Anti-Semitism as a Socio-Economic Phenomenon

(or what the Jews have in common with the Swiss guards of the Pope)

Theo Pavlidis
March 6, 2002 (revised April 18, 2002)

This is a brief statement of a hypothesis that on one hand seems obvious and on the other hand seems to be absent from the literature on anti-Semitism. A longer essay is in progress but, in the meantime, I would appreciate comments on the central idea.

George Orwell wrote that revolutions are not the actions of the poor against the rich but of the middle class against the rich. Both of these two groups try to obtain the alliance of the multitude of the poor. If the middle class succeeds in obtaining the alliance of the poor, a successful revolution occurs. On the contrary, the rich can forestall revolutions by turning the poor against the middle class. This is where Orwell's discussion ends. However a consequence of Orwell's observation is that it would be helpful for a ruling class if the people of the middle class were (entirely or mostly) members of a minority population. Such a composition can be assured by discouraging members of the majority population from acquiring an education or engaging in certain activities. This was certainly the case in the Middle Ages in Europe.

Because Jews are a distinct group that emphasized learning, they are prime candidates for being members of the middle class. Anti-Semitism (cultivated amongst the poor) serves to keep them "in their place." Thus anti-Semitism is not due to anything the Jews themselves do or their beliefs but to the socio-economic niche they occupy. Most important, in authoritarian societies with a strong class structure, a distinct population that will be subject to periodic persecutions will always occupy the middle class socio-economic niche. As one notorious anti-Semite said, "even if the Jews did not exist, we would have to invent them."

The main argument in favor of this explanation is that in places where there are no Jews other ethnic groups fulfill that role and they too are periodically subject to persecution. Christian minorities in some Moslem countries, Indian immigrants in Africa, Chinese immigrants in Indonesia and other Asian countries, etc. An interesting parallel is offered by the use of foreign nationals as bodyguards. The distinction ensures that they will not ally with the majority population against the ruler. Also the ruler can always keep them in check by turning the locals against them. The practice was widespread in the Middle Ages with the Swiss guards of the Pope being its most visible remnant today.

It has been often argued that Jews are persecuted because "they are different." But a quick look at various countries suggests that the Jews are not always the most distinct group. For example, in Europe Gypsies are far more "different" than Jews and while they are often treated with disdain, major persecutions of the Gypsies are rare. Not much to steal from them. (True the Nazis did try to exterminate the Gypsies but the Nazis were casting a very wide net.)

Another related observation is that major outbreaks of anti-Semitism occur at times when the power structure is threatened, for example at the end of the 19th century in Russia. If we accept the proposed theory the 'paradox' of Jews being periodically favored and then disfavored by rulers is no longer a paradox. Also assimilation cannot be protection against persecution. Such protection can be provided only by eliminating social stratification as much as possible and encouraging social mobility in real terms.

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