The classic and demonic core theme of anti-Semitism, propagated over many centuries, is that Jews embody absolute evil. This outrageous lie and its principal sub-motifs have remained largely the same over the centuries, but the perception of what constitutes absolute evil has changed, depending on the prevailing worldview.
In Christian anti-Semitism, the most evil act imaginable was deicide – and the Jews were accused of killing Jesus. Medieval Christendom presented the Jew as the killer of God, the anti-Christ, or Satan, and as a sorcerer, murderer, cannibal, poisoner and blasphemer. The demonization of the Jews by major Christian leaders, such as the Church Father Chrysostom, was well underway from the fourth century.
In the second major category of anti-Semitism, ethnic/nationalistic anti-Semitism, the theme of the Jews as a paradigm of absolute evil reappeared in new guises. In periods of strong nationalism, Jews were portrayed as radically alien elements, and denounced as the “quintessential other”. When the societal emphasis was on race, Jews were depicted as an extremely inferior one.
Once societies became more secular, the false accusation of killing God’s alleged son carried less weight, and the representation of the core motif, that the Jews are the carriers of all evil, was reinvented. The Nazis perceived themselves as superhuman and the Jews as being sub-human, rendering them the root cause of moral and social corruption, and thus representing absolute evil. Jews were seen as bacteria or vermin, with the implication that they had to be exterminated.
In an environment where nationalism increasingly became a primary societal value, the Jews were also accused of being cosmopolitans without national loyalty. This led to the accusation that Jews conspire to control the world. The main supporting ‘document’ for this conspiracy theory was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist forgery that has been repeatedly reprinted in large numbers.
In contemporary Western society, absolute evil is often perceived as the crimes of the Germans during WWII, with the Holocaust and genocide the paradigm of this evil. After the war, for a certain period, anti-Semitism became politically incorrect in the public domain. Many Europeans started to realize that if there was absolute evil in the world, it was represented by substantial parts of Europe rather than by the Jews. For many others, however, this was too painful to admit. It created the psychological necessity to attach evil once again to the Jews, this time mainly to Israel, the Jewish state.
The depiction of Israelis as Nazis goes back to influential Englishmen in the British mandate of Palestine of the 1940’s and was also strongly developed within the communist world.
And the conspiracy motif against Jews recurs to the present day. There are, for instance, cases of it on popular Arab television programs. The Protocols have been widely reprinted in the Arab world and in several Western countries, such as Norway.
The truth regarding contemporary conspiracy is actually much different. The jihadi Islamic State is the only major movement actively conspiring to rule the world.
Another contemporary anti-Semitic expression that the Jews – and Israel – embody “absolute evil,” is in the claim that the Jews are behind all disasters, but this core motif actually has a long tradition.
The Jews were blamed for the Black Death in the fourteenth century. Germans invented the stab in the back (Dolchstoss) legend, which held Jews responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I, subsequently used by the National Socialists in their murderous anti-Semitic campaigns.
Nowadays, the classic 12th century blood libel reemerges with respect to Israel in different mutations. After a huge mining disaster in Turkey in May 2014 the pro-government Turkish daily Yeni Akit newspaper criticized on its front page the owner of the Soma Coal Mine Company for having a Jewish son-in-law. The paper claimed that this was why “foreign” media outlets were blaming the then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the tragedy.
And this motif recurs in many ways, implied or explicit, such as the claim that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the greatest danger for the world.
The three permutations of anti-Semitism, religious and ethnic/nationalist anti-Semitism, as well as anti-Israelism, all have a number of major common characteristics. There is a continuous and powerful promotion of a discourse of Jew-hatred. Verbal or physical attacks are common on both Jews and Israelis. Jews and the State of Israel are judged by unique and unrealistic double standards.
Today, strong ideological currents promote universalism, so the State of Israel is demonized as nationalist, racist, and colonialist. This is in addition to the pervasive accusation that Israel is committing the paradigm of evil in today's society, genocide, or behaving like the Nazis, a widespread perception of Israel in Western Europe.
A study published in 2011 by the University of Bielefeld reported a 1908 poll of one thousand people aged 16 or more in seven European countries. One of the questions asked was whether they were in agreement with the claim that Israel is carrying out a war of extermination against the Palestinians. More than 40 percent of those polled answered in the affirmative. Thus, at least 150 million citizens of the European Union embrace a demonic view of Israel.
The author is a columnist, author of books on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.