by Ralph Seliger
ANTISEMITISM, the world’s oldest, ongoing hatred, morphed from its earliest days in ancient times as a theological prejudice, with the ascendency of the Christian faith to the status of state religion of the Roman Empire, to the racist doctrines of rightwing 19th- and 20th-century European nationalists. (I prefer the British spelling of the A-word, without a hyphen, because “Semitism” does not exist.) There have also been times and places when and where antisemitism all but disappeared. This piece will explore its evolution to our time and place.
What got me going on the subject recently was an all-day conference on “The Blood Libel Then and Now: The Enduring Impact of an Imaginary Event,” hosted by New York’s YIVO Institute for Social Research on October 9. Scholars spoke in the morning sessions on the medieval origins of the blood libel — the bizarre accusation that Jews murder Christian children to drain their blood in order to make matses for Passover. The earliest episodes invoking this toxic idea date from about 1,000 years ago, but it grew in ferocity and frequency well into the 20th century, spreading from England, France, Italy, Germany, and Austria into Poland, Russia and beyond.
David Kertzer of Brown University powerfully indicted the Roman Catholic Church for its perpetuation of the blood libel and antisemitism into modern times. He refuted the argument of today’s Church authorities that it had only preached a theological argument against Judaism as a religion, not the kind of racial hatred that characterized Nazism throughout its reign and Italian fascism from 1938 until Mussolini’s downfall. Kertzer quoted articles in official Vatican publications from the late 19th century that did, indeed, preach a full-throated racism toward Jews as a people, and also showed the audience cartoon caricatures of Jews from Church-sponsored sources that were later used by the Nazis.
The afternoon sessions began with Hillel Kieval of Washington University in St. Louis examining six criminal investigations of ritual murder allegations — two each in the three great empires of Central and Eastern Europe (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia) from the 1880s to the eve of World War I. Unlike in medieval times, all involved serious judicial processes following modern criminal codes and procedures. Only one such case, in the Czech part of the Austrian Empire, resulted in a conviction, which was eventually overturned; the prosecutors themselves urged acquittal in a Prussian-German court. The infamous 1913 trial in Kiev, Russia (now Ukraine) did not convict the accused Jew, Menahem Mendel Beilis — but in a separate vote, the jury declared that a ritual murder had probably occurred.
Elissa Bemporad of Hunter College/CUNY discussed blood libel cases in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ‘30s. The new Soviet regime explicitly outlawed antisemitism and was diligent for a time in combatting this malady in a vast country in which suspicion and hatred of Jews was endemic. Those who accused Jews of ritual murder were themselves subject to prosecution during the early Bolshevik period; the prosecutor in the Beilis trial was tried and executed in 1919, and in another case, when the supposed victim turned up alive, the police chief was prosecuted. In Minsk, in 1937, two perpetrators of a ritual murder charge were tried and imprisoned for the crime of antisemitism. By the mid-1930s, nevertheless, we know that Soviet history began to take a starkly anti-Jewish turn.
Finally, Raphael Israeli of Hebrew University discussed how the blood libel “fever” was transmitted from Christian countries into Islamic lands. His thesis is that Christian Arabs, attempting to ingratiate themselves with the Muslim majority as outspoken Arab nationalists, imported Christian-European antisemitism in the service of fighting the Jews in Palestine. For an unexplained reason, a specific Muslim variation on the ritual-murder myth transformed blood for Passover matses to blood for “Purim cakes” (hamantashn). Some anti-Israel activists have recently been accused of a variant of the blood libel by claiming that Israel has harvested the organs of Palestinians.
But unlike the other conference speakers, Professor Israeli made a series of off-the-cuff remarks rather than delivering a well-prepared formal presentation. His tendentiousness went to the extreme of arguing that the charge against Israel of illegally using “depleted uranium” munitions against civilians during its attacks on the Gaza Strip is a kind of blood libel, because he denied the existence of such ammunition. However — without going into the truth of the charge against Israel — it is true that depleted uranium is used to strengthen the armor-piercing capacity of some artillery shells, and this involves toxic risk even if unexploded. (See this website of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.)
I HAVE A PET NOTION that can never be proved but has significance anyway: that as the world prepared to greet the new millennium in 2000, antisemitism was on the verge of disappearing. If not quite disappearing, I believe it was decidedly on the wane, even among Muslims angered by Israel, and only remaining as a fringe phenomenon. In 2000, however, two unfortunate events intervened: the fluky elevation of George W. Bush to the American presidency, and the undermining of the Oslo peace process with the summit at Camp David, which was mishandled in different ways by all three principals, Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak, and Bill Clinton, resulting in the outbreak of the second intifada.
During the 1990s, Jews were accepted in mainstream American society to an unprecedented degree. The era of anti-Jewish discriminatory practices in housing, higher education, professions, hotels and resorts (still evident in the 1950s and early ‘60s) were well behind us. Culturally, Jews were “in” as never before.
Jewish actors, performers, writers, and artists in all fields became so numerous, and to a large degree so intermarried that their Jewishness was hardly even noteworthy. What’s more, it was no longer necessary for Jewish actors to adopt names like Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis to be successful.
Consider the very casual secular Jewish sensibility of the mega-hit TV sitcom Seinfeld (not so casual as to be fully assimilationist). For a time, Jerry dates Shoshana, who keeps kosher and gets tricked by George into eating something flavored with lobster juice; we needn’t go into all the details, but George Costanza — a total shlemiel — is himself perhaps the most “Jewish” non-Jewish character ever. On another episode, after a time apart, Shoshana and Jerry are spied by his neighbor and nemesis, Newman, necking through an entire screening of Schindler’s List. Newman dutifully tattles to Jerry’s parents retired in Florida, who are scandalized by the shanda of Jerry violating the sanctity of this iconic ‘90s memorialization of the Holocaust.
Although a minority community can be “loved to death,” as suggested by the ballooning rate of intermarriage between Jews and gentiles over the last few decades, this is hugely preferable to the more typical Jewish fate of actually being murdered, persecuted or discriminated against. Jewish community leaders understandably lament the extent of contemporary assimilation, but the freedom it brings to individual Jews is undeniable as the choice of whom to love and what to do with their lives expand prodigiously.
It was also no longer unusual for Jews to reach high-level rungs in government, including as members of presidential cabinets and as justices of the Supreme Court. Then in 2000, Al Gore chose Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his vice presidential running mate (more on this later).
IN 1996, J.J. GOLDBERG — before becoming the Forward’s editor-in-chief (and now its editor-at-large columnist) — could unselfconsciously author a major book called Jewish Power: Inside the American-Jewish Establishment. It detailed how American Jews had finally arrived at a place where they could safely exercise power as Americans, in both major parties, without being severely slapped down. Yet according to many, a slap-down came a decade later with the writings of Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the “Israel lobby” in the London Review of Books, Middle East Policy, and their 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which fueled the widely held view in the United States and abroad that foreign policy under George W. Bush was dictated by Jewish/Israeli interests, via the influence of the so-called neoconservatives.
Mind you, these very mainstream academics were not knowingly stoking antisemitism, and there’s plenty that liberal/left Jews can agree with in their concern with the role of neocons (most of whom were known to be Jews) in promoting the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. The professors’ scholarship was overly tendentious and ill-informed, however: For example, J.J. Goldberg noted in a 2006 editorial, how their citation of his piece on a Paul Wolfowitz appearance at a 2002 pro-Israel rally totally missed Goldberg’s point that Wolfowitz had expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians in his remarks.
Mearsheimer and Walt unfairly reduced the neoconservative case for invading Iraq to their support for Israel — questioning, at least by implication, their allegiance to the U.S. — and conflated neocon views with those of the entire pro-Israel community. They made no meaningful acknowledgment of the liberal elements within the pro-Israel community at the time: e.g., Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, Meretz USA and the Labor Zionist Alliance.
None of this would have happened if more than 537 elderly voters in Palm Beach County (understood to be mostly Jewish supporters of Gore-Lieberman) had not been confused by the notorious “butterfly” design of their paper ballots or if African-American voters elsewhere in Florida had not been intimidated or otherwise cheated of their right to vote. A President Gore would likely have responded to the 9/11 attacks (assuming that they still would have happened) similarly to Bush in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan, but without attacking Iraq.
While progressives would not salivate at the thought of a Vice President Lieberman, he would have remained on the Democratic party reservation as a moderate liberal if not for the Iraq war. Even in the unlikely and unprecedented event that Lieberman would have succeeded Gore as the third consecutive Democrat in the White House, he probably would have been more competent in office than George W. Bush. And as vice president, he might have done a good job of modeling a religious Jew for this country’s huge Christian majority — he being moderately Orthodox or what I would call “Conservadox.”
IN MAY 2003, I wrote “Reconsidering Antisemitism,” an op-ed in the Forward criticizing a YIVO conference entitled “Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-Semitism in the West” because it viewed the wave of anti-Jewish violence in Europe in isolation from Israel’s violent repression of Palestinians in response to the terror attacks of the second intifada. Like the participants in this sold-out event, I deplored the eruption of violence, but I challenged their very conventional denial that Jewish behavior (that of Israelis in this case) had anything to do with it.
The keynote speaker, the erudite and high-toned journalist Leon Wieseltier, first sensibly rebutted the concern that the violence and hostility aimed at European Jews in the early 2000s truly resembled the existential threat building in the 1930s. But as I noted in the Forward, he then “restated the common conclusion that antisemitism is more about Jew-haters than Jews, that there is no ‘Jewish problem’ as such but the moral problem of non-Jews who buy into age-old prejudices and the illogic of scapegoating and demonization. Hence, there is nothing that Jews can do to modify the opinions of antisemites. . . . This is a hard truth when related to hard-core antisemites, but not in relation to masses of people who react to news events and visual images [of Israel crushing the intifada]. . . .”
In a single paragraph, I recounted the few pivotal but not inevitable events that defeated the peace process of the 1990s:
. . . What if Baruch Goldstein had not begun the on-again, off-again cycles of terrorism and counter-violence that marred the Oslo years [by murdering 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in Feb. 1994]? What if Yitzhak Rabin had survived to maintain his experienced grip on the tiller of government? What if Benjamin Netanyahu had lost the fateful prime ministerial election of 1996, instead of winning by a tiny margin? What if Ariel Sharon had not ostentatiously paraded on the Temple Mount with hundreds of Israeli security personnel in his train? What if Yasser Arafat had negotiated energetically with Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton at Camp David or afterwards to iron out a mutually acceptable compromise — while clamping down on eruptions of violence from his quarter?
I concluded that: “If Oslo had succeeded, the odious convulsions seizing Europe and the Islamic world would not be happening. . . .”
NOW, OVER A DECADE later, violent threats against Jews and the West from radically alienated Muslims have only deepened. In addition, antisemitism from the nominally Christian far-right has emerged as a serious concern for the first time in many years, and not only in past bastions of Jew-hatred such as Hungary and other countries in Eastern Europe. Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency has made us all-too familiar with the vicious pronouncements of the “alt-right” and even more extreme white nationalists who have embraced him as their champion.
Many have taken to social media, especially Twitter, to call out Jewish journalists for daring to write anything negative about their hero. Articles on this disturbing trend abound: see, for example, Jane Eisner’s editorial in the Forward, “Why Jewish Journalists Like Me Face Unprecedented Online Abuse in Age of Trump,” and “Anti-Semitic Posts, Many From Trump Supporters, Surge on Twitter” in the New York Times. [See also Myriam Miedzian’s post at the Jewish Currents website and the editorial in our Summer 2016 issue. –Editor]
This is from a recent online story from New York’s public radio station, WNYC, whose own New Jersey correspondent, Matt Katz, has also been targeted:
An Anti-Defamation League report noted that two-thirds of the 1,600 accounts attacking journalists with Anti-Semitic posts were “disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the ‘alt-right.’
Rampant anti-Semitic tweeting targeting journalists has plagued the 2016 presidential campaign, according to a new report released by the Anti-Defamation League.
There have been 2.6 million tweets “containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech” from August 2015 to June 2016, the report said. Of those, more than 19,000 “overly anti-Semitic” tweets were directed to at least 800 journalists.
As disconcerting as a Trump Presidency would be, his electoral defeat may actually prove more of a spur to extremist hatred against Jews. There may well be a new conspiratorial meme reminiscent of the post-World War I calumny of extreme German nationalists that “the Jews stabbed us in the back.”
DOES MY FORAY into alternative historical speculation mean anything beyond wishful thinking? Only if one believes in free will and the capacity of humanity to better itself. It is important to grasp that identifiable historical circumstances gave rise to Jew-hatred through the ages (not that such hatred is ever justified), and that if we can understand the problem, we can deal with it. This doesn’t mean that such understanding guarantees antisemitism will vanish, but it’s vitally important to know that there often are things that Jews and their allies can do to contain its spread.
We should think of it like an infectious disease, outbreaks of which can be prevented or ameliorated by public health measures. This virus lies dormant, or hides in dark isolated corners of the world, to suddenly erupt due to chance events or unforeseen factors.
Good education is a prime measure of prevention. Antisemitism, like all forms of racism and prejudice, are fed by ignorance. All too often, relatively uneducated masses are swayed by demagogues and dictators into scapegoating groups of people they are largely ignorant of, as solutions to very real problems. It’s not by accident that Donald Trump’s candidacy has especially appealed to people without post-secondary schooling, who have been most affected by recent economic changes that have automated and exported well-paid blue collar industrial jobs out of existence for multiple millions of Americans.
Antisemitism correlates with economic dislocation, social inequities and political demagoguery. It also should be recognized as a phenomenon that can manifest itself on the left. The extent to which “Zionists” and Israel are scapegoated for the world’s ills is troubling, but also such a complex topic that it deserves another discussion.
Still, progressives who ostensibly oppose antisemitism should recognize that Jews have a solid historical basis for concern. I do not see Jews as “oppressed,” but I do see us as a tiny global minority that’s especially vulnerable to instances of oppression or worse, because of its small size and the array of hostile stereotypes and pernicious beliefs that endure against us. Antisemitism is an infectious bug that refuses to die.
Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.