Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea. –If This Is A Man / The Truce
You’ve heard the stereotypes, and the nasty little comments: “Jews are all rich.” “Jews control all the banks.” “All Jews are obsessed with money.” Some readers may have had pennies thrown at them. As a reader asked recently, where does this come from?
First, notice something: the word “all.” Any time you see that word, put on your skeptical hat! Global statements are a sign that there’s irrationality involved.
“Jews are all rich.” – Not true. Half a million Jews live under the poverty line in New York City alone, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York. So why do people say that or think it? In purely contemporary terms, it is true that a higher percentage of Jews earn more than $100,000 than any other “faith group” in America, according to this chart from GOOD and Column Five. It is also true that there are individual Jews who are famous for their wealth, for example, George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. But no, not all Jews are rich, and the majority of rich people are not Jewish. Some Jews are grindingly poor.
The association of Jews and money goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bible forbids usury – taking or paying interest on a loan “from your brother.” (See Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, and Leviticus 25:35-37 for examples.) Jewish law discouraged lending to non-Jews as well as forbidding lending at interest to other Jews.
However, sources of income for European Jews prior to about 1800 were extremely limited. Jews were barred from most professions and guilds. Moneylending was a viable way to make a living, especially since Christians were barred by their own laws from lending money. Thus moneylending became a niche for Jews. It was a dangerous niche, however: no one likes their creditors.
Financial skills are also portable. Jews were uprooted again and again from their homes in Europe, and those with portable skills were the best equipped to survive. One side-effect of the various expulsions was that families were often scattered to different cities. Having trusted family members in financial centers like Amsterdam, London, Paris, etc meant that money could be moved easily across the continent. For a more detailed history of Jews and banking, there’s an excellent article in the Virtual Jewish Library.
So yes, there are connections between Jews and money. But not all Jews are rich and not all Jews have access to wealth.
One way that these ideas spread was a hoax called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was produced sometime in the early 20th century in Russia or the Ukraine. It purports to be a blueprint for world domination by a Jewish conspiracy. It claimed that Jews plan to dominate the world by economic means. So even today, that is a central belief for many antisemites.
As for being “obsessed with money,” one might suggest that anyone making such a statement should take a look in the mirror!
It’s that time again – I’m teaching the class on antisemitism tonight.
I looked over my old lesson plan, and almost changed it. We’re in a different world all of a sudden. We’ve had antisemitic “incidents” in Europe ranging from murder to riots, and an ugly inquisition at a student government meeting in California.
I decided to stick with my old lesson plan, because it is the basis for what my students need to know. Hatred of Jews goes way back in history. It has taken various forms over the centuries. Roman and Greek thinkers believed Jews lazy and disrespectful by nature. Christian antisemitism began as a set of religious beliefs about Jews. Religous antisemitism gradually took political forms, as Christianity became the established religion of Europe. By the 16th century in Spain, there was talk about “Jewish blood” and a sense of Jews as a race began to creep into the European vocabulary. Judaism was no longer an error of belief: it was a physical characteristic. Meanwhile, justifications for doing worse and worse things to Jews piled up.
And then, yes, the 20th century came and with it the horrors of the Holocaust. What I want my students to understand is that the Holocaust wasn’t just “a German thing” and it wasn’t just an episode. All of European history led up to it, and unfortunately, many of the same beliefs and attitudes that gave rise to it are with us today.
Some things have changed for the better: Vatican II brought a radical change of doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church, repudiating its old antisemitism. In the United States and in some parts of Europe, there is a strong feeling of “never again.” Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center track hate speech and hate crimes.
But we have also slid backwards in other ways. Nazi propaganda made its way into the Arab world during WWII, and so the blood libel and other horrors are still circulating, believed as fact. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an ugly antisemitic hoax, is still circulating, too. And there are hate groups in the West as well: anyone who searches for “Jew” on Google will be greeted by an avalanche of filth.
The modern state of Israel has become a magnet for antisemitic rhetoric. Criticism of Israel is certainly a valid activity – I am not madly in love with many policies of the State of Israel and its government – but a frightening amount of the anti-Israel rhetoric one hears tumbles over the line into antisemitism.
So that’s what’s on my mind tonight. I need to make sure that those studying towards conversion understand that they are signing up for this, and that it isn’t going away. I want to communicate ways of responding, and ways to stay centered while reading the news. It’s a big job, and I feel one of the most important things I do as an “Intro to Judaism” teacher. I’ll finish with questions I’m going to ask the students:
What do you do when you hear someone say something antisemitic? How do you decide what you are going to do? What about hatred aimed at other groups such as people of color or Muslims? When did it last happen, and what did you do?
Visibility is a mixed bag for Jews. This weekend in all the excitement of being Freshly Pressed this blog saw a burst of traffic, “follows,” and “likes,” – thank you very much to those who contributed to that and welcome to new readers! It also got some really ugly antisemitic comments. I’ve been sitting quietly for while, thinking about how I want to handle the mixed blessings.
I will continue to delete antisemitic comments as soon as I see them. My experience in raising children and training dogs is that the less attention paid to bad behavior, the better. That doesn’t mean “ignore it” – it means don’t reward it by lavishing attention on it. Therefore I shall zap antisemitic comments and then look around and say to myself with deepest satisfaction: “What antisemitic comment? Heh.”
Questions are different. A question is at least on the surface a request for information. “Is it true that Jews are [fill in antisemitic stereotype here]?” will get a straight up serious reply from me, with historical background on its origins. Even if I suspect a question is cover for a nasty comment, I’ll entertain it because it’s an opportunity to teach.
In life, that’s how I try to deal with antisemitism also. If I am pretty sure a comment was made simply to get a rise out of me, I say, “That comment’s beneath my attention,” and move right on. If I think the comment was made out of ignorance, that’s a different matter: I’ll counter it with facts in as calm and kind a manner as I can muster. If people are listening who may be misled by the antisemitic statement, then it’s even more important for me to pursue the teaching moment, even if the ignorance is willful.
To anyone visiting this blog who wants attention (and goodness knows, most of us don’t get enough of it, unless we’re tabloid fodder) – ask a question. I love questions. I crave them. They give me topics for posts, and they give me a chance to have a conversation with the questioner, and get to know you a bit.
Thank you for reading, and bless you for asking questions!
OK, I admit it: I love alliteration, and that title was just too good to pass up. We just celebrated Purim. Pi Day is today (yay! Pie in the oven right now!) St. Patrick‘s Day is soon, and all this takes place in the midst of Passover preparations (there’s another P!)
This does have a point.
I celebrate Purim and Passover specifically because I’m a Jew. I understand myself to be obligated to celebrate them. They are required for me, optional for any Gentiles who wish to celebrate, although they are certainly welcome at my table.
I celebrate Pi Day with other members of my Jewish community. We celebrate it because (1) we love pie, (2) we love puns and similar geekery and (3) some of us love math. I would never have met any of those friends were it not for the fact that we happen to go to the same synagogue. We weren’t friends before synagogue; we are dear friends now. Pi Day is neutral religiously, but it offers the added Jewish benefit of using up flour before Passover.
Which brings me to the other P: Patrick. St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more complicated. Start with the “Saint” bit. First, Jews do not celebrate saints’ days. Not our tradition. There are people in our past whom we revere, but we tend to call them tzaddik (righteous person) or chasid (pious person) or we use their names with a certain hush. Second, Christian saints in past centuries were often hostile to the Jews, to put it mildly: see the writings of Ambrose or John Chrysostom. Third, certain Christian holidays became days with excuses for being nasty to Jews: that’s where Patrick gets into the mix.
I am a Jew of Irish-American descent. That ancestry is an important slice of my identity, as important in its own way as “Californian” or “expatriate Southerner” or “queer.” It’s so important that had one of my sons been a daughter, she’d have been named Bridget. My grandmother’s stories, handed down from her grandmother, about the Famine and our arrival in America were key narratives in my childhood. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day is the day to celebrate that heritage.
Unfortunately, when I wear my bit of green on March 17, I am sure to hear a story or three from Jewish friends and colleagues about their childhood experiences of St. Patrick’s Day. Their memories are of hostility from Irish-Americans that day: pinching (“Where’s your green?”) and excuses for the ongoing antisemitism of the schoolyard: people throwing pennies at the Jew, etc. I don’t recall ever witnessing such as a kid, but since I was part of the majority (at school, not in the culture) I may well have overlooked it.
I still wear green on March 17. I embrace the contradictions, because face it, I embody them. I eschew the leprechauns and green beer because they only play into the worst stereotypes: there is more to Irishness than superstition and alcohol. I don’t celebrate the conversion of Ireland, but I celebrate Irish culture, Irish art, and Irish literature. I celebrate Irish-American grit, and stubbornness, and enterprise. I celebrate my grandmother and her stories and her love.
And yes, as a Jew, it’s complicated, that particular P.
Antisemitism is alive and well in Europe. The news in the past few weeks has been grim: a shooting and murder outside a synagogue in Copenhagen and the kosher supermarket murders in Paris are the most serious. There has also been a disturbing video of a man being harrassed as he walks around Paris in a kippah.
These things are frightening, no doubt about it. My heart goes out to the Jews of France and Denmark. I am disturbed, though, by something I’m seeing on social media. Jews all over the world are upset, and are talking loudly about being upset, but a lot of the conversation is not constructive. Some thoughts:
1. If we are worried about antisemitism, we should learn more about it. The media are not reliable when it comes to this issue (remember the reporting about Israel last summer?) If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, I recommend this article by Eve Garrard, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. There are some excellent new books on the subject as well, both antisemitism in the past and the so-called “new” antisemitism. Better yet, organize a study group at your synagogue – not a coffee klatch to worry, but a group that will study and learn.
2. It is true that the gunmen in Paris and Copenhagen have identified as Muslims. However, blaming the current wave of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere on Islam is far too simplistic. White Americans who identified as Christians bombed synagogues in Sacramento, CA as recently as 1999. Again, I recommend learning about antisemitism, which has deep roots in history and Western culture.
3. Instead of worrying and ranting, how about doing something? Support the Anti-Defamation League. Send letters or emails of support to synagogues in Paris and Denmark. Many have websites, and you can search for them at the World Union for Progressive Judaism website. Ask your rabbi for more suggestions: maybe there is a local group you can join or support or a class you can take.
I am currently taking a class on the history of antisemitism, and doing the reading connected with it. When I feel ready I’ll post to this blog about some of the things I’m learning.
It is a sad fact that antisemitism has been with us in one form or another for many centuries, since classical times. We need not feel helpless in confronting it. Hysterics won’t help, nor will denial. What will make a difference is educating ourselves and supporting one another.
I am a conflict-avoider. Hateful speech scares me for reasons I can’t fully explain, even if I’m not the target of the speech. I have decided I have to get over that pronto, because of a conversation last week.
I was in a room where someone began talking about the terrible synagogue murders in Israel, and they used the words “Muslim” and “animals” in the same sentence. Another person in the group spoke up, someone married into a family with Muslim members. I had been making my usual polite distressed noises, which made no impression at all on the speaker. I was ashamed of myself: why did I not say something? Because I was nervous? Since that encounter, I have decided “never again.” I am going to be direct when I’m in a conversation and someone uses hateful language, no exceptions, unless I am quite sure it’s dangerous to say something.
Since my resolution to be more direct and vocal about hateful talk, the stuff seems to be everywhere. Yesterday, someone on Twitter made a very big deal of my objection to an offensive word in her bio: “Georgia native and former liberal with eyes wide open. Blocked by several notable libtards including…” [Emphasis mine.] I sent a message privately that I was getting set to “follow” her when I read the bio. “That word is offensive,” I wrote, “And while it’s there, I am not going to follow you.” She didn’t reply directly to me, but from the public messages she broadcast after, it was clear that I’d just given her something new to brag about.
I’m not accomplishing much, especially in the toxic soup of political social media, but at least it’s practice. I need practice, because I need to get better at this. (And yes, I needed to be more specific that what I was objecting to was the “-tard” part of “libtard.” I’m still too quivery-Southern-lady polite to be useful. Working on that.)
It’s important that we speak up, especially for groups to whom we don’t belong. “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor,” we are told in Leviticus 19:16. In the Talmud, the text says that it would be better for a person to allow himself to be tossed into a furnace than to willingly embarrass another person [Bava Metzia 58b.] We are also commanded to engage with someone who does something wrong, a mitzvah I wrote about at more length in the post, “The Mitzvah of Rebuke.”
I share my difficulties in living up to my resolution because I know I’m not the only conflict-averse person around. Many of us are conditioned not to upset others, and we have to override that conditioning to confront someone about hateful words. We may be tempted by rationalizations: “What difference will it really make?” or “It’s just going to be something else for him to brag about.” However, I know what it is like to have to say, “Look, I’m Jewish, and I didn’t care for that joke.” It is horrible to feel like both the target of the speech and the only one who will say something.
The problem applies to people on both sides of the political divide. I know good people who are conservatives who’d never use a word like “retard” or use it in a portmanteau like “libtard.” I also have heard liberals say some ghastly things, often involving some use of “nazi,” which is always offensive unless you are talking about actual members of a Nazi organization. I’m determined never to let such things pass again, no matter who says them. Words that dehumanize and words that demonize have no place in our public discourse. The fact that they have become common is only evidence that it is time for people of conscience to speak up.
So yes, it is awkward. And yes, it is worth doing. Nothing will get better with silence.