy Harrowitz calls anti-Semitism a “deadly virus,”[23] while Gene Bluestein refers to “the virus of anti-Semitism,”[24] and Bernard-Henri Levy states that “anti-Semitism is a mutating virus.”[25]

That Jews view Gentiles and their culture as fundamentally diseased is made clear in Jerome Chanes’ where the author writes that “the virus of anti-Semitism is embedded, as it were, in the heart and very bloodstream of European society and culture.”[26]

Gregory Baum links this to related theories of Gentile pathology, stating that “all forms of hostility to Jews have inherited the ancient Christian virus and a legacy of insanity.”[27]

These are just a few examples, but they should suffice here to give an indication as to the scale and nature of the problem.  Clearly, the employment of the discourse of disease to refer to our people and culture deserves greater attention. In all these cases we find an astonishingly similar quasi-biological conspiracy theory, integrated into a closed system of belief in the salvationist role of the Jews, which has as its target the supposedly diseased European peoples.

Wistrich is typical of self-deceiving Jewish historians in his attempts to bolster the theory that Christianity is at the root of anti-Semitism. Lies of omission are at the forefront of these efforts. Wistrich focuses on a number of small incidents without providing adequate context or balanced analysis. Take for example his reference to the 4th-century Codex Theodosianus, which Wistrich claims “denigrated” Judaism as a “wicked sect” and Jews as “abominable” while simultaneously referring to Christianity as “a venerable religion.”[28] Straightaway the impartial observer can see that far from being a “uniquely destructive diabolical theological lethal virus,” such comments are standard in-group expressions. Moreover, Wistrich and his fellow self-deceiving scholars are notable for refraining from discussing similar comments emanating from Jews. One is left to surmise that Jews were overwhelmed with love for their Christian neighbours. In fact, these scholars fail to note that conversion was one route through which Jews could overcome being seen as part of a “wicked sect” and enjoy equal status in the eyes of Christians.

Contrast this with the Jewish view of conversion. David Sim notes in Attitudes to Gentiles in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity that decades before the writing of the Codex Theodosianus a Rabbi Helbo had decreed that “converts should be compared with sores.”[29] If such was the attitude afforded to converts, one wonders how Jews perceived their Christian neighbors. Sim describes “a wealth of evidence that converts in general were considered of lesser status than those born as Jews,” and asserts that converts formed a “sub-group within the People of Israel, and more often than not they were ranked near the bottom.”[30] Most Jewish theologians argued that this sub-group status would persist even in Heaven.[31]

But of course, Wistrich simply doesn’t see this. It is Christianity, in his eyes, which exudes hostility.

Very similar is Wistrich’s treatment of early anti-Jewish violence carried out by Christians. Wistrich refers to the AD 388 attack on a synagogue in the Mesopotamian town of Callinicum, during which the local Bishop ordered the synagogue burned down. Wistrich doesn’t go into the background to the burning at all, and merely notes that Bishop Ambrose of Milan wrote to Emperor Theodosius protesting that the Emperor had ordered the local Bishop to take responsibility for the re-building of the synagogue.[32]

However, anyone who has actually read Ambrose’s letter will be aware of a rich background to the events at Callinicum. Ambrose informed the Emperor that Jews had been responsible for the burning of two basilicas at Damascus, and others at Alexandria, Gaza, Ascalon, Beirut “and in almost every place in those parts, and no one demanded punishment.”[33] He added that “the buildings of our churches were burnt by the Jews, and nothing was restored, nothing was asked back, nothing demanded.”[34] Far from being an expression of theologically-inspired hatred, the synagogue burning at Callinicum was part of a much larger pattern of tit-for-tat inter-group violence in the region.

Moreover, far from being relentlessly persecuted, Jews were undoubtedly a protected and privileged population under the elite, as Ambrose himself pointed out. Indeed, even his intercession wasn’t sufficient to dissuade Theodosius from having the feet of every assailant on the synagogue whipped.[35] Five years later Theodosius issued an order to the Count in the East to punish any Christian who attacked and destroyed synagogues.[36] Wistrich’s presentation of the incident as a significant development in the rise of some kind of Christian anti-Semitic ‘virus’ is therefore little more than absurd.

Nevertheless, Wistrich and many of his colleagues and co-ethnics do see it in such a manner, and they further believe that the culmination of what Wistrich calls this “religious fanaticism” culminated in 1096 with the First Crusade.[37] However, there is a serious problem with describing the deaths of Jews in and around the Rhineland during 1096 as being related to religious fanaticism, or indeed to religion at all. Moreover, the scale of Jewish casualties presented by self-deceiving Jewish scholars such as Wistrich should also be treated with extreme caution. For example Wistrich claims, without citing evidence, that “between a quarter to a third of the Jewish population in Northern France (about 10,000 people) were killed in the first six months of 1096 alone. … Massacres took place in Rouen, Lorraine, throughout the Rhine Valley, in towns along the Danube and in Bohemia.”[38]

This is a complete fiction. Robert Chazan’s European Jewry and the First Crusade reviewed contemporary accounts and records from the period and concluded that only thirty-three casualties could be confirmed for the area at that time, some of which were Jewish murder-suicides committed to avoid conversion.[39] Chazan states that “the anti-Jewish violence was limited and restricted” and it “was neither general nor wide-ranging.”[40] He concluded that “the bulk of northern European Jewry emerged from the crisis months shaken but unscathed.”[41]

In relation to Wistrich’s reference to a notorious massacre at Rouen, the world’s pre-eminent scholar of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, has asserted that based on the evidence “it is unlikely that such a massacre in fact occurred.”[42] Anti-Jewish violence during the First Crusade was deemed so insignificant by Robert Payne that it didn’t feature at all in his monumental The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades.

One must also seriously question the role of religion in the violence that did take place. Runciman writes in The First Crusade that Jews during this period had ingratiated themselves as financiers to the kings of France and Germany, as well as the archbishops of the great cities of the Rhineland. However “the peasants and poorer townsmen, increasingly in need of money as a cash economy replaced the older economy of services, fell more and more into their debt and in consequence felt more and more resentment against them; while the Jews … charged high rates of interest and extracted exorbitant profits wherever the benevolence of the local ruler supported them.”[43] He continues that “their unpopularity grew throughout the eleventh century, as more classes of the community began to borrow money from them.”[44] The armour and the tools of warfare were expensive, “the poorer Crusader was often already in debt to the Jews.”[45] Violence, often threatened more than carried out, was based almost exclusively on extortion and attempts to wipe out debts or loot Jewish coffers.

The presentation of such incidents as rooted in religious zeal appeared in Christian and Jewish contemporary propaganda, but any serious historian is aware that such presentations should be treated carefully and with due consideration to the reason they were written and with reference to the tangible facts of what actually occurred. Any attempts to link Crusader violence with religion must take into account the contrary evidence that religious figures were often at the forefront of protecting Jews. At Worms the Jews found themselves protected by the Archbishop. At Spier, the local Jewish population was offered shelter by the Bishop, and a small number that were killed were later avenged when the Bishop ordered that the killer’s hands be cut off.[46]

Despite the rather modest facts behind these events, early Christian antagonism toward Jews and the economically-motivated attacks of the eleventh century have achieved a heightened, disproportionate, and almost mythical status in the Jewish consciousness. Kevin MacDonald writes in SAID that “Jewish religious consciousness centers to a remarkable extent around the memory of persecution. Persecution is a central theme of the holidays of Passover, Hanukkah, Purim, and Yom Kippur. Lipset and Raab note that Jews learn about the Middle Ages as a period of persecution in Christian Europe, culminating in the expulsions and the Inquisitions. The massacres committed by the Crusaders in 1096 in Germany became a central event in Jewish consciousness.”[47] Wistrich writes that “the massacres left a deep scar on the Jewish psyche.”[48]

Self-deception, in terms of deceiving oneself about both the cause and scale of conflict, is crucial here. Jews have convinced themselves that they suffered large-scale massacres for no reason other than that they were Jews, when in fact they suffered a very small number of casualties for the reason that their behavior towards the Christian population was hostile and exploitative. While Jews are often keen to state that Jews don’t need to be present for anti-Semitism to exist, it’s all too clear that persecutions and ‘massacres’ don’t need to have taken place for them to be present in the Jewish consciousness.

Go to Part 3 of 5.

[1] Lindemann, Esau’s Tears, p.16.
[2] R. S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (Methuen, 1991).
[3] Lindemann,
Esau’s Tears, p.x.
[4] MacDonald, SAID, p.263.
[5] A. Julius, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, (Oxford University Press, 2010), p.588.
[6] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.xi-xiii.
[7] Ibid, p.xxvi.
[8] Ibid, p.xviii.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid, p.xix.
[12] Ibid, p.xix.
[13] Ibid, p.xx.
[14] Ibid, p.xxi.
[15] Ibid, p.xxii.
[16] Lindemann,
Esau’s Tears, p.13.
[17] MacDonald, SAID, p.38.
[18] A. H. Rosenfeld (ed), Resurgent Anti-Semitism: Global Perspectives (Indiana University Press, 2013), p.124.
[19] M. Curtis, Jews, Anti-Semitism and the Middle East (Transaction Publishers, 2013), p.83.
[20] S. Lucarelli (ed), External Perceptions of the European Union as a Global Actor (Routledge, 2010), p.74.
[21] D. Birnbaum, Jews, Church and Civilization: Volume II (Millennium Education Foundation, 2005), p.272.
[22] M. Fineberg, Anti-Semitism: The Generic Hatred: Essays in Memory of Simon Wiesenthal (Vallentine Mitchell, 2007), p.301.
[23] N. Harrowitz, Tainted Greatness: Antisemitism and Cultural Heroes (Temple University Press, 1994), p.6.
[24] Gene Bluestein, Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), p.64.
[25] B. Levy, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (Random House, 2009), p.152.
[26] J. Chanes, Anti-Semitism in America Today (Birch Lane, 1995), p.408.
[27] G. Baum, Essays in Critical Theology (Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), p.127.
[28] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.19.
[29] D. Sim, Attitudes to Gentiles in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, (Bloomsbury, 2013), p.24.
[30] Ibid, p.25.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.20.
[33] J.R. Marcus,
The Jew in the Medieval World (Hebrew Union College Press, 1999), p.107.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid, p.157.
[36] Ibid, p.107.
[37] Wistrich, The Longest Hatred, p.23.
[38] Ibid, p.23.
[39] R. Chazan, European Jewry and the First Crusade, University of California Press, 1996, p.62.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] S. Runciman,
The First Crusade, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.63.
[43] Ibid, pp.62-3.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid, p.65.
[47] MacDonald,
SAID, p.215.
[48] Wistrich,
The Longest Hatred, p.24.