Antisemitism Past and Present
Centro Familiar la Soledad By Erica Nadelhaft, HHRC Northern Maine Educator
Below is a lightly edited transcript from HHRC Northern Maine Educator Erica Nadelhaft’s presentation on antisemitism on August 3, 2020.
We’re starting today’s session with a conversation about antisemitism. I’ll talk about the history of antisemitism, then about some personal experiences here in Maine and in the schools.
In some ways antisemitism might feel like an odd place to begin. There are certainly other examples of bias and prejudice that are much more in the news at the moment and that affect many of us on what feels like a more immediate or personal level. And after all, there are plenty of workshops and classes dealing with the Holocaust: many of you have already attended some of the ones that we have presented.
But the Holocaust and antisemitism are not the same thing. The Holocaust shows us the extremes to which antisemitism can take us, but it is neither the beginning nor the end of antisemitism in the world. People often assume that antisemitism disappeared, or at least dramatically decreased, after the Holocaust. For a while, at least, being antisemitic did become less politically correct. But antisemitism never disappeared. Today, antisemitism, particularly in Europe, but increasingly here in the United States as well, is reaching levels comparable to those that existed in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. And yet antisemitism doesn’t get much attention in the press nowadays, and many feel that it really isn’t a widespread or threatening issue in schools and communities – this despite the fact that many Jews do feel both threatened and unsafe. Why do you think it’s so underreported? Why is the response to antisemitism in this country so muted?
While many schools in Maine have few if any Jewish students, teaching about antisemitism – what it is, how it affects Jews both young and old, and how to respond to it in the classroom and the community – matters. The thing about antisemitism is – it exists and grows even in places where there are no Jews. It’s insidious: it’s on social media, sneaks into the news and campaign ads, makes its way into both religious and secular institutions, and yes, it’s in our schools. If we can teach our students to recognize, understand, and respond to it now, they will have the skills they need to do so when they encounter it in the future. In order to do that, we as educators need to know what the stereotypes are and where they came from. So, for example, if you hear a student talk about Jews as loving money or being cheap, you will be able to do more than just say “well, that’s a stereotype and not really true.” You will be able to tell them where and why that stereotype came to be.
So, what is antisemitism and where did it come from?
I’m going to stick with the straightforward definition of antisemitism given by The Anti-Defamation League. There are others (the best of which comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), but this one is simplest and suits our purpose best.
Antisemitism is: “Belief or behavior hostile towards Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews, for instance, or political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them. It may include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.” (https://www.adl.org/anti-semitism)
Antisemitism is not a static phenomenon. It morphs; it changes shape; it adjusts itself to time and place. The idea remains the same, but the outward manifestations, rationale, and terminologies used change. In order to understand the antisemitism of the present day, we must understand the antisemitism of the past.
The origins of antisemitism lie in the rise of Christianity. Jesus was a Jew. As his followers attempted to define and spread the new religion after his death, one of the most pressing issues for them was to separate Jesus and his teachings from his Jewish origins. One of the earliest and longest lasting accusations against the Jews is that they killed Jesus. It was actually Pontius Pilate and the Romans who crucified Jesus. However, the Romans ruled Judea at the time, and accusing them of killing Christ was a dangerous thing to do. Accusing the Jews of killing Jesus introduced the idea of Jews as evil and destructive of good in the world.
Hatred of Jews then spread quickly and deeply as a result. This accusation was not renounced by the Catholic Church until the 1960s.
The Christianizing of the Roman Empire in the fourth century saw the introduction of laws and discrimination against Jews that would be used by governments well into the modern age. These included laws depriving Jews of many political and civil rights, including such things as prohibiting marriage between Jews and Christians and imposing financial burdens on Jewish communities.
In the early Middle Ages, Pope Gregory I formulated the official church policy that guided the church throughout this time. His ultimate goal was to encourage Jews to convert to Christianity. He supported the anti-Jewish laws that were on the books and expanded restrictions on contacts between Jews and Christians, but stopped short of promoting physical violence against Jews.
Here we see another long-lasting manifestation of antisemitism: the idea that what is best for the Jews is for them to become “not Jews” by converting to Christianity.
The Crusades marked a dramatic shift in the intensity of anti-Jewish feeling and action in Europe.
Even before the first organized crusade set out in the early 11th century, numerous armed groups rallied to the cause and headed east. Often, these groups never reached the Holy Land, but rather set upon the first non-Christians they met: Jews. Thousands of Jews in Germany and other parts of Europe were slaughtered. Church and state officials stood aside as the crusaders massacred entire Jewish communities in the name of God.
Why did the Crusaders turn against the Jews of Europe? Sentiment against Jews had been growing over time. Ever since the Roman Empire had become Christian, Jews had been seen as separate from Christians. Socially isolated, Jews served as scapegoats for the larger Christian society; their otherness helped society define itself. By the end of the eleventh century, severe persecution of Jews in Europe began in earnest.
At this time, many Jews were forced out of the countryside by lords and regional rulers, and most of them ended up in the cities working as craftsmen or merchants. They were not allowed to join the Christian guilds, however, and so many were forced by necessity to turn to the one profession that Christians were not allowed by the church: moneylending. Because of this, Jews were the ones to provide much of the capital for the developing commercial society.
This introduces another important anti-Jewish stereotype that has lasted, in one form or another, into the present day. This is the idea of the money-loving Jew. This idea continues today in the belief that Jews control the world economy (either overtly or behind the scenes) and that they do so in order to achieve world domination with the continued exploitation of the non-Jewish populations.
This idea that Jews are seeking world domination led eventually to the production of one of the most vitriolic antisemitic documents ever produced: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), which claims to reveal the Jews’ blueprint for world domination. This document was really written by the Russian secret police to discredit Russian revolutionaries, divert popular discontent away from the government and incite Russians against the Jews.
Even though this document was quickly proven false, it continues to be widely published. It was published by the Nazi party in Germany and publicized by Henry Ford in the United States in the 1920s. It continues to surface to this day in the Middle East and Africa.
Another important anti-Jewish motif that began in the Middle Ages is the artistic depiction of Jews as looking physically different. Although Jews looked almost exactly like Christians of the time, they now became clearly identified in sculpture and drawings by markers such as conical hats and increasingly by demeaning and distorted features. Jews were often depicted with Satanic features – with horns, tails, and suckling at the teats of pigs. Very recently, a church in Germany put back a stone carving depicting this very image. The stereotypical images of Jews with large, hooked noses, beady eyes, and bushy beards became popular at this time. These depictions of Jews became widespread in Europe and feature in antisemitic cartoons and drawings in the present day – not just in obscure publications, but in quite mainstream ones as well. Their purpose, then and now, was and is to show the Jews, and, in modern times, Israelis, as other, as evil, and as less than and not fully human.
At the same time as the representation of Jews was changing, new stories began to be told, originally by Christian religious leaders but soon picked up by others, about Jews who secretly sacrificed Christian children in a twisted reenacting of the crucifixion of Jesus. This fiction, called the blood libel, led to massacres of Jews in cities in England, France, Spain and Germany that continued for hundreds of years.
The accusation of the blood libel myth still exists and has been twisted into many forms. Jews have been accused of using the blood of Christian children in the matzoh baked for Passover even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: in Poland in the early 2000s; in Russia in 2005; in Syria in 2003; and in Saudi Arabia in 2012, among others.
Jews have also been accused of spreading death and disease. When the Black Plague decimated Europe in the fourteenth century, Jews were blamed. The primary accusation was that they poisoned Christian wells. Proponents of this view argued that if the Jews were eliminated, the plague would also disappear. This led to the massacre of Jews in numerous European countries. We shall see how that has translated into rising antisemitism and attacks on Jews in connection with the current outbreak of COVID 19.
As the result of all of these things, throughout the Middle Ages the Jews were driven out of almost every European country, including England, France, Spain and Portugal. In Italy, Jews had been confined to special parts of town, known as ghettos, and in tsarist Russia they were confined to a special region of the country. Expulsion and oppression of Jews in Europe continued well into the nineteenth century. Even when the situation for Jews improved somewhat and they were granted more participation in national life, no decade passed without Jews in one European country or another being massacred and/or accused of things like the blood libel.
In the late nineteenth century, a new type of antisemitism appeared. This was the rise of racial or biological antisemitism. No longer would the emphasis be on religious difference. Now, Jewish difference was explained by genetics – it was in the blood. In the past, a Jew could escape persecution through conversion to Christianity; now, this option was taken away. One was Jewish on the inside, regardless of one’s outward religion or lack of religion. This idea was a central focus of the eugenics movement in Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century, which placed various races and ethnicities on a hierarchical line from best to worst. Jews were often, in fact, below the bottom – in the category of “sub-human.” This racial antisemitsm claimed that there were fundamental, biological differences between the Jews and other races, and that no amount of acculturation, integration or conversion could overcome these differences. Jews, the new ideology taught, were a race apart. This gave antisemitism a scientific cover. Antisemities could claim that it was not a question of prejudice or bias; rather, it was simply a question of science. This racial antisemitism was carried to the extreme by Nazi Germany.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, racial antisemitism lost favor. Antisemitism didn’t disappear, however, it just took on yet another form. While it may no longer be politically correct to accuse Jews of being less than human, it is acceptable to accuse the State of Israel and Israelis of all the negative characteristics and behaviors that had previously been assigned to the Jews. I don’t want to take up too much time here, but there is a thin line separating legitimate criticism of political policy and denial of another’s right to exist.
Denial of the Holocaust is another post war antisemitic phenomenon, as is accusing the Jews or Israel of focusing too much on the Holocaust and its effects on the Jewish people: telling Jews how they should feel about what has happened to them, that their experience does not belong to them, and that their response to their experience is invalid.
In addition to the use of anti-Zionism or anti-Israeli beliefs as a cover for antisemitism, traditional antisemitic beliefs are appearing with increasing frequency again. They never really disappeared, but the political climate in the United States and much of Europe today has allowed for their renewed expression. When governments and political leaders are relatively silent, these behaviors are seen as more acceptable. One has only to look at the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlotte, shootings at synagogues, desecration of Jewish gravesites, antisemitic graffiti, harassment of Jewish college (and other) students, to see evidence of this behavior in this country on a regular basis. Polls by the ADL and other organizations show that significant percentages of the population (here and in other countries) believe Jews have too much control over the economy, the media, and politics. They also show rising percentages of people who believe the Holocaust was exaggerated. Increasing numbers of people also have negative impressions of Jews in general and Israelis in particular.
American Jews (and Jews worldwide) have also experienced skyrocketing antisemitism as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I mentioned earlier, this antisemitism is a natural outgrowth of deeply rooted historical stereotypes and accusations against Jews as spreaders of disease. Jews and Israel have been subject to verbal, physical, and online attacks from both left and right.
Social media is full of attacks on Jews. I recently did a webinar that was more or less a tour of some of the worst of these websites. It was horrific and really frightening. I don’t actually want to put them up on the screen, but some examples are included in the folder for this presentation that David sent you. Jews are being portrayed as using the virus to damage society for their own benefit: using the virus as a cover to take over the world – that old accusation of the Jewish quest for world domination. They are being portrayed as the virus itself – infecting society from within. And if this stuff is out there on social media, we can assume that at least a certain percentage of our students are exposed to it and potentially influenced by it.
There will always be those who argue that these attacks come from those on the fringe and that they are not representative of main street America. And while the percentage of Americans found to hold antisemiticviews has remained relatively stable over the years, certainly those holding these views have been more emboldened to act – whether in acts of violence or vandalism against Jews, online, or in street protests. And the pandemic has given them yet another opportunity. And I do not think we can afford to ignore the influence that social media and other outlets can have on young people. We need only think about the recent antisemitic posts by well-known musicians and athletes to understand how mainstream this really is. If we do not, as parents and as educators, make our knowledge and feelings about antisemitism known, young people will remain susceptible to the horrific propaganda they are exposed to online.
To shift gears, I’d like to talk a little about antisemitism in Maine and my own personal experiences in a local school district here in the north. While I have experienced antisemitism all over the world, I’ve experienced it here as well. Maine is not immune to antisemitism. Just recently, as many of you probably saw in the news, one of the synagogues in Bangor was vandalized with antisemitic graffiti – not for the first time. Disappointingly, for me, there didn’t seem to be much response from the broader Bangor community.
In the late 1990s, soon after my husband and I moved up here to Fort Kent, the local synagogue in Presque Isle was also painted with antisemitic and Nazi graffiti. This happened right before the holiday of Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of the year. I had two young babies at the time, and I remember how shocked and horrified we were to realize that antisemitism could reach us even here in rural northern Maine. I immediately wanted to move back to Bangor, where, even though there was also antisemitism, I had a familiar and supportive community. Moving was not an option, though, so we decided simply to go away for a weekend. As we drove through downtown Presque Isle, we saw that virtually every business and storefront on Main St. had put a big Jewish star in the window. That show of support from people and a community we did not yet know meant a great deal.