Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity by Hyam Maccoby

Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity by Hyam Maccoby

By Hyam Maccoby

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This was a take-over of the main line of Jewish authority, and it involved a greater villainization of the Jews than was necessary in Gnosticism, since the Jews were now charged with wilful disobedience and direct persecution of God’s messengers, rather than of short-sightedly ignoring them. This picture could claim support from denunciations of the sins of the Jews in the Hebrew Bible, especially the (otherwise unsupported) charge of prophet-killing in 2 Chronicles 36:16, but these denunciations were premised on the election of the Jews, directing them to repentance, and explaining their sufferings as expiation for their sins which would eventually be forgiven.

Legends arose about the foetor judaicus, or distinctive Jewish smell, and about the menstruation of Jewish men which necessitated the imbibing of blood, and even that Jews had tails or cloven feet. Though conversion was still held to remove these traits miraculously, the way was open to the view that Jews were a different species. Accusations that Jews poisoned wells and desecrated the host also debased and dehumanized the image of the Jew. The ground was thus fully prepared for modern theories in which the Jews were declared to be subhuman or at least radically alien.

The Boulangist movement, led by General Georges Boulanger, paralleled the racialist political movements of Germany and Austria. French army circles were particularly antisemitic. In the years 1894–1906, the extent of French antisemitism was revealed to the world by the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, was accused of treason because of a letter, allegedly in his handwriting, to the German military attache. It was subsequently discovered by Colonel Picquart that the letter was written by an officer called Major Esterhazy and that Dreyfus was totally innocent; but he had been condemned, and the military and political establishment fought by every means, including the banishment of Picquart and the forging of further evidence, to prevent the matter from being reopened.

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