This may seem like a strange argument to make just before International Holocaust Remembrance Day but anti-Semitism’s malevolent power is generally underestimated. Even those who do see anti-Semitism as a destructive force often fail to grasp its true significance.

Indeed this underestimation is often apparent in the commemoration of the Holocaust itself. It is striking that such events typically do not confine themselves to talking about Jews or to other victims of the Holocaust such as the Roma and the Sinti. Typically they feel obliged to refer to other violent conflicts or forms of intolerance as if commemorating the Holocaust itself is insufficient.

Take, for example, United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 which designated 27 January as the date for international commemoration of the Holocaust. The resolution does refer to “the murder of one third of the Jewish people” as well as to “Nazi death camps”. But this is framed as “a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”. Of course any right-thinking person would oppose all of those things but framing the discussion in this way loses what is distinctive about anti-Semitism. It just becomes one form of intolerance among many.

Or take Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust scholar and the official American envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. I chose her not to suggest a lack of knowledge on her part but, on the contrary, because she is without doubt a genuine expert. She has written several well-regarded books on the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism more generally. Yet it seems to me that her approach unwittingly underestimates the power of anti-Semitism.

Lipstadt defines anti-Semitism as a prejudice, which she relates to the standard English language meaning of a preconceived opinion. For her what gives it murderous power is the way is that the typical Jewish stereotype is linked to conspiracy theories. That is Jews are cast as a powerful international force manipulating the world from behind the scenes. For this reason anti-Semites see Jews not just as a people to be loathed but one to be feared too.

She is right to link anti-Semitism to conspiracy theories but in my view this does not go nearly far enough. Her underlying assumption seems to be that anti-Semitism is a kind of inter-personal hatred that can get out of hand even to the extent of genocide. Her logic is not drawn out, at least in this video clip, but it essentially about the mass manipulation of individuals to turn them into hyper-bigots (full disclosure I have not yet systematically studied her work).

This idea of anti-Semitism as individual prejudice writ large corresponds to the theme of 'ordinary people'. for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain. In this conception the Holocaust was about regular individuals acting as perpetrators and in other cases turning a blind eye to what happened. Inevitably, given its premises, it also goes on to talk about other acts of horror. To quote its website: “Ordinary people were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups, and in the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses – and ordinary people were victims.”

The crucial element such discussions miss is what could be called the symbolic power of anti-Semitism. Jews only account for a tiny proportion of the global population but they have had the misfortune of often being seen as representing toxic forces. For example, in the nineteenth century through to the Nazi period they were often linked to a one-sided critique of the capitalist economy. What was perceived as Jewish capitalism was seen as responsible for mass unemployment, severe inequality and immiserisation.

It should be noted that this is much more than mere scapegoating. The Nazis, for instance, were not consciously trying to trick Germans into blaming Jews for economic problems. In their warped world view the Nazis genuinely believed that capitalism was somehow Jewish in character. This was partly based on the historical role that some Jews – the Hofjuden or court Jews – had played in providing finance to royal courts. The difficult question is how this distorted view of Jews as personifications of capitalism managed to gain substantial support among sections of the German population.

More recently anti-Semitism has become symbolic in other ways. Israel, for instance, is seen by many of its critics not as a normal nation-state but somehow symbolic of the evils of imperialism. That helps explain why it has become an obsession among sections of the left and why its objective importance is often grossly exaggerated. This takes it outside of the normal realm of discussion of international politics and gives it the power to ferment Jew-hatred.

Another symbolic form anti-Semitism has taken more recently is of Jews as exemplars of ‘white privilege’. In this view the fact that Jews have often thrived in American society is itself a reason to be suspicious of them. It must mean, from this zero-sum perspective, that they have benefited at the expense of people of colour. Jews are therefore held responsible for a significant portion of American racism.

None of this is captured in the unfortunate term ‘anti-Semitism’. It is widely recognised to be a peculiar label because there is no such thing as ‘Semitism’. The concept emerged in the 1870s with at least the partial backing of some who themselves were hostile to Jews. Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904), one of those who either coined or popularised the term (it depends which account you read), founded the League of Anti-Semites.

However, alternatives terms are problematic too. David Nirenberg talks about ‘anti-Judaism’ in an attempt to capture the symbolic nature of Jew hatred. The Jewish religion has indeed historically been linked to modernity at times as well as other developments sometimes viewed as problematic. But trying to make ‘anti-Judaism’ more widely would itself present challenges. It could be taken to mean hostility to the Jewish religion as a belief system rather than to the Jewish people.

In any case, the best label to describe Jew-hatred is a secondary concern. The key point is that anti-Semitism is often prone to becoming a murderous force because of its symbolic power. Although Jews are the victims of anti-Semitism, often to a tragic extent, in its conception is goes well beyond Jews. The tragedy of the Jewish people in the modern era is that they have often become closely associated with broader malign forces. This theme will be examined further in future articles on this site.

Anti-Semitism is much more than a prejudice. Its symbolic power give it the potential to turn it into a force for physical annihilation. Those who fail to grapple with this reality are bound to underestimate its murderous potential.

Note: In future articles I intend to explore this topic in more detail. This will include discussions of how Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt, in their different ways, tackled this question of the symbolic power of anti-Semitism.

Photo: The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. "Holocaust-Mahnmal Berlin" by Andrea & Stefan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.