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date: 14 December 2018

Summary and Keywords

Anti-Semitism is the systematic hatred, discrimination, and attack on Jews. Anti-Semitism often manifests itself in hateful speech that functions as the precursor to hostile actions against Jews. Anti-Semitism is a subject matter that has occupied scholars dating back from antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and more intensely in modern times. Different perspectives have been employed to explain this scourge, covering the terrains of historical, political, psychological, and even pathological perspectives but rarely in rhetorical studies. Considering anti-Semitism as hateful speech enables a rhetorical explanation whereby suasive forces are employed to strategically find faults with one group functioning as a scapegoat for the action of others. From this perspective, anti-Semitism is a form of victimization that scapegoats Jews for causes not of their doing, yet their existence is argued time and again as the reason for various societal ills. Ostensibly, Jews have been targeted throughout history and faulted for events not linked to them. From charges of conspiring with the Devil in antiquity, to poisoning wells in the Middle Ages, to causing Germany’s defeat in World War I, and many more, anti-Semitism has consistently been employed at critical historical junctures as a convenient explanation for complicated and troubling events. The Holocaust and the systematic plan to decimate Europe’s Jewry was perhaps the most overt and egregious case of anti-Semitism. It was based on a powerful propaganda machine that dehumanized Jews first, blamed them for all that befell Germany, and readied the grounds for the mass murder of some six million of them.

One root cause stands at the center of anti-Semitism: the death of Christ on the cross, and with it the charge that Jews are forever guilty of this crime. With religious interpretation and theological dogmas of the early Christian Church, the charge of Jews as Christ killer would establish the theology that Jews are forever guilty of this crime and fault every Jew at any time, even those not yet born, of this crime. This foundational charge has allowed other charges, including social, racial, and economic explanations, to be piled up against Jews, eventually identifying them as permanent pariahs. From a rhetorical perspective, an inherent guilt is the motivating force that has allowed anti-Semitism to survive through millennia. Hatred of Jews and hateful speech directed at them has never been erased, though one significant exception to the charge of eternal guilt was advanced by the Vatican II Council in 1965 in its document Nostra Aetate, and in it, the Church repudiated the charge of the eternal guilt of the Jew. The horrors of the Holocaust, more than any other cause, has brought the Catholic Church to change a century-old dogma, seeking an end to anti-Semitism. The Church correctly identified the charge of eternal guilt of the Jew as the root cause of anti-Semitism and stated its rejection of the faulty reasoning associated with the charge of eternal deicide. This significant move has done much to improve Christian–Jewish relations but it has not erased anti-Semitism. Recent incidents in various parts of the world have increased concerns that a new wave of anti-Semitism is under way.

Anti-Semitism appeals to people’s base instincts and is often rationalized as the fear of the “other” and the preservation of the self and the dominant community. Anti-Semitism flourishes because the rhetorical process therein is simple: It absolves culprits of answering tough questions by scapegoating an other who has already been accepted as the pariah and whose “responsibility” for past iniquities has long been established. Anti-Semitism is processed through a tried and true persuasive formula that is manifested rhetorically in speech and in images. Anti-Semitism succeeds where people do not employ basic critical skills when confronting messages, preferring instead to accept convenient, if spurious, explanations.

Keywords: anti-Semitism, hate speech, rhetoric, scapegoat, Vatican II, pariah, communication and critical studies

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