The easy thing to do after Kanye West’s poorly chosen words this weekend–in which he likened the noxious stares he gets these days to ones people might give Hitler–is to ask for an apology. No word yet on whether any Jewish groups are asking for one, but my bet is that it’s in the offing. But perhaps a better thing to do is to ask: are his comments a reflection of philo-semitism?
After all, his Hitler comment at least recognizes the dictator’s monstrosity. And when you couple that with his lyrics on a new track to his just-released album, a collaboration with Jay-Z, you begin to wonder whether the guy actually really, really likes Jews. How else do you explain a verse like this: "This is something like the Holocaust / Millions of our people lost / Bow our heads and pray to the lord"?
It’s worth adding that, at the same concert where West made the Hitler comment, he ended with a tribute song to Amy Winehouse, the Jewish chanteuse who died a couple of weeks ago. So what gives? Is Kanye a philo-semite?
I have no idea.
But just asking the question got me thinking about whether being a philo-Semite is anything worth celebrating to begin with. As the recent collection of essays, "Philosemitism in History," edited by Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe and published by Cambridge University Press, makes clear, Jews have usually had a general skepticism Jews toward so-called "philo-semites."
The attitude is best manifest in the joke: "Which is preferable—the antisemite or the philosemite?" The answer: "The antisemite—at least he isn’t lying."
The word itself, "philo-semite," as the scholar Lars Fischer explains, was hardly embraced when it was originally coined. The neologism formed in reaction to the term "anti-Semite," which was meant positively, and was invented by the Jew-hating German theorist Wilhelm Marr, in the late 19th century. Marr thought the term "anti-Semite" reflected favorably on those claiming it, since it suggested, at the time, a scientific disavowal of the Semitic (i.e. Jewish) race.
By extension, the term "philo-Semite" was used derisively, aimed at those who defended Jews–something no rational, scientific German would then want to do. In other words, a "philo-semite" had, as Adam Kirsch points out in his review, the same connotation as the equally repellant epithet once common in America: "nigger-lover."
"Philo-semitism" today doesn’t carry a meaning nearly as nefarious it did a century ago. But even if you mean it kindly, and profess a particular kind of rosy-eyed infatuation with Jews, it should still give some pause. As Kirsch points out, any kind of "-ism" is an abstraction, an ideology. And to turn people into abstractions is to deny them their humanity.
Or as he puts it: "to turn a group of people into an abstraction, even a ‘positive’ one, is already to do violence to them."