By Professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Reporting on anti-Semitism typically treats an anti-Semitic episode as an isolated event unconnected to the current worldwide deluge of anti-Semitic episodes. This is part of the reason that the great upsurge in anti-Semitism has insufficiently registered among the general public.
Such reporting also typically just conveys the narrow facts, and fails to explicate a given episode’s broader significance. Therefore, even though we have witnessed but a typical week of varied anti-Semitic outpouring, one 24 hour period alone can be seen as illustrative, when the anti-Semitic news items that hit the world were head-spinning.
August 22 carried reports of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s televised address blaming the Egyptian army’s coup overthrowing Morsi in Egypt not on anti-political Islamic elements in Egypt which surely wanted his downfall, not on the Egyptian military’s own desire to maintain its power, which is indisputable, not even, farfetched that it may be, on some great power such as the United States. No, in a flight of fantasy, he explained who the string pullers are in a country that is 95% anti-Semitic: “What is said about Egypt? That democracy is not the ballot box. Who is behind this? Israel is. We have the evidence in our hands.” Erdogan was adamant. “That’s exactly what happened.”
Erdogan’s accusation embodies four aspects of anti-Semitism: It sees Jews as all powerful conspirators, nefariously pulling the strings of power behind the scenes. It has little to do with reality, which is that the Egyptian military, supported by anti-political Islamic groups, had -- it goes without saying to everyone not besotted by anti-Semitism -- their own overwhelmingly powerful reasons and interests to wrest power from Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. It requires no tangible evidence for it to be made, because it is almost an article of faith that when bad things happen, look to the Jews. And, Erdogan made such an outlandish accusation because he, a calculating and crafty leader, knows that his audience is so profoundly anti-Semitic that, the accusation’s fantastical quality notwithstanding, it is a way to appeal to them and make common cause.
Not merely the self-anointed leader of political Islam, but the erstwhile leader of the free world, made anti-Semitic news, the next day on August 23. The Nixon Presidential Library released tapes from 1973 containing Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitic statements and threats. Nixon’s anti-Semitism was so free-floating and variously expressed that he demanded that “No Jews. We are adamant when I say no Jews…” be further appointed to his administration, reflecting the belief that because someone is Jewish he will be opposed or disloyal to Nixon. This is just a classic case of prejudice: dislike or suspicion of an entire group of people, and the attribution of that stance to individuals without any regard for their individual qualities.
Also aggravated by something his lawyer Leonard Garment had publicly said, Nixon not only curses Garment figuratively but literally by shouting “Goddamn his Jewish soul.” In a standard anti-Semitic move, Nixon attributes to Garment’s Jewishness a real or imagined transgression that has nothing to do with it. Yet in a non-standard anti-Semitic move, Nixon transforms Garment’s Jewish identity into something called a soul, which is an expression of the concept of “Jewness” that I introduce in The Devil That Never Dies.
“Jewness” or in Nixon’s case, the “Jewish soul,” is the essence of the noxiousness and danger that anti-Semites (whatever the exact character of their beliefs) have historically and today impute to Jews. It is not merely Jews’ real or imputed acts that are deemed noxious, but their “Jewness,” the quality that makes them Jews. Third, Nixon imagines that Jews may torpedo his upcoming summit with the Soviet Union (a bit fantastical), and even more significantly, fourth, threatens to unleash anti-Semitism upon the American Jewish community in a prime time television address, which he would ensure would be “the worst thing that happened to Jews in American history.” Nixon, because of the real or imagined difficulties that a few Jewish leaders would pose for him (which after all in a democracy is how politics works), would respond with a hate campaign against an entire community, millions of Americans who happen to be Jews.
On that same day of August 23, we learn that Ukrainians did one better, or worse, at least symbolically. In Lviv, young Ukrainians wearing SS uniforms and swastikas took part in a celebratory ceremonial reburial of Ukrainian Nazis to mark the seventieth anniversary of an SS division of Ukrainians. This celebration of mass murderers, what’s more, was quasi-sanctified, as a local priest participated.
Whether these Ukrainians and the approving onlookers also had thoughts of how they might also be celebrating the Germans and their Ukrainian allies’ genocide of hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children is unknown. But for anyone who did not share the genocidal killers’ anti-Semitism, the fact that the SS spearheaded the mass murder of Jews would on its own disqualify the former Nazis from being so honored, or from themselves wearing the universally recognized symbols of these genocidal killers.
Finally, also on August 23, a mini-scandal about contemporary widespread attitudes towards Jews has begun and has yet to play itself out. A survey firm was commissioned to ask standard questions to elicit the views of Swiss about Jewish power in finance, Swiss politics, and American politics. Because anti-Semitism is such a hot button issue, with, according to other surveys, upward half of Swiss being anti-Semitic, anti-Semitic watchdog agencies don’t know what to make of this new survey, as the the person or organization that commissioned the survey is unknown.
A representative of one such anti-antisemitic group, sees a Mephistophelian hand behind it, presenting ideas that “are reminiscent of the sinister notions propagated during the [Nazi] occupation of France.” A second such anti-antisemitic group’s representative sees this as a necessary set of questions to find out “what the population really thinks about a minority.” Such is the nature of anti-Semitism: A given question might rightly seem innocent or not, and cause a stir of one kind or another, depending on who is asking it and for what purpose.
But of course, if the other (and many more) instances of anti-Semitism -- which are only reflective of what is an already vast and growing problem of global anti-Semitism – did not occur, then everyone could rest more easily about a few questions, innocent or not, posed to Swiss about Jews.
When learning about an anti-Semitic episode, outburst, or finding, we should always consider whether there is any group other than Jews against whom such prejudicial expression or action would take place:
-A country’s leader blaming the Jews of Israel for overthrowing a second country’s leader.
-The leader of an entirely different country, a democratic one, on a second continent threatening to incite a wave of hatred against Jews.
-The people of yet a third country, on a third continent, celebrating the organizations responsible for the worst mass murder of a single ethnic group of all time, the Jews.
All in a day’s work of anti-Semitism.