The Dark Allure of the "Jewish Question"

It took only a few days following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel for considerable anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment (as well as vandalism and attacks on persons) to emerge in the US as well as other parts of the world. There was indeed sympathy and support for Israel but also a striking amount of vitriol and undisguised anti-Semitism—continuing even now. One way to understand this is to recognize it as a contemporary version of the “Jewish Question.” What exactly is the question, and what motivated it? 

In the mid-nineteenth century, a number of authors, including Karl Marx, took up what they called the “Jewish Question.” The late eighteenth century and nineteenth century was a period of Jewish emancipation in the sense that many of the laws and practices that had excluded Jews from universities, professions, freedom of movement, citizenship, and basically participating in civil society were removed in numerous European countries. But for many non-Jews, greater Jewish participation in civic life gave rise to what they called “The Jewish Question,” which was discussed with some urgency. Jews had long been regarded as “other” and as deviously dangerous. Something needed to be done with them, especially once there was the possibility of them participating in the larger society overall.

For roughly fifteen centuries, Jews had been excluded from integration into European society and were subject to periodic expulsions, massacres, and forced conversion throughout Europe (and elsewhere). For example, in 1095–96, there were large-scale massacres of Jews in the Rhineland and up and down the Danube as a prelude to the First Crusade, preached by Pope Urban II. In 1146, there were large-scale massacres of Jews in the Rhineland as part of the Second Crusade, and in 1182, Jews were expelled from France. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council introduced the Jewish badge, and in AD 1290, Jews were expelled from England. In 1306, Jews were expelled from France a second time, and in 1348–50, there were large-scale massacres as Jews were accused of being the source of the plague. In 1483, Jews were expelled from Warsaw, Sicily, Lithuania, and Portugal, and in 1492, all Jews were expelled from Spain. In 1648, the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland/Ukraine took tens of thousands of Jewish lives. In places where conversion was an option instead of death or expulsion, it was often regarded with considerable skepticism, and new converts saw little improvement in their treatment. 

The Reformation and Enlightenment were not necessarily more accepting. Martin Luther wrote, “Therefore be on your guard against the Jews knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously.” In Essai sur le Moeurs (Essay on Mores), Voltaire wrote, “The Jewish nation dares to display an irreconcilable hatred toward all nations, and revolts against all masters; always superstitious, always greedy for the well-being enjoyed by others, always barbarous—cringing in misfortune and insolent in prosperity.” Voltaire was not alone; the Enlightenment only partly overcame the widely shared view that Jews and Judaism constituted a sort of foul stain on civilization’s progress.

It is worth reviewing this tragic history in order to illustrate that anti-Semitism and murderous Jew-hatred have a very long history and deep roots in Western (but not only Western) culture. When official state anti-Jewish laws were removed there was a great deal of populist anti-Semitism including humiliation, expressions of hatred, and caricature in the press, the theater, and in politics. The notion that Jews did not deserve their improved social standing and would use it to corrupt society was widely held. The liberal and slowly democratizing European states still did not regard Jews as full-fledged members and participants, even once they had citizenship. While the actual expression, “the Jewish Question” is historically rather recent, the issue—namely, what is to be done with or to the Jews—has a very long history. (Jews have especially appreciated the United States for permitting them to be citizens from the start. There has been considerable anti-Semitism in the US, especially in the South and Midwest, but not involving the murderous violence of European and other anti-Semitism.)

That societies were becoming more secular seems not to have mitigated the urgency of the question for many non-Jews. In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx maintained that the “emancipation of mankind from Judaism” depended on “the emancipation of the Jews from Judaism.” In Europe, the so-called “Jewish question” remained open, needing an answer. A century later, an answer came in the form of a program of extermination.

Basically, the Jewish Question was an issue raised by those—whether Christian or secular—who continued to regard both Judaism and Jews as an obnoxious anachronism, and a solution had to be found and imposed—without either consulting Jews or learning anything about Judaism. 

In theological terms, the root of the “question” lies in the view that Judaism was theologically and morally superseded, regarding Judaism as over. On this view, there is no reason for anyone to be a Jew, and the continued existence of Judaism is indicative of a kind of stubborn unwillingness to accept the “good news” of Christian salvation or later, the enlightenment of secular modernity. Thus, the religion of the Jews has been widely regarded as a combination of ingratitude, tribalism, and moral under-development. 

The upsurge in open, often violent Jew-hatred since the Hamas incursion on October 7, 2023, is evidence that the Israel Question is—for many people—a poorly disguised version of the Jewish Question.

The Jewish Question became a malignant obsession of Adolph Hitler (and plenty of others) and perhaps the most terrible period for the Jews of Europe was very recent, the mid-twentieth century. But the notion that murderous anti-Semitism is something distinctively Nazi and that the Nazis were alone in perpetrating the Holocaust, is false. In Poland, Belarus, Russia, Romania, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, and other countries there was extensive participation in the program of extermination, and other countries did little to protect Jews from being sent to their deaths. Far too many people seem to think along the lines, “The Nazis; now they were anti-Semites. But we’re not Nazis, so, how can anyone say we are anti-Semitic.” Both the logic and the moral claim are fallacious.

Christianity has largely separated itself from condemnation and condescension toward Judaism and Jews but a fifteen-century cultural transmission of ignorance and loathing doesn’t just evaporate. The post-war Soviet Union and East Bloc continued state-sponsored Jew-hatred and there were pogroms in Poland as recently as the 1960s. In the Soviet Union, Jew-hatred wasn’t motivated by Christianity but the disposition had deep roots and could be secularized in its expression. There is a long history of anti-Semitism both on the Right and the Left. 

Some among the secular Left have cultivated a form of anti-Semitism also based on a notion of supersession. For many on the Left, the central idea is not that Jewish religion has been theologically and morally superseded and is now over, but that the legitimacy of the State of Israel is in doubt. Many so-called “progressives” (as well as Muslim militants) have embraced anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing with an almost giddy enthusiasm. For secular Leftists, this is a non-theological matter, but it has the same result for Jews. Namely, Israel has been a state for seventy-five years, and that is long enough; its legitimacy is over because getting rid of it will help bring about peace and justice in the Middle East. Whether focusing on theology and morality, or on politics, the question of the legitimacy of Judaism is still being asked by self-appointed authorities on the matter.

The upsurge in open, often violent Jew-hatred since the Hamas incursion on October 7, 2023, is evidence that the Israel Question is—for many people—a poorly disguised version of the Jewish Question. And the main issue is not about the proportionality of Israel’s response to the incursion. Widespread, vitriolic anti-Semitism was in full bloom before we had any clear idea of the scale of that response. It is often overlooked that Hamas, Hezbollah, and their Iranian (and other) backers are explicitly, officially committed to the destruction of the State of Israel and the large-scale murder of Jews. For some reason, they are not taken at their word by people in the West. Perhaps that is because so many Westerners have abandoned values and principles and opted for thoughtless comfort. They cannot imagine that anyone is so committed to a near-worship of cruelty and death. The Israelis do not have the comfort option. They recognized the Hamas incursion as a form of massacre and cruelty that has seemingly indelible historical fingerprints. We have seen this before. How is it that it is so widely unrecognized? This isn’t Jewish paranoia; it is a repeated historical reality.

The Mideast political situation has long been very fraught and complicated, in large part by Arab leaders, Hamas, and certain others claiming to speak for the Palestinians, who have refused to recognize Israel as an actual state. There has been some progress on that front but not nearly enough. Perhaps the Palestinians have some responsibility and should do what they can to establish and sustain a non-terrorist leadership. There have been plenty of Israeli missteps but the fact is that concessions and withdrawals are followed by more terror, murder, and hostage-taking. Many in the West who claim they are only anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic have been unable to sustain that lie, as recent events indicate. Knowledge of the political history of the Mideast, the relations between Israel and its neighbors, some realistic history of religion, and the larger historical context overall might at least put the disputes on a firmer footing even if it doesn’t resolve them. The facts matter. Unfortunately, the Jewish Question remains a live issue, being asked and answered by people who should get over it.