The Jewish High Holidays will begin tonight, September 20, with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For the most part, this is a joyous occasion, a time when Jews celebrate their religion and enjoy the camaraderie of family and friends. True so far as it goes, but, unfortunately, it is also a time when Jews are normally reminded of and confronted by increased anti-Semitic incidents around the world.
Anti-Semitism is virtually as old as recorded history, itself. Well before the birth of Christ, Jews fought with various pagan-worshipping ancient enemies, such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Philistines who lived in and around the present-day Middle East. Jews were hated, mistrusted and persecuted, because they did not worship the sun or idols like everyone else. Also, they resisted assimilation. They were different, and people mistrust and hate those who are different from them.
This hatred, mistrust and persecution has continued in different forms and to different degrees throughout history. The Romans subjugated and enslaved everyone, but they were particularly vexed by the Jews, who stubbornly clung to their particular religious, social and cultural customs and values. During the Middle Ages, kings and queens found the Jews to be convenient scapegoats for all the ills of their respective kingdoms. Crops failed? Blame the Jews. They poisoned the water. Plague? It was the Jews’ fault. Failing economy? The Jews, again. Who killed Christ? Blame the Jews. Who controls the banking system? The Jews. These rulers could have forced their Jewish citizens to leave, but they probably realized it was more advantageous to retain them as second-class citizens with restricted rights. As long as their subjects were blaming the Jews for their sad, squalid lives, they were not going to blame them.
Some rulers, like the Spanish, forced Jews to convert or face death. They tortured the Jews relentlessly during the period we call the “Inquisition.” Many Jews chose death; others converted; still others pretended to convert, but continued to practice Judaism secretly (prayers as well as customs). I believe that is why to this day it is customary for some Jews to mumble a short postscript after they recite a prayer.
Later, particularly in the late 19th century, some countries, such as Russia and Poland, engaged in pogroms against their Jewish citizens, again, for no other reason than they were different. Jews were constantly looking over their shoulder. There was no telling what would set off the next pogrom. Theirs was an extremely precarious and brutal existence (think of the play “Fiddler on the Roof”), however, as always, they persevered.
The foregoing paled, however, compared to the Holocaust visited upon the Jews by the Nazis in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Nazis wantonly exterminated some six million Jews, roughly one-third of the world’s total. We are all too familiar with that period, and there is no need to rehash it here. Suffice to say, it was very fortunate that the Allies won the war.
Stereotypes developed and became accepted as “fact.” People who had never met a Jew in their lives “knew” that all Jews were “pushy, sneaky, conniving, cheap and devious.” They “knew” that Jews killed Christian babies and drank their blood or used it to make matzoh (aka “blood libel”). They viewed Jews, not as a religion per se, but as a biologically inferior separate race. They “knew” they had horns. I personally know someone whose college acquaintance asked her if she could “feel her horns.” Some of these stereotypes have persisted to this day. Some of them are expressed in a more subtle manner. For example, many Jews believe, as I do, that when some people criticize Israel or Zionism, it is code for criticism of Jews.
In a recent article, Yair Rosenberg, senior writer at Tablet Magazine, cited the following four myths regarding anti-Semitism:
- Anti-Semitism has subsided since the Holocaust. More likely, it has merely become more covert, bubbling just below the surface, like an inactive volcano. In fact, currently, there is ample empirical evidence that it has been increasing, sharply in some countries. Rosenberg cited FBI data that asserts Jews are routinely subjected to more hate crimes than any other religious group even though they comprise only 2% of the US population. Additionally, consider France, which has the largest Jewish population of any country in Europe, about 500,000. French Jews are routinely victimized in some 50% of all racist attacks even though they only comprise 1% of the total population. In a 2014 survey 70% of French Jews reported they were concerned about insults or harassment, and 60% expressed concern over physical attacks. These percentages were among the highest in Europe. Substantial numbers of French Jews have begun emigrating to Israel. Coincidentally, or not, France has a considerable Muslim population, which has been emigrating from North Africa. A 2013 EU survey disclosed that 40% of European Jews are afraid to identify themselves as Jewish (in Sweden the figure was a whopping 60%). This is hard to fathom since Jews have comprised an integral part of the country economically, socially and culturally since the 18th century, and we know that Sweden was a haven for Jews during WWII. Swedish Jews are also emigrating to Israel in record numbers. The BBC reports that AS incidents in the UK are at “record levels.” This sentiment was echoed by The Community Security Trust, a Jewish Charity, that disclosed that 767 AS incidents were reported to them between January and June, 2017, a 30% increase over the same period in 2016. There are many other examples as well.
- Anti-Semitism is primarily attributable to the “right.” That same EU survey disclosed that AS statements can come from the “left” as well as the “right.” (One might view this as counterintuitive, since liberal thought is supposed to be more tolerant, but it is what it is.) For instance, Italian and Swedish Jews have reported they perceived that more anti-Semitic sentiments came from the “left.” Apparently, anti-Semites come in all political stripes. According to the Anti-Defamation League AS incidents in the US have increased a whopping 90 % in 2017. Population centers with sizeable Jewish populations, such as NYC, Long Island and South Florida, which are generally liberal, have experienced the highest numbers of incidents. Examples include personal attacks, social media attacks, and defacing property with slogans and swastikas. ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt expressed grave concern over the sustained increase in AS incidents during the past year. “[We] need more leaders to speak out against this cancer of hate and more action at all levels to counter AS,” he said. On US college campuses, which are overwhelmingly liberal, AS has been well-documented. Some examples include restriction of pro-Jewish speech, hostility of professors (again, overwhelmingly liberal), defacing property with AS slogans and swastikas, harassment, and personal attacks, both physically and through social media.
- Criticisms of Israel. As I mentioned above, criticisms of Israel and Zionism are perceived, by some, me included, as “code” or “cover” for anti-Semitism, much like talk of “states’ rights” in the 1950s was perceived as “code” or “cover” for segregation. For example, the UN’s Human Rights Council has condemned Israel more often than all other countries combined despite the fact that the infamous human rights transgressions of North Korea, Russia, Iran, and others, have been more pervasive and well-documented. Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the UN, conceded that Israel “has been treated differently from other nations at the UN.”
- Anti-Semitism only threatens Jews. This is, perhaps, the most insidious myth of all, because it is not obvious until it is too late. Deprivation of human rights is a slippery slope. Once it is condoned, or even encouraged, with respect to one group, what is to prevent it from spreading to other groups as well, until no one is safe? Witness, the famous quote from a speech by German pastor Martin Niemoller describing Germans’ indifference to the Nazis’ purging of certain groups in the 1930s:
“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then, they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Words to consider. Remember another famous quote: “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”
As always, we can expect a spike in AS incidents during the High Holidays. Police Departments everywhere will be on high alert. For example, last week the NYPD convened a group of law enforcement and Jewish community leaders to review security measures. In anticipation of violence by white supremacist and other hate groups, the NYPD announced there will be additional police assigned to Jewish neighborhoods and synagogues, and it will deploy heavily armed counterterrorism units (aka “Hercules” patrols) in certain areas.
Other communities around the world are making similar preparations. Some synagogues are planning to hire their own security to augment the police. Still, synagogues make a very tempting and highly visible soft target for any terrorist or hate group that wants to make a “statement,” so let’s pray for no incidents. Prepare for the worst; hope for the best.
Enjoy the holidays. Don’t let the terrorists and hate-mongers run your life!