Prefer to listen? I read this post for the Jewish Geography Podcast:
So there I was, innocently Googling around, trying to find an accurate English translation of a lovely pearl attributed to King Fernando: “Limonada que trasiego, judío que pulvarizo.” (“Trust me, you don’t want a translation of that,” says you.1 If you think that’s bad, keep reading.) I mean, I had the basic idea, but the sentence structure is unnatural to English, and I wanted to be sure I understood. Finally, I managed to find a site that gave a decent translation. I’m not linking to it here, and here’s why: it was a blog in English, written by a European Muslim, containing information about how the “Jewish lobby” in Spain controls the media, and Israel is the root of all evil, and there is a Jewish scholar who confirms that blood libels were actually true.
So today, I’m going to offer up a counter to The Crazy on my little corner of the Internet, by discussing some antisemitic stereotypes and myths, and debunking them. (I should qualify this for your sake and mention that you actually probably know most, if not all and more, of this. Well, write your own blog. 😛 )
The Blood Libel
Right. So this myth is the most infamous of them all. The claim is that Jews sometimes kidnap non-Jewish children, kill them, and use their blood to bake matzah, the special bread of Passover.
…Now, anybody who knows anything about Jews or Judaism knows that this is an utterly preposterous accusation. Setting aside the shocking reprehensibility of such a thing and the fact that kidnapping and killing a child of any origin is strictly prohibited by the Torah, there are another two simple, technical reasons why the claim holds no water:
1) No part of a human, or anything produced by the human body, is kosher–except mother’s milk (and then there are mixed opinions about whether adults may drink that). Even more so, there is is specific thing about blood–albeit the Biblical prohibition is against consuming animal blood (even from kosher animals), but human blood is also prohibited by Jewish law.
2) According to Ashkenazi custom, matzah is not kosher for Passover if it is made with anything other than flour and water.
…Given how obsessive-compulsive Jews are about the laws of kashrut and Passover, the mere notion that Jews would do this at all, let alone as a religious ritual, is so completely out there, it’s not even… it’s just… it’s…. I… just no.
So how did it become such a popular lie?
Well, accusing a people of cannibalism is a highly effective way to dehumanize them. The blood libel actually predates Christianity–Apion, a Greek historian in Alexandria from the 1st century, describes the priests at the Temple cooking and eating Greeks as part of the religious ritual. But during the Middle Ages, it gained particular popularity because it fit well into the Christian narrative about the Jews and their role in the world. The narrative, as you know, is that the Jews were supposed to be God’s chosen people, but we screwed up when we rejected Jesus, so God rejected us and scattered us throughout the Diaspora as a symbol of what happens to people who do not accept Jesus. Our status as a persecuted minority suited this narrative very nicely. Furthermore, think about the idea of communion: according to Catholic tradition, the unleavened bread (which is rather similar to matzah) and the wine not only symbolize the flesh and blood of Jesus, but actually become his flesh and blood, and consuming it is part of an important weekly ritual in your faith. Accusations of Jews desecrating the Host and otherwise sabotaging proper Christian observances were very common, so you could see how the blood libel would fit into all that.
These days, the blood libel has shifted from Christian lands to Muslim lands. Fanning the flames of Jew hatred is not particularly difficult, and antisemitic Muslims gladly adopt the classic Christian tropes that confirm what they want to believe about Jews. A video was recently circulated showing Sheikh Khaled al-Mughrabi, a religious teacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the payroll of the Waqf, giving a sermon that comprised an impressively comprehensive list of antisemitic tropes both ancient and modern. One of the things he says is: “On the holiday of Passover it is forbidden for them to eat regular bread. These matzahs were not kneaded in the regular way, but rather with the blood of children. In the end it reached the point where they were burned in Germany, because of these things, because they kidnapped young children.”
Now I’m going to repeat this again in case someone missed it: the blood libel is an outrageous and ridiculous lie, easily debunked by learning the first thing about Jews and Judaism. Unfortunately, most antisemites don’t bother to do so.
Antisemitic? But Arabs Are Semites Too!
Yes, Arabs are Semites too. “Antisemitism” is a fairly inane term for what was previously referred to as judenhass–Jew hatred. It was first used in the 19th century, when Western European thinkers began to speak of “Semitic” races as being inferior from “Aryan” races. These people were talking specifically about Jews, not Arabs. So antisemitism became the accepted term to describe hatred of Jews; possibly because it sounded more “sterile,” more “scientific,” than “Jew hatred.” I know that some people–for example, that Catalan former politician you admire, Pilar Rahola–prefer “Judeophobia”. The problem with “Judeophobia” is that it implies that what we are talking about is fear of Jews, not hatred of Jews. (“Islamophobia,” which has become the accepted term for hatred of Muslims, has the same problem.) Some prefer “Anti-Judaism,” but that implies a hatred of Judaism as a religion as opposed to Jews as people.
So, I stick with “antisemitism”, for lack of a more accurate term that is widely recognized.
Unfortunately, the “Arabs are Semites too!” argument is often used to distract from the very real problem of Arab antisemitism, as if the semantics mean that Arabs can’t actually hate Jews. The numbers show otherwise. According to the recent ADL global survey on antisemitism, 49% of Muslims worldwide harbor antisemitic attitudes; in the Middle East and North Africa, that number rises to 75%. The prevalence of antisemitism in Arab lands is substantially higher than anywhere else in the world.
So attempting to redefine antisemitism as hatred of Jews and Arabs is not constructive and possibly harmful, because it takes away the power of that one universally recognized term for hatred of Jews. When we don’t have a specific name for something, it is much harder to fight it. While racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia are all types of bigotry that stem from the same dark places of fear of the “other” in the human psyche, they are also distinct and have different causes and characteristics, and should not be lumped together.
And now, back to you Christians:
The Jews Killed Jesus
Ummm no. That would be the Romans.
Well… there are some ways of interpreting some passages from the Gospels in a way that would make you think we were responsible. This was used to justify a lot of violence against us in the past. In 1965, the Catholic Church released a declaration, Nostra aetate, which states the following: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
The Jews Control the Banks and the Governments
Listen. Throughout most of European history, Jews were banned from many of the respectable and reliable trades–not allowed to join guilds, own land, etc. So we were forced to be creative, think outside the box, and take greater financial risks. We happen to be a clever and adaptive bunch, who rose to the occasion. (And, some may argue, have a special fairy dust of Divine assistance. 😉 ) As a result, sometimes, some of us became very wealthy. Furthermore, because of the Christian ban against loaning money with interest, moneylending became a good way to make a living, since it was in high demand. Education is of utmost importance in Jewish society, and we always had a higher than average literacy rate, so we were producing a lot more literate, sharp-minded people than the general population, and very often, when given the opportunity, we rose to the top faster and more easily than our non-Jewish counterparts. Kings and heads of states liked to employ Jews to handle their finances because we exhibited particular talent with economics. Unfortunately, this also meant that often we were employed as tax collectors, which obviously strengthened the hatred against us and the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbers.
On a tangent, it is interesting to compare and contrast the progress and welfare of other groups under similar circumstances. For example, the Roma people (also known as the Romani people or Gypsies) were also a persecuted minority in Europe who faced many of the same challenges that we did. I have been reading about them lately and it’s fascinating to note the parallels. As I read, I noticed two main differences between our responses to our respective persecution:
1) Jews moved in; Roma stayed out. Through much of history, the Roma people tended prefer to keep to themselves, living in the outskirts of cities or in the open country. Jews, on the other hand, clustered around cities whenever they could, and when given the opportunity, often dove right in to try and have a positive influence on their “host” societies.
2) Jews preferred to remember; Roma preferred to forget. We Jews carry our history around with us like a great weight on our shoulders. We cling to it because for us, it defines who we are, and helps us remember our purpose and goals in the world. As a general rule, this is not true of the Roma. They prefer to shed the weight of the past and live in the present. The study of the history of the Roma, and campaigns to cultivate and preserve Roma culture, are relatively recent phenomena. They suffered greatly throughout the 1,000 or so years of their presence in Europe, from persecution to massacres to slavery, but according to what I read, if you ask a Roma about the history of his people, he is most likely to shrug and say he doesn’t know. Contrast this to the Jewish tradition of holding a Passover Seder every year. This clinging to our past deepened our roots, our identity and our passion.
I think both of the above preferences worked in our favor in contrast to the Roma.
The Jews Are Secretly Plotting World Domination
So… if you look at world history and the influence of the Jews on the events and culture of humanity, I can see how you might think something fishy is going on here. Jews make up a fraction of one percent of the world population. And yet our presence is strongly felt in all positions of influence, especially the sciences, medicine, and entertainment, completely out of proportion to our objective numbers. Ashkenazi Jews make up 2.2% of the USA population, but they represent 30% of faculty at elite colleges, 21% of Ivy League students, 25% of the Turing Award winners, 23% of the wealthiest Americans, and 38% of the Oscar-winning film directors. 22% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish. How does that make sense?
Basically there are three possible explanations:
1) We are a particularly gifted group of people. Cambridge University published a study that found that Ashkenazi Jews have an average IQ that is 20% higher than the global average, so this is a fairly solid theory. You might explain this in a variety of ways–our strong emphasis on education, for example, and building a culture in which smarter people were more likely to have lots of children (as opposed to medieval Christian society, where all the gifted people went off to become priests, monks, and nuns…).
2) The aforementioned “Divine fairy dust”
3) It’s a conspiracy!!!
Well… you’d think if we were running the world, we’d be a little better at getting people to like us, no? The recent ADL survey I mentioned found that 1 in 4 adults in the world harbor antisemitic attitudes. 1 in 4! The blog I mentioned at the top of the post which complained about the “Jewish lobby” controlling the Spanish media… I can hear you laughing at that one all the way from here. You have to be a special kind of crazy to watch the mainstream news–especially in Europe–and think that it portrays Jews (not to mention Israel) positively.
This reminds me of a classic Jewish joke, as quoted on the Wikipedia article on Jewish humor (on which we will elaborate later):
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”
“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”
Long story short, if we’re plotting world domination, we suck at it.
But, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion!
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an antisemitic hoax first published in Russia in 1903, which claims to be the protocols from a meeting of Jews in which they discuss their plot for world domination. It was exposed as fraudulent by The Times of London in 1921, and stands as one of the best-known and most-discussed examples of literary forgery. Wikipedia covers it thoroughly. Unfortunately, this book, along with Mein Kampf, still enjoys great popularity, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
So It’s Not the Basis for Zionism?
No, it’s the basis for a lot of antisemitism, is what it is. Zionism is nothing more than Jewish nationalism: the belief that the Jewish people has a right to an independent state in its historic homeland. Those who claim it to be anything else–racism, an ideology involving the oppression of others, part of an overall Jewish plot to dominate the world–are merely subscribing to the old antisemitic tropes. The Jews are a nation and have as much a right to nationalism as the French, the Argentinians, the Japanese and the Catalans. As you know very well, modern antisemites have found that they can get away with a lot of the same things if they simply switch the word “Jew” to “Zionist.” But we can’t get too far into the connection between antisemitism and criticism of Israel, ’cause we’ll be here all day.
So, back to the Jews and the media:
The Jews Control the Media
No, we don’t. However, we do have a disproportionately high presence in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Jews practically invented the entertainment industry in the USA. Why is this? Well… it is known that a lot of the best art is produced from a deep place of struggle and suffering, and if that’s the case, the Jews had a lot of material to work with. More than that, I have always said that dark humor is the #2 Jewish coping mechanism… right after kvetching (=Yiddish for “complaining”) 😉 We practically invented stand-up comedy because… we are funny. Making light of tough situations is our specialty; we’ve been at it for at least 2,000 years. The Talmud itself has lots of jokes. “Jewish humor” is defined in Wikipedia thus: “The long tradition of humour in Judaism dating back to the Torah and the Midrash from the ancient Middle East, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal and often anecdotal humour originating in Eastern Europe and which took root in the United States over the last hundred years, including in secular Jewish culture. Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up comedy, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American and Russian comedians have been Jewish.”
This is not because we are trying to take over the world and brainwash your children. It’s because we have something to say, and we’re good at saying it; and we have endured a lot, and channeling the struggles through creative expression, particularly of the humorous sort, is an excellent way to cope with them, one which is encouraged in our culture. When I studied medical clowning, we had a class about the use of humor as a coping mechanism during the Holocaust. The lecturer brought examples of jokes that were told in the concentration camps, and I remember being astonished that they could possibly find these things funny. “You had to be there,” I guess? (No thanks.) But as I mentioned in my “updates” from the war last summer, I find great relief in using humor this way during tough times, and fortunately for me, it strongly characterizes Israeli culture. Just recently, under the shadow of what we feel is a very dangerous deal with Iran, the Israeli phone company Bezeq produced a completely ridiculous advertisement featuring a Bezeq salesman bursting into the Iranian parliament, preventing them from “pressing the red button” at the last minute, to deliver his sales pitch. Here’s an Op-Ed from the Times of Israel describing what is so quintessentially Israeli about the ad, and what it expresses about the Israeli spirit in times like these.
The Jews Are Greedy and Cheap
This myth is rooted in everything described above. I think all you need to bust it is to check out some listings of Jewish charities and free lending societies, or take a look at how many Jews are involved in philanthropy. In a 2010 survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 5 out of the 6 top philanthropists in the USA were Jewish. 19 out of the 53 named were Jewish. (Remember how we mentioned that Jews make up only 2.2% of the population in the USA…?)
Charity is a very important commandment in Jewish law. In fact, the Hebrew word for charity is צדקה, tzedaka, from the root צ.ד.ק. which means “justice”. The word “charity” comes from the Latin root carus, meaning “dear”, and the Old French word charite, love for one’s fellows. The word “charity” connotes that giving to the poor is a thing you do out of the goodness of your heart. The word “tzedaka” connotes that giving to the poor is a thing you do because it is just. We are required, by Jewish law, to give 10% of our income to the needy.
Aside from all that, I’ll state the obvious: Jews are people. Some of us are tall, some short. Some introverted, some extroverted. Some nice, and some mean. Some generous, and some greedy. Just like every other society.
The Jews Are Traitors
It’s not hard to see where this one came from. Jews were always “the other,” “the outsider,” and often maintained connections with their brethren in foreign lands. We sometimes looked different and spoke a weird version of the local language. For most of history Jews weren’t even recognized as citizens in their host countries.
In modern times, this manifests as believing that all Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their native countries. The fact is that countries that are hostile to Israel tend to be just as hostile to Jews, so that’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question. In any case, Jews have faithfully served in most modern European armies as well as the US and Canadian armies, and many of us are very proud of our native countries.
The Jews Are [Whatever You Hate]
If you make a list of the complaints against Jews over the course of history, you’ll come across a pretty amazing pattern. It looks something like this:
- The Jews are filthy rich and greedy
- The Jews are dirt poor and disgusting
- The Jews are arrogant and elitist and refuse to mingle with non-Jews
- The Jews are taking all our jobs and trying to infect the purity of our race by marrying our women
- The Jews are capitalist pigs
- The Jews are communists
- The Jews are immoral and cheat and lie
- The Jews invented the socialist sense of morality and the idea that we should help the weak, to undermine the strength and purity of our race
- The Jews are uncultured peasants
- The Jews are infiltrating our art, culture and science to infect it with their inferior ideas
- Jews are all dark, and therefore inferior
- Jews are all white, and therefore enjoy “white privilege” and oppress non-white minorities
We can’t win, can we?
In his book “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” David Nirenberg describes how, since ancient times, Jews have been used as the ultimate symbol of the “other.” In this way, antisemitism differs from other forms of racism; it is not just the Jews who are hated, but the idea of Jews. Something about hatred of Jews transcends time, space, and divides between cultures; it seems to be embedded deep in the core of Western identity. That’s how antisemitism remains just as strong, if not stronger, in countries where no Jews are present. Spain–which was “Judenrein” for around 450 years–is a good case study on this. Up until the 1970’s, you could still find people “throwing stones” where the Jewish quarter used to be on Good Friday. And it was you who brought my attention to a lovely Holy Week tradition in northern Spain called “matar judíos“–“kill Jews.” Today, the phrase in that context means drinking spiked lemonade. One can imagine what it used to mean. (And the reason I was looking for that quote from King Fernando was because some say the tradition evolved from it.)
Jews Have Big Noses
Apparently, this stereotype developed through Christian depiction of Jews in art throughout the Middle Ages. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that we were depicted as classical villains, and it is common for villains to be portrayed as ugly and with exaggerated features. Here is an article about the evolution of the “Jewish nose” trope.
While we’re here and talking about distinctly Jewish features… as mentioned above, the European stereotype was that Jews were dark, often with curly dark hair, brown eyes, maybe dark skin. As opposed to this fair, blue-eyed child with typically “Aryan” features.
Bottom line: Jews come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.
THE JEWS ARE SUPER AWESOME (except when they’re not)
So in contrast to all this ickiness from Europe, you have bizarre phenomena like the popularity of the Talmud (or more accurately, a sort of distorted, abridged, reworked version of it that resembles Aesop’s Fables more than the actual Talmud) in South Korea. In East Asia you are much more likely to find people who have positive stereotypes of Jews… basically that we are all geniuses. We recently had a friend over for Shabbat who has lived and spent a lot of time in East Asia, and he told us about some guy who said that when he was a child, the doctors were very impressed with his intelligence and said that he “has the brain of a Jew.”
But this is still harmful, because it is very easy to cross the bridge between “the Jews are all geniuses” to “the Jews are geniuses and they won’t share their wealth with us.” The same South Korea that is obsessed with the Talmud came off very badly in that ADL survey on antisemitism: 53% of South Korean adults harbor antisemitic attitudes. Ouch.
Stereotyping is harmful no matter how positive.
People are idiots.
1. Roughly, “For every lemonade I drink, I will crush a Jew.” King Fernando (also known as Ferdinand) and Queen Isabel (also known as Isabella) were the King and Queen of Spain in 1492, who kicked off the Spanish Inquisition and expelled all the Jews from Spain. Yeah. We are not fans.↩