Exceptional Structure, Visuals and Writing: Thoughts on “A Brief and Visual History of Antisemitism” by Israel B. Bitton

A Brief and Visual History of Antisemitism by Israel B. Bitton

I admit I was not too enthused about reading a thick volume about Anti Semitism. However, the combination of three aspects of “A Brief and Visual History of Antisemitism” by Israel B. Bitton not just won me over and kept my attention throughout also but made me realize that this volume filled a gap I didn’t even know existed. The three features that make up more than their sum are the book’s structure, the visuals, and the writing style. Let’s take them one by one.

Nowadays when seemingly any information is available on the interwebs the real value comes from the curation and organization of the aforementioned information. It is clear that the time and effort that went into organizing the books in a coherent way that covers everything related to the topics succeeded superbly. No matter how hard I try I cannot think of any area that is not covered at least tangentially by the book. Let me share the nine major sections around which the content is organized (with my short comment if necessary):

  1. Defining Antisemitism: origin, meaning, ingredients, appearance, and function
  2. Beginnings of Antisemitism: when, where how, consequences
  3. Proliferation of Antisemitism: how did is it spread and got institutionalized
  4. Secularization of Antisemitism: from religious anti-Judaism to secular anti-”Semitism”
  5. Apex of Antisemitism: from pogroms to the Holocaust in modernity
  6. Easternization of Antisemitism: how it reached the Middle East and differs from traditional Islamic treatment of Jews
  7. Politicization of Antisemitism: the emergence of Zionism and pan-Arabism
  8. The Current Landscape: its mutations, purveyors, consumers, and methods
  9. Combating Antisemitism: how to spot and counter it

As one of the main strengths of the book is its structure I found it important to share the extended outline. Each of the 9 chapters is further divided into sub-chapters and they all come with a summary, questions/reflections (with space for your own answers), and keywords. The book concludes with the kind of segments one expects from scholarly books: acknowledgments, (50 pages! of) endnotes, a bibliography with hundreds of items (enough to study for a lifetime), and an index. 

My only, rather minor complaint for the book is that the index could have been even more thorough. It is six pages long with three columns on each page so it is not like it is short. However, it would have been even more useful to gather even more terms for the index so the users would find fast what they are looking for, Yes, I wrote users, because the book’s scope is so wide and the quality is so good that it works well as an encyclopedia: Instead or rather in addition to reading it, it should be on your shelf so you could open it up any time you want to find something on the topic.

The second outstanding and most astonishing feature of the book is the visual quality. Both in terms of volume and variety. The word “visual” in the book’s title is no accident. Photographs, charts, posters, drawings, newspaper/magazine pages, and original visualization really help all readers to grasp the nature of antisemitism from a large number of perspectives. It feels weird to declare a book on such an ugly topic beautiful, but it is. If you disregard the topic and just look at it as a “visual history” of a topic you would have to agree that it is rather attractively presented.

I first heard about Augmented Reality in the mid-1990s, but didn’t really experience it until recently, when a toy came with an app for my young child. With the app, we could place a cute, animated, digital version of her new pet on any surface. This book comes with a much more serious version of this technology through the “Ar Loopa” app. Every time you come across a clearly marked “Scan me’!” prompt you can use it and will be amazed by the plethora of additional information. I watched high-quality documentary segments, videos of the author providing a deeper context of the topic at hand, and impressive animations. And I didn’t even augment the book’s reality at every single time of the dozens of opportunities. See below two examples side by side of how the book’s page looks on its own and through the app.

Page 155: video about the iron curtain and the Berlin Wall

Finally, the third aspect is the quality of the writing itself. Bitton’s ability to make complex topics accessible to a general audience makes his book rather compelling. He does this by using clear and concise language, as well as by providing helpful context and background information. It’s been a while since I was in college or read a college textbook. His writing style and the presentation of the book strongly reminded me of that positive experience. It fully satisfied my learning addiction. On every single page, I either learned something new, or connected previously unconnected information, or understood the deeper significance of previously digested information. 

Page 157: Israel B. Bitton providing recap

I also realized that education must have been only one of the purposes of writing this book. The other one is providing tools for combating Antisemisitism. Even though the chapter dedicated to this topic, the last one, is the shortest in the book, it is the culmination of the whole work. Unfortunately, the book is timely and important as the number of antisemitic incidents is on the rise worldwide.  This work provides not just a  much-needed overview of its history and components, but simple, followable advice on what one can do to fight this tendency effectively.

I highly recommend “A Brief and Visual History of Antisemitism” to anyone who is interested in learning more about the history of antisemitism. It is a well-written, informative, and engaging book that is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Disclaimer: I have received a copy of this book and a small amount from the author which did not affect my review in any way.

Year first published: 2022

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