Anti-Semitism exists because people are naturally afraid of ghosts: The Jews in exile are a “ghostlike apparition of a living corpse,” and so the widespread “fear of the Jewish ghost” is a natural consequence of their statelessness, explained Leon Pinsker, who made this disturbing argument in his 1882 pamphlet Auto-Emancipation. The human fear of ghosts renders anti-Semitism—or Judeophobia, as he called it—a hereditary and incurable “psychic aberration” common to the whole of mankind. It is impossible to combat this superstitious prejudice, argues Pinsker, but independent statehood would enable the Jews to cease being despised aliens: only this could exorcise, or at least soothe, this historic psychosis.
In hindsight, on what would have been his 195th birthday today, one might argue that history has proved Pinsker wrong. The Jews resumed sovereignty nearly 70 years ago, and anti-Semitism persists—against diaspora Jews and, more worryingly for Pinsker’s case, against the resurrected Jewish state itself. Far from diffusing antipathy against Jews as homeless aliens, the Jewish state is a magnet for this rage. Its very right to exist is challenged incessantly.
Such a position, however, fails to do justice to Pinsker’s perspicacity. His flaw was not in his diagnosis of anti-Semitism, but in his prognosis: not in his premises, but his failure to take them to their logical conclusions. For if people are naturally afraid of ghosts, they must be even more afraid of ghosts that come to life. As much as they might fear ghosts, they are used, at least, to seeing ghosts as disembodied and ethereal. For ghosts to assume flesh and blood and wander the Earth is an act of necromancy.
Indeed, for two millennia, the West grew accustomed to seeing Jews as dependent minorities. As David Nirenberg outlines in his masterful Anti-Judaism, the way that societies defined themselves in relation to the Jews throughout the years was central to their own self-imagination. So central was the image of Jews in Western thought that if they did not exist, the West would have had to invent them—indeed, even in Judenrein medieval European societies, the trope of the Jew remained the ultimate Other.
As the years dragged on, the thought that this dispersed minority could ever be embodied as a nation-state grew more and more incongruous and absurd. With the Emancipation, the different European states sought to mold the Jews into a culturally assimilated community with a different religion, rather than a discrete people. Indeed, Zionism was such a revolutionary idea at its inception that the idea appeared far-fetched even to many Jews.
Now the Jews have a state, and there are many who wish to roll back that achievement. Yet, unlike the anti-Semites of old, today’s anti-Zionists do not necessarily want to annihilate the Jews. They just want the Jews to return to being stateless minorities, as they have always known them. In short, anti-Zionists want their Jewish ghosts back...