As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it is worthwhile to shed some light on a colorful, but relatively low profile ritual in the Yom Kippur liturgy known as the Azalzel, or the ritual of the two goats. This is a modern explication of a ceremony performed in biblical times in the Temple in Jerusalem in which the High Priest sacrificed one goat and set another one free into the desert of Judea in order to expiate the sins of the People of Israel. This second goat was an (e)scape goat, the origin of the modern-day term ‘scapegoat.
By ritually sending the scapegoat into the desert, carrying the collective sins of the entire nation with it, the Israelites avoided the all-too-human tendency to blame others for their own mistakes and moral failings. The overarching theme of Yom Kippur is accepting personal responsibility for our lives and not looking to blame others.
In fact, scapegoating is a universal human failing. For many individuals, societies and nations, which find it difficult to face up to their own problems, it is much easier to blame others—often those defined as ‘outsiders’, and to attribute sinister motives to them.
Ironically, given that the Jews invented the ‘scapegoat’ concept and have worked hard through the centuries not to succumb to it, for the past 2000 years, they themselves have often been cast in exactly that role. For the rulers of medieval and early-modern Europe it was all too easy to demonize a group of classic outsiders like the Jews, who already stood falsely accused by official Church doctrine of having been responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, for a variety of other supposed crimes such as poisoning wells or killing Christian children to use their blood in the baking of matzoh. The demonization of the Jews found its most savage and comprehensive expression in Nazi depictions of Jews as subhuman, paving the way for the mass incineration of most of European Jewry in the gas ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Unfortunately, scapegoating of the Jews is alive and well in our own time as well and has spread from its traditional bastion in Europe to the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. It is even a not-negligible factor even in the United States, where in recent days we have seen unleashed a scapegoating of the Jewish community classifying its leadership as war mongers in pushing President Obama to bomb Syria. On the contrary, it was the Obama Administration that turned to the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and pleaded for that organization to lobby wavering senators and congresspeople.
Here are some of the more egregious – and outlandish – examples over the past 12 months of blaming Jews for a variety of ills with which they obviously had nothing to do:
• A British Member of Parliament who caused a deadly road accident by texting while driving charged that the Jews were responsible for his subsequent jail sentence; claiming that they had intentionally used their supposed control of the media to play up the case and to bring him down supposedly because he was a Muslim.
• Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan blamed Israel for orchestrating the Egyptian military’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi.
• Following the massacre of 20 children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, a number of conspiracy theorists claimed the Jews were responsible for the tragedy because they supposedly” control Hollywood” which allegedly glorifies gun violence.
• Former President of Iran Ahmadinejad, an old hand at Holocaust denial, who absurdly claimed that Jewish executives at pharmaceutical companies had caused a worldwide scourge of male erectile dysfunction in order to run up huge profits on drugs like Viagra.
It is important to note however that the Jews are not the only people or faith community that has been scapegoated by bigots and unscrupulous demagogues looking to whip up popular hysteria against ‘outsider’ communities. Since 9-11, Islam and the entire world community of more than 1.5 billion Muslims have increasingly been blamed for the violent acts of an extremist few. In the United States, we have seen the disturbing rise of demonization directed at peaceful and law-abiding American Muslims who are characterized by Islamophobes as seeking to subvert America from within.
Here are some examples:
• Conservative congresspeople and commentators have claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to infiltrate the State Department. In July 2012, Rep. Michele Bachman (R-MN) delivered a letter to the State Department’s inspector general’s office charging that Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood was directing the Obama Administration’s approach to the Middle East.
• Earlier, in a kind of holy war on the far right, Islamophobes like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer have stated that the Conservative Political Action Conference, a leading conservative organization, has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing CPAC board members Suhail Khan and Grover Norquist of being Islamists, in the case of Norquist apparently because his wife is of Palestinian descent.
• Various conservative commentators sought to create the impression that American Muslims as a whole were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, committed by two Chechen brothers. Even more bizarrely, Frosty Woolridge, a prominent anti-immigrant activist blamed Muslims for the recent bankruptcy of the city of Detroit. According to Woolridge; “Today, you hear Muslim calls to worship over the city like a new American Baghdad with hundreds of Islamic mosques in Michigan, paid for by Saudi Arabian oil money.” Wooldridge later asserted in the piece, “Immigration will keep pouring more and more uneducated third world immigrants from the Middle East into Detroit, thus creating a beachhead for Islamic hegemony in America.”
• To date, seven U.S. states have passed laws prohibiting judges from considering Islamic law. This is the result of a sustained effort by Islamophobic organizations to spread the calumny that American Muslims are operating as a ‘fifth column’, pretending loyalty to America while working to have sharia law supplant secular U.S. law, so as to render legal practices like polygamy, honor killings and the cutting off of hands as a punishment for thieves.
Jews, who know only too well what it feels like to be wrongfully scapegoated, must stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters when they are subjected to the same kind of defamation and character assassination. Let us honor the message of Yom Kippur and the tradition of Azalzel by taking individual responsibility for our own lives and collective responsibility for the society we share with other ethnicities and faith groups. It is critical that we never give in to the temptation to scapegoat the other who, like ourselves, is an integral part of the great mosaic of humanity.