Friday, August 19, 2011

The New Anti-Semitism

I was 17 years old before I realized that people didn’t like Jews. I’d read books of course, and had history classes. I’d learned, intellectually, about anti-Semitism. I knew about racism in America from programs like “All in the Family;” but I never personally experienced anti-Semitism till I visited Europe. In Paris, I was called “sale youpin,” or “dirty kike” for wearing a star of David as I traveled. In Spain, too, I heard nasty comments about Jews. I continued to visit France throughout the 1980’s when the synagogue in Paris was bombed, and LePen was becoming a political superstar.

Historically, France has been a hotbed of anti-Jewish sentiment. “Scientific” anti-Semitism, which so influenced Hitler and racists worldwide, originated in France with de Gobineau. Jews, he “proved,” were genetically inferior. The French national anthem, like the original German one, is rife with xenophobia. The last line of the Marseillaise cautions against letting “impure blood” dilute the veins of France. Unlike Germany, which has come to terms with its anti-Semitic past, France still has work to do. I recommend seeing “Sarah’s Key” (Elle s’appelait Sarah) for a fictional but well-researched consideration of the topic.

It’s easy to point fingers at the racism of other countries. Our own nation was built on the twin crimes of genocide against native people and enslavement of Africans. America has a significant population of Jews, and anti-Semitism hasn’t had a strong footing here, except among fascist sympathizers like Lindbergh and Ford.

But anti-Semitism here and abroad never seems to run its course: it re-invents itself. Throughout the West, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feeling is on the ascendancy.
We are at war with God knows how many Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Libya. September 11 was a great pretext for anti-Semitic sentiment directed at Arabs. Never mind that Christian extremists are a far greater threat domestically than Muslims. Muslims are just “different,” we are constantly told--- some of the people who tell us this are Jewish. It’s sad and sick, a family feud. The Christian terrorist in Norway cited American anti-Semites in his tiresome manifesto. One of these writers was Jewish.

In Europe, as well as America, the right and left can agree on one thing: Muslims are just “different.” They are extreme, they are medieval, they refuse to assimilate.
Anti-Semitism is an insidious racism with an almost 2,000 year history in the West. When Christianity became Rome’s official religion, those who wouldn’t convert were ostracized or executed. The exception was the Jews, who were kept around as an object lesson for the unrepentant. Jews served as convenient scapegoats for everything from missing children to the plague. Then there were the Crusades, and Westerners got to direct their racism at another group of Semites.

One of the most insightful explanations of anti-Semitism I’ve come across is from Jonathan Schell, who wrote an article on the topic for the Nation. “Conspiracy theories are appealing not despite their nonfactuality but precisely because of it. When the longing for illusion--- a hardy perennial in political life--- arises, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which almost flaunt their defiance of the actual world, are ready and waiting to satisfy the need. Casting off factuality is then not a burden but a release from a burden--- a palpable liberation from the ever-difficult, ever-frustrating efforts of seeing things as they are.”

Well said, Mr. Schell. When things go wrong, blame a Jew--- and if that is too uncomfortable or inconvenient, blame a Muslim. Without them, we’d have to look at ourselves.