I am a huge fan of Ruth Wisse. I also really like her op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal. But I was stopped cold by this line: “The place to begin is at the starting point: with the rise of anti-Semitism, modernity’s most successful and least understood political movement.”
Really? I don’t see how that statement can possibly be true. I guess it depends on the definitions of “modernity,” “successful,” and “political movement.”
But on a plain reading it strikes me as a head scratcher. First of all is anti-Semitism a “political movement”? I don’t see it. To me it belongs more in the sphere of sentiments, attitudes, convictions even, perhaps, principles. But in the political realm it is more adjective than noun. It describes or infects political movements. It doesn’t answer most of the questions politics is designed to ask: How shall we live? How shall we decide? How shall we allocate resources? etc.
But if we’re going to be broad enough in our categories to call anti-Semitism a political movement, that puts it in competition not just with democracy and socialism (two pretty successful political movements, even if you include socialism’s many failures) but with other figurative movements like free trade, property rights, personal sovereignty, natural rights, nationalism, globalism etc. Anti-Semitism might beat some of these “political movements” in terms of the number of adherents, but it loses on pretty much every metric I can think of.
Which brings us to anti-Semitism’s “success.” If you think of it as a virus, not a political movement, you could call it successful insofar as it manages to survive and adapt better than a lot of old hatreds. It passes its DNA from generation to generation, not just among the poor and uneducated but among the wealthy and the schooled. In evolutionary terms you could call that “successful.” But how you could call it the most successful I’m not so sure.
Update: I left out another point which a couple readers have brought up. How exactly is anti-Semitism, strictly speaking, “modern.” Sure it has modern incarnations (including the term “anti-Semitism” itself), but it’s also pretty old, isn’t it?