Why have the Jews suffered so much persecution throughout history? This is a typical question that comes up after one realizes just how constant the persecution of Jew has been, and history offers no shortage of scholars to answer it. Admittedly I am no such scholar. At best I am a cursory observer of the subject, but I am impressed with what I recently read from Nietzsche.
Nietzsche lived and wrote in the late 19th century, a single generation before Nazism hit Germany. For those unfamiliar with his writings let us just say that he possessed a rare genius of psychological insight and was perhaps the most gifted thinker of his generation in terms of his ability to diagnose the ‘spirit of the age,’ (so to speak) and to detect his place in the cycle of history.
Most people instinctively jump to Nazism and Hitler’s death camps as the most extreme example of Jewish suffering. In my experience, many of these people tend to lack a sense of the social context of pre-1940’s Germany, and often imagine the Jewish persecution under Nazism as an arbitrary act of blind racism. And though it was blind (as all racism is blind), it was not at all arbitrary. The Germans had a special distain for Jews, but a distain which seems to be a common thread throughout the history of Jewish persecution.
Here is a telling quote from Nietzsche’s experience:
“About the Jews, for example: listen – I have never met a German who was favorably inclined towards the Jews… That Germany has an ample sufficiency of Jews, that the German stomach, German blood has difficulty in absorbing even this quantum of ‘Jew’ – as the Italians, the French, the English have absorbed them through possessing a stronger digestion –: this is the clear declaration and language of a universal instinct to which one must pay heed, in accordance with which one must act. ‘Let in no more Jews!’… – thus commands the instinct of a people whose type is still weak and undetermined, so that it could easily be effaced, easily extinguished by a stronger race.”
Here Nietzsche, in his typical style, calls it like it is: German’s were a weak and undertermined people intimidated by Jews—a stronger race of people. I about dropped my coffee when I came across that last line. Oddly, the Nazis adopted Nietzsche (some might say ‘hijacked’ him) as one of their main pet philosophers for the ‘New Germanism.’ Were they aware of what he said here?
But it gets much more honest. Nietzsche continues:
“The Jews, however, are beyond all doubt the strongest, toughest and purest race at present living in Europe; they know how to prevail even under the worst condition, by means of virtues which one would like to stamp as vices – thanks above all to a resolute faith which does not need to be ashamed before ‘modern ideas.’”
Holy moly, Nietzsche! Had he said this to Hitler’s face he would’ve been imprisoned for life or shot on the spot.
But oh, it gets much, much more honest. Nietzsche continues:
“That the Jews could, if they wanted – or if they were compelled, as the anti-Semites seem to want – even now predominate, indeed quite literally rule over Europe, is certain; that they are not planning and working towards that is equally certain… it would perhaps be a good idea to eject the anti-Semitic ranters from the country. Go out to meet it with all caution, with selectivity… It is plain that the stronger and already more firmly formed types of the new Germanism could enter into relations with them with the least hesitation.”
Seriously, this would have got Nietzsche killed by the 3rd Reich had he lived just a generation later. It is truly curious that the Germans held Nietzsche in such high regard for his brilliance—particularly his writings on the ubermensch (the ideal superior man of the future), an idea which mesmerized the Nazis—but seemed to pass over this striking section of his most popular book (“Beyond Good and Evil”). It’s weird. But that’s for another article.
So, in answer to the question: why were the Jews so persecuted throughout history? Nietzsche offers some incredible insights which I have whittle down to two main points.
First, the Jews were historically wanderers without a home country, yet regardless of where they found themselves they always prospered. And not just prospered but prospered to a degree that roused envy in the people among whom they settled. There are a number of reasons for this, but some of the more obvious ones are that the Jews have deep roots stretching back for thousands of years – they know who they are and where they come from thanks to tradition and written documents as old as civilization itself. Along with their deep history comes the passing on of skills, knowledge, and wealth from generation to generation. For example, some Jewish families have historically excelled in the art of making clothes and passed down this skill through family lines. Poverty is not in your future if you are a skilled tailor or seamstress; it doesn’t matter what country you live in, all people everywhere and at all times need clothes. If you can make top notch clothes you will never starve. Few other people groups on the planet have perfected trades passed down for generations.
Second, the Jews have a “resolute faith which does not need to be ashamed before ‘modern ideas.’” This is not to say that all Jews everywhere are adherents to Judaism, however the fact that they have a cultural faith from which they can tether their identity saves them from the need to be always keeping up with the latest and greatest social identity fads (something that shackled the Germans of the 1930’s and 40’s). Those who do not have this identity-tether are constantly thrown with every wave of new thought, every false promise of progress, and hence always winding up back at the starting blocks. Actual progress in anything requires a stable starting point – the Jews have always had this. Not needing to assimilate to the immediate intellectual culture of the host country, the Jews have successfully evaded many ideological pitfalls, which, again, has made them the envy of many.
Thank you for reading, and please comment below with any additional insights or corrections to my thoughts.