Anti-Semitism




Anti-Semitism (also anti-Semitism) consists of hostility or hatred directed at Jews.  Anti-Semitism  may  be  manifested  as  prejudicial attitudes or discriminatory actions toward Jews because of their racial, ethnic, and/or  religious heritage,  as  well  as  perceptions  about  their economic standing or political power. History records many incidences of anti-Semitism, culminating in the attempted genocide perpetrated against Jews during the Holocaust prior to and throughout World War II.




From a sociological perspective, anti-Semitism is not reducible to individual prejudicial attitudes or discriminatory acts against a Jewish person.  Although anti-Semitism  may  be perpetrated by a particular individual or may target a specific victim, the question of interest to sociologists is how anti Semitic attitudes and  actions are collectively facilitated, culturally supported, and institutionally legitimated. Thus,   even  if  a  particular  person  or  small group of ‘‘extremists’’ within a society exhibits anti Semitic beliefs or behaviors, a sociological approach to this phenomenon seeks to account for the broader group influences (e.g., definitions   of   race,   norms   of   authoritarianism, sources  of  religious conflict) that  legitimate such ideas and actions.

The Holocaust is the most horrific outgrowth of anti-Semitism, given the aim of its architects to commit ‘‘judeocide’’ (that is, the genocide of all Jewish people living in Europe). However, the precise role and scope of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust has provoked a debate of sorts among historians and social scientists (e.g.,  Smith  1998; Brustein  2003). One theory, dubbed ‘‘intentionalism,’’ attributes the Holocaust to a clique of mad extremists not representative of German culture or society. Another theory, more functionalist in nature,  traces the  Holocaust and  the  rise of Nazi fascism after World War I  to obstacles that  inhibited  Germany’s modernization and undermined  the  nation’s  economic development. A third perspective charges that ‘‘eliminationist anti-Semitism,’’ a virulent hatred of Jews that  aimed to  achieve nothing  short  of genocide, was widespread among the German population.   According  to   this   perspective, then,  only Germany  and  its  unique  political culture  could  have  spawned  the  Holocaust. There  is  some evidence to  support  each of these theories.

William  Brustein’s  (2003)  work  on  anti-Semitism,  particularly  as  it   relates  to  the Holocaust,  is  especially instructive.  Brustein suggests that  there  are  four  different  forms (or sources) of anti- Semitism: religious, racial, economic, and  political anti-Semitism.  Religious anti-Semitism is  rooted  in  the  unique elements of Judaism (the Jewish faith), while racial   anti-Semitism   is   linked   to   socially defined  perceptions  about  Jews’  distinctive physical appearance. Economic anti-Semitism is  most  common  in  moments  of  economic crisis and  during  periods when Jewish commerce was perceived to threaten the welfare of other  groups. Finally, political anti-Semitism often  results  from  perceptions  about  Jewish influence on or threats toward the  realms of governance and  law (e.g.,  charges of Jewish involvement in  the  Communist  Party  during the  twentieth  century).  Each  form  of  anti -has been  manifested in  Europe  at periods prior  to  the  Holocaust, though  it  is the  combination of these four types of anti-Semitism  –  such  as  that  in  pre Holocaust Germany  –  that  provokes the  most  virulent hatred  of Jews. Thus,  current  cross national studies  of  anti- Semitism  suggest  that  it  is important to identify the type of anti-Semitism found  in  particular  locales, and  the  precise determinants that foster anti Jewish sentiments and practices in specific contexts (Brustein & King 2004).

Research  demonstrates  that  anti-Semitism also has a long history in the United  States, although support for the tenets of this ideology has declined markedly during the past several decades  (Dinnerstein  1994,  2004;  Blakeslee 2000; Weiner & King 2005). For example, in 1964, 48 percent  of Americans believed that Jews have irritating faults and are more willing than  others  to  engage in  ‘‘shady’’ practices, while only about half this number support such views  in   the   contemporary  United   States (Smith  1993). Moreover, whereas 29 percent of  Americans  were  regarded  as  ‘‘hardcore anti Semites’’ by the Anti Defamation League in 1964, only 17 percent were considered to fit this profile in 2002, which is a slight increase from the low of 12 percent in 1998 (Dinner stein 2004). Thus,  while anti-Semitism is at historically low levels, some observers argue that survey evidence suggesting that nearly 20 percent  of the  American population  is  anti Semitic  points  to  alarmingly high  levels of anti Jewish  sentiment   (Simon  2003).  It   is worth  noting that  the  Anti Defamation League’s operationalization of  an  anti Semite  is based on an 11 point  scale measuring agreement  with  various stereotypes of Jews (e.g., Jews ‘‘always like to be at the head of things,’’ ‘‘are more loyal to Israel than America,’’ ‘‘have too much power in the business world,’’ ‘‘don’t care what happens to anyone but [their] own kind,’’ ‘‘are just [not] as honest as other business people’’). Based on the Anti Defamation League  definition,  hardcore  anti Semites  are those who answer in the affirmative to six or more of the items on this 11 point scale. Other scales of  anti-Semitism commonly include  a selection of these items.

Despite the decline in Americans’ hostility toward Jews during  the past several decades, some groups within the United States are still more inclined to hold anti Semitic views than others  (Dinnerstein  2004;  Weiner  &  King 2005).  Gender   differences  in  anti-Semitism have  been  observed, such  that  men  exhibit more hostility toward Jews than  do  women. Americans who are older, rural dwellers, and Southerners  are  generally more  anti Semitic than  those  who  are  young,  urbanites,  and those residing outside the  South.  Blue collar workers are more inclined toward anti-Semitism than are white collar professionals. Education is widely viewed as the key to diminished anti-Semitism among those in the professional class, because higher levels of education tend to erode support for anti- Semitism while bolstering  a  commitment  to  liberal  viewpoints and  tolerance for  others.  Anti- Semitic views generally  increase  in  locales with  a  higher proportion  of  Jews  and  declining  economic conditions (Weiner & King  2005), a pattern that is commonly observed for other minority groups as well. As minority groups grow in number, concerns typically increase about the ‘‘threats’’ they may pose to local politics, economic opportunities, and social life in general.

There are also racial and religious variations in   anti Semitic   attitudes.   Research  reveals greater support for anti Semitic views among black  Americans  than   among  their   white counterparts.  Sociologists generally interpret blacks’ stronger negative attitudes toward Jews as a function of African Americans’ blocked opportunities in American society, which contrast markedly with the high economic status that  Jews in  the  US  tend  to  enjoy. Where religion  is  concerned,  some  research  traces American anti-Semitism to  the  pervasiveness of Christianity in the US, particularly the conservative (fundamentalist) brand of Protestant ism that is so prominent in the South. Interestingly, conservative Christians, who are generally distinguished  by  their  view of the Bible as the inerrant word of God, seem to be of two minds concerning Jews (Smith 1999). While conservative Christians tend to embrace the  biblical depiction  of  Jews as  a  ‘‘chosen people’’ and strongly support the existence of a  Jewish  state,  they  also  believe that  Jews should be converted to Christianity and tend to believe that Jews are overly focused on monetary gain.

Within the United States, efforts to promote Holocaust education to  reduce anti-Semitism seem to have met with mixed success (Simon 2003). Between 80 and 90 percent of Americans believe that valuable lessons can be learned by studying  the  Nazis’ efforts  to  eradicate  the Jewish population in Europe during the Holocaust. However, these courses may be of limited  value in reducing anti- Semitism because students  who  take  such  courses enter  them already having low levels of anti- Semitism and high levels of political tolerance. Thus,  while such courses can provide beneficial knowledge about the Holocaust, students who take them are  not  very anti Semitic in  the  first  place. Those  who  could  most  benefit  from  such courses are likely to avoid enrolling in them because of their prejudice against Jews.

Finally, given the heterogeneity of cultural practices   and   viewpoints  among   different types  of  Jews (Conservative, Orthodox,  Re constructionist,  Reform,  and  secular),  it  is worth  noting  that  religious  variations  have been observed in perceptions of and reactions to    anti-Semitism   among   American   Jews (Djupe & Sokhey 2003). In one study of Jewish rabbis, Orthodox rabbis and those linked to  Jewish  advocacy  organizations  perceived anti-Semitism  to  be  a  greater  problem  and more  frequently  express concerns about  this problem in public speech than those affiliated with other branches of Judaism.

References:

  1. Blakeslee, (2000) The Death of American Anti-semitism. Praeger, Westport, CT.
  2. Brustein, I. (2003) Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Brustein, I. & King, R. D. (2004) Anti-Semitism as a  Response to  Perceived Jewish Power: The  Cases of Bulgaria and Romania Before the Holocaust. Social Forces 83: 691 708.
  4. Dinnerstein,  (1994) Anti-Semitism in  America. Oxford University Press, New York.
  5. Dinnerstein, (2004) Is There a New Anti-Semitism in the United States? Society 41: 53 8.
  6. Djupe, A. & Sokhey, A. E. (2003) The Mobilization of Elite Opinion: Rabbi Perceptions of and Responses to Anti-Semitism. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43: 443 53.
  7. Simon,  A.  (2003) The   Effects  of  Holocaust Education on Students’ Level of Anti-Semitism. Educational  Research Quarterly 27: 3 17.
  8. Smith,  B.  (1998) Anti-Semitism  and  Nazism. American Behavioral  Scientist 9: 1324 63.
  9. Smith,  W.  (1993) Actual Trends  or  Measurement   Artifacts?  A  Review  of  Three   Studies of  Anti-Semitism.  Public Opinion Quarterly 57: 380 93.
  10. Smith,    W.  (1999) The   Religious Right  and Anti-Semitism. Review of Religious  Research 40: 244 58.
  11. Weiner,  &  King,  R.  (2005) Group  Position, Collective Threat, and Anti-Semitism in the US. Paper  presented  at  the  annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, Philadelphia.

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