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Post Dostoevsky's Anti-Semitism
Created by John Eipper on 06/23/12 4:16 AM

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Dostoevsky's Anti-Semitism (Gilbert Davis, USA, 06/23/12 4:16 am)

Perhaps the discussion string that I believe grew out of religion but that touched on the question of Dostoevsky's "possible" anti-Semitism may be past (see John Heelan, 20 June), but in case anyone is still interested let me, by way of answering the question, offer the following quote from Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer (1877):

"It is not for nothing that over [in Europe] the Jews rule all the stock-exchanges; it is not for nothing that they control capital, that they are the masters of credit, and it is not for nothing--I repeat--that they are also the masters of international politics, and what is going to happen in the future is known to the Jews themselves: their reign, their complete reign is approaching!

"What is coming is the complete triumph of ideas before which sentiments of humanity, the thirst for truth, Christian feelings, the national and popular pride of European peoples, must bow. I sometimes imagine: what if there were not three million Jews, but three million Russians in Russia, and there were eighty million Jews? Well, how would they treat Russians, and how would they lord it over them? What rights would Jews give Russians? ... Wouldn't they turn them into slaves? Worse than that, wouldn't they skin them altogether? Wouldn't they slaughter them to the last man, to the point of complete extermination, as they used to do with alien peoples in ancient times?

"I repeat: it is impossible to conceive of a Jew without God. Moreover, I do not believe in the existence of atheists even among educated Jews: they are all of the same essence ... undeviatingly awaiting the Messiah, all of them, from the very lowest Kike to the highest and most learned philosopher and rabbi-Kabalist: they all believe that the Messiah will again unite them in Jerusalem and bring by his sword all nations to their feet."

From that first paragraph It appears Dostoevsky had been pouring over the infamous forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Another example of Dostoevsky's anti-Semitism can be seen in The Brothers Karamazov, where the author allows his sainted Alyosha, symbol of all Christian virtue, to miss an important opportunity to correct that murderously dangerous belief in the "blood libel" against the Jews:

"Alyosha, is it true that at Easter, the Jews steal a child and kill it?"

"I don't know."

"There's a book here in which I read about the trial of a Jew, who took a child of four years old and cut off the fingers from both hands, and then crucified him on the wall, hammered nails into him and crucified him, and afterwards, when he was tried, he said that the child died soon, within four hours. That was 'soon'! He said the child moaned, kept on moaning and he stood admiring it."

But Dostoevsky was hardly alone in his anti-Semitism, nor were his hates limited to the Jews; he also has murderous thoughts about what to do with the Turks and with the Poles, who he was certain were all spies for Rome. Dostoevsky shares the anti-Semitism of virtually all Russian intellectuals of the 19th century, as well as after, especially during the Stalinist period of the Soviet Union. The stain even infected sweet Chekhov, who seemed hardly able to hate anyone. Russian intellectuals regularly invoked Dostoevsky's anti-Semitism to support their chauvinism and to justify their exclusionary identification of Russia with Great Russian nationality or Russian Orthodoxy.

JE comments:  It's disheartening to read such statements of hate from a writer you admire.  I've always found it intriguing how Dostoevsky could be a Russian chauvinist and so universal at the same time.

Were there any sympathetic Jewish characters in Dostoevsky's oeuvre?  None come to mind, but I'd like to hope they exist.

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  • Dostoevsky's Anti-Semitism (Randy Black, USA 06/23/12 2:13 PM)
    In his 23 June response to John Heelan, Gilbert Davis makes a case that the Russian writer Dostoyevsky was an anti-Semite because of his writing style, story-telling skills and specifically, his choice of words in several of his writings. I question that concept on several points. From my studies, anti-Semitism in Dostoyevsky's day was a different label than it is in our modern times.

    As I understand anti-Semitism in the 1850s, it was more of a religious matter, not aimed exclusively at the ethnicity of the Jews. Much earlier, anti-Semitism was more of an ethnic matter. At least that's what we were taught. These days, whether or not it's ethnic or religious hatred, or both, sort of depends on where you're living.

    If by simply reading the writings of Dostoyevsky, readers conclude that he was anti-Semitic, then one must also conclude that Samuel Clemens was a racist because of his word choices in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

    But in the case of Dostoyevsky, that writer was at least equally anti-Muslim, anti-Roman Catholic and all the rest of the "antis" in our world. If one somehow concludes that Dostoyevsky was anti-Semitic based on bits and pieces of his writings, then one must reach the same conclusion about Shakespeare, Pushkin, Pasternak, Gogol, and T. S. Eliot.

    From my studies, Dostoyevsky hated bigotry in general, advised Alexander II (Russia) to provide equal rights for Jews, and anecdotally, he hated the mistreatment of women in Russian society. In his heart, did he hate the Jewish people? I'm not convinced.

    Finally, Dostoyevsky was a great patriot with tremendous talents when it came to painting realistic word portraits of life during his era. For that alone, we should be grateful.

    JE comments:   Dostoevsky's novels are distinctively "multi-voiced," making it impossible to determine the author's true views from the words of his characters.  The great Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called this trait "heteroglossia."  One shouldn't, therefore, assume that Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov is expressing Dostoevsky's worldview; we might, however, take D's Diary of a Writer (Dnevnik pisatelya) more at face value.

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    • Dostoevsky's Anti-Semitism (Gilbert Davis, USA 06/25/12 6:02 AM)
      Forgive me if I am too swift in responding to Randy Black's post about Dostoevsky and anti-Semitism (23 June), but I thought it best to respond promptly before next week's flood of reactions to the US Supreme Court's ruling on The Affordable Health Care Act, so here's my response:

      Randy says that I "[make] a case that the Russian writer Dostoevsky's was an anti-Semite because of his writing style, story-telling skills and specifically his choice of words in several of his writings." Not so, since in his fiction he almost never wrote about Jews, though when he did--as in Crime and Punishment--he portrayed them with ridicule. What I was quoting to make the case was not fiction but his Diary of a Writer. By any conventional definition of anti-Semitism, such as in the American Heritage Dictionary--"1. Hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism. 2. Discrimination against Jews."--I think it fair to conclude Dostoevsky was one.

      And yes, Dostoevsky was a self-confessed hater of Turks and Poles, as I also said in my original post. One has only to read what he wrote about them, though not necessarily in his fiction, which was concerned with other matters.

      That Dostoevsky had conflicting views of Jews and others is not surprising, and whatever he did to encourage the Czar to award equal rights to Jews and to emancipate the serfs is admirable, but there is no escaping his strong and repeated anti-Jewish sentiments.

      Of Randy' attempt to refute my argument by suggestion Mark Twain could be called a racist because of "his word choice in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn," all one has to do is read Huck Finn to see that Twain's portrayal of the relationship between Huck and Jim gives the lie to the charge of racism, no matter how many times the ‘n-word' appears. Twain's use of it underlines his intention to write a novel reflecting his times and the language people spoke.

      Bringing Shakespeare into the argument doesn't help matters since a complete answer to the question, "Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite?" might try the patience of fellow WAISers. And I‘m sure there are others in this group who could do a better job of answering this than I.

      Rather than throw up this specious argument, Randy would do better to accept the fact that the artistic world has been full of unrepentant anti-Semites: in Dostoevsky's own time there was Gogol and even Tolstoy; in our time we have had Ezra Pound and (I would argue) T. S. Eliot; in painting there was the strange case of Edgar Degas, for whom the Dreyfus case boiled up his hatred of Jews to the point where he ended his long-standing friendships with Camille Pissarro, his former studio mate and, alas, a Jew, as well as with the Halévy family, who had long since converted; in music there is no more celebrated anti-Semite than Richard Wagner, whose writings on music are full of anti-Semitic screeds, and even Richard Strauss had an early and poisonous anti-Semitic period, i.e., until his son married a Jewess, who gave him what by Nazi definition was a Jewish grandson; the list goes on.

      And finally, I accept our distinguished editor's correction for my assuming that Alyosha must be taken as expressing Dostoevsky's view on the blood libel. As a fellow student of literature I should have been more temperate.

      JE comments:  A very persuasive argument.  I just wish my favorite novelist (Dostoevsky) weren't an anti-Semite, but (alas) the evidence points to the contrary.

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