It needs to be said from the jump: Anti-Semitism is a disease of white European Christendom.
The reason it’s not like other racisms is because there’s a deicidal dimension to anti-Semitism. It stands alone in this regard. The Jews killed Jesus -- that was official Catholic doctrine until Vatican II in 1965, a full 20 years after the Holocaust ended. Killing God is, pretty obviously, the worst crime there is, and Europeans and Americans considered Jews transcendentally guilty of the crime at birth, officially, until 1965, around 1,935 years after Jesus’ execution.
That’s why we call all other expressions of racism “racism” and we call that especial hatred of Jews “anti-Semitism.” Most racism, American racism vis-à-vis black and brown Americans, for instance, is a vicious product of economics, xenophobia, nationalism, colonialism and other terrestrial matters. But the Jewish diaspora in Europe was tormented for nearly two millennia by white Christians who considered Jews to be Christ killers, uniquely guilty of a sin shared by no other people on earth. They were apart from the rest of humanity, unreachable even by God’s grace, according to Christian theology. Post-enlightenment manifestations of anti-Semitism may be clothed in the same nationalist or economic dress as other forms of racism, but the undergirding foundation of Jew-as-ultimate-other has produced a form of racism strong enough to transcend European epochs.
Anti-Jewish racism (or ethnicism, perhaps more accurately) exists in the Middle East, to be sure. Some in the Iranian leadership may rely on anti-Jewish prejudices to galvanize support. Hamas is particularly guilty of using a Jew-as-other motif in their propaganda. But the animating premises are terrestrial and territorial--in the end, it's simply about competing claims on land, not a transcendent and eternal evilness infecting the lineage of "Christ killers." So when the singular cultural crime of anti-Semitism -- again, a product of white Christianity -- gets transferred to Persians and Arabs, or virtually anyone who isn’t a Western Christian, somebody’s either lying to you or pitifully confused about basic history.
It’s difficult to tell which with Glenn Beck, whose recent exceptional craziness includes his trying to sell this idea that European anti-Semitism was transferred to Iran from the Nazis after the fall of Hitler’s regime. Here’s how he cracked the code on his popular radio show in February:
“Right before the Third Reich ended, Germany went over and planted these seeds in the Middle East. They planted them in Persia. Persia — I had no idea why Persia all of a sudden was Iran but Persia changed the name. Iran in Persian means Aryan. They changed the name to Aryan as a gift to the Third Reich and to the Führer. They believed they were right; kill all the Jews. So these seeds were planted in the Middle East, and now you are seeing the whole Nazi glory come back…”
Where do we start in unpacking this mess? First of all, to imagine that the Nazis, with their celebration of fair-skinned, blond, blue-eyed Germanic “purity,” would select clearly non-white Persians and Arabs to be heirs to their “master race” business seems ridiculous on its face. Beck highlights one Palestinian, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, who did ally with the Germans, as his smoking gun. Husseini was actively involved with the Nazis, hated Jews, and he is labeled an "anti-Semite" by respectable voices on the Middle East; but, again, his grievances had to do with immediate and earthly concerns, the First World War's victor's partitioning of Palestine. Not unsurprisingly, this non-white Palestinian was treated with "scorn" by the Nazis.
Second, Muslims don’t have a theological reason to hate Jews. Jews and Christians are People of the Book according to Islam, all three Abrahamic faiths sharing a set of foundational prophets.
Iranian leaders may use the Israeli state’s actions to galvanize conservative Persians and bolster their semi-authoritarian rule. Hamas might do the same thing, even using racist depictions of Jews to propagandize and warp the minds of children. But it’s just base racism, not anti-Semitism as devised by European Christians. Despite the boldest racist rhetoric from its leaders, Iran doesn’t seek the wholesale elimination of Jews in pursuit of a cleansing of the earth of a people tainted with the eternal sin of deicide. Hamas, even in its most nightmarish children’s propaganda, founds its anti-Jewish racism mostly on the actions of the Israeli state, not a supernatural, eternal evilness.
No, anti-Semitism is a Christian thing. It’s a white thing. Sorry, Glenn. And 2,000 years of Christian theology can’t simply be handed off to someone you don’t like like a holy hot potato. It is perhaps the original sin of Christianity. The Jewish people of Roman Palestine were ruthlessly ruled by that empire, then expelled from their land by the Romans in the first and second centuries CE, right around the time that European Christianity was first devising the deicidal charge against their new refugees seeking asylum. Once again, the Jewish people found themselves without a home, forced to wander in a new desert, this time the moral wasteland of Europe, where their very being was a crime against the dominant culture.
It started early. The charge of deicide was leveled against Jews by Christians as early as the second century CE, as evidenced by a homily by Melito of Sardis, written sometime between 160 and 170 CE:
God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel...O frightful murder! O unheard of injustice!...Why was it like this, O Israel? You did not tremble for the Lord. You did not fear for the Lord. You did not lament for the Lord, yet you lamented for your firstborn. You did not tear your garments at the crucifixion of the Lord, yet you tore your garments for your own who were murdered. You forsook the Lord; you were not found by him. You dashed the Lord to the ground; you, too, were dashed to the ground, and lie quite dead.
In the third century, the early theologian Origen would echo Melito of Sardis in the terms that would eventually form Catholic doctrine vis-à-vis the Jews, proclaiming that “The blood of Jesus falls not only upon those [Jews] but also upon all generations of the Jewish people following afterwards until the end of the world.”
Even Saint Augustine wrote that “The Jew...will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus."
The second millennium of Christianity began an even more brutal period of anti-Semitism, as the Crusades were, before leaving Europe, a roving pogrom. In a preview of what would horrify the world many centuries later under the Nazis, as many as 12,000 Jews were slaughtered in the Rhine Valley alone during the first Crusade, as the genocidal killers chanted, “Christ-killers, embrace the Cross or die!” Tens of thousands or more European Jews would be massacred by Crusaders in the first centuries of the second millennium. (It’s a point that very much needs some belaboring, but I’ll limit the account of the centuries of oppression and massacre. It’s fairly easily Googled.) So if any group has an inherited sin, it’s white Euro-American Christendom. To pass that sin off onto peoples of color who had nothing to do with it is white privilege playing out on a global, geopolitical scale.
And all of this matters. It affects how we speak about conflicts--latent, emergent and active--that involve Israel. It radically confuses perceptions of aims and intentions of actors like Iran, Hezbollah, Palestinians and others. The emergence of this false conflation enables Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to compare Iran to the Nazis with some regularity, even deploying the association in his controversial address to the U.S. Congress during the latest round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. As the Iranians-are-pretty-much-
Two entirely contradictory goals are then attributed to the Iranian leadership. We’re to believe that they’re power-hungry clerical autocrats who put down popular, democratic uprisings so as to maintain their sweet, sweet power -- gluttons disguised as pious ascetics. And yet we’re to believe that they’re simultaneously new Hitlers, driven solely by anti-Semitism, who upon achieving their first nuclear missile would lob it immediately toward Tel Aviv, knowing full well that their own sky would shortly thereafter fill with Israel’s 200 or so nuclear weapons -- an anti-Semitism murder-suicide.
The same narrative can be used to dehumanize Palestinians, who have been similarly labeled as descendants of Nazis and purveyors of "anti-Semitism." All legitimate grievances against the Israeli state -- especially in Gaza, where many radicals are virulently racist or ethnicist, against Israeli Jews -- get swallowed by the charge of anti-Semitism. The actual crimes and motivations of Hamas end up buried under the confusion. There are very legitimate, internationally sanctioned reasons for Palestinians to be angry at Israel, but the broad and sloppy brush of the anti-Semitism charge can obscure those valid reasons. "They’re just angry because they’re anti-Semitic, like Hitler." End of argument.
The United States is, in the end, the global arbiter of Israel-Palestine and the Israeli/Iranian affair, for better or worse. But we can’t be expected to make rational decisions if we begin our analysis with such shoddy first premises. The Iraq War was sold on a similarly sensational narrative, that Saddam Hussein was allied with al-Qaida. Dirty wars in Central America were made palatable by accusing leaders of being crypto-Soviets establishing a Russian beachhead in the Americas, “just two days' drive from Harlingen, Texas," as Reagan said. Americans routinely prove that we’re gullible for sensational narratives with bad guys, whose evil is drawn in comic-book proportions; it’s only later that we realize that it was that very embellishment and hyperbole that made the difference. Hussein was a vicious and violent autocrat, but there are plenty of those; it was the lies about Hussein that propelled the U.S. to military action. And now we see a new, even worse, association than Hussein and bin Laden. This is Khamenei and Hitler. It should be no surprise, then, the clamor for military action against Iran. Good Americans, believing themselves to be advocating for a just and necessary war, push against diplomacy and détente with the unholy heirs of Nazism. The first casualty of war is the truth, and it’s lying moribund on the battlefield of a potential war with Iran.