To understand antisemitism, look to its ancient roots

Vilification of Jewish people has been one of the most successful group character assassinations in history

May 05, 2023
People protesting against antisemitism in London. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
People protesting against antisemitism in London. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Sometimes it’s easy to spot antisemitism. When the Jewish investor and philanthropist George Soros is accused of masterminding a plot, for example, reviving the myth of a Jewish conspiracy. Or when cartoons circulate of Israeli soldiers dripping with blood and leering with hooked noses—echoing both Nazi caricatures and the medieval accusation that Jews used the blood of Christians in their rituals. But it’s not always that obvious.

Underlying all the tropes of conspiracy and secret power there is a prejudice towards Jews that pre-dates modern racist ideology and springs from the beginning of Christianity, long before the term antisemitism was first coined in the 19th century.

Judaism was the foundation of Christianity. Yet it became the opposition against which the new religion defined itself as “the true Israel”. The demonisation of Jews in Christianity became one of the most successful group character assassinations in history, running as a constant stream through western culture. Ideas and metaphors about Jewish evil have fed art, literature and our wider intellectual history. 

As David Nirenberg so powerfully demonstrated in his book Anti-Judaism, Christian beliefs about Jews were secularised and absorbed by western political philosophers. Nirenberg charts the journey through Voltaire, Kant, Hegel and Marx into social science, economics and even mathematics. Anti-Judaism became embedded in western thought. Spinoza (himself Jewish) saw Judaism as the enemy of reason (an echo of Christianity’s view of Jews as the enemies of revelation).

These hostile notions about Jews are so old and so deeply embedded in our history and language that sometimes we don’t even see them. They are in the DNA of our cultural memory.

Matt Taibbi’s squid is a good example. When he famously described Goldman Sachs in 2009 as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”, it was a metaphor that echoed multiple antisemitic tropes. The association of Jews with vampires is no longer immediately recognised, but it was a Gothic version of the medieval charge that Jews murdered Christians for their blood—an image that Taibbi further emphasised with his graphic “blood funnel”. The squid, to my knowledge, is not an antisemitic trope. But it evoked the image of the octopus with its tentacles wrapped around the globe, familiar from Nazi cartoons and repeated in antisemitic imagery today. 

Taibbi does not appear to have been aware of the antisemitic echoes (he was reported as being “flabbergasted”). Nor, I imagine, were the many media organisations that have continued to repeat his metaphor, including Forbes, the Guardian, the Evening Standard, the Financial Times, and many others. None of the articles I looked at made any reference to the fact that it’s an antisemitic metaphor, they simply repeated it. Last Saturday, meanwhile, cartoonist Martin Rowson drew an image in the Guardian that has been denounced as antisemitic and which included a squid. It’s clear from his apology that he had no awareness of the resonance either.

I doubt that anyone who repeated the metaphor was thinking of Goldman Sachs’s origins as a Jewish institution, founded by Jewish families. Taibbi’s article came at a moment when hostility towards financial institutions was at its height after the crash. But it is no coincidence that he unwittingly chose metaphors with antisemitic resonance to denounce a financial institution, not primarily perhaps because Goldman Sachs was founded by Jewish families, but because the evils of finance are historically associated with Jews. This also has its roots in Christianity, dating back to St Paul’s identification of Jews with materialism—in opposition to Christianity’s association with the spirit. 

Many years ago, I noticed a similar pattern of language being used about Peter Mandelson, which I also considered to be unintentional antisemitism. He was a vampire, a Svengali (an antisemitic reference that is mostly forgotten), a virus. Few of these terms were in common usage as antisemitic abuse, but they had a long history and had, like Taibbi’s images, been absorbed into the language, unmoored from their antisemitic origins. Many on the left disagreed with me when I made this argument in the New Statesman, believing that the hostility towards Mandelson had nothing to do with his Jewish heritage (his father was Jewish). One journalist threatened to sue.

Antisemitism is very much alive. We should worry about it most where it is blatant and targeted. But it would help if we had a much greater knowledge of its ancient roots and how far it has shaped our culture, to the extent that it is all too easy to repeat antisemitic metaphors without being aware of where they come from.