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The Origins of the Myth
Over very large areas of the earth Jews have traditionally been seen as mysterious beings, endowed with uncanny, sinister powers. This attitude goes back to the time, from the second to the fourth centuries after Christ, when the Church and the Synagogue were competing for converts in the Hellenistic world, and when moreover each was still struggling to win adherents from the other. It was to terrorize the judaizing Christians of Antioch into a final breach with the parent religion that St John Chryostom called the Synagogue 'the temple of demons ... the cavern of devils ... a gulf and abyss of perdition' and portrayed Jews as habitual murderers and destroyers, people possessed by an evil spirit. And it was to protect his catechumens against Judaism that St Augustine described how those who had been the favourite sons of God were now transformed into sons of Satan. Moreover the Jews were brought into relation with that fearsome figure, Antichrist, 'the son of perdition', whose tyrannical reign, according to St Paul and the Book of Revelation, is to precede the second coming of Christ. Many of the Fathers taught that Antichrist would be a Jew and that the Jews would be his most devoted followers.
Seven or eight centuries later, in the most militant period in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, these ancient fantasies were revived and integrated into a whole new demonology. From the time of the first crusade onwards Jews were presented as children of the Devil, agents employed by Satan for the express purpose of combating Christianity and harming Christians. It was in the twelfth century that they were first accused of murdering Christian children, of torturing the consecrated wafer, and of poisoning the wells. It is true that popes and bishops frequently and emphatically condemned these fabrications; but the lower clergy continued to propagate them, and in the end they came to be generally believed. But above all it was said that Jews worshipped the Devil, who rewarded them collectively by making them masters of black magic; so that however helpless individual Jews might seem, Jewry possessed limitless powers for evil. And already then there was talk of a secret Jewish government – a council of rabbis, located in Moslem Spain, which was supposed to be directing an underground war against Christendom and employing sorcery as its principal weapon.
The propagation of such views by the clergy, century after century, gradually but decisively influenced the attitude of the laity. If Judaism, with its profound sense of election and its elaborate system of taboos, tended in any case to make Jews into a people apart, Christian teaching and preaching ensured that they would be treated not simply as strangers but as most dangerous enemies. During the Middle Ages Jews were almost wholly without legal rights and were frequently massacred by the mob. Such experiences in turn greatly encouraged the Jewish tendency to exclusiveness. During the long centuries of persecution Jews became a wholly alien people, compulsorily restricted to the most sordid trades, regarding the gentile world with bitterness. In the eyes of most Christians these strange creatures were demons in human form – and some of the demonology that was woven around them in those centuries has proved extraordinarily durable.
The myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy represents a modern adaptation of this ancient demonological tradition. According to this myth there exists a secret Jewish government which, through a world-wide network of camouflaged agencies and organizations, controls political parties and governments, the press and public opinion, banks and economic developments. The secret government is supposed to be doing this in pursuance of an age-old plan and with the single aim of achieving Jewish dominion over the entire world; and it is also supposed to be perilously near to achieving this aim.
In this fantasy the remnants of ancient demonological terrors are blended with anxieties and resentments which are typically modern. The myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy is in fact a particularly degraded and distorted expression of the new social tensions which arose when, with the French Revolution and the coming of the nineteenth century, Europe entered on a period of exceptionally rapid and profound change. As everyone knows, it was a time when traditional social relationships were shaken, hereditary privileges ceased to be sacrosanct, age-old values and beliefs were called in question. The slow-moving, conservative life of the countryside was increasingly challenged by an urban civilization which was dynamic, restless, given to innovation. Industrialization brought to the fore a bourgeoisie intent on increasing its wealth and extending its rights; and gradually a new class, the industrial proletariat, began to exert pressure on its own account. Democracy, liberalism, secularism, by the mid-century even socialism, were forces to be reckoned with. But all over Continental Europe there were large numbers of people who abominated all these things. A long, bitter struggle began between those who accepted the new, mobile society and the opportunities it offered, and those who hoped to retain or restore the vanishing traditional order. These changes, which affected European society as a whole, brought both new opportunities and new perils to Europe's Jews.
In one country after another in western and central Europe Jews were relieved of their legal disabilities. Most Jews wanted nothing so much as to live by the same routines as other people, and they quietly adapted themselves to their new freedom. Nevertheless in the eyes of many people 'the Jew' still had a highly symbolic significance, and for two quite different reasons. On the one hand Jews remained an identifiable and – though to a rapidly diminishing extent – an exclusive community; and this meant that they retained something of the mysterious quality which they had possessed in earlier centuries. On the other hand they came to be seen as symbolic of the modern world by those who most detested that world. Various circumstances were responsible for this. For centuries Jews had of necessity been town-dwellers, and they still remained concentrated to an overwhelming extent in the cities, especially the capital cities. In politics Jews naturally tended to side with the liberal and democratic forces which alone could guarantee and increase their liberties. Being still denied access to many traditional occupations, they were encouraged to pioneer new ways of making a living; and in doing so, a few became extremely rich. And in general it can be said that a feeling of suddenly liberated energies made many Jews exceptionally enterprising, exceptionally given to experiment and innovation. In industry and commerce, politics and journalism, Jews became identified with everything that was most wholeheartedly modern. As a result, by about 1870 it was possible to see in 'the Jews' the supreme incarnation of modernity, even while continuing to see them as uncanny, semi-demonic beings.
Of course other, quite different types of antisemitism also existed. There was, for instance, a left-wing antisemitism, compounded of contempt for Jewish religion – which was blamed for Christianity – and of resentment at the power of Jewish bankers, notably the Rothschilds. The socialist movements of France and Germany were full of this kind of antisemitism, and they finally rid themselves of it only at the end of the century. The demonological type of antisemitism, on the other hand, flourished among those who were most thoroughly disconcerted by the civilization of the nineteenth century. It was above all the landed aristocracy and the clergy who saw in 'the Jews' a symbol of all that most threatened their world – and not only their material interests but the values that gave meaning to their lives. These people were only too happy to believe that such alarming changes must spring not from any defects in the old order, nor from impersonal historic processes, but from the machinations of a handful of devils in human form. Moreover by putting this idea about they could hope to achieve certain highly practical aims. To portray democracy, liberalism, and secularism as the work of the Jews was a way of making these things suspect in the eyes of a growing but ill-educated electorate.
So the new political form of antisemitism came into being. From now on antisemitism was to be deliberately whipped up by ultra-conservative politicians and publicists in their struggle against the progressives. And although Jews were still sometimes accused of such things as ritual murder, these age-old superstitions gradually yielded in importance to the new political superstition concerning a secret Jewish government. This new fantasy was of course just as remote from reality as the old, but it was also just as effective. What Jews really were or did or wanted, or what Jews possibly could be or do or want, had nothing whatsoever to do with the matter. To understand how the fantasy arose and spread it is much less important to know about Jews than to know what persecution-mania means and how, given a suitable situation, it can be deliberately exploited in multitudes of ordinary human beings. This had happened before, during the witch-mania that gripped Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was to happen again as the myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy began its deadly work.
Copyright © Norman Cohn, 2007