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South Korea’s Jewish problem

Reports of anti-Semitism in the East Asian nation highlight the danger of myths about Jewish financial prowess

When the Anti-Defamation League conducted its unprecedented public opinion poll in the spring of 2014, in which we surveyed 100 countries and 53,100 individuals on their attitudes toward Jews, the most surprising finding was the one that showed that 51 percent of South Koreans held anti-Semitic views.

This was the highest anti-Semitic rating by far of any non-Muslim Asian country, more than doubling the rates of China and Japan.

We did seek to understand those numbers, meeting with South Korean officials who assured us that the numbers must reflect a misunderstanding of the questions being asked (polling was, of course, conducted in Korean). But since we felt confident about our numbers elsewhere in the world, we left the South Korea numbers as they were, while continuing to wonder whether there was some cultural misunderstanding.

We still do not pretend to know all the answers to this conundrum, but recent developments stemming from a merger battle between Samsung Group’s Lee family and activist investor Paul Singer have revealed levels of anti-Semitism in the Korean business and media communities that we were told never existed.

Let’s be clear. The takeover struggle between Elliott Associates and Samsung over a merger of two Samsung companies is a business matter that is beyond the scope or interest of ADL. Clearly, strong interests were at work on both sides and powerful emotions were part of the struggle. (The merger was approved by shareholders last week.)

What was of concern to us, however, was the injection of anti-Semitism into the battle. Three Korean publications ran stories attacking Jews who they said were behind the effort to block the Samsung merger. One, the SISA Journal, published an article quoting both a former South Korean diplomat and a U.S. educated Korean lawyer about how Jews control Wall Street. Meanwhile, Samsung C and T depicted Elliot’s founder Paul Singer in cartoons as a vulture-like figure, seeking to take money away from the poor.

Samsung later removed the cartoons and issued a statement denouncing anti-Semitism in all its forms. ADL praised Samsung for its unequivocal rejection of anti-Semitism. But the anti-Semitic genie had been let loose and it continued to rear its ugly head. On July 14, the SISA Journal quoted former Korean Ambassador to Morocco, Park Jae-Seon, as saying about Jews: “They are grabbing the currency markets and financial investment companies,” and, “Their network is tight knit beyond one’s imagination.”

The next day, a cable channel, YTN, quoted an economic researcher, Kim Bag-Nee, as saying: “It is a fact that Jews use financial networks and have influence wherever they are born.”

So what does all of this say about South Korean attitudes toward Jews? There is much testimony from Jews who have lived in the country that they did not experience anti-Semitism. This should not be ignored.

What seems at work, and we saw it in Japan 30 years ago, is this exaggerated belief in Jewish business competence. On the face of it, this is not an inherently negative stereotype. The problem is that in times of crisis or conflict, it is all too easy for the belief in Jews as financial wizards to morph into blaming Jews for financial woes.

In Japan, such books about Jewish control flourished when the Japanese faced criticism and even when trade surplus tariffs became an issue. Now, in South Korea, there is conflict between an American company and the Korean giant, Samsung – and once again, the stereotypical praise of the Jew for smarts about finances has become a tool for old-fashioned anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It is good that Samsung has denounced anti-Semitism. The government of South Korea should do likewise.

The lesson is that one has to be alert for anti-Semitism to rear its ugly head even in countries where there almost are no Jews and no significant history of Jew hatred. Stereotypes, even when they appear to be positive, can easily be exploited and turned into destructive expressions — anywhere, anytime.

About the Author
Abraham Foxman was national director of the Anti-Defamation League for 28 years. He is a Holocaust survivor.
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