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?