(Mis-)Understanding Anti-Semitism and Jewish Identity: From Bernard Lazare to Hannah Arendt
Jissov, Milen G.
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This study examines the responses of European intellectuals since the 1880s to an increasingly virulent and organized anti-Semitism in Europe, and the ways in which they sought to understand the character and origins of the hatred, and to fathom and work out the problems, terms and possibilities for Jewish identity. Focusing on the French figures Bernard Lazare and Marcel Proust from the time of the Dreyfus Affair and then on the Frankfurt School of social theory and Hannah Arendt from the period around and after the Second World War, the thesis argues that these thinkers created a common historical-psychological discourse on anti-Semitism, which attempted to confront, comprehend and explain the historically critical issues of anti-Semitism and Jewish identity. The study explores the discourse’s fundamental assumptions, insights, and arguments regarding the origins, character, and magnitude of anti-Semitism. It also analyzes its contentions concerning the contradictions, sources, and alternatives for Jewish identity. But, more, it claims that, despite their frequent perceptiveness, these figures’ interpretations of the two concerns proved limited, deficient, even deeply flawed. The thesis seeks to show that its intellectuals’ attempt to understand the twin issues was hence a failure to grasp and interpret them adequately, and to resolve them. It contends further that what impaired the authors’ engagements with anti-Semitism and Jewish selfhood were ideas that were fundamental to their thinking. These intellectual factors, moreover, connected the figures solidly to important historical contexts that they inhabited, thereby implicating the significant settings in the epistemological errors and defeats. These momentous ideas thus operated as both contextualizing and destructive forces—linking the intellectuals to their home contexts and transforming their understanding of their historic problematic into a misunderstanding.