Antisemitism and the Statue of Mendelssohn

The contentious subject of downed statues is often devoid of all nuance
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In 1936, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra embarked on a controversial tour of Germany. On the morning of 10 November, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and members of the orchestra arrived at the Leipzig Gewandhaus to lay a wreath at the base of a statue of the composer Felix Mendelssohn. By the time Beecham arrived to lay his wreath, the plinth was empty. The fate of the statue is unknown, although it was probably smashed to pieces or melted down and the bronze repurposed. What was certain is the motive for its removal. With the rise of antisemitism in Germany, the deputy mayor, Rudolf Haake, had ordered the destruction of the statue. To him, it was unthinkable that a Jew should be ‘held up as an advocate of a German city of music’. The fact that Mendelssohn had been baptised as a Lutheran, and founded Germany’s first music conservatorium in Leipzig in 1843, was insufficient to remove the stain of his birth.

Leipzig’s Mendelssohn monument, rebuilt in 2008.

To antisemites, like Haake, the crime of the Jew is one of being not doing. Describing the ideological path to the Holocaust, the philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote, ‘Jewish birth was sufficient cause to merit torture and death … with the possible exception of Gypsies, only Jews had committed the “crime” of existing at all’. When being is a crime, it collectivises guilt and offers a totalising explanation of malevolence. As the French antisemite Edouard Drumont wrote in 1886: ‘All comes from the Jew; all returns to the Jew’. In Antisemitism, Hannah Arendt quotes from Against the Jews, a pamphlet she describes as ‘the first antisemitic tract for the rabble’. Written in 1803, the author Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Grattenauer says he no longer wishes to hear about ‘this or that Jew, about any Jewish individual’. For him, what matters is ‘the Jew in general, the Jew everywhere and nowhere’. As Arendt wrote: ‘to transform the Jew into the Jew and then to conjure up all the things that are Jewish about him – all of these are tendencies of modern antisemitism’.

When Olga Lengyel published a book about her incarceration in Birkenau, she wrote that the Germans were ‘interested in us only as a group and cared nothing whatever about individuals’ and the Holocaust is the end point of this logic of degradation. The Jewish writer Jean Améry, who survived Auschwitz before committing suicide thirty years later, described how prisoners had to be cleanly shaven but were denied a razor or a scissors; every button on their striped suits had to be in place but when buttons inevitably fell off, there was no means of replacing them. ‘You had to be strong,’ Améry wrote, ‘but were systematically weakened’. In The Survivor, Terence Des Pres described the ‘excremental assault’ where prisoners were told to relieve themselves in designated places but were unable to do so at a time of their own choosing. Almost all prisoners suffered from dysentery and ended up wading in their own filth: ‘We were really no longer human beings in the accepted sense. Not even animals, but putrefying corpses moving on two legs’. Unable to disentangle themselves from what Primo Levi called ‘this knot of laws and prohibitions’, individuals became Muselmänner, ‘an anonymous mass … of non-men … the divine spark dead within them … One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death’.

We are naive if we believe this logic of degradation is a thing of the past. It is present and growing. In 2018, more than 60% of religiously motivated hate crimes in the US were against Jews and in France there were 550 incidents reported in the same year; by far the biggest number of attacks against a single group. In the UK, antisemitism attacks in 2021 reached their highest level since recording began in 1984, and two days before the acquittal of the Colston Four for their part in their protest against the slave trade, Rabbi YY Rubinstein resigned from the BBC. He did so in protest at its coverage of antisemitic attacks on a bus carrying Jewish teenagers to celebrate Hanukkah. The BBC misreported a plea for help by the teenagers as an anti-Muslim slur. When the error became apparent, the corporation refused to apologise. Rubinstein rightly concluded that to ‘claim the victims were actually the perpetrators, was and is inexcusable’.

Yet victim blaming is acceptable when the victim is a Jew. In 2019 Baroness Jenny Tonge asked, ‘Why have the Jewish people been persecuted over and over again throughout history? Why? I never get an answer’. The composer Richard Wagner, in his notorious essay Judaism in Music, similarly blamed Jews for inciting an ‘involuntary repellence’. He described their music as ‘derivative and rotten’ and accused them of talking in a ‘creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle’.  In 1543, Martin Luther described the Jews as ‘venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky, serpents, assassins, and children of the devil’. Perhaps those are the answers that Baroness Tonge was looking for.

In Jews Don’t Count, David Baddiel describes the contemporary othering of Jews as the law of Schrödinger’s Whites ‘in which Jews are white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer’. Antisemites on the right ostracise Jews because they threaten white supremacy. Antisemites on the left ostracise Jews because they are exemplars of white supremacy. Bari Weiss correctly calls these ideologies ‘mirror images of the same derangement’, the narcissistic derangement of idealists. As Emil Fackenheim observed, the leading Nazis were ‘were not perverts or opportunists or even ordinary jobholders but rather extraordinary idealists … criminals with a good conscience and a pure heart’.

This link of idealism to narcissism and the demonisation of out-groups that inevitably follows was the subject of a 2019 study in the American Political Science Review. The authors concluded that people ‘high in empathic concern are more likely to blame outpartisans for the suffering of inpartisans’ and they are more likely to ‘disproportionately blame’ outsiders for ‘social ills’. It’s this tendency to overvalue our own pain, and the pain of those who belong to our in-group, that leads us to diminish the pain of others. Dostoevsky observed in The Brothers Karamazov that ‘a man is rarely willing to acknowledge someone else as a sufferer (as if it were a kind of distinction)’. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote that it ‘is intolerable to have one’s own suffering twinned with anybody else’s’ and that no communion ‘should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain’.

The end-point of this psychology is the narcissism of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, who complained about having to watch the degradation and murder of Jews without being able to show ‘the slightest trace of emotion’. He wrote, ‘My pity was so great that I loved to vanish from the scene [but] I had to see everything. I had to watch hour after hour’. Höss turned the butchery of millions, for which he was responsible, into his own tragedy.

This degradation of the pain of the ‘other’, the stranger, the outsider, is predicated on hierarchies of suffering. These can be reverse caste hierarchies such as those that define modern intersectionality theory, where the proximity of Jews to Whites makes it impossible for them to claim the status of victims. This theory explains why Jewish lesbians were kicked out of a Dyke March in Washington in 2017 for carrying rainbow flags featuring Jewish stars. It explains why Natalie Hopkinson tweeted in defence of an op-ed she wrote for the New York Times that, ‘Ppl who have become white should not be lecturing black ppl about oppression’. It explains why Alice Walker wrote a poem called It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study The Talmud, which includes:

Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.

Intersectionality also explains why Liz Jolly, chief librarian at the British Library, argued for the removal of a bust of Felix Mendelssohn on the grounds of his association with ‘western civilisational supremacy’. When such narcissism is the engine of our compassion, when we wallow in the pleasure of our own purity, our humanity contracts. The philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of Felix, believed this contraction was at its ugliest in the most advanced and prosperous societies. Of such societies, he wrote, ‘The nobler they are in their blossoming, the more abominable they are when they deteriorate and decompose’.

The American writer and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois offered a way out of this cycle. In 1952, he delivered a Tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters, in which he described travelling through Germany and Poland many years earlier and witnessing antisemitism for the first time. He recognised that his own struggles were not unique and that the ‘race problem … cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status and was a matter of … human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men’.

If we are to counter hate and prejudice, there can be no preference in suffering. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that ‘misfortune in general is the rule’. He believed that acknowledging universal suffering ‘makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes’.

Where that debt is unacknowledged, we must resist. Even if the severity of collective punishment is enough to break all resistance. Pelagia Lewinska was one of those who fought and lived:

They had condemned us to die in our own filth, to drown in mud, in our own excrement. They            wished to abase us, to destroy our human dignity, to efface every vestige of humanity … But from the instant I guessed the motivating principle … it was as if I had been awakened from a dream … I felt under orders to live …  And if I did die in Auschwitz it would be as a human being, I would hold on to my dignity.

It is this affirmation of dignity that serves as our best defence against tyranny. Confined in a prison cell during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel wrote to Olga, his wife, ‘I am responsible for the state of the world’. In 1982, toward the end of his captivity, he concluded that ‘responsibility cannot be preached but only borne, and that the only possible place to begin is with oneself’.

Peter Hughes is a philosopher, psychologist and writer, and author of A History of Love & Hate in 21 Statues. You can hear the Editor’s chat with Peter about fallen statues on the Aspects of History podcast.