Does Anti-Semitism Have Sex Appeal?

“The Golden Calf”
Vida Khadem, 2016

Does Anti-Semitism Have Sex Appeal?

Is it sexy to be anti-semitic?  Well, it must be, since it’s a mode of organizing human desire that just won’t quit.

In bygone times, when distaste for all-things-Jewish was naively proud of itself, it was taken as both normative and decorative – even in deep bohemian circles.  Nobody who counted took offense when Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century novelist, or Edgar Degas, the great painter of that era, expressed antipathies that related to Jews.  No fragment of glory got scraped off the monumental Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Dickens because they depicted Jews prejudicially.

At the same era, since opposites sometimes attract, the acceptable antipathies didn’t necessarily bar a person from passionate attachment to some singular exception, if she or he was so inclined.  Exceptions were tolerated, along with the prejudices. 

The news about the Holocaust did somewhat affect the naïve anti-semitism of pre-War days.  It had roughly the same impact that is said to follow when a mirror is put within view of the wino face down in the gutter.  Golly! says the wino.  If that’s how I look, it might be a good time to clean up!

Since I came to girlhood and young womanhood during that – wino in the mirror — pause in history, I mistook the pause for the play.

However, even back then I do recall reading about a conversation between two Jewish intellectuals as together (both looking like skeletons) they walked out through the newly-liberated gate of one of the death camps.

“Now,” said the first Jewish survivor to his friend, “the anti-semites will quit what they do.  After this at least, they’ll have to feel a bit embarrassed.”

“No,” replied the other, shaking his head.  “They’ll find a way to blame us for this too.” 

As I understand it, the Jewish vocation is to live – to suffer (in the sense of endure) and sustain – the covenant.  To keep it going as something actual.  It involves keeping and extending the continuous record of efforts to partner with God in history.  The Bible begins, but did not end, that record.  It can of course be betrayed or mismanaged, like any trust.  But an effort that shows such atypical persistence over millennia can’t accurately be defined by its failures. 

Is the Jewish vocation sexy?  Well, it can provide the setting for erotic relations of the most sustained, deep, and interesting kind. 

But back to our opening question: is anti-semitism sexy?  Since it’s coming back in style, it’s surely gaining in sex appeal.   So what is the eros of anti-semitism?  What makes it seem attractive, and the wearer seem desirable? 

I’ve heard more than one non-Jewish tinkerer with anti-semitic postures express low-boil frustration at the Election of the Jews.  However, I’ve never felt that such seeming envy is sincere.  After all, if one takes Jewish “chosenness” to be delusive, then it’s pitiable.  And if one takes it at face value, to be serious and real, one can convert.  Conversion is challenging, but not beyond reach.  It’s still an option.

So envy can’t by itself sufficiently explain the newly a la mode anti-semite, nor furnish the necessary erotic draw.  Whence its renewed appeal?  Wherefore its sexiness?

Sorry, but I’m kinda stumped.  Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with.  You know those orgiastic scenes in the technicolor Bible movies of yore?  Recall Charlton Heston up on the mountain getting the ten commandments on the two stone tablets from God?  And meanwhile the Israelites wax doubt-filled and impatient as they wait for him at the foot of the mountain?

The best I can offer is borrowed from the Hollywood choreographers who had to show what betraying the covenant looks like when you’re disclosing its hot side only: the bewitched leaping in the air, the bedazzled shinnying on the ground, and the inexhaustible dancing, dancing and dancing round and round and round the uh, er … golden calf ?

The golden calf?  But that’s not a real god.  The calf’s an obviously contrived prop-room gizmo, hurriedly put together out of earrings (Exodus 32) that the dancers donated!  Why deploy the vast scenario, the gyrating, leaping orgy, around a prop like that?

Well, the real mountain is a tough climb.  Those two Mt Sinai tablets are made of heavy stone.   Actual reality’s kinda uncomfortable.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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3 Responses to Does Anti-Semitism Have Sex Appeal?

  1. Pingback: Friends in the Teeth of History - Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice ColumnDear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column

  2. Abigail says:

    It’s hard to know how to distinguish the psychiatric condition from the moral one. Thanks, Romola, for pondering these puzzling phenomena along with me!

  3. Romola Chrzanowski says:

    Today, Michelle Goldberg discusses a related question in the NY Times:
    I think she is relating the acceptability of antisemitism to the right-wing make-believe craziness that embraces lies in order to turn attackers into victims. I see that blatant behavior of outright lying as psychopathic. One trait of the psychopath is to embrace a lie and then defend it. The right-wing (Republicans) and their followers are experiencing a shared psychopathy. The fact that antisemitism fits right in seems almost coincidental. It provides an easy target for the psychopathy. I don’t quite see how that is sexy, but on the other hand, psychopaths are also known for a certain charm and charisma.

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