Anti-semitism in the modern world has been a major influence in shaping Jewish identity. Its effect has been ambiguous, and not clearly predictable in each instance. At times anti-Semitism has served to squeeze Jews back into the externally devalued group from which they were trying to escape, producing mild or severe rejections of self. But it has also had entirely the opposite effect, creating a renewed affirmation of Jewishness.
Among premodern Jews, anti-Semitism rarely led to an attenuation of Jewish identity. It served, rather, to reinforce it. For anti-Semitism was believed to be part of the divine plan which God had determined for Israel. Exiled from the holy land on account of their sins, Jews expected to suffer at the hands of the Gentiles until such time as the messiah would put an end to their travails. The nations of the earth who tormented them were all actors on the stage of that drama, God’s agents in dealing with His chosen people. What Gentiles thought of the Jews did not really matter; their views were unable to puncture the firm belief that the Jews continued to be the chosen people, theologically at the very center of world history even as it swirled around them, making them the objects rather than the subjects of historical events. Thus the more Jews were persecuted, the more they clung to their own faith. If necessary, they would die as martyrs in sanctification of God’s name.
It was the European Enlightenment which inaugurated the identity crisis for modern Jews, as it drew them to new perspectives from which they began to question the content of their Jewishness. The Enlightenment promise of equality for all humankind extracted the vigor from the belief of the Jews in their own theological centrality. They could no longer see the nations of the earth as simply tools in the hands of God to chastise His people. And if the Gentiles were not mere instruments, then their views mattered. As long as those views bespoke acceptance of the Jews and their integration into society, they did not produce severe identity problems. What might now be required was a greater stress on the universalist foundation of Judaism—this was the requirement which the 18th-century German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn sought to satisfy—and the shape that Judaism would assume in the modern world might be a matter of debate. But one could still grow up as a Jew without a sense of shame about one’s origins and affiliation.
Yet from the start, acceptance was mingled with rejection, the enticements of Enlightenment balanced by the rebuffs of anti-Semitism. More cruelly, periods of relative tolerance fostered hopes of true equality, weakening particular Jewish identifications, only to be followed by renewed rejection just when the armor of self-assurance had been put aside. Charges to which Jews had earlier been internally invulnerable—exclusiveness or deviant ethnic characteristics—now cut them to the quick. For once they had begun to share in the thinking of non-Jews in matters of science, philosophy, and art, it was not easy for them to declare, “Yet in your prejudice against the Jews you are completely wrong.” To varying degrees and in increasing numbers, modern Jews began to agree with the anti-Semites’ image of their own group, with mild or severe consequences for their Jewish identity.
The milder consequences have been so widespread that it is possible to speak of them in general terms without reference to specific individuals or events. Most common has been the division into “good Jews” and “bad Jews.” The former are those least subject to criticism by Gentiles. They are clean, soft-spoken, assimilated, hardworking, and scrupulously moral. They contribute to society but do not push themselves forward too much. Reading of their accomplishments in the newspapers therefore instills inordinate pride and pleasure. As for the bad Jews, they represent the mirror image and nemesis of the good Jews. There is a need to dissociate oneself from them, since they encourage the anti-Semitism that is bound to strike down the good Jews along with the bad. Hypersensitivity to the actions of the bad Jews is the counterpart of exaggerated satisfaction in the accomplishments of the good.
Anti-Semitism draws scrutiny also to the self. The Jew who feels rebuffed by Gentiles inevitably asks himself: “Was it I who erred by some inappropriate word or act, or was it my Jewishness that gave offense irrespective of what I said or did?” The effect of this uncertainty is recurrent anxiety that taxes emotional equilibrium. This in turn produces a strenuous effort to disguise one’s Jewish identity so as to prevent it from becoming a calling card. Only after one’s virtue has been established is it safe to reveal that one is Jewish, since one can now be reasonably confident that the anti-Semitic Gentile will acknowledge one as an exception to his rule about Jews.
A few sample strategies will illustrate the point. Perhaps the most common is simply the attempt not to give away Jewish identity too early in a relationship by some stereotypically Jewish word, gesture, or reference. The historian Celia Heller notes that in interwar Poland the Jewish assimilationists
were so obsessed with Jewish traits as discrediting symbols that discovering the traits became a game in which they tried to outdo one another. Much of the gossip among them revolved around the Jewish signs that reappeared in others in unguarded moments, and around their discovery in people who had been hitherto successful in not revealing them.
Then there are names. Those Jews most concerned with their image in the eyes of non-Jews have changed Cohen and Levy to Corbett and Lane, Abraham and Moses to Albert and Morris. (When the Austrian Prime Minister once asked the Jewish deputy from Galicia, Joseph Bloch, whether Archbishop Theodor Cohen of Olmütz was really a convert, he replied: “Never fear, your Excellency, if he were still a Jew he would no longer be called Cohen.”) A similar attempt at disguise is the alteration of prominent physical characteristics that supposedly mark one as Jewish. (Erik Erikson relates the case of a psychiatric Jewish patient whose large nose convinced him “that the only true savior for the Jews would be a plastic surgeon.”) A less extreme way of hiding Jewishness is to overcompensate for Gentile prejudice by taking on character traits at the furthest remove from the negative Jewish stereotype: for example, unbridled generosity, immaculate dress, and impeccable manners.
Yet the fear of rejection also has a social effect that tends to strengthen Jewish identity. In the desire to escape the anxiety of being a Jew in the world of Gentiles, Jews have preferred to mix socially with one another. Even as the presence of Gentiles has made Jews ill-at-ease, they have been more comfortable among fellow Jews where they could “let their hair down” and not feel they had to be on their best behavior. This phenomenon is encapsulated in the old anecdote about an East European Jew, dressed in distinguishably Jewish clothing, who enters a train compartment and makes himself at home by putting his feet up on the cushion of the seat opposite his. When a fashionably dressed foreigner enters, the Jew immediately pulls back his dirty shoes and begs the gentleman’s pardon. The newcomer then turns to him and says: “Are you traveling home for Passover?” Thereupon the first Jew, recognizing a co-religionist in the stranger, calmly puts his feet back on the seat.
Remarkably, even those modern Jews who gave up official identification with Jews entirely, by converting to Christianity, often associated almost exclusively with fellow converts. In Germany they were referred to as Taufjuden, baptized Jews. They had not really become Christians but had taken on a borderline identity in which they still feared the verdict of the Gentile.
In retrospect, Jewish embarrassments of this kind seem to have been especially prevalent at times when anti-Semitism was moderately strong, but not so virulent as to make the attempt at gaining acceptance futile. In present-day America both the lower level of social anti-Semitism and, from the Jewish side, the decreased sensitivity to “what the Gentiles might say” have reduced the anxiety. In fact, one can detect an opposite reaction in the appearance of large and prominently worn Jewish symbols—especially the magen david and the chai (the Hebrew word for “lives,” from the expression “the people of Israel lives”). For many contemporary Jews hiding Jewishness has given way to flaunting it.
In the more densely anti-Semitic atmosphere of 19th-century Germany, the hatred of Jews sometimes produced the extreme and pathological phenomenon that has been called Jewish self-hatred. I use the term here in a narrow sense: as a loathing of that in oneself which one deems to be Jewish and wishes to expunge but cannot. It is a form of crying (in the language of Lady Macbeth): “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Yet the spot remains and one feels sullied by it. In the psyche of creative individuals this ineradicable awareness of one’s somehow filthy Jewishness can result in a structure of ideas so far removed from reality as to allow of no other explanation than pathology.
One prominent case, Karl Marx, was nominally a Christian from the age of six, when his father brought the whole family to the baptismal font. But there were rabbis on both sides of Marx’s genealogy, including a grandfather and an uncle. Not only was Marx aware of these origins, he was reminded of them repeatedly by political opponents. In turn, he branded such of his rivals as were Jewish with demeaning epithets like Jüdchen, Jüdel, or Itzig. (Ironically, the man whom Marx especially liked to brand with such epithets, his socialist rival Ferdinand Lasalle, was himself a despiser of fellow Jews: “I do not like the Jews at all,” Lasalle told a prospective Christian bride, “I even detest them in general. I see in them nothing but the very much degenerated sons of a great but vanished past. During centuries of slavery, these men have acquired the characteristics of slaves, and that is why I am most unfavorably disposed toward them.”)
In his 1844 essay entitled “On the Jewish Question,” the young Marx drew his definition of Judaism from the anti-Semitic writer Ludwig Feuerbach. Judaism was not a religion or a peoplehood, but the egoistic desire for gain, the love of money. “What is the worldly basis of Judaism? Practical necessity, selfishness. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Barter. What is his worldly God? Money.” Blinding himself to the existence of a Jewish proletariat that was especially numerous in Eastern Europe, Marx equated the Jew with the bourgeois speculator. But he went further. Even Christians, insofar as they were capitalists, had in essence become Jews: “The practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations.” The emancipation from capitalism (for Marx, of course, the bane of modern society) is thus also the emancipation from Judaism.
Another interesting specimen of Jewish self-hatred was Otto Weininger. Though historically far less significant than Marx, Weininger too was an original thinker whose work was widely read by contemporaries and continues to be the subject of academic discussion. Weininger lived out his short life in fin-de-siecle Austria, capital of sensuality, seedbed of psychoanalysis, and hotbed of anti-Semitism. He studied philosophy and a variety of sciences at the University of Vienna, where he received his doctorate in 1902. On that same day he converted, as did his father and sisters, to Protestant Christianity. Only a year later, in May 1903, Weininger published Sex and Character, a work that made him famous. But only four months after that, he committed suicide—at the age of twenty-three.
In Sex and Character, Weininger tells us that Judaism is “neither a race nor a people nor a recognized creed. I think of it as a psychological constitution which is a possibility for all mankind, but which has become actual in the most conspicuous fashion only among the Jews.” The Jew is amoral, capable of neither great goodness nor great evil. He is much absorbed in sexual matters, especially matchmaking. He is beguiled by such soulless doctrines as materialism, Darwin-sim, and Spinozistic determinism. The only way the individual Jew can overcome these traits is to become a Christian, for Christ is the great exemplar of the Jew who transcended his Jewishness.
Weininger was sufficiently insightful to recognize that he was projecting outward the very qualities that he hated—and feared—in himself.” Whosoever detests the Jewish character,” he wrote,
detests it first of all in himself. That he persecutes it in others is merely his attempt to separate himself in this way from what is Jewish. He strives to sever himself from it by locating it in his fellow creatures, and so for a moment be able to imagine himself free of it. Hatred, like love, is a projected phenomenon: you hate that person who you feel reminds you unpleasantly of yourself.
Like Marx, then, Weininger created a mythical Judaism closely linked to those qualities of character from which he was trying desperately to escape.
But if anti-Semitism could lead to negations of self, whether mild or severe, it could also have the opposite effect. In 18th-century Germany, for example, Moses Mendelssohn at first studiously avoided entering into religious polemics with Gentiles, believing that the enlightened non-Jewish world would accept his Jewishness as a private matter and judge him on his human qualities and talents alone. Yet when the Swiss Pastor Johann Caspar Lavater called on him either to convert to Christianity or to defend his faith, the challenge resulted not in any dissociation from Judaism or his fellow Jews but in a turning point in Mendelssohn’s career. He now became a defender of Judaism in the public arena, creating an ideology that justified the persistence of Jewish identity in an enlightened world.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Semitism in general shored up Jewish identity by creating external barriers to assimilation. So in another way did particular anti-Semitic episodes. One such occurred in 1840, when the Jews of Damascus were accused of ritual murder and stood at risk of mass execution. It was another in a long chain of such accusations, but the first major one in modern times, and it served to reawaken a dormant sense of worldwide Jewish unity and mutual repsonsibility. As far away as the United States, Jews held protest meetings. Two outstanding European Jewish notables, Moses Montefiore of England and Adolphe Crémieux of France, also traveled to the Middle East in a successful attempt to intercede for their fellow Jews.
Even more significant in strengthening Jewish consciousness was the Mortara affair of 1858. When a Jewish child living in Bologna, Italy, who had been secretly baptized by a Christian domestic servant, was abducted to a monastery, Jews were once again aroused to united efforts—this time in vain—to intercede with various authorities. But now there were longer lasting results. The Mortara affair was directly responsible for the formation of two Jewish organizations whose task it would be to protect Jewish rights—the Board of Delegates of American Israelites in the U.S., and the Alliance Israélite Universelle in France.
The Damascus and Mortara affairs, however, did not appear as major setbacks for Jewish emancipation. The former had occurred in the backward Middle East, the latter was only a single incident. It was not until the last decades of the 19th century that dramatic reversals in the status and situation of European Jewry occurred in both East and West.
In Eastern Europe, an outbreak of pogroms and the restrictive May Laws, both of which followed upon the assassination of the relatively liberal Czar Alexander II in 1881, were like a hammer blow that scattered sparks in all directions. Masses emigrated to North America. Usually leaving their traditional religious practice behind, they developed new Jewish identities harmonizable with American democracy. Others remained secure in the shelter of a traditional Judaism, which the brief and limited Enlightenment in Russia had penetrated for only a relative few. Smaller numbers turned away to revolutionary socialism or combined socialism with some degree of Jewish ethnic identity. And a few became Zionists. Thus in Russia new enmity hastened the multiplication of identity-defining Jewish ideologies.
Around the same time in Germany and Austria, the liberal tide of the preceding two decades had reversed itself and German-speaking Jews once again came under pressure. Many for whom Judaism was not sufficiently valued to be worth the sacrifice of a coveted career, or even social exclusion, responded by converting to Christianity (in Vienna the rate was especially high). But others, as alienated from Judaism as the converts, refrained from following the same path simply because they thought it dishonorable. They despised the converts less for having abandoned anything valuable than for giving in to bigotry. Their own essentially contentless Jewish identity became known as Trotzjudentum, a Judaism of defiance or spite. It consisted of a stubborn refusal to let anti-Semitism determine their actions.
Indeed, both in the short term and the long, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany in 1880 worked to shore up Jewish identity. Even individuals who were least assertive in their Jewishness were driven to take sides, raising their level of Jewish awareness. Indifferent Jews became, as one writer said, “Jews by the grace of [the anti-Semite Adolf] Stoecker.” Remarkably, the anti-Semitism of 1880 even prompted a small Jewish revival. That year, for instance, Jewish banking houses in Berlin took the unprecedented step of sending out a circular informing all their customers that they would be closed on the two days of the New Year and the Day of Atonement.
The longer-term results were more significant. When anti-Semitism persisted, the German Jews in 1893 finally created a national organization whose chief purpose would be defending the Jews against their enemies. The Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith soon became, and remained until Nazi times, the largest organization of German Jews. While it continued to invest its energies principally in the defense of Jewish rights, the organization increasingly fostered both Jewish pride and a broader and deeper Jewish identity. And while it became the sworn enemy of the Zionists, it persistently condemned apostasy and preached the open acknowledgment of Jewishness before Gentiles. One Association lecturer was able to picture the work of defense not only as heroic, but also as linked, however tenuously, to the Jewish past. “Just as our ancestors went boldly and undaunted into exile and death on account of their religion,” he maintained, “so let it be said of us some day that we fought fearlessly and tenaciously for our rights.” For many religiously indifferent Jews—in Germany, Austria, the United States, and elsewhere—defending their right to be treated equally while remaining in some, even minor, sense different from Gentiles became their way of being Jewish.
In Germany the ambiguous impact of anti-Semitism on Jewish identity came to an end during the 1930’s. Nazism differed from previous anti-Semitisms in closing off the escape route of greater assimilation or even conversion. Since the Nazi criteria for Jewishness were essentially racial, converts to Christianity of Jewish parentage were subjected to the same treatment as the most Orthodox Jews. The state now forced Jewish identity on those whom it defined as Jews regardless of their own feelings. No matter what they did—unless they could manage to leave Germany or chose to commit suicide—German Jews were unable to remove themselves from the reference group to which they were assigned. Even the disguise of a Gentile name was blocked when the Nazis insisted that every male Jew add the name “Israel,” every female the name “Sarah.” Few were the instances of individuals who could maintain a subjective consciousness of being no longer, or only minimally, Jewish despite the objective mark placed on all members of the Jewish “race.” The more common response was to look inward at a Jewish interior landscape that had long ago grown barren.
Nazi anti-Semitism before the Holocaust thus had the general effect of restoring Jewish consciousness where it had eroded severely. The most assimilated of German Jews, often for the first time in their lives, now felt the need to confront and to reaffirm their Jewishness. At the age of twenty-four, the Nobel-prize-winning Jewish chemist Fritz Haber had converted to Protestantism for the sake of his career. As the head of an important scientific institute, he became an influential figure, especially after he succeeded in developing poison gas for the German army in World War I. But as a racial Jew, Haber was forced into resigning his position in 1933. Nazism remade Haber into a Jew in spite of himself. To Albert Einstein he wrote: “In my whole life I have never been so Jewish as now.”
Max Liebermann, the most important German-Jewish painter, had never converted to Christianity. Nor had he hidden his Jewishness. He had even devoted some of his oeuvre to Jewish themes. But Liebermann was foremost a German and a decided opponent of Jewish nationalism. In the early 1920’s the Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik had sat for a portrait in Liebermann’s studio in Berlin, all the while seeking to persuade the artist of the virtues of Zionism. Not surprisingly, Bialik’s efforts were of no avail. Liebermann believed that the Jewish question had already been solved. But then, a little over a decade later and just after Hitler had come to power early in 1933, there was a fresh contact between the two men. The aged Liebermann wrote to Bialik, then in Palestine, in order to thank him and Meir Dizengoff, two of the curators of the Tel Aviv museum, for that body’s decision to name a room in his honor. After expressing his joy at the tribute, Liebermann continued in this little-known letter:
In these difficult times the feeling of solidarity with my Jewish co-religionists is doubly gratifying and comforting in view of the deprivation of rights with which German Jews are now forced to live. Like a horrible nightmare the abrogation of equal rights weighs upon us all, but especially upon those Jews who, like me, had surrendered themselves to the dream of assimilation. You, Herr Bialik, perhaps remember the conversations we had on this subject when I was etching your portrait. Then I sought to explain why I kept my distance from Zionism. Today I think differently. As difficult as it has been for me, I have awakened from the dream that I dreamed my whole life long. Unfortunately, so old a tree—I will be eighty-six years old next month—is beyond transplanting.
Younger German Jews, who likewise had not been Zionists, did go to Palestine in large numbers during the early Hitler years. Those who remained behind tried to fill their externally reimposed Jewish identity with Jewish content. Synagogues that had stood nearly empty during the Weimar period were now packed with Jews who sought them out as refuges from the hostility they encountered in daily life. Prayers long forgotten assumed new meaning as Israel, once again, became a people apart. Jewish education experienced a revival as Jewish children were expelled from the general schools or their lives there were made odious by the harassments of the Hitler Youth. In Berlin and elsewhere Jewish cultural institutions became the focus of widespread interest.
During its most difficult years, in short, German Jewry embarked on a remarkable project to reeducate itself to an ineluctable Jewish identity.Looking back, one writer termed this effort “construction on the eve of destruction.”
In France, too, during the brief period between Nazi occupation and deportation, there arose a new sense of the common destiny of the Jewish people, which pushed aside longstanding antagonisms between native French and East European Jews. In Poland, Nazi-imposed ghettoization did not expunge the differences among established Jewish parties of conflicting ideologies. But there as well, external pressure, now in the form of physical segregation, brought those Jews who had strayed the farthest back into the Jewish fold. At least at first, Jewish life in the teeming ghettos was remarkably vibrant.
Of course, whether in Germany, France, or Eastern Europe, the revival of Jewish consciousness was short-lived. The worsening situation soon undermined morale and drove up the rate of suicides. For many the reaffirmation of Jewishness came only on the eve of an unwilled martyrdom. If Nazi anti-Semitism briefly reawakened Jewish identity in some hitherto alienated Jews, it would ultimately snuff it out altogether, along with the lives of those in whom it dwelled. For the victims, inescapable Jewishness turned into an inescapable fate as Jews.
In succeeding years, the recollection of this most extreme instance of anti-Semitism could not easily create a Jewish identity where none had been fostered in childhood. The European social philosopher Jean Améry emerged from Auschwitz with a number on his arm but a Jewishness that was sustained almost exclusively by fear and anger. “No one can become what he cannot find in his memories,” Améry wrote after the war. His Jewishness, imposed by anti-Semitism, had resulted in an enduring commitment to endangered fellow Jews. But it could not create a Jewish identity. Again in Améry’s own words:
The environment in which I had lived in the years when one acquires one’s self was not Jewish, and this cannot be reversed. But the fruitlessness of the search for my Jewish self by no means stands as a barrier between me and my solidarity with every threatened Jew in this world.
Yet just as, ironically, Nazism had initially given the impulse to a deepened Jewishness, so did the Holocaust eventually become a major factor in sustaining Jewish identity after World War II. Jewish leaders in the United States early called for a revitalized American Jewish community that would be capable of compensating in some measure for the loss of East European Jewry. Later, and in particular following the Eichmann trial of 1961, awareness of the Holocaust increasingly became a major portion of what it meant to be Jewish, especially in the Diaspora.
Few American Jews were survivors in the literal sense. But the notion that every Jew living in the post-Holocaust age was a kind of survivor gained more and more acceptance. Whereas before, American Jewish identity had for most Jews been either a religiously based morality or a loose bond of ethnic solidarity, the rise in awareness of the Holocaust produced in many individuals a much more determined Jewishness. Like Jews in other places—in Western Europe and even in the Soviet Union—the Jews of America were bent on preventing the identity Hitler sought to expunge through physical destruction from succumbing to the subtler pressures of assimilation.
In the United States, a large share (some have argued too large a share) of Jewish activity has been devoted to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust and fighting contemporary forms of anti-Semitism, whether appearing as persistent discrimination or in the guise of anti-Zionism. Most young Jews know more about the Holocaust than they do about any other period of Jewish history. Courses on the Holocaust in colleges and universities are far more popular than other offerings in Jewish studies. Scores of institutions keep alive the memory of the Holocaust through exhibits, conferences, and educational literature. While American Jews continue to think of themselves, at least nominally, as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist, this religious identity does not, for most of them, possess the same salience as does the possibility of new danger to their existence. It is in large measure the memory and message of the Holocaust that create a basis for Jewish unity in spite of religious diversity. Concern for the future of the Jews as a people seems to run deeper than concern for the future of the Jewish religion.
Anti-Semitism in the contemporary Jewish Diaspora, and especially in the United States, has thus ceased to be ambiguous in its effects. Neither memories of the Holocaust nor the relatively low levels of current discrimination are driving Jews to hide their Jewishness, let alone to apostatize. On the contrary, the ingrained memory of anti-Semitism rising to massive destruction in the Holocaust and the anxiety over its resurgence—these, together with the concern they engender for the security and welfare of the state of Israel, have become for most Diaspora Jews fundamental constituents of their Jewish identity.