The history of European anti-Semitism can be traced from medieval Christian influences, through nineteenth century nationalism and racism. Göran Therborn argues that while institutionalised anti-Semitism largely died out after the Holocaust, it remains a significant part of European culture. Nevertheless, the tendency to assign anti-Semitic motivations to criticism of Israeli policies is both empirically unfounded and problematic, not least because it obscures genuine intolerance.

Anti-Semitism is an old and important part of European history, rooted in the oedipal origin of Christianity as a break-off from Judaism. With the Enlightenment, the anti-Semitism of medieval Christianity abated. Lessing’s Nathan the Wise succeeded Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as the central literary figure of ‘the Jew’. Christian anti-Semitism did not vanish, and elementary civil and human rights remained for long unequal in eastern parts of Europe. But all this might have been considered historical residues.

However, anti-Semitism got a new shot in the arm from the rise of nationalism, and from the development of biological racism, which became a key ideology of European imperialism surging in the last third of the 19th century. Whatever the precise or final causal configuration of the Holocaust, which is still being debated, it was primarily a product of secularized modernity, and not of traditional Christian anti-Semitism.

Institutionalized racism lived on after 1945, in the American South and in Australia until about 1970, and in South Africa until the early 1990s. But in Europe it died with Hitler. Non-institutionalized anti-Semitism did not die out though. European anti-Semitism entered a third epoch, different both from the medieval Christian and the 19th century racist epochs – one that has been simultaneously subterranean and highlighted. With the exceptions of the last years of Stalin in the USSR, of Poland in 1967-68, and (slightly more off-centre) of Hungary today, after WWII there has been little anti-Semitism in the everyday daylight. Current xenophobic parties with roots in Nazism, like the Austrian FPÖ and the Sweden Democrats, have at least in the last 15 to 20 years traded in their original anti-Semitism for islamophobia.


Post-1945, the de-legitimation of public anti-Semitism – even the late Stalinist version paraded as anti-Zionism – and the establishment of a Jewish settler state in Palestine have together spawned the phenomenon of “anti-Semitism” as a spotlighted public smear. To the European (and US) praetorian guard around Israel, questioning the right, the wisdom, and/or the policies of the Israeli establishment is best countered by labeling it “anti-Semitic”. This politically instrumentalized anti-anti-Semitism is most developed and widespread in the German centre and centre-right.

Günter Grass (Credit: Das blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann)

Last spring a virulent campaign was unleashed against Günter Grass, across all the mainstream media of Germany, for warning against the possibly disastrous consequences of an attack by a nuclear-armed Israel against Iran. The board chairman of the Springer publishing-house called Grass “not only an anti-Semite, but a vicious anti-Semite”. Even more recently, the American philosopher Judith Butler has been the target of a similar attack, in connection with her being awarded the Adorno Prize. As a Jewess, Butler is not accused of anti-Semitism but of “self-hatred”, because of her support for boycotts and sanctions against the Israeli state. 

The real, subterranean anti-Semitism

Well below the public mass media smear campaigns, there is still a thriving subterranean European anti-Semitism, largely of a medievalist Christian tone. Anti-Semitism, with racism and islamophobia, is the theme of a recent issue of European Societies, the journal of the European Sociological Association. Where Western European comparisons were made, on Italy (by Padovan and Aletti) and Spain (by Baer and López), the authors found that anti-Semitism occurs much less frequent than islamophobia, but is rooted in a traditional Christian worldview, most clearly in Spain.

A large-scale study of Europe by German researchers has found medieval Christian anti-Semitism still alive. Half of all Poles, a third of Hungarians, and 15 per cent of Germans hold the Jews “responsible for the death of Christ”. On almost all questions, Hungary and Poland score highest on anti-Semitism. In Western Europe, Portugal and Spain tend to have high values, although on most aspects considerably lower than Hungary and Poland. Two thirds of Hungarians and half of all Poles thought that Jews had too much influence in their country. On that question, corresponding figures were one fourth of the French, one fifth of Italians, Portuguese, and Germans, and one in seven among the British.

From the point of view of human rights and of international relations, the setup and the expansion of a Jewish settler state in Palestine can hardly be relegated to some divine or historical right beyond and above any legitimate questioning and rational discussion. On the other hand, logic and reason aside, is radical criticism or scepticism about the state of Israel de facto linked to anti-Semitism? Here empirical sociology has an answer, from a 2009 study of German attitudes at the University of Bielefeld. This survey found a connection between, on the one hand, a very critical opinion of Israeli policies against Palestinians, and, on the other, the view that Jews have too much influence, in 23 per cent of the cases. In other words, three out of four strong critics of Israel had no anti-Jewish resentment.

In spite of its complete mainstream de-legitimation, and despite difficult and controversial measurement problems, it is clear and undeniable that anti-Semitism is still a significant part of European culture. The use of “anti-Semitism” as an assault weapon against critics of the state of Israel is therefore doubly reprehensible, both as a vicious smear on public figures, and also in blurring our view of who remain the real anti-Semites.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author 

Göran Therborn – University of Cambridge
Göran Therborn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Cambridge,  and Affiliated Professor of Sociology at Linnaeus University, Sweden. Formerly he was co-Director of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences at Uppsala, and before that Professor of Sociology at Gothenburg University, Sweden, and also Professor of Political Science at the Catholic University Nijmegen, Netherlands. Göran is also a civic intellectual, with a lifetime commitment to universal freedom and equality, a supporter of anti-imperialist and egalitarian social movements, as well as a writer of and on Marxist and Radical theory.

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