The Ominous Resurgence of Anti-Semitism
The Ominous Resurgence of Anti-Semitism
“I’ve been aware most of my life that I am hated by many people around the world.” A strong statement, I know, especially coming from a psychiatrist.
I certainly have frailties and faults, but ”hated”?!
Like you, I think of myself as a decent person, personally well-liked by many, loved by a few, criticized by some, admired by others, perhaps disliked by a handful…but to my knowledge at least, I am not personally hated.
I do, however, happen to belong to a large group of people who are indeed hated, but this hatredis entirely impersonal. That is, the haters know little if anything about those they implicitly detest. These particular hatreds can take many different forms, but they all stem from deep hate-fueled-and-filled historical lore. These malicious hatreds are based solely on a person’s birthright and background. They are ingrained prejudices, or “pre-judged” entrenched beliefs in the inferiority and evil of “other, lesser” human beings.
In my own case, I had the “audacity,” according to my haters, of being born into a family originating in Jewish genetics, religion and culture. I learned early on that I was hated “merely” for being Jewish, the very definition of “Anti-Semitism.”
I was born and raised in a major city with a large crowded district made up of thousands of Jewish immigrants, including my parents, who fled the rampant anti-Semitism then prevalent in towns and villages in Eastern Europe (Lithuania, Rumania, Latvia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and many other countries). Just as depicted in the mythical town“Anatevka”in “Fiddler on the Roof,” they faced daily aggressions in their ‘ghetto-ized’ communities, some random and impulsive, others, well-orchestrated campaigns (“pogroms”), spurred on by their common hatred of Jews.
It was no wonder that this toxic and brutal atmosphere precipitated a huge emigration of Jews to North America, even years before the scourge of Hitler’s Nazis and the infamous Holocaust (in which millions of Jews like me lost family members).
Even in the safety of America and Canada, however, new Jewish immigrants were not always welcome. Many experienced messages of hostility: Rental restrictions, blocked job opportunities and admission quotas to schools were not uncommon. Hateful slings and arrows were seen in the press and heard on the radio. Barbs utilizing anti-Semitic tropes (evil, usurious, Christ-killers, blood libel) were expressed by those who felt that Jews were inferior or dangerous. Thus, even in “safe havens,” there were ugly posters, verbal attacks, vandalism and physical assaults. I vividly recall being upset as a child when I saw signs on private properties with the words, “No Jews Allowed,” or “No Jews or Dogs.” All these actionswere designed to sow the seeds of hatred, incite and rally others to their cause, and sad to say, they were often successful.
Growing up in a politically “woke” immigrant household and environment, I quickly learned, that we Jews were certainly not alone in being despised- even sight unseen – simply for being “who we were,” which was “different, offensive, repulsive.” This country has a long history of expressed “fear and loathing” of diverse “others” who came to our shores. Our avowed ideals are in our Declaration of Independence and in the words of Jewish poet Emma Lazarus etched forever on our iconic beacon of welcome, the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses longing to be free…”).
In spite of these core symbols of warm welcome, a variety of citizens and newcomers to this country have had their “turns” at being vilified. These included all non-White races (Black, Asian, Native-American, etc), many nationalities and ethnic groups, all of whom endured terrible experiences of being hated by citizens here. Our treatment of African Americans being “brought, born and bought” into slavery (and its legacies), Native Americans, Chinese workers early last century, Japanese during World War Two (Nisei), are but a few examples of extreme prejudice and racism.
Jewish people often identified with and supported other ostracized groups in society. They were not only active in participating, they often led progressive causes like racial and civil rights, access to education and health care, immigrants’ rights, women’s equality, gender identity and others. These political and social tendencies did not endear the new Jewish citizens to people with conservative chauvinistic and nativist attitudes.
After World War Two ended, there were still some acts of hatred against Jews (reported by the Anti-Defamation League, The Southern Leadership Conference, and the ACLU), but for a few decades, there appeared to be a significant reduction, at least overtly.
Recent questions have arisen, however, about whether the scourge of anti-Semitism ever disappeared and if Jews were lulled into a sense of complacency. During the last few years Jews have been experiencing a feeling of uncomfortable familiarity, of “déjà vu,” or, “We’ve seen this movie (horror film) before.” My father used to say sadly in Yiddish, “Meh shlogt shoyn veiter Yidn,” meaning “They’re beating up on the Jews, yet again.”
Aggressive verbal expressions and overt physical acts of anti-Semitism have mushroomed in frequency and intensity in many countries around the globe. To name but a few, we’ve seen this ominous trend in the United States, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Spain, Brazil, Iran and other countries.
“And everybody hates the Jews!”is a famous line from the satirical song (“National Brotherhood Week”) by Tom Lehrer, the brilliant academic-turned-political and social troubadour in the Fifties and Sixties. His perceptive and sardonic lyrics skewered the haters of that day, and I daresay, today…
Other religions and groups cannot take comfort that the toxic animosity is restricted only to Jews. History shows that anti-Semitism often goes hand-in-hand with the infectious spread of hyper-nationalistic thinking and actions. This insidious virus appears at both extreme ends of the political spectrum.
People who have been frustrated and angry with their lot in life have “needed” to blame someone /somehow/somewhere for their social and psychological stress, and Jews have for centuries been the “go-to” scapegoat. This hate could be rationalized along mythological accusatory lore of Jews being greedy or usurious, Christ-killers or the blood–libel during Easter.
My studies of zealous religious and political cults have familiarized me with the phenomenon of susceptible people who become fervent “True Believers.” They are mesmerized by charismatic and demagogic leaders and movements which promise simplistic answers to complex social and psychological issues.
Paradoxically, the members of fervent hate groups feel better personally because they finally have the“causal enemies” whom they can blame for their previous frustrations and unhappiness. They have a cause celebre: By besmirching or harming those people who are clearly responsible for their problems, they now have “answers” (solutions!) to life’s challenges.
The growth of anti-Semitism should serve as a warning that other dangerous groupthink attitudes may not be not far behind. Authoritarian and demagogic regimes often use inflammatory rhetoric to spout anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic sentiments. When zealous followers blame Jews for their plight, this can be a forerunner to attacks on the core institutions of democracy, general civil liberties, journalism, laws and justice.
A once-decent society can thus be imperiled, as we have seen so often. As philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
I do however retain hope: Research has shown that we have the abilities to overcome our propensities to aggression and hate, and create solutions to violent conflict. Achieving an era of tolerance and peace would take a major commitment on the part of humankind, but we in fact have no alternative.
I am optimistic that “We Shall Overcome.”