Stanley Fish, in a column about the public discussion of Jews and Jewishness in the West today, writes this at the New York Times:
An important part of the protean and shape-shifting history of anti-Semitism is illuminated by Matthew Biberman’s brilliant book Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature. Biberman traces the intertwined careers of two characterizations of the Jew — the Jew as devil, an impossibly strong alien being who blocks and destroys everything that is good, and the Jew as sissy, an effeminate, slight, pasty figure who stays in the background and assimilates, but who, because of his having disappeared into the woodwork, is able to rot it out from within. (This quick summary does not do justice to the richness of Biberman’s analysis.) So you can have the fierce barbaric Jew (Israel as the atom-bomb wielding destroyer of Arab armies, at least in 1967) and the insidiously bland Jew, the obsequious figure who, while no one’s looking, takes control of everything. That means that whatever a Jew does there are a number of pre-packaged, and often mutually exclusive, narratives in which to place him, and, by and large, they are not positive ones.
This notion of the almost supernaturally strong, essentially evil enemy who is at the same time weak and cowardly and blends in so as to destroy society from within also forms the substance of English anti-Catholicism (though it tends to focus on the person of the pope, rather than average Roman Catholics), was central to anti-communism and has found new life in anti-Islamism in America.
I cannot speak to how other societies view enemies real and imagined, but it seems the kind of paranoia reflected in English anti-Catholicism/Semitism/Communism/Islamism is an essential fact of Protestant Anglo-American culture. It is foundational, an essential fact that some in the culture can transcend in times and place, but not for any great length of time. It is something that cannot be explained so much as it explains. It is so much a part of the culture that many Jews — particularly right-wing supporters of Israel — have embraced the language, images and logic of this paranoid-conspiracy thinking when they intellectually deal with Muslims and Islam (and even Arabs in general).
This fear is not grounded in much fact, and so reason cannot explain it away or even ease the fear much. (In the 18th century, there were never more than 100,000 Roman Catholics in England, and yet occasionally the English public would erupt into paroxysms of violent anti-Catholicism in which fear of a take-over of the country by the pope — that century’s version of the sharia scare — was primal, and said take-over would end English liberty because rule by the pope was the very definition of tyranny.) But it is grounded in some fact — Roman Catholic Stuart pretenders hung around in France making ominous noises for decades after the Revolution of 1688; Jews did seem to play a overly huge role in finance and the professions Europe in the 18th and 19th century during a time of several social dislocation; Communists did actually believe they were going take over the world (science allegedly proved the inevitability of revolutionary socialism); and Revolutionary Muslims did attack the United States throughout the 1990s and spectacularly on September 11, 2001. But the fear departs from the fact by creating a moral universe of both irredeemable evil and cowardly weakness incarnate in the same opponent.
I wish I understood where this fear comes from. It does seem to be primal to Anglo-American Protestant existence. (The King of England would take on many of the features of the pope in the run-up to the American War of Independence.) I want to root this with the Scots-Irish protestant, but it appears to be just as English as it is Scots-Irish. So I have no idea where it comes from. But it is fascinating. And frightening to behold.