“The Whole World Is Against Us”: From Cultural Stereotypes To Anti-Semitism

Last Monday an organized group in University City MO vandalized a Jewish cemetery. On the same day across the ocean the Israeli ambassador in Ireland Ze’ev Boker cancelled his talk at Trinity College Dublin because of protests by students for Justice for Palestine.

The two events are seemingly unrelated and yesterday on the radio the ambassador addressed the difference between anti Zionism and anti Semitism when he explained the natural sympathy of the Irish people to the Palestinians because of their own history.

But it is always tricky to put a finger on the exact moment when anti Zionism ceases to be political opposition against the existence of the state of Israel and becomes an old fashioned anti Semitism.

Although our current government does a good job convincing us that “the whole world is against us” (a popular saying translated from Hebrew), in some cases it is sadly true. Below is part of an essay that I wrote during the last war in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014 in which I argue that it’s not a big leap from cultural stereotypes  to anti Semitism.

When I was in graduate school one of my professors made a comment: ”Why won’t you write your dissertation in literary theory?  You are Jewish and Jews are famous for their love of ideas” I didn’t know how to respond. Only later when I studied the subject more thoroughly I realized that, like other forms of generalizations, cultural stereotypes serve as a short cut, and help people to comprehend better their reality. It is also a way to measure oneself against the others. Paradoxically, although a statement like this could sound judgmental, it is often seen as an observation.

In the case of that professor, he had probably been surrounded by Jewish intellectuals at the university and throughout his career had read theoretical treaties by Jewish people. Hence it led him to the conclusion that I would excel at that field.

Still we should not be naive, it’s not a big leap from cultural stereotypes to anti Semitism. As an Israeli growing up in Israel I was not that sensitive to the existence of Anti-Semitism. For example, when I read in Nabokov’s Lolita and in No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym about hotels, which boasted their special Christian atmosphere, I understood it literally. It was my doctorate adviser who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, who explained to me that this was a code, which meant that Jews were not welcome.

Many Israelis, even those who have spent several years abroad, tend to downplay Anti-Semitism. I can testify that this was also true in my case: I could not believe that someone would not like me just because I was Jewish. As the saying goes “what is there not to like?” I am sure that my father in the late 1920s early 1930s Germany felt the same way. He grew up in a seemingly progressive society in Berlin and besides, he was a worthy young man.

Anti Semitism could also be disguised as Anti Zionism:  In 2006 my daughter and I attended an Evensong Service in Christ Church Oxford, it was at the time of the second Lebanon War. In the sermon the priest, an Irish man but also an Oxford philosophy professor, spoke strongly against Israel and that war. After the service we approached him and my daughter thanked him for the beautiful sermon and added that there were civilian casualties on both sides. The priest stared right through her and said indifferently “I am sure you are right.” I was shocked, at that moment I understood that it wasn’t only Israel that the priest detested.

But during this last war, hearing about all the riots around the world, in Europe in particular, and seeing the photos, I have no choice but to admit that the new form of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist hatred look very much like the old anti-Semitism.  And here I don’t refer to the whole Semite race, although I realize that Muslem are not that popular in those European countries as well.

Jews are hated not only for the actions of the Israeli government. Of course we should protest against injustice, and violence on both sides, but what is going on around the world brings back very dark memories.

I don’t demand special treatment, but shouldn’t the world’s leaders and the United Nation have a better memory? The Holocaust only happened 70 years ago.

About the Author
I hold a PhD in English Literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, specializing in writing about issues related to women, literature, culture, and society. Having lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994), I bring a diverse perspective to my work. As a widow, in March 2016, I initiated a support and growth-oriented Facebook group for widows named "Widows Move On." The group has now grown to over 2000 members, providing a valuable space for mutual support and understanding.
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