Umberto Eco on the distinction between intellectual anti-Semitism and its popular counterpart
Saturday 17 August 2002
Amid the controversy following the desecration of Jewish graves in Rome last month, some words of Pier Ferdinando Casini, speaker of Italy’s chamber of deputies, have been remembered. He claimed that anti-Semitism is less rooted in Italy than in other countries. It is my belief that a distinction must be made between intellectual anti-Semitism and popular anti-Semitism. Popular anti-Semitism is as old as the Jewish diaspora. It arose from an instinctive reaction of the common people to different people, who spoke an unknown language evocative of magic rites. A people steeped in the culture of the book, the Jews learned to read and write. They practised medicine, engaged in trade, and lent money – hence the resentment towards them as “intellectuals”. Such were the roots of peasant anti-Semitism in Russia.
Certainly the Christian condemnation of the “people who killed God” carried weight, but ultimately there was a (private) relationship of shared interest and mutual respect between Christian and Jewish intellectuals throughout the middle ages, not to mention the renaissance. The desperate hordes who followed the crusades and laid waste the ghettoes by fire and the sword were not inspired by doctrine, but controlled by the urge to pillage.
Intellectual anti-Semitism as we now know it originates from the modern world. In 1797, Abbé Barruel wrote his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme to show that the French revolution was a plot of the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. Later it was an Italian, Captain Simonini, who suggested to him that it was above all the perfidious Jews who were acting behind the scenes. It was only after this point that the argument surrounding international Jewry began, and the Jesuits seized on it as an argument against the sects of the Carbonari. The controversy raged throughout Europe, but found its most fertile soil in France, where Jewish finance was now identified as an enemy to defeat. The controversy was certainly fuelled by Catholic legitimism, but it was in secular, political circles that the ill-famed Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion slowly took shape. These were then published in Russian Tsarist circles and were finally used by Hitler.
The Protocols were a rehash of serialised fictional material, and prove their own unreliability, since it is hardly credible that “the baddies” would reveal their fell purposes so blatantly. The Elders even declare that they intend to encourage sport and visual communication to dupe the working class (a passage more reminiscent of Berlusconism than Judaism). Nevertheless, though rough and ready, this was intellectual anti-Semitism. Conceding to Deputy Casini, it can be said that Italian popular anti-Semitism has been less strong than in other European countries (for various social, historical and even demographic reasons). Indeed, ordinary folk ended up opposing racial persecutions by helping the Jews. But in Italy, Jesuitical anti-Semitic doctrine flourished (the novels of Father Bresciani are but one example). This merged with the bourgeois anti-Semitism which ultimately produced the notorious academics and writers who contributed to the infamous journal La difesa della razza [The Defence of the Race] and the version of the Protocols published by Julius Evola in 1937.
Evola wrote that the Protocols had “the value of a spiritual tonic”. He added: “Above all, in these decisive hours of western history, they cannot be ignored or dismissed without seriously undermining the front of those fighting in the name of the spirit, of tradition, of true civilisation.”
International Jewry, he claimed, lay behind the main sources of the perversion of western civilisation: “Liberalism, individualism, egalitarianism, free thinking, anti-religious enlightenment and their various appendages which lead to the revolt of the masses and to communism itself.” For the Jew it was a duty “to destroy every surviving trace of true order and superior civilisation… One Jew is Freud, whose theory is understood to reduce the interior life to instincts and unconscious forces. Another is Einstein, who has brought ‘relativism’ into vogue… Schoenberg and Mahler, leading exponents of the music of decadence. Tzara is a Jew, the creator of dadaism, the extreme limit of degradation of so-called avant garde art… It is the race, it is an instinct at work here… Now is the time when the forces are rising up everywhere, because now the face of the destiny to which Europe was about to succumb is revealed… May the hour of ‘conflict’ find those forces gathered in a single, cast-iron bloc, unbreakable and irresistible.”
Italy made a leading contribution to intellectual anti-Semitism. But it is only today that a number of phenomena hint at a new popular anti-Semitism, as if the ancient sources of anti-Semitism have found fertile soil in other, crude forms of racism of the neo-Celtic kind. If proof were needed, it is that the doctrinal sources are always the same: it is enough to visit certain racist websites, or to follow anti-Zionist propaganda in the Arab countries, to see that anti-Semites have still found nothing better to do than to recycle, yet again, those ludicrous Protocols.
Source: The Guardian