The rise of an ancient hatred

The rise of an ancient hatred

INTERNATIONAL Holocaust Remembrance Day will be marked tomorrow, 70 years ago to the day on Jan 27, 1945, when the Nazi death camp Auschwitz was liberated.

The occasion often sees traditional commemorations to mark the genocide which resulted in the death of six million Jews, one million Gypsies, as well as hundreds of thousands of gays and others deemed "undesirable" by Germany's Nazis during World War II.

But this year, commemorations have an added piquancy, for anti-Semitism, the vile ideology which justified the Holocaust, is on the rise again in Europe.

Old demons are not about to return but they still haunt the "old continent".

Although it is now common to charge Muslims with anti-Semitism, the persecution of Jews started as a Christian phenomenon two millennia ago; anti-Semitism is, quite literally, Western history's longest hatred.

It was during the first millennium of the Christian era that the church leadership castigated all Jews as responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, notwithstanding the Bible's writings, which clearly ascribed the death of Jesus to the Roman imperial rulers of Palestine at that time.

But facts were never allowed to interfere with anti-Semitism; the accusation that Jews killed the Son of God was only fully repudiated in 1965 by Pope Paul VI.

The reason anti-Semitism proved to be so enduring is that it was an inexhaustibly useful political instrument, packaged in easily digestible chunks.

One myth which played well with the uneducated was that of the Blood Libel, the story that Jews killed Christian babies in order to mix their blood into ritual bread.

That was an idiotic accusation, since Jews are forbidden from touching blood: The whole purpose of kosher eating is to drain meat of all traces of blood.

Nineteenth-century Russian secret police also invented the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document which purportedly recorded a discussion between powerful Jews about taking over the world.

This risible text convinced people such as Henry Ford, a notorious anti-Semite who used his considerable car-making fortune to publish his own anti-Jewish rants.

Jews also suffered because they were the earliest proponents of two phenomena which today dominate our lives: urbanisation, namely the gradual movement of people from the countryside to big towns, and globalisation.

Because Jews were banned from owning land, they congregated in Europe's biggest cities, where they engaged in the professions which underpinned the modern state: lawyers, accountants, bankers, traders.

As late as the 1930s, up to 75 per cent of all bankers and 85 per cent of lawyers in the Austrian capital of Vienna were Jews.

So, when the young Adolf Hitler followed many of his countrymen in seeking a new life in Vienna, his first contacts were with Jewish landlords who charged too much, and Jewish bankers who refused to lend him money.

It's not difficult to understand how an uneducated man like Hitler was attracted to the idea of "redeeming" his nation by putting all Jews through the "final solution"; the real mystery is how this Austrian hooligan was able to seize power in a highly sophisticated nation like Germany by exploiting centuries of hatred to make out of anti-Semitism a new religion.

As the philosopher George Steiner memorably observed, when Europeans no longer believed in Hell after death, they created Hell on earth in the form of death camps.

The destruction of six million Jews during the Holocaust remains unique in its obsessive, industrial approach to mass murder.

That's why, instead of forgetting the Holocaust, as time goes by, more and more nations are marking its memory.

Anti-Semitism was made a specific crime in Britain only two decades ago, not immediately after the end of World War II.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been marked only since 2006.

And even among nations mercifully free of anti-Semitism, awareness that Jews need to be respected is growing.

Anti-Semitism on the rise

NEVERTHELESS, it is undoubtedly true that anti-Semitic sentiments are currently on the increase.

And they are fuelled by two separate phenomena: opposition to Israel among Europe's Muslims, coupled with a more insidious but less easily defined anti-Jewish sentiment.

Muslim anti-Semitism is the dominant form of physical violence against Jews in Europe today.

Attacks against French Jews, which represent the third-largest community of its kind in the world after those in the US and Israel, have doubled over the past decade, to more than 400 incidents last year.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the Community Security Trust recorded a 36 per cent increase in anti-Semitic attacks.

As a result, some religious Jews are resorting to ingenious ways of hiding their identity, such as disguising their skull caps as additional strands of hair, while others simply immigrate to Israel: An estimated 7,000 Jews left France last year, the highest such number since Israel was founded in 1948.

More worrying still is the sub-culture among some Muslim communities which makes anti-Semitism fashionable.

The antics of Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, a French comedian of African extraction who invented the so-called quenelle, a hand gesture which resembles the Nazi salute, are a case in point.

And notwithstanding a veneer of respectability, many other Europeans have yet to give up their obsession with Jews.

When Mr Nicolas Sarkozy was French president, one of the most frequent Internet searches in the country was a query about his Jewish ancestry.

The particularly virulent personal attacks against Mr Sarkozy were "also because he was the son of a Hungarian and the grandson of a Jew", wrote Mr Bernard Kouchner, who served as his foreign minister.

In Britain, parliamentarians of Jewish descent, including opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband, are frequently the targets of online obscenities.

And, while criticism of Israel should never be automatically equated with anti-Semitism, it is noticeable that the Jewish state has been subjected to more hounding than any other.

Overall, the United Nations General Assembly has devoted 40 per cent of its debating time to the Palestinian problem, but only held its first debate on anti-Semitism in its seven decades of existence last week.

Retired Israeli leaders cannot travel abroad without being harassed by private prosecutions for alleged war crimes.

Israel is also accused of war crimes for its deeds in the latest Gaza war in which an estimated 2,000 Palestinians perished, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, responsible for the killing of at least 200,000 of his people, is considered a potential partner for negotiations.

The legal hounding of Israel, now referred to by specialists as "lawfare", clearly has an anti-Semitic tinge.

And even some governments don't seem to be shy about making explicit anti-Jewish statements either.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames his country's ills on the "Interest Rate Lobby", an ill-disguised reference to Jewish bankers.

And Iran's leaders openly call for the destruction of Israel, or for a "re-examination" of "evidence" on the Holocaust.

Responses

WHAT can be done about this anti-Semitic onslaught? First, European governments should not panic.

"The traditional sources of anti-Jewish hostility from the far right in Europe have declined enormously over the last 25 years," says Professor David Cesarani at Royal Holloway College in London who specialises in Jewish history.

What governments need to do more is to combat the cliches which fuel the rebirth of anti-Semitism, especially among some European Muslims.

It is simply not true that Western countries sacrificed Arabs to establish the State of Israel as "compensation" to the Jews for the Holocaust, a constant refrain among today's anti- Semites: The Zionist movement started fighting for the creation of Israel almost a century before the Holocaust.

It is also nonsense to suggest that Europeans don't care about offending the religious sensitivities of Muslims, while being scrupulous about protecting Jews.

Alongside offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo also published many cartoons offensive to Jews.

Laws prohibiting Holocaust denial don't prevent debate, and laws against anti-Semitism are not very different from those banning incitement to racial violence.

And the fact that European governments may be rushing to defend their Jews but do little to alleviate the plight of Palestinians in the Middle East is irrelevant, even if true: The protection of one's own citizens - which is what the Jews of Europe are - trumps all other considerations.

Finally, Europeans should engage in some straight talk on this topic with other governments. While Israel's concern for the fate of Jews is understandable, Israeli leaders should be told to desist from arguing that the only way Jews can be safe is to emigrate to Israel. Quite apart from the fact that this is untrue given the level of violence in the Middle East, it is also offensive to Europe's abilities to stamp out anti-Semitism.

European leaders should also have the courage to tell countries such as Iran and Turkey that playing with anti-Jewish messages not only risks discrediting these countries, but is also a slur on the good historic record of Muslim states, which for centuries extended to their Jews far better protection than the Europeans ever did.

But ultimately, the real message should be to all Europeans: They need to be reminded that anti-Semitism is a plague not only because it stands for everything which is vile and reprehensible in human nature, but also because it ultimately destroys Europe itself.

For, as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls aptly put it, if Jews flee France, "the French Republic will be judged a failure, and France will no longer be France".

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on Jan 26, 2015.
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