Now that I’m back from my trip and have more or less adjusted to being home, we shall hopefully return to our regularly scheduled program. 😉
On my flight from Denver to Orlando about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a movie I’d been really wanting to see. (This is quite a rarity, as I hardly ever watch movies these days. Who has time?!) The movie is called Denial, and it’s a dramatization of the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denierby Deborah Lipstadt. Here’s the trailer:
The truth is, I was fairly disappointed with the movie. I found Rachel Weisz’s performance as Deborah Lipstadt unconvincing, the script clumsy and stilted, and the drama somewhat forced. And I felt that its exploration of the very complex questions it raised was too superficial.
Still, I’m glad I saw it, and had the opportunity to think those questions:
How do we strike a balance between free speech and our responsibility to stop the spread of hateful and dangerous lies?
Is it better not to dignify the opinions of Holocaust deniers and antisemites with a response? Or should we engage with them openly, to keep the public informed and inoculated against the lies?
Should this kind of discussion be allowed to take place in a court of law?
What if making it a discussion at all gives the impression that the existence of the Holocaust is a “two-sided issue” and not indisputable historical fact?
Should Holocaust survivors be given the chance to testify in a trial like this, even if they might be re-traumatized by the prosecution and ultimately harm the defense?
All very good questions, and the answers aren’t simple.
One of them came up again last week when I discovered the following comment (on my previous post) awaiting my moderation:
Tell me something.
Nazis killed over 10 million people.
Why is it that only the Jewish are remembered?
What makes you so special?
How are you better than say, Polish people?
I’m not a Polish, not a nazi, not a holocaust denier. But I am an European, and Im pretty tired of Jewish bankers controlling the world. Do you understand, that without the banker mafia there would not have been the 2008, and without 2008, there wouldnt be Trump?
The world domination of the “chosen people” is crumbling the whole world.
Well. That escalated quickly.
Nothing good is ever going to follow the words, “I’m not a Nazi, but…”
When I informed you about the comment, I considered asking you whether you think, in your vast experience :-/ it’s worth engaging with such people. Can they be reasoned with? Is this kind of antisemitic drivel the result of ignorance, and if so, can it be corrected with information? But I decided that there is no way to reason someone out of the belief that Jewish bankers control the world. It’s like trying to tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines don’t cause autism, a climate change denier that global warming exists, or a flat-earther that the world is round. No amount of evidence will sway these people from their opinion.
You agreed with my unspoken conclusion in your e-mail the next day: “As someone said long ago: Do not argue with fools. They’ll drag you to their turf and beat you with experience.”
So then I asked myself: if it’s not worth engaging this particular person, maybe it’s worth discussing the comment publicly and responding to some of the points.
Which brings me back to Denial. Ignore, or engage?
Each option has costs.
The cost of ignoring comments like these is that we (the targets) feel silenced and helpless, and the perpetrators get away with doing or saying whatever they want. It feels unjust, a betrayal of the truth. And there’s always the risk that your remaining silent will empower them, making them think you’re not responding because you can’t.
The cost of engaging with antisemites, however, is that in so doing, we grant them a platform. Treating their ideas as something worth discussing may seem to legitimize them in a way. At very least, it shows that their words had an impact. This can empower them, too.
So, the last part of the comment is not worth discussing. It’s just pure, classic antisemitic myth, and I already elaborated on that in my Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.
The first part, though, I decided to address, because in isolation, it’s a pretty fair question.
Why Is the Holocaust Considered a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe when Millions of Non-Jews Were Also Killed by the Nazis?
I think this question stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding the Nazi regime and its ideology.
Yes, the Nazis were racists. Yes, they believed that homosexuals, Romanies, Slavs, and blacks were inferior to them and therefore unworthy of any rights.
Jews, on the other hand, were not just believed to be inferior. We were believed to be evil.
This was a central tenet of Nazi ideology. Jews–not gays, Gypsies, or Poles–were held uniquely responsible for all the world’s ills. Therefore, “solving the Jewish problem” meant annihilating every last Jew.
They did not believe this about other groups. According to their beliefs, their purpose in the world as a “supreme race” was to dominate other races, not destroy them. They saw “lesser” races and other “defective” humans as undesirable, and killed them when they were a nuisance. There was never any organized plan to seek out people from those groups and exterminate them.
The Poles and Ukrainians, for example, were sitting on fertile land that the Nazis wanted, so they killed them to get them out of the way. Their plan was to enslave the rest. Individuals who caused trouble were sent to the death camps–but those camps were built with the express purpose of exterminating Jews.
In other words: the Nazis were horrible, inhumane, and murderous towards all other people who they defined as being inferior to them. But the genocide, the efforts and resources poured into the systematic and complete annihilation of every man, woman, and child–that was specifically directed towards Jews. We were, by an order of magnitude, their primary and most important target.
Look; this isn’t the Victimhood Olympics. No one wins a gold medal for having suffered the most. The fact that Jews were the primary target of the Nazi genocide does not and should not minimize or marginalize the devastating losses sustained by other groups. But when you claim that there is no difference between the treatment of the Jews and that of the Poles, you are denying history.
And as Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers ultimately showed in court, when you deliberately deny history with the intention of glossing over Jewish suffering… you are an antisemite.
…Which our friend here promptly proved at the end of his comment.
Here’s hoping I will be able to go back to writing about things OTHER than Nazis and antisemites soon. *grumblegrumble*
As you know, I’m in Denver visiting family now. We flew Lufthansa this time, with a connection through Frankfurt. I hate going through customs in NY and was glad to be able to skip that part of the procedure this time, and, well, I thought it would be nice to fly through Europe. I got to show my kids the Alps through the window of the plane. The last–and only–time I’d seen them myself was from the window of a plane from Barcelona to Zurich. We also happened to find ourselves on a plane with activist-turned-MK Yehuda Glick, an absolutely fascinating character and fellow stereotype-smasher who I greatly admire. He was on his way to Washington D.C. for the inauguration. We exchanged a few pleasant words with him.
Our few hours in Germany, though, proved a little more harrowing than I had anticipated.
Listen… I’m not hysterical about antisemitism and Holocaust associations. I know, intellectually, that the Holocaust was a long time ago, and that most Germans are perfectly decent people, and that Germany actually has one of the lowest rates of antisemitism in the world right now.
But… memory of the Holocaust is so deeply ingrained in my national and religious identity, it’s a trauma the reverberates through my subconscious. I’ve been to Poland, as you know, but I was going there for the express purpose of learning about the Holocaust, and I was surrounded by a warm, supportive cocoon of educators and friends.
Here, we were just passing through, a very “visibly Jewish” family. And there was no way around it. I couldn’t shake the associations. I imagine you’ve been in the airport in Frankfurt and know what I mean when I say that the decor didn’t help. The place has a gray, industrial, austere air to it that was less than comforting.
Let’s just say I was a little on edge.
It was with this unease that I approached the security checkpoint. The man behind the X-ray conveyor belt rattled off instructions in an eerie robot-like, monotonous voice. He wasn’t talking to us like we were humans. “Everything in a box,” he repeated over and over before we understood that he meant our bags needed to go into boxes too. Flustered with his strangely hostile manner (and its uncanny historical overtones), I remembered to remove my laptop from my carry-on, but forgot about the kids’ tablets in their bags. We went through the full-body scanner–an apparatus that makes me profoundly uncomfortable–and both Eitan and R1 got a pat-down. When we went to collect our bags and coats, we found that some of them had been set aside, and the robot-voices man asked Eitan to open them.
At this point H was getting pretty upset. We’d been through a similar (less rigid) security procedure at Ben-Gurion, and no matter how I tried to explain to him that they were just being extra careful to keep everyone safe, he just got more and more upset. I took him aside and tried to calm him.
Then the robot guy called a couple of police officers over to look at one of the bags with Eitan, apparently concerned about the fact that we’d left a tablet in there.
I can’t help it, Josep. Watching a pair of German policeman approach my husband when I knew we’d done nothing wrong… I have nothing else to call it but “triggering.” I was starting to freak out a little myself. I breathed and tried to focus on calming H down. The policeman were much nicer than the robot guy and seemed pretty bewildered as to why he’d called them over.
Eitan and I were both harboring a niggling suspicion at this point.
The policemen left and we started trying to collect all our stuff. And then, out of the blue, the robot guy threw out the following comment: “You know, 25 years ago, we had a wall here, too.”
“Seriously?” I blurted.
Let me stop here and explain the context of that comment for the sake of any blog readers who need it.
The robot guy was making an inappropriate and ignorant reference to the security barrier in the West Bank. It was built during the Second Intifada as a deterrent to keep out the suicide bombers blowing up Israelis every other week–and it was very effective. It’s controversial for reasons I won’t get into here, but comparing it to the Berlin Wall (as the comment implied) is nothing short of idiotic. As I’m sure you are aware, it’s a common tactic among anti-Israel morons to throw around emotionally manipulative, wildly irrelevant historical comparisons. (Palestinians like to refer to it as the “racial segregation” or “apartheid” wall. Comparing the situation in Israel to apartheid is utterly ridiculous, and an insult to South Africans who suffered under actual apartheid.)
It was not an antisemitic comment. It was a stupid anti-Israel comment. But as Eitan pointed out to me later, only Israelis get those kinds of remarks. If we’d been from Iran, would he have said, “Hey, nice centrifuges you’ve got there”? If we’d been from Russia, would he have said something about the Crimea, or the slaughter in Aleppo? If we’d have been from China, or Turkey, or any number of other countries committing severe human rights abuses on a regular basis, would be have made a snide political remark? Of course not. Residents of those countries are seen as victims. Only Israelis are held in contempt for the actions of our government. Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of other Jews is a classic manifestation of antisemitism. The content of the remark wasn’t antisemitic, but there’s a good argument that its context was.
Eitan was livid. He told the man to keep his political opinions to himself.
“I didn’t state a political opinion,” was the breezy response.
All I wanted to do right then was get the hell out of there. Out of the room, out of the airport, and out of the country.
Of course, the perfect, equally below-the-belt comeback hit me a few minutes later, and I posted it bitterly on Facebook using the airport wifi:
Every other German employee we encountered was somewhere along the spectrum from “pleasant” to “wonderfully helpful and sweet.” The Lufthansa stewardesses especially were really lovely to our kids. But sadly, it’s the little incident at the security checkpoint that will remain burned into our memories from our few hours in Germany.
When I visited Paris as a teenager, I wandered along the Champs-Élysées with a group of friends, one of whom was a French speaker (having lived in France until she was eight years old). She got into conversation with a friendly vendor, and when he asked us where we were from, there was this long, tense pause. We had been specifically warned not to tell anyone where we’re from. So I stepped forward and took advantage of my American accent to say we were from America. The rest of the group stayed very silent as my friend made up an elaborate story about why she spoke French and lived in the US while looking Moroccan.
If you’ve ever wondered why I sound less than enthusiastic about traveling to Europe with my family… this is a major factor. It’s not much of a vacation when you feel on guard all the time, worried that someone might be cruel or unfriendly to you just because of where you’re from.
*ahem* So. As you know, the other day someone posted a garden-variety antisemitic and misogynist rant on a YouTube video of mine (the one of me teaching a Mishna, which they only could have found through this page). Not that I hadn’t seen this kind of sludge before, but it was the first time I had comments like that directed at me. I took screenshots of it (without the user name of the perpetrator) and posted it on LtJ’s Facebook page with a mocking comment of my own.
Some people suggested that I shouldn’t be giving the perpetrator a platform by perpetuating his message of hate and sharing it. I decided to write this post as a result.
I’m a self-defense instructor. Responding to violence is one of my areas of expertise. Hate speech is a form of violence, and I responded the way I would have taught my students to respond.
Given the general post-Brexit-post-USA-elections atmosphere these days, knowing what to do when you’re targeted by hate speech is sadly more relevant than ever.
Please note that I am going to use the feminine to refer to the person who is defending herself and the masculine to refer to the perpetrator for convenience only. Both could be of any gender.
“How Do I Feel?”
The first thing I teach a self-defense student to do when she finds herself in an uncomfortable situation is to ask herself: What is happening to me right now? How do I feel about what’s going on?
Sometimes, she may not be sure. I teach women to listen to their bodies: is your heart beating fast? Are your breaths quick and shallow? Are your palms sweaty? Are you shaking? These are all signs that your body is responding to a perceived threat.
Do I feel threatened?
In the case of our Internet troll, I didn’t feel threatened. It was just an anonymous comment on the Internet. Research shows that Internet trolls are literally losers. The comments did contain threats of violence, but how seriously am I going to take that when the dude is using the easiest, most cowardly form of verbal abuse to try and hurt me?
What I felt was angry. And exasperated. What kind of a loser has enough time on his hands to seek out videos made by Jewish women and write out long antisemitic rants? Don’t people have better things to do with their time?
“What Do I Want to Happen?”
The next question to ask is, What do I want to happen right now? What do I need to feel safe?
Some possible examples: I want this person to go away. I want him to stop touching me. I want to disappear. I want to get out of here. I want a friend to hug me and tell me everything’s going to be okay. I want to kick this guy’s @$$.
“How Can I Make It Happen?”
The next question is, What can I do to help myself feel safe?
There are a number of options. In the type of self-defense I teach–known as empowerment self-defense–we believe that the goal of a self-defense course is to expand our students’ options, giving them greater freedom to choose how to respond.
Some options we don’t need to teach anybody:
Ignore the Abuse
This can be a good option if you think that engaging with the perpetrator may escalate or perpetuate the situation, and you aren’t concerned that ignoring him will make it worse. Sometimes ignoring it takes the wind out of their sails and will make the abuse stop. As kids, we are told to do this with bullies. It can work sometimes, but not always.
You have the right to remove yourself from any situation that makes you uncomfortable without any excuse or explanation. This is usually the safest option, too. The problem is, sometimes you can’t get away, or turning your back may be dangerous. In those situations, it’s best to choose a different response.
The skills we usually work on in a self-defense class include:
Use Your Voice
This can mean anything from trying to engage the person in a disarmingly friendly dialogue, to shouting “GO AWAY NOW!!!”
It’s up to you. Sometimes starting a friendly conversation with a person hurling hate speech at you can be productive and change their views. Sometimes not. You should only try to do this if you feel up to it. You don’t have a responsibility to educate this person on human decency. Your first responsibility is to yourself.
In self-defense, we teach women how to set firm boundaries using strong, confident voices, direct eye contact, and assertive body language. You have every right to look at this person straight in the eye and say: “Do not speak to me like that. Leave me alone.” You don’t owe this person an explanation of what he is doing wrong or why you want him to stop. Just tell him what you want him to do, and repeat it over and over if you have to.
In self-defense, we find in many cases that setting a firm verbal boundary can put an end to the vast majority of situations of threat. This is because bullies and abusers pick on easy victims, people who will not stand up for themselves or fight back. If you show a willingness to stand up for yourself, chances are, the perpetrator will back down.
We teach physical techniques in self-defense classes, but only as a last resort: when you feel threatened with physical violence and you see no other safe way out of the situation. Obviously, this isn’t something I can teach you in a blog post! Which is why everyone should go take a local self-defense class. 😉 Knowing some physical techniques boosts your confidence and makes you feel safer. Non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray can help, but they have some downsides too: what if they malfunction, or you can’t grab them when you need them? Your body is something that will always be at your disposal, and there are easy, strong techniques that you can learn to use effectively in just a few classes.
Though I did not feel threatened by my Internet troll, it does put an amused smirk on my face to know that even if he did have the guts to physically threaten me in person, he might find himself on the business end of this knee.
(Yes, this is me. Don’t worry about my fellow instructor, he’s well protected!)
Recruit the Bystanders
If you’re in a public place and someone is speaking abusively to you, the people around you might not respond at all. This is not necessarily because they don’t want to; it may be that they’re afraid, or that they’re stuck in Bystander Syndrome–a phenomenon where witnesses of an attack do nothing to stop it because they think someone else will do something.
So how do you get help?
Simple: address one person directly, and even better–give them a concrete instruction. “Excuse me sir. Can you tell this man not to speak to me this way?” “Excuse me ma’am. Will you call the police, please?” Even just saying, “I need your help,” addressing one person directly, can jerk them out of denial.
After the situation has passed, it’s important to recognize that being threatened–no matter how the situation ended–can be traumatic. You deserve support, and you don’t have to be alone with it. Tell someone you trust who will support you and believe your story without judgment.
We strongly encourage students to file a report if they have been attacked or harassed. Whether you choose to do this can depend on a lot of factors, but we encourage it because it can help you feel empowered, that you have done something, and it can help keep other people safe if the perpetrator is caught and dealt with appropriately.
So, back to my Internet troll:
What I wanted was support.
I reported the comments to YouTube, removed them, and blocked the user from commenting on my channel. Then I shared my story, because I didn’t want to be alone with it. And, of course, I wanted to use that most Jewish of coping mechanisms–dark humor–to distance myself from the abuse and help myself feel more empowered.
I know that as an author who is growing her platform, and especially as a Jewish woman and an Israeli, this is not going to be the last time I’m going to get comments like this. Sometimes I may choose to ignore it and shut it down so the abuser doesn’t get the satisfaction of seeing the effects of their words. Whatever it is–it’s up to me. He threw his words at me; they’re mine now, and I’ll do whatever I like with them!
You will be pleased to know that I have received several positive reactions to your foreword. Last week, for example, I found myself in a lengthy discussion with a bookseller about the book. When he asked me how you felt about the letters, I told him that you wrote a foreword about it, and he was quite enthusiastic. It seems I was correct that people would take an interest in your perspective. 🙂
One reaction I didn’t expect was actually from my dear friend Abi. You see, she studied education at one of the mostly highly regarded colleges for educators in the country, and there was one detail from your story that horrified her: that your school had taken you to see Schindler’s List when you were only twelve years old.
Before she said anything, it hadn’t occurred to me that that might have been a little young. But especially when you mentioned that during that same period they also had you read Man’s Search for Meaning and that you found it “brutal,” it struck me that maybe she was right.
As I’ve mentioned, I actually never saw Schindler’s List from beginning to end–just parts of it in between naps on the bus from Warsaw to Krakow during my trip to Poland. And I read Man’s Search for Meaning a few years ago, as an adult. I don’t know how they might have affected me if I’d been exposed to them at twelve years of age. Like you, I was a sensitive kid… but apparently unlike you, I was already six years into a very carefully constructed Holocaust education at that point.
You see, Abi explained, Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust museum and research center in Jerusalem, has specific guidelines for introducing children to this difficult topic. When I related my memories of how I had learned about the Holocaust, Abi said that what I described fit neatly into the guidelines she had been taught: a gentle story taught by the school principal when I was in first grade; a phone call with my grandmother; age-appropriate books (such as I Never Saw Another Butterflyand A Place to Hide); Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies; testimonies from survivors; visiting museums; and finally the climax of my Holocaust education, my trip to Poland in eleventh grade.
And when Abi pointed out the contrast between that gentle, gradual exposure and watching Schindler’s List, I was like, “Geez… no wonder he was traumatized!”
I suspect that the staff of your school did not feel a need to introduce you quite that gradually because, well, the Holocaust was not really part of your national history. There is a huge difference between teaching a group of students that “once there was a group of people massacred simply for being different,” and “once there was a group of peoplewho could very easily have been you who were massacred because they were of your heritage.” Still, the Holocaust is a very difficult and disturbing topic for anyone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t the only sensitive child who was hit perhaps a little too hard by this material.
Then again, if you hadn’t learned it so brutally, would it still have had such a strong impact on you? Would you have taken the same interest in Jews and Judaism? Would you still have ended up the curious recipient of my e-mails, immortalized as the “Josep” of Letters to Josep?!
Who knows? Maybe not! So I, for one, cannot hold it against your teachers. 😉
But. The conversation inspired me to search for the Yad Vashem guidelines on educating children about the Holocaust. I found that there is a whole website dedicated to it, with detailed instructions for educators and recommended materials and educational activities, but it’s all in Hebrew.
Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a summary of those guidelines in English. (Which you may, in turn, want to translate to Catalan, and send to your former school. 😛 )
Before I begin, however, I must point out that Yad Vashem is an Israeli organization, and their guidelines are oriented accordingly. I think that with non-Jewish children, you don’t need to be quite this delicate and methodical. Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the child’s developmental stage and not expose a child to material that he is not emotionally equipped to cope with–Jewish or not–and to provide a supportive environment to help the child process what she has learned.
Educating children on the Holocaust at this age primarily involves making sense of what the children have already heard and experienced from outside sources, and reinforcing a sense of distance and therefore safety.
It’s impossible for a Jewish child to grow up without hearing anything about the Holocaust. Israeli children, in particular, will hear the chilling sound of the memorial siren and see the world coming to a halt on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They are going to need to be prepared for this. Our job as educators is to give them enough information to reassure them without giving them details that will frighten or disturb them.
Unfortunately I’ve had ample opportunities to read up on talking to young children about scary events in the world. The absolute worst thing you can do is pretend nothing happened. Children are extremely perceptive and they know when the adults around them are scared, shaken, or sad, even when the adults don’t express those feelings in front of them. So hiding information will only scare them more; their imaginations can be much scarier than reality!
Therefore, as with any frightening topic that children are exposed to, the idea is to give them the information they need while emphasizing the positive outcomes and reinforcing their sense of safety and feeling protected.
When we’re talking about the Holocaust, then, Yad Vashem recommends that we explain that “a long, long time ago, before you were born, in a land very far away, there were some very mean people who wanted to hurt Jews, and that makes people sad. But,” we will emphasize, “there were other people who protected and rescued them.” Since the children may have heard the word “Holocaust” or “Shoah” in Hebrew, we explain that this word means “disaster” or “something that happened that makes people very sad.” If they have heard of Nazis, we can explain that this is what the mean people were called.
In the first two years of elementary school, Yad Vashem recommends introducing the students to the topic in the following manner:
The educator who speaks to them about it should be one who has a significant and regular relationship with the students. This will help them feel supported, safe, and comfortable bringing up questions and concerns.
The topic should be introduced gently in the form of a story. Stories are a universal coping tool that humans have been using for thousands of years, and the familiar framework of the beginning, middle, and end helps give the information in a way that is safe and predictable.
At this age, the story should focus on one character. This allows the students to empathize and connect to the information on a human level, without being too overwhelmed by details and possibilities.
The story should introduce some basic concepts such as ghettos and yellow stars, and give a general sense of what was lost–families, communities, cultural assets, ideas–but should focus on overcoming hardship, heroism, and rescue. It is very important not to transmit a sense of helplessness to elementary-school-aged children.
The activity should not include simulations or graphic scenes or descriptions. Children at this age can be very disturbed by such images, even if (maybe especially if) it’s in their imaginations.
At this age we continue along the general lines outlined above. At this age, however, we expand the stories to focus on families rather than single individuals. This allows us to add more characters to the story and focus on the relationships between them. We can also expand the conversation to include universal ideas about taking a stand, such as in the case of the Righteous Among the Nations (what we call non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust).
Towards the end of elementary school we continue the trend of gently expanding the stories to include deeper and more difficult concepts. While we still want to be telling stories that focus on characters who survive, the story may also include characters with a relationship to the main character who perish. We still want to focus on rescue and helping one another, and not on violence and cruelty.
Middle School (Ages 12-15)
In middle school we can deepen the conversation, taking into account the emotional maturity of the students (which may vary widely). Yad Vashem recommends expanding the conversation from families to communities at this point. Now is the time to discuss questions of heritage and identity and the relationship between the individual and the society in the context of the Holocaust. At this point in the Israeli educational curriculum, this historical period has not yet been covered in history class, so when discussing the Holocaust we begin to fill in historical details they may be missing.
If one were to ask me where to place viewing Schindler’s List and reading Man’s Search for Meaning along this timeline, I think I would recommend saving both for high school. I might consider exposing a particularly mature twelve-year-old to these materials, but certainly not as the first material he or she would encounter on the topic.
Instead, I would have recommended starting you off with Anne Frank’s diary.
The diary gives a vivid glimpse into the way families coped with hiding from the Nazis, but it is written from the hopeful and playful perspective of an insightful young teenager. It does not contain graphic descriptions of violence, and while Anne did not survive the Holocaust, the tragic end of the story is not recorded in her diary. The information on the raid and Anne’s eventual death in Bergen-Belsen are given in the afterword. I think this helps soften the effect without hiding the enormity of the tragedy, making it a really good introduction for an older child.
It always feels like Passover sets off this domino rally of significant days on the Jewish calendar. This coming Thursday is Holocaust Remembrance Day. But before we get into the tough stuff, I wanted to start us off with some general discussion of contemporary European Jewry by posting this fascinating guest letter.
France is home to the third-largest Jewish population in the world (after the USA and Israel)–some 475,000 people, with more than half of them living in Paris. Unfortunately, there has been a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents in Europe in recent years, and France has suffered some of the biggest and highest-profile of these incidents.
Largely as a result of this, as I’ve written before, Jews have been leaving France in droves. In 2014, for the first time in history, there were more olim (new immigrants to Israel) from France than from any other country in the world. The trend continued in 2015, with a further 10% increase. Jews are feeling less and less safe in Europe.
But it’s one thing to cite numbers, and another to talk to somebody who actually lives there. That’s why I was excited to make Aviv’s acquaintance. We connected online through mutual friends, and I interrogated him thoroughly on his experiences. (I have a habit of “interviewing” people from backgrounds that interest me. Josep is familiar with this. 😉 )
And then I thought, hey, why not interview him properly for a blog post? So this guest letter is a response to my questions (which I will include in their appropriate places). I hope you enjoy!
My name is Aviv and I am doing vocational guidance at the moment to find a good field to study. I live in Paris, France.
Now I will answer the questions.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the rise of antisemitism in Europe in general and France in particular lately. French Jews have been targeted in several horrific terror attacks in recent years, and there’s been a lot of talk on the news about Jews feeling more and more afraid and leaving Europe in large numbers. What is your experience of this as a religious Jew currently living in Paris?
Years ago, I didn’t feel a lot of antisemitism, but this is changing.
You know, there is a lot of antisemitism on the Internet, because of a lot of things. There’s an antisemitic comedian called “Dieudonné”; there are tensions between Jews and Muslims because of their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and there are antisemitic things we can easily find on the internet. Because of these, antisemitism is gaining more success in this country.
In 2012 we had an attack on a school in Toulouse, and in January 2015 we had the attack on the Hypercacher supermarket in Paris, and I live nearby so I could see everything.
Both attacks were carried out by terrorists and I think in every religious extremism there is antisemitism, so Jews are a a good target for the terrorism.
And that’s why, when I go to the synagogue during the week or for Shabbat, I see soldiers in front of the entrance and on every street corner to protect us. I don’t feel at ease when I see them because it means we are in danger without them. I am certain that if there were no soldiers, something like the Hypercacher could happen again…
I’ve been the target of antisemitic remarks from diverse people, from some people who believe in conspiracy theories etc., and from some Muslims, since there is a lot of tension between Jews and Muslims in France because of our positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I know that you plan to make aliyah in the relatively near future. Why do you want to emigrate to Israel?
I would like to make aliyah one day because it’s an ideal to be in the Holy Land and I have a particular feeling in Israel that I cannot describe. I call it “the feeling of being in Israel”, maybe a connection between me and this land.
I also feel at home in Israel. I feel at home in France, too, but in Israel it’s more so.
What are your three favorite things about being Jewish in France?
French Jewish movies.
Rue des Rosiers. [This is a street at the heart of the Jewish quarter in Paris. It used to be full of Jewish restaurants, bakeries, kosher butchers, delicatessens etc., but many of these have been replaced in recent years by high-end fashion shops which take advantage of the fact that shops are allowed to remain open on Sunday in the Jewish quarter.–DL]
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. [This is the national motto of France–liberty, equality, fraternity.–DL]
I know that you are involved in an online community for dialogue and peace activism between Jews and Muslims and Palestinians and Israelis. What inspired you to join these efforts? Has this dialogue changed you or your views in any way? If so, how?
I think the peace between Jews and Muslims and between Israelis and Palestinians is very important for the future of the Jewish people, so that’s why I feel involved. Jews and Muslims have a lot in common but because of our positions in the conflict, our relations are difficult. And that’s why I feel involved in the conflict. One of my Israeli teachers of Hebrew showed the students documentaries that were very difficult emotionally to watch. Then a Facebook friend added me to some Facebook groups of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, I started to have hope for the peace when I saw this. Then I added some Palestinians as my Facebook friends.
It changed some stereotypes I had about Palestinians, like “they are all terrorists, etc.” and I understood that they live in a very difficult situation. One of my Palestinian friends is a peace activist. When I come to Israel, I hope to meet some of my Palestinian Facebook friends and discuss these issues with them.
The majority of French Jews are of North African/Sephardic descent, many of whom emigrated to France after the French withdrew from their colonies in North Africa. Can you tell us a little about your own family’s background?
My father is from Morocco, and my mother is from Tunisia. The majority of French Jews are from North Africa because they lived in French colonies and were educated in the French culture. That’s why my parents speak French as well as Tunisian & Moroccan Arabic.
My parents emigrated to France because there was a rise in antisemitism in Arab countries after the wars in Israel. They chose France because they were familiar with the culture of the country, making it easier to integrate in France than in Israel.
My mother told me she went to France on a ship with her brother and her mother, and after years of working they integrated successfully. My father didn’t tell me a lot about his story because he never wanted to talk about it. You can find out more about the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries on Wikipedia.
I know you were not raised observant, but currently identify as such. Can you tell us a little about this process? What made you decide to become religious? What obstacles have you encountered?
I had spiritual questions in high school so I decide to learn about every religion and talk to my rabbi, then I started to read books about the Judaism and I liked this religion, so I became more and more religious over time.
My family was opposed at first because they were afraid I would become extremist, but things are good today with my family and we have almost no tension over religion.
Adar II began this past Friday, so Purim is coming right up next week! This coming Shabbat, then, is known as “Shabbat Zachor”–the Shabbat where we read a passage from the Torah called “Zachor,” “Remember.” Here is the passage:
Remember that which Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all the enemies surrounding you, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.
All men are required by Jewish law to hear this passage read in the synagogue on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim.
The commandment mentioned in this passage is one of the most difficult to swallow in the entire Torah. What could possibly be so awful about a particular nation that God would command us to commit genocide against them–men, women, children, and even livestock, completely obliterating any trace of their existence? Is God such a vengeful God that He would have us collectively punish a nation just because of something nasty their ancestors did to us once?! Isn’t this against the very concepts of justice and human rights that the Torah was supposed to be introducing to the world?! And why did God place the responsibility to obliterate Amalek in our hands? Isn’t He perfectly capable of collapsing civilizations through means other than warfare?
And anyway, who is this Amalek? Why is it so important to remember what they did to us in the desert?
And what does any of this have to do with Purim?!?!
To quote you upon exiting your first Jewish prayer service: “So many questions.” 😉
Last things first: the connection between Purim and the commandment of wiping out Amalek is very clear. Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was an Amalekite. Specifically, he is called “Haman the Agagite.” Agag was an Amelekite king who was defeated by King Saul in Samuel I 15. In that chapter, King Saul spared Agag’s life and that of some of his livestock. This was a direct violation of the commandment to wipe out Amalek, and he was severely punished for it; it was the sin that caused God to revoke his crown and pass the kingship to David!
So it seems that Haman’s very existence was the result of Saul’s failure to fulfill this commandment.
But mentioning the commandment before Purim is not just because it is relevant to the story of Purim. We read that passage to help us understand that Haman’s evil plot against the Jews of Persia was not a once-off event. It was not a fluke, and Haman did not stand alone. He was just another manifestation of an epic spiritual battle that has been raging in our world since the dawn of humanity.
There is a movie called “One Night with the King” that tells the story of Purim. As movies go, it’s not the greatest, but it does have its moments. One interesting moment in the movie depicts Esther going to see what Haman is up to. She comes across him rallying his followers against the Jews. You will recognize the significance of the imagery right away. (The movie should start at the beginning of the relevant scene, which begins around 1hr 6min into the movie. You’ll get the idea within a minute or two, but listen to what Haman is saying about the Jews and what they represent, especially around 1hr8min.)
Here’s a screenshot in case you missed this:
What’s interesting is that using the image of the swastika is not just a cheap reference to Nazism. The swastika actually has its origins in that part of the world. It is an ancient Eastern symbol. The Nazis appropriated it because they claimed that the Aryan race had its origins in that part of the world, too.
Not that the film is a paradigm of historical accuracy in its use of symbolism; it also employs the Jewish star, and as we’ve discussed, that wasn’t actually an exclusively Jewish symbol until very recently. But this “interpretation” given by the movie hints at what Jews have been saying for 70 years: that the Nazis, like Haman, were the spiritual heirs of Amalek.
In high school we were taught that one of the principles of Nazi ideology was that the Jews invented morality and the idea of human rights, human conscience, mercy, and ethics. As high school students we were like, “Um… this is a bad thing?”
According to Hitler, yes. Because he believed that the “natural order” was racial anarchy. Basically that humans should be like animals, the stronger “clans” taking up as much territory as they could. He believed that this whole business of “kindness” and “compassion” disturb that natural order.
And who introduced these ideas to humanity and infected the world with this terrible idea of having a conscience? The Jews, of course. And the only way to rid the world of these ideas was to rid the world of that race that introduced them, that embodies them, that represents and continues to perpetuate them.
In a sense, he was right. The ideas of human rights, conscience, ethics, morality–those are Jewish ideas and were spread by us and by our “daughter religions,” Christianity and Islam, in a world that was a lot more like what Hitler envisioned. These days people associate religion with violence and intolerance, as though religion brought these concepts to the world, when in fact it is the exact opposite; though Christians, Muslims and sometimes Jews fell short of our ideals, the fact is that the world is far less violent and intolerant than it used to be, and that is largely thanks to the widespread adoption of monotheism and the principles of the Abrahamic faiths.
But this is where Hitler was twisted. He thought that we were much better off before. That violence and intolerance were a natural part of life and the world was better off with humans in constant conflict with one another and the strong ruling over the weak. And it was the Jews, he argued–correctly!–that “perverted” the world from this “ideal” state.
That is why it was more important to him to destroy Jewish lives than to save German ones. He thought the German race was the superior one, but he wasn’t sure, and he was okay with it getting destroyed if the natural order was restored. Because more than he wanted to rule over a master race, he saw it as his life’s mission to restore the world to its “natural order.” And if that meant allowing other, stronger “races” to destroy his, so be it–as long as he rescued the world from the pestilence of Jewish conscience.
This is very different from the general view that he was this evil, megalomaniacal madman consumed with hatred and spite.
Hitler really thought he was saving the world.
Amalek, as a concept, is precisely this ideology. “Social Darwinism.” “Survival of the fittest.” The idea that only the strong should be allowed to prosper, and that it is against the natural order of things to help the weak. There is no place in this world for mercy and compassion. There is only power.
This is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for.
“He encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God.” The Amalekites had no respect for human dignity. They prayed on the Israelites “at the rear”–the old, the weak, and the weary, for no reason other than the fact that they were weak. As a nation, they may have gone the way of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans… but our battle with Amalek–the idea–is eternal.
It is, on the symbolic level, an externalized version of the battle between good and evil I described in this post about human nature. Amalek, yetzer hara (the “evil inclination”), the snake from the story of Adam and Eve, the Satan… in a way, these concepts are all different facets of the same thing. They are all illusions of darkness that are meant to help us learn to receive the Light.
I think this story is an archetypal allegory of the epic battle between Israel and Amalek that has waged ever since. History has shown us that the “spiritual heirs of Amalek” often target the Jews as their first victims. “It often starts with the Jews; it never ends with the Jews,” the grim saying goes.
While the truth of this idea resonates for me, it does not allay my discomfort with the practical, non-symbolic aspect of this commandment. Some may argue that when it came to Amalek, there was no such thing as an innocent civilian…. but really? Newborn babies? Sheep? Cattle? I can stomach the idea that as a culture it was dangerous and needed to be wiped out… but isn’t there a gentler, more compassionate alternative than genocide? :-/
Thankfully, the actual Amalek nation having disappeared from the face of the earth long ago, it is not really a practical issue. Still, it’s something to struggle with… as we’ve elaborated in the past.
May we all merit to see the obliteration of the ideology of Amalek in our days.
Before I go, I just want to once again draw your attention to my husband’s podcast, Jewish Geography. Occasionally I read a letter to Josep as a segment on the show, and every time I do, I add a link to the relevant podcast at the top of that post. Last week he featured me reading “The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies!” and despite the bleak subject matter, it is a rather entertaining listen. 😉 Don’t forget to subscribe!
It’s hard to describe what I feel when I watch that video. Matisyahu could have lay low and shied away from any content that might be controversial or conceived as political after they tried to boycott him. But he didn’t. He got on that stage and sang, right in the faces of those who discriminate against him because of his heritage while denying him his right to his historic homeland: “3,000 years with no place to be/And they want me to give up my milk and honey/Don’t you see, it’s not about the land or the sea/Not the country but the dwelling of His majesty… Years gone by, about sixty/Burn in the oven in this century/And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn’t choke me… Caught up in these ways, and the world’s gone craze/Don’t you know it’s just a phase… Chop down all of them dirty ways/That’s the price that you pay for selling lies to the youth/No way, not okay… Ain’t no one gonna break my stride/Ain’t no one gonna pull me down/Oh no, I got to keep on moving/Stay alive”
Instead of saying, “See? I have nothing to do with Israel, there’s no reason to boycott me,” Matisyahu said, “As a Jew, I have a historic and spiritual connection to the land of Israel, and it has nothing to do with politics or oppression of Palestinians, so I have nothing to hide. But your boycott movement has everything to do with discrimination and antisemitism. You hypocrites.” He stood up for himself, he stood up for me, he stood up for the Jewish people, and he stood up for Israel, right in the face of BDS.
That, my friend, is Jewish chutzpah right there, and I am brimming with nachas.
(Jewish what? Brimming with what? Stay tuned for my next post… 😛 )
So the world has been atwitter over the fiasco of the Rototem Festival in Valencia canceling Jewish American artist Matisyahu’s performance–and then subsequently reversing their decision after facing pressure from the media and the Spanish government.
For those (like Josep) who have never heard of Matisyahu, allow me to introduce you. Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller, became famous as the only international superstar who had a traditional ultra-Orthodox Jewish appearance: the suit, the beard, the sidecurls, everything.
He is extremely talented and did an enormous amount to improve the image of traditional Jews. In recent years he left the Orthodox community and shaved off his beard and sidecurls, but he is still strongly connected to Judaism.
The cancellation of his performance is is a classic example of “anti-Israelism” or “anti-Zionism” crossing the line to antisemitism. Remember The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies? This one has “Jews are traitors” written all over it. Forcing Matisyahu to declare his political loyalties is like making a European Muslim performer sign a document condemning Osama Bin Laden. It’s bigotry, pure and simple.
When I first asked Josep if he had heard of this and whether there has been any backlash on the Spanish media about it, he said there had been a little, but that it was a small festival (which is not, to say the least, to his taste 😛 ) and as we both know, this sort of thing is normal. He said that a more emphatic reaction about this would be “too incredible.” So we were both pleasantly surprised when the government issued its condemnation and the organizers re-invited Matisyahu.
Now, like Josep, I don’t care much for reggae, nor do I think BDS Pais Valencia is representative of the people of Valencia, nor do I think the festival organizers had malicious intent–they probably acted out of ignorance. But often, it is precisely the ignorance that is the problem. The line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is often very blurry in Europe, and all too often it is crossed without anyone blinking an eye.
You see… there is a part of the story of my trip that I kind of downplayed in my first post about how Josep and I met. It was long enough as it was, and I wanted to focus on the beginning of our friendship, and felt the other details would distract from the main point. But when discussing it with Josep recently, I realized that that part of the story takes up a much bigger part of his experience of getting to know me.
So the thing about me not getting kosher food or segregated sleeping arrangements… I am perfectly willing to believe it was an honest oversight. I was less happy with their response when I complained about it–“She should have eaten the vegetarian food, that’s good enough, and it’s not our problem she’s so closed-minded as to not be willing to sleep in a co-ed room.”
I didn’t mention in the original story that the conference was organized by the United Nations Association of Spain. You’d think that an organization associated with the UN, organizing a conference for youth from all over the world, would be a little more sensitive to the cultural and/or religious needs of its guests. But I really don’t think it was antisemitism. Ignorance, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, and arrogance, maybe. But not antisemitism.
I took this picture in the ancient Jewish quarter of Barcelona when I was poking around to prepare a story I was writing for the conference paper on it. It’s a Hebrew inscription on the wall that dates back to 1391, when pogroms throughout Spain forced the surviving Jews of Barcelona to leave. A carving of great historical and cultural significance for Jews, which obviously has nothing at all to do with Israel or Zionism. The graffiti had been painted over, and I hadn’t even noticed it when I raised my camera to take a picture of it; it was revealed in the flash. The top word is not as visible, but it’s pretty clear that it reads “Jews, Free Palestine” in Catalan.
Let me spell this out: defacing a priceless historical testament to the medieval Jewish community of Barcelona is not political activism. It is antisemitism.
Seems that Spaniards–and indeed, Europeans–are a little fuzzy on that. (And poor Josep was devastated that I left his beloved city with that impression! Hang in there, Josep; God willing, I’ll let you fix it one day. 😉 )
Which is why the response of the Spanish government and the subsequent reaction of the festival gives me hope.
So in honor of that, I would like to share my favorite song of Matisyahu’s. It’s called “One Day,” and it’s a song of yearning, questioning, and hope for a better future.
One day this all will change Treat people the same Stop with the violence Down with the hate
One day we’ll all be free And proud to be Under the same sun Singing songs of freedom like One day
All my life I’ve been waiting for I’ve been praying for For the people to say That we don’t wanna fight no more There will be no more wars And our children will play One day
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.
…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.
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.
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.↩
Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel starting this evening, on the 27th of Nisan, which is the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The date was also selected for its proximity to Memorial Day (for the fallen soldiers and terror victims) and Independence Day next week. We see all these events as part of the same story.
We observe this day with ceremonies and stories, lowered flags and sad music on the radio; and one thing that is unique to Israel: a siren sounds throughout the country at 10 a.m., and everyone stops whatever they are doing, stands up, and observes two minutes of silence in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The entire country comes to a literal halt.
As you can imagine, remembering and teaching about the Holocaust (the Shoah in Hebrew) is a big deal in the world’s only Jewish country, and given that Israel was founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust and on the backs of its survivors, it is a major part of our national identity. Educating future generations about it is of utmost importance to us. To this end, many high schools arrange educational tours to the death camps in Poland.
There is some controversy about those trips; about the moral integrity of funding Poland’s “death camp tourism” industry, about whether those rowdy teenagers actually get anything meaningful out of the trip, and about whether the Holocaust should be something so deeply focused upon and ingrained into our national identity when we have 3,000 years of rich and diverse history to draw upon. After all, half of the country’s Jewish population is comprised of non-Ashkenazim–Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Ethiopia. They have other important stories to tell, stories that are not told as thoroughly and as publicly as the stories of the Ashkenazim. Furthermore, some argue, is it really so healthy for such a major part of our national identity to be built upon a sense of victimhood?
Well, I traveled to Poland with my fellow 11th graders in March 2004, and it was one of the most powerful and meaningful experiences of my life. The kind of experience in which the depth of its impact is completely impossible to convey to those who weren’t there. But let me try.
We visited three camps–Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka–as well as the neighboring cities, Krakow and Warsaw, and a number of small towns where Jews once flourished, such as Lodz, home of the famous Hassidic sect, and the charming town of Tykocin… and the mass grave in the nearby Łopuchowo Forest where its entire Jewish community was murdered by the Nazis.
We had several guides, including an Israeli guide, a Polish guide, and a “witness”: a man who survived the camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz and whose family was murdered at Treblinka. We are especially lucky to have been the last generation that could travel with a witness and hear his personal story as we stood at the very places where the events happened. Our witness, Avraham, was a remarkable man with a vibrant spirit and a great sense of humor, and his contribution to the trip was immeasurable. Our teachers accompanied us and ran discussion groups. Our principal had brought his guitar and he played along with our singing.
And we sang everywhere. We filled every empty synagogue with song and dancing; we sang “Am Yisrael Chai”, “The Nation of Israel Lives”, and brought life and music to all these places where our ancestors had been silenced.
In the gas chambers of Majdanek, we sat on the floor and sang about faith and yearning for redemption through our tears. It may sound strange to do anything but observe a reverent silence in such a place; but for us, raising our voices in song is our way of honoring those who died there, giving them a voice, calling out to God from the depths of our despair.
We walked, grandchildren of survivors, free citizens of a sovereign Jewish state, and sisters of the Jewish soldiers protecting it, down the infamous train tracks, into the forests, and through the remnants of the ghettos. We carried our Israeli flags in heartbroken pride; our unspoken message to those who died there that their deaths were not in vain. My friend Menucha, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz, says: “I remember walking in Auschwitz with an Israeli flag on my back and thinking of how my grandmother had come in with nothing. I think it’s one of the proudest moments of my life.”
One evening in our hotel in Krakow, a woman came to speak to us and tell us how she and her family sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. After her talk, we got up, one by one, to thank her and hug and kiss her. That wordless exchange–the glowing warmth and gratitude, the firmness of her grip on my arms, the softness of her white cheeks against my lips–is burned forever into my memory.
There is no way to replace this kind of learning. As Menucha says, being there with a witness to share his story was like the difference between learning about the Shoah and being in Poland; the difference between knowing and feeling.
So did my trip, and the focus on the Shoah in my education, result in building my national identity on a sense of victimhood?
The answer is: absolutely not.
It built my national identity on a deep sense of purpose and triumph. Triumph, because we are the answer to the Holocaust. Every Jewish baby born, every Israeli soldier sworn in, every mitzvah observed, every holiday celebrated, every song, every laugh, every smile is another slap in the face of Hitler and all he stood for. Ultimately, we won; not with guns or bombs, but with our spirit, our faith, and our dedication to our identity and purpose.
“The Eternal Nation is not afraid of a long journey”, I sang with my friends in the empty synagogues of Poland. The Jewish people is here to stay. We have something invaluable to give the world. We have been oppressed, persecuted, and massacred for carrying that message for thousands of years. But we’re still here, still carrying it. Learning the terrible extent of the sacrifice my brethren made to keep their identity and hold on to that message makes me all the more determined to do the same, and to pass it forward into what will hopefully be a brighter future for all of us.