My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, never liked talking about antisemitism. But I was an inquisitive grandson, perhaps uncaringly so, and when I pressed her to tell me a little of her memories about life in Nazi Germany, or occupied France, her answers always seemed to drift away from what it felt like for the Jews, towards what it said about society at large. The sights of mass marches, of humans given numbers, of modernity itself perverted, were what seemed to have shocked her. Not that people, as they so often have, could have turned on the Jews.
I have thought a lot about her and her answers since 7 October. Firstly, because it saddens me to remember that when we were having those conversations, nibbling on biscuits in her overheated apartment, I felt that pogroms or any real danger to diaspora Jews were a thing of the past. My questions, I felt, were historical. That these terrible things had belonged to her life and would not to mine. And secondly, because since the massacres, it is now obvious, we are living through an antisemitic wave. One which says little about Jews, but a lot about the way we live now.
Analysing antisemitism, like the scan of a disease, reveals which of society’s organs have grown sick. The hate my grandmother encountered in the 1930s, pulsed through European society, revealing its weaknesses: its carriers, in the age of mass production, were mass parties and its mindset, in the age of classification, was biological racism. Antisemitism, far from offering a picture of the Jew, offered instead a picture of the German.