Anti-Semitism is again, tragically, in vogue—especially among the misanthropes, conspiracy theorists, nativists, and supremacists of all stripes. They have always been society’s antagonists, and while their antagonism often begins with the Jews it rarely stops there. History teaches us that when anti-Semitism is on the rise no ethnic group is safe, nor is the society they call home. Like the canary in the coal mine, when Jews are targeted by our home-grown nativists, African-Americans, Muslims, Latinos, Asians, and every other ethnic American has cause for concern. When the canary falls, the mine is in deep trouble. Whether the outrage is visited upon Pittsburgh or Charlottesville, Christchurch, London, Paris or Berlin, history is always a lesson we fail to learn at our own peril.
Those who tolerate anti-Semitism and even toy with anti-Semitic stereotypes or fail to call it out are often ignorant of its history, and of the pain and misery they encourage and help sow. So it was in Washington last week when the United States House of Representatives could not bring itself to condemn anti-Semitism within its ranks, and so it was earlier when, after Charlottesville, the President of the United States took days to finally condemn the greatest display of anti-Semitism (and it’s perpetrators) since the heyday of the Nazi Bund.
It is often referred to as the oldest hatred. It is also, perhaps, the most irrational hatred, but often stoked by very rational tyrants. Ironically, the vast majority of people throughout the world who hold anti-Semitic views have never known a Jew. Those who taught or influenced them to be anti-Semites have, generally, also never crossed paths with a Jew. Modern anti-Semitism is a cultural phenomenon with an ancient pedigree, it is an effect without a real cause. It is a teaching based on a premise, and a premise based on a chimera—an assumed truth that is almost always false.
There is, of course, the ancient religious anti-Semitism, which no doubt still feeds resentment among some, even in the modern age. The Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John the 23rd midway through the twentieth century corrected the historical record and ushered in an era of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews. The Roman church was, for many centuries, indifferent and often hostile to the Jews who resided within its realm but welcoming to those Jews who abandoned their ancient faith and converted to Catholicism. The Spanish Inquisition changed that. It introduced the concept of Mal Sangre, “bad blood,” a grotesque teaching that endured through the centuries that followed and, ultimately, nourished the Nazi creed and resulted in what Winston Churchill famously called a crime without a name; a crime of unspeakable horror we know, today, as the Holocaust.
Religious resentment aside, however, over the centuries the cause of all manner of misfortune and calamity was often and maliciously placed at the feet of the Jews. Plagues, natural disasters, unsolved murders, poor harvests, stressful economic cycles, epidemics, all could unleash senseless and horrific retribution against the Jewish community.
Anti-Semitism is the ultimate meme, a notion easily remembered, and easily perpetuated, and, thereafter, easily triggered and passed along from person to person, family to family, generation to generation, down through the ages. It is akin to a virus, a sickness that can be contagious to those who are exposed to it and is never quite eradicated. Sometimes it spreads virally like wildfire, and, as with pathological virus’s, it sometimes erupts when the body politic is sick, its morale and spirit weakened by stress or fear or anger. Like many viral illnesses, it is never fully appeased and it always leaves its mark. It is always damaging, and all too often, it is as deadly as the deadliest plague.
The Jew is the perennial, enduring, other. And because of their steadfastness they are, by many, either admired or reviled. Mark Twain was fascinated by anti-Semitism and was discerning of, if not bemused by, its history. He famously wrote: “Tyrants and petty politicians stoke the flames of anti-Semitism when they think it serves their ambitions. It often does. And, then, sooner or later, it often consumes them. If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one-quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.”
And from the smallness of their bulk they have produced Moses and Jesus, the Jonas Salk’s, the Albert Einstein’s, the Leonard Bernstein’s, Gustav Mahler’s, the Gershwin’s and the Mendelssohn’s, over twenty percent of all Nobel prize winners, the Eli Weisel’s, Henry Kissinger’s, Boris Pasternak’s, Saul Bellows, Milton Friedman’s, and the list goes on endlessly. The Jews have produced all manner of leaders in every field from philosophy to business, from music to medicine, from bankers and, yes, to a few bank robbers.
History teaches us that whenever anti-Semitism is on the rise, the health of the society that tolerates it is often in decline. Anti-Semitism is the canary in the coal mine. We must recognize it for what it is and we tolerate it at our own peril.