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.
- Blakeslee, (2000) The Death of American Anti-semitism. Praeger, Westport, CT.
- Brustein, I. (2003) Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- 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.
- Dinnerstein, (1994) Anti-Semitism in America. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Dinnerstein, (2004) Is There a New Anti-Semitism in the United States? Society 41: 53 8.
- 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.
- Simon, A. (2003) The Effects of Holocaust Education on Students’ Level of Anti-Semitism. Educational Research Quarterly 27: 3 17.
- Smith, B. (1998) Anti-Semitism and Nazism. American Behavioral Scientist 9: 1324 63.
- Smith, W. (1993) Actual Trends or Measurement Artifacts? A Review of Three Studies of Anti-Semitism. Public Opinion Quarterly 57: 380 93.
- Smith, W. (1999) The Religious Right and Anti-Semitism. Review of Religious Research 40: 244 58.
- 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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