TJH march 1990, vol. XXVI, no. 8.
One side of Purim is fun and laughter. The other side is Haman.
Haman is the arch-figure of Jew hatred, called anti-Semitism in modern times. He is the symbol of a social disease so dreadful and so powerful that it killed 6 million innocent people in this century.
What is the future of anti-semitism?
After World War II we hoped that it would disappear. We hoped that the trauma of the Holocaust would make it impossible for respectable people to be openly anti-Semitic in respectable society.
Certainly, in the Western world this hope seemed to be fulfilled. Overt anti-Semitism became unpopular. Bigoted demagogues, like Coughlin & Smith, were silenced. Numberless schools, corporations and clubs open their doors to Jews who have been excluded. Jewish culture and Jewish themes made their way into the movies and television. Jewish identity took on a positive public Image. But in other parts of the world, hostility to Jews was either revived or invented. In the Soviet empire Stalinists decided to reinforce their tyrannical rule by catering to the historic bigotry of their nations. Jews were purged from government. Jewish culture was suppressed. And leaders of the Jewish community were executed. Although most Jews were allowed to retain their homes and their jobs their safety was precarious. Communist propaganda reminded them that they were aliens.
In the Arab world, where most of the people were Semites like Jews, anti-jewish feeling emerged where it had never really existed before. The conflict in Palestine in the establishment of the state of Israel prompted a vicious anti-semitism reminiscent of Nazi assaults. Thousands of Jews fled their homes and came as refugees to the Jewish state. hostility to Jews was disguised as opposition to Zionism. But the anti-zionism of the Arab world contains the same vicious stereotypes that filled the propaganda of European fascists.
When the recent revolutionary changes began in Eastern Europe, many observers imagined that at least one of these two centers of anti-Semitism would vanish. Official Soviet and Communist hostility would disappear with the disappearance of Communism. The emergence of popular democracy would free the Jews and end the threats to their safety.
This expectation proved naive. The collapse of Communist power has not undermined it. It has revived it in a more virulent form than Communism ever allowed. The new freedom means freedom not only for liberal democracy but also for authoritarian fascists. End European fascism has long used anti-Semitism as an ideological strategy to mobilize the masses.
Jew hatred and Eastern Europe has deep roots. Both Catholic and Orthodox christianity cultivated the image of the Jew as Satan incarnate. (In fact Jews were excluded from Russia until the Russian conquest of Poland.) The pre-capitalist structures of countries like Poland and Romania stimulated Envy in suspicion of urban life in urban entrepreneurs. And the Jews were overwhelmingly town and city people.
The dismantling of the Communist power structure has terminated Communist anti-Semitism. But, in the new chaotic political environment, it has made it possible for the old bigotry to rear its ugly head. In Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Russia political parties with anti-Semitic agendas have been organized. Their program runs from the elimination of Jewish influence in public life to the expulsion of Jews. Although these parties are not large, they are growing.
What does their presence tell us about the nature of anti-Semitism?
Anti-semitism is a chronic disease. The historic role of the Jew to serve as a scapegoat for social ills is so deeply embedded in the European psyche that it cannot be eliminated either by education or by democracy. Since we cannot destroy it we must learn how to restrain it.
Anti-Semitism flourishes where there is economic distress. The growing inflation, unemployment and shortages of the former socialist countries sponsor mass insecurity. The mass insecurities and helplessness motivate the people to embrace traditional and simplistic explanations for the economic crisis. The longest survival issues dominate the political scene, hostility to the Jews will continue to grow.
Anti-Semitism originated, to a large degree, in religious prejudice. But its present complaint about the Jews is not religious. Jews are detested for their economic role. They are seen as economic and cultural conspirators who have invented both market capitalism and Marxist socialism to exploit the masses. Jewish religious beliefs are unrelated to the fantasy.
Anti-Semitism is unrelated to Jewish power. In most of these countries, with the exception of the Soviet Union, there are now very few Jews. The Holocaust remove the bulk of the Jewish population. Despite that reality, the fear and hatred of Jews continue. Unlike the Jews of Western Europe in the United States who have real power, the Jews of Eastern Europe are envied for what they do not have.
Anti-Semitism is a strategy of both the Left and the Right. Both the Communists and the fascists have used it. Both the working class and the bourgeoisie can share its view of the world. Both sides are capable of initiating violence against the Jews. What both sides share is chauvinistic nationalism which views the Jew as an alien intruder. This reality makes the motivation for Zionism very clear. Sometimes the only effective response to Gentile nationalism is Jewish nationalism.
The belief that the Jew is both smart and evil is an old one. It will not be easily dislodged. We need to be less naive than the people who believe it.