Getting Antisemitism and Jews - It's Not About the Holocaust

Originally published on Open Salon on June 9, 2010

I've been watching a lot of reactions to the flotilla incident, particularly here on the OS, and it's making me realize that there are a lot of things people just don't get. Some of this has to do with Israel, some of it has to do with Jews in general, and some has to do with what I think is an overestimation of the influence of the Holocaust; it's important, just not completely central.

You've probably noticed that Jews don't evangelize. Given that we don't believe you have to be Jewish to get into heaven, converting wouldn't save gentiles from anything, so there's no moral imperative to convert people. In addition, being Jewish isn't always easy, so we make conversion difficult to be sure that whoever converts is serious about it. This lack of evangelism has two major ramifications:

1. There aren't many of us. There are roughly one hundred Muslims for every Jew in the world and an even higher number of Christians. The Nazis killed one out of every three Jews (including children); in the seventy-five years since the Holocaust, we've made up about half the numbers we lost. In the meantime, the world's population has exploded, so we've become a much smaller proportion of the world's population.

2. We've remained mostly tribal. When we first came upon the scene four thousand years ago, all religion was tribal; now we're an anomaly. This has advantages and disadvantages: Advantages in that it has contributed to our survival, cohesiveness, and adherence to our own norms and standards (which statistically have served us extremely well); disadvanages in that it has isolated us and made us more separate and, in that respect, easier to vilify, so it's made us more of a target.

The next thing to understand about us is that we've spent most of our history living in other people's countries. If you're American, particularly if you're young, you may not get what this means because you're fortunate to live in the only major country where ethnicity and religion are unrelated to national identity. Even though I am a Jew both religiously and tribally, I am fully American; my national identity if I lived elsewhere wouldn't be accepted to the same extent in most places in the world.

Even though I am fully American, I can't afford to take that for granted. For personal reasons I won't go into here, I watched events unfold a few years ago in a small city in the Midwest. There was a move among some local people to put a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn; members of the local Reform Jewish congregation objected politely in e-mails to the three members of the County Council on the grounds that such a sectarian religious display on government property would mainly serve the purpose of excluding non-Christians. (There were plenty of nativity scenes at local churches, including a living nativity or two; putting such a display on the courthouse lawn would have made a very specific sort of statement.) One of the members of the County Council replied in an e-mail to a congregant, stating that this was a Christian country, that Jews were guests and that if they objected "you should move back to Israel." I should add here that the Jewish congregation in question had just celebrated its one hundred and fiftienth anniversary in the community and yet a local official still thought of Jews as foreigners. Incidentally, the resulting flap led to that official's resignation - at least we've gotten to the point where it is not OK for public officials to put that in writing about citizens.

One thing you learn as a Jew is that there is no statute of limitations on rejection. The most unbelievable example of this took place in Iraq. The Jewish community there dated from when Jews were brought there after the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire under King Nebuchadnezzar.  As recently as a century ago, Baghdad's population was between one third and one half Jewish. Persecution of the Jewish community began during the Second World War when local Muslim clerics admired what Hitler was doing and escalated after Israel was founded. There are hardly any (if any) Jews left in Iraq. The community was driven out after having been there for over two and a half millenia. At what point can you feel accepted?

We as a people do not have a history of being disloyal to the countries we live in but we do have a history of people assuming that we are. (I'm not saying individuals aren't, but there are disloyal individuals among every population.) This is why we were enslaved in the Exodus story, it's the ostensible reason the Nazis came after us, and it's the ostensible reason Arab states drove most Jews out of their countries after Israel was founded. I'm most familiar with Germany's case. Hitler needed a rationale for how the Master Race was capable of losing WWI; the one he came up with was that Germany was betrayed from within and Jews were the only ethnic candidate numerous enough to be feasible. Hitler didn't actually investigate this because it would have caused him too much cognative dissonance to be proven wrong. The German Jewish community was, if anything, annoyingly chauvinistic about being German. They supported the war effort and there were many highly decorated German Jewish soldiers.

I haven't talked about religious antisemitism yet. Before the introduction of Christianity, the main way we got in trouble in terms of religion is that we refused to worship gods of our polytheistic conquerers, whereas the rest of the peoples they conquered were already polytheistic so adding an extra god here and there was no big deal. The nature of the problem shifted with Christianity. Our problem with both Christianity and Islam stems from the fact that they're both based on Judaism. You'd think that would be an advantage, but...

Both Christianity and Islam view themselves as our successors. Both thought we were going to pass them the baton and join them. (So, oddly enough, did Martin Luther.)  Of course, this made no sense at all to us; that would be roughly the equivalent of the Vatican endorsing the Mormons. Because Christianity and Islam both think of themselves as succeeding Judaism, Judaism's continuing existence represents a threat to their legitimacy. Not a realistically viable threat, but a threat that they intermittently worry about nonetheless. How worried they are at any given moment has a lot to do with how much grief they give us.

Who gave us grief when varied. In the Middle Ages, we were typically treated better in Muslim countries than in Christian ones, so claims that Islam is inherently antisemitic don't completely wash, certainly not to the current extent. The best and safest place for Jews to be then was in Spain while it was Muslim; the worst place was Spain after it turned Christian and they instituted the Inquisition. During the Crusades, the Jews of Palestine fought alongside the Muslims, which actually makes sense given that the Crusades were marked by multiple massacres of European Jewish communities in ostensible defense of Christianity.

Some of the Christian persecution came from the Christkiller accusation. Now, if you consider Christian theology, this makes no sense: Christ's death was inevitable because it was necessary for human salvation, so slaughtering a population accused of performing a necessary sacrifice that brought about their salvation is pretty strange. Not that we want to be tied to that event regardless of consequences; our involvement isn't credible to us partially because the events are way against Jewish law and partially because there were plenty of political reasons to saddle us with that - the Romans were turning Christian, so blaming them had much greater consequences than blaming the competition that Christians were angry at for not accepting Christianity in the first place.

Some Christian persecution came from the fact that Christians were for a time not permitted to charge interest for religious reasons and yet they needed credit, so they forced Jews into moneylending. How popular can you be when you're a separate population and everyone owes you money? When monarchs got too far in debt, they expelled their Jewish populations to avoid paying the bill. (For some, there was an eventual upside: this is the sort of background the Rothschilds came from.)

Europe was mostly populated by illiterate superstitious peasants who would turn on us murderously for capricious reasons. (We, on the other hand, were supersitious but literate peasants because Judaism is so heavily based on study.) Some thought we were poisoning wells, probably because our survival rates were higher because of stricter dietary laws. There was a rumor that kept on resurfacing that we used the blood of Christian children in Passover ceremonies - that one shows up in the Caunterbury tales. After centuries of that being our primary exposure to gentiles, some Jews developed attitutes toward gentiles that are less than complimentary and some of those attitutes persist in certain circles, particularly among older Jews.

Most American Jews are ancestrally from Eastern Europe, where the illiterate peasant majority lasted for longer than it did in Western Europe. Why do you think so many came here to America? It wasn't about money; it was about safety and freedom to worship. My grandparents experienced persecution in Europe; I'd imagine most immigrants did. This was before the Holocaust, so the personal persecution experiences that affected American Jewish families most directly have nothing to do with the Holocaust. However, when families came over from Europe, not everyone typically came over, and most Jews who came here came from areas the Nazis reached, so most American Jews lost relatives in the Holocaust. My grandfather lost a sibling who couldn't get past Ellis Island due to a medical problem and was sent back.

How did the Israel independence movement start?  It really began as the result of an event in France. Lethal persecution wasn't much of a factor in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. Napoleon made Jews equal, a policy which was reversed in many places after his death, but Jews still certainly faced descrimination. In 1894, a French Jewish military officer by the name of Alfred Dreyfuss was accused of spying. There were a lot of journalists covering the case and it was obvious from the evidence presented that Dreyfuss was innocent. He was convicted anyway but later evidence led to the case being reopened, at which point he was exonerated and finished his career in the French army. Keep in mind that this conviction happened in a pretty liberal country. When Dreyfuss was initially convicted, an Austrian Jewish journalist by the name of Theodor Herzl who was covering the trial wrote an article stating that Jews would never get a fair shake until we had a country of our own. He actually didn't care where the country was but others inspired by his words did. They'd all been finishing their Passover seders every year (as has been done for about two thousand years, every year, in every practicing Jewish household) with the words L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim, or Next Year In Jerusalem. So, they said, Why don't we just go home? After all, there were Jews already there and the land was mostly empty (and mostly desert). So, they slowly started to migrate back, buying land from absentee Turkish landlords because Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. Against all advice, they started irrigating the land and eventually made it arable enough to support more people, including Syrian Arabs who migrated looking for jobs with the growing Jewish population.

As a result of the First World War, the British ended up taking Palestine from the Turks. The British government was grateful for Jewish support during the war (obviously aside from German Jews) and so agreed in writing to support Palestine as a Jewish homeland. This document is called the Balfour Declaration. However, over time, the British government became less grateful for wartime services and more concerned about the opinions of Arab leaders who controlled oil, and so they started to discourage Jewish emigration to Palestine. There were Jewish organizations in Palestine trying to get immigrants in any way they could (and being arrested for it).  Then came the Second World War and the Holocaust. The key Jewish organizations called a halt to resisting the British because they viewed the Nazis as enough of a threat to ally themselves with the British for the time being.

Understand that the Holocaust is not unusual in terms of its antisemitism - we'd experienced that for a couple of millenia. It was unusual because of its scope, its planning and industrial-style execution rather than the typically more spontaneous nature of persecution, and because it was perpetrated by an educated, cultured country rather than the usual mob of superstitious peasants. The fact that it was perpetrated by one of the more cultured countries in the world led many American Jews to conclude that it could happen here. I disagree but that's not what I'm talking about today.

The Holocaust was not responsible for the formation of Israel but it accelerated it. Firstly, there were survivors, and Europe didn't really know what to do with them, nor did many want to stay in Europe under the circumstances. This is even more understandable than it looks - In Poland, there were anti-Jewish pogroms (sort of organized riots - this is typically the vehicle by which masses of Jews were killed in Eastern Europe and is actually a pretty good description of kristallnacht) in 1946, a year after the war, as if two million Jewish dead in Poland wasn't enough. Some murders happened because surviving Jews tried to reclaim their prewar homes. Also, there was some post-Holocaust guilt in Europe (they hadn't done much to stop the Holocaust and were in some cases collaborators), so Israel got less resistance than it might have otherwise. Not that independence was a cakewalk by any means: several Arab countries attacked immediately upon independence and, pretty miraculously under the cirumstances, all were driven back.

Israel's expanded borders were a result of two wars: The first was caused by Egypt illegally sealing off the Israeli port of Eilat in 1967 and the second was caused by a surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973, also by Egypt. Israel was not the initial aggressor in either chain of events. These events are important because, prior to this expansion, the Palestinians were not under Israeli control but under Egyptian control in Gaza and Jordanian control on the West Bank. Why the Palestinians were kept in refugee camps for nineteen years by Arab governments is a pretty good question - the best answer is that those governments were more interested in keeping pressure on Israel than they were in taking care of refugees. Tensions between the Jordanians and Palestinians got bad enough that in the very early seventies (I think 1972, during the Nixon administration but before the Yom Kippur War), Yassir Arafat led a rebellion against King Hussein of Jordan to try and overthrow him and the Jordanians had to defeat the Palestinians militarily.

If you weren't around then, you won't understand that Israel's survival was in doubt during both wars. Israel is pretty tiny and was attacked from a lot of directions. Now its military superiority is assumed but things didn't start that way. If, on the other hand, Israel won (which it did both times), the survival of no Arab nation was at stake.

Once Israel was founded, just about every Arab country with a Jewish population assumed that that population would spy for Israel. This was baseless, but it resulted in almost all of those Jews being driven out of their countries (where some had been for, literally, millenia) and absorbed by Israel. As I've said in another post, this population of Jews driven out of Arab countries exceeds the population of Muslims who have left Israel, voluntarily and involuntarily combined, and yet dialogue only happens about reparations (or resettlment) of Muslim refugees, not Jewish ones - I don't mean European Jewish refugees, I mean Middle Eastern Jewish refugees.

There's another cause of Arab antisemitism which isn't typically discussed. If you're from the American South, this should make sense to you: Israel is the ultimate expression of Jewish Uppity. Arabs will tell you truthfully that Arabs and Jews used to get along; what's left out is the phrase "when they knew their place." There's also talk of outside European Jewish agitators ruining things among the Middle Eastern Jews because European Jews ran Israel for many years. Does this sound familiar? My own experience is that I visited Israel when the Middle Eastern Jews for a time outnumbered the European Jews; interestingly, the government became a whole lot more hard-line with a Middle Eastern Jewish majority - they elected Menachem Begin. So much for European Jewish interference.

The Uppity Factor was magnified by a few things. One is the string of military upsets. Another is that the Israelis outperform the Arabs in almost every commercial, educational, artistic, and scientific endeavor that doesn't involving pumping anything out of the ground. A third is that the military victories put Israel in military control of Palestinian populations that were formerly uneasily ruled by Jordan and Egypt; the idea that Jews are ruling Muslims by force (even though they'd rather not) is a role reversal that doesn't sit at all well with Muslims. The Arabs don't like being humiliated by a population they used to rule and, when nothing else helps with the problem, turning to fundamentalist religion can and sometimes does. And so, the conciliatory portions of the Quran (about People of the Book) are de-emphasized while the "smiting" portions are emphasized.

Institutionalized antisemitism in the Arab world takes forms you wouldn't believe here because we're dealing with an area where there is very little free press (and the free-est press, Al Jazeera, is antisemitic and antizionist, so it doesn't help). Famous propaganda pieces like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, originally written by the Czar's secret police, are serialized on Egyptian television as fact. I recently saw a translated news broadcast from Syrian television on YouTube claiming that the reason Israel sent hospital teams to Haiti so fast after the earthquake was to harvest and steal organs. This sort of hatred is taught starting in elementary school over there. As the columnist Thomas Friedman points out repeatedly (he is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic and lived in Lebanon for a while), if you want to know what's going on in the Arab world, don't pay attention to what they say to us in English, pay attention to what they say to their own people in Arabic.

This sort of virulent propaganda is not a two way street. You can pretty much pick an American synagogue at random and walk into the school wing (if it has one, I think most do). Look at the bulletin boards and posters in the hallways and in the classrooms and see how many negative things are said about Muslims or Arabs. I'll be surprised if you find any. Go to a school in the Arab world and you'll be in for a very different experience.

My overall point is that I think too much of what Jews are about is ascribed to the Holocaust when, actually, if the Holocaust hadn't occurred at all our character wouldn't be all that different - antisemitism is a very long constant. I personally think that the Holocaust is overemphasized. Unfortunately, at this point it kind of has to be because of the rise in Holocaust denial, like by the Iranian president. Has it ever struck you as strange that there's a Holocaust museum on the Mall in Washington, DC when the Holocaust is not fundamentally an American event? I refused to go there for years because I didn't agree with its placement even though I lived in the District. Then I found out why it was built: It was financed with private funding and Holocaust survivors in America petitioned President Carter to allow its construction because these survivors were so afraid of Holocaust denial that they wanted an answer in a place it would be universally trusted.

I hope this helps you understand the Holocaust's role in our history and the fact that this role is more limited than people currently give it credit for. It is part of an extremely long chain of events. We had to watch our backs way before Hitler and we'll have to watch our backs way after him. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory.

Postscript, early morning July 1, 2015:
I made an earlier reference to what is sometimes called the Ritual Murder Charge, specifically the rumor that showed up in the Canterbury Tales, that Jews used the blood of Christian children for Passover. That ancient slander was repeated as fact last summer by Hamas' top official in Lebanon during a television interview.

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