This piece is occasioned by the recent anti-Semitic attack of vandalism in Fairfax, Virginia, which reinforces the disturbing anti-Semitic dimensions of last year’s neo-Nazi, white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Those events brought an old question to my mind, and that led me to the new answer presented here.
Being of Jewish ancestry, being of a historical mind-set, and being inclined to seek to discover the dynamics at work in human cultures to explain historical phenomena, I’ve long wondered why it is that the phenomenon of anti-Semitism has been so widespread and enduring.
I knew that it wasn’t because Jews have been a particularly terrible bunch of people, particularly appropriate to hate. Like any other cultural (or religious) group, Jews have (and have had) their mix of faults and virtues. As deserving of love or hatred as any other group.
Another reason not to regard anti-Semitism on its own terms: It is clear that many of the justifications for anti-Semitism, and for the resulting oppression and periodic massacring of the Jews, are based on pure, malicious fictions. Jews never have killed Christian children to get their blood for use in making matzoh. And there never was any set of “Elders of Zion” whose “Protocols” outlined some nefarious scheme for world take-over.
So why, then, has anti-Semitism been like a virus in world culture, particularly in European culture, over the centuries?
Lately, I’ve come up with an idea that I believe captures an important part of the heart of the explanation.
This explanation is composed of three parts.
First, it begins with the way – given enough time — cultural memes tend to spread from one cultural system to another.
Take the image of Santa Claus. If I remember correctly, the figure of Santa Claus is based on a historical figure who lived in what today is part of Turkey, which then became popular across much of Europe, particularly among the Dutch, whose veneration of this symbol of generosity brought it in the 18th century to the New World where he now appears in shopping malls every year.
(Or the idea that 13 is an unlucky number. Or the idea of vampires. Or the notion that people have “unalienable rights.”)
Peoples who are in some kind of contact with each other get exposed to one another’s images, notions, ideas, etc. If what had previously been a foreign notion somehow fits into one’s own culture, and especially if it meets some need, then – given sufficient time — the idea or meme or image can be absorbed into the new cultural system.
In this way, such memes can be reinforced and spread.
That brings us into the second component of the explanation I am proposing: the ubiquity in civilized cultures of the impulse – among a portion of the people, and particularly under circumstances of stress — to hate the foreign element, i.e. to hate the people who are different, in one’s midst.
Does that point even need to be substantiated? Does that point need to be argued even now, at a time when a monstrous man has been elected President of the United States who announced his candidacy by declaring the Mexicans among us to be “rapists,” and repeatedly equating undocumented people from Central America with the tiny, vicious gang of MI-13?
Need we mention how — largely because of the influx of immigrants — right-wing and xenophobic forces have lately gained power in countries across Europe, such as Hungary, the UK, and even recently in Sweden?
The flood of migrants, issuing out of the catastrophe of the Syrian Civil War, has produced – right before our eyes – a significant increase in the forces of hatred in the societies coping with all these “others.”
But even as these upwellings of bigotry show a kinship with anti-Semitism, there is also almost certainly an essential difference between them as historical phenomena:
One does not imagine that the idea of Mexicans as rapists will play any long-term historical role. In time, those circumstances that led to the targeting of Mexican immigrants with that energy of bigotry and hatred and scapegoating will change.
It can reasonably be predicted that, in future generations, only historians will remember this demonization of the Mexicans, just as now, in the 21st century, only students of history know how deep in American society in the mid-19th century went the antagonism toward Irish immigrants (and in general toward the Catholicism they brought with them to American shores).
History, all across the globe, is full of the demonization, victimization, and scapegoating of minority peoples of many varieties—depending on the composition of local societies, i.e. on what are those societies’ vulnerable groups that survive at the sufferance of the dominant groups and the established powers.
But the episodes of persecution of these many kinds usually remain local phenomena, without giving rise to anything like the more global problem of anti-Semitism.
Which brings us to the third piece in this explanation: the extraordinary staying power of the Jews, their ability – against all odds — to persist as an identifiable cultural group.
The question of how it is that the Jews have managed to maintain their separate identity for so long – not only for centuries, but for millennia – and in societies across the globe, despite such consistent persecution and even occasional genocidal violence, is in itself a most interesting one, to which I’d enjoy venturing my answers.
But for the present purpose, all that’s needed is simply recognition of the incontrovertible fact: Jews have preserved their cultural and religious identity over an extraordinarily long time, during which a great many other distinct cultures disappeared, having been destroyed or absorbed under the impact of conquering, (or dominant, or majority) cultures.
So the situation of the Jews has been unlike that of those Irish immigrants to America who were confronted with “Irish need not apply” and “No dogs or Irish admitted” signs in America. The Irish situation arose as a temporary aftermath of the mass immigration provoked by the deadly Potato Famine in Ireland. But the cultural interface between dominant (especially European) cultures and populations of Jews who maintained their separate identity) persisted.
This fraught encounter, which was enacted in many places over many centuries was of a kind, as argued above as point #2, that reliably evokes tension and antagonism in a kind of people whose patterns of thought and feeling are apparently well represented across the globe.
Which brings us back to the first element: how, over time, cultural memes move – like bacteria exchanging DNA – from one culture to another.
So that if the if the Crusaders, in the 12th century saw fit to massacre whole communities of Jews on their way to take possession of the Holy Land away from another group of infidels, the Muslims; if the English decided to make their kingdom (what would later be called) Judenrein in the 13th century; if, toward the end of the 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition enforced the expulsion of the Jews from Spain—all these expressed how the virus of anti-Jewish feeling could readily seep from one cultural system into others nearby.
We can see here a self-reinforcing process that could go on and on, with a demonized image and an associated hostility taking root over the generations. (The Nazis’ anti-Semitism could build upon medieval images of the Jew as inhuman; the Arabs can now revive the long-discredited forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)
It all appears as an unwanted but unavoidable by-product of the accomplishment of the a people’s ability to preserve their identity despite centuries of having to be the “Other,” i.e. having to live always as a minority under the aegis of other peoples.
So, over the centuries, the “Wandering Jews” are locating themselves in one place after another, ghettoized in Venice, in the Pale in Russia, etc., moving when necessary, but always stubbornly persisting as an identifiable foreign element among peoples to whom, often, whoever is foreign – different — will be hated.
And wherever they go, the cultural system into which they arrive will have had centuries of opportunities for ideas associated with Jew-demonization to have seeped in, making it all the easier – possibly even nearly automatic – for the perception and feelings to be adopted of the Jews as people to be hated.
(It is relevant here to note that the other identifiable cultural group that the Nazis sought to exterminate – the Gypsies, or Romani – were also the other group which, second only to the Jews, persisted as a culturally separate group, moving as a minority through dominant European cultures, over a very long stretch of time.)
The spread of cultural memes is thus a mixed bag.
Oftentimes, the transmission of memes from culture to culture is benign. Coffee, for example, as a ritual or a habit, or a treat—cappuccino (once specifically Italian, or Turkish coffee, or espresso) – is now globally available in its many forms.
Coffee culture and anti-Seminism have in common that they have both spread because they have had centuries to do so:
- coffee because the plant of which coffee is the fruit remains what it is, unchanging, giving societies time to take the cause of the legendary friskiness of some goats in Ethiopia and make it into the coffee houses of 17th century England and onward to the barristas of the American Northwest.
- Anti-Semitism because, like the coffee plant, the Jews as a visibly “other” group, and thus a potential target of hatred) have persisted over time and across much of the planet.
Both coffee and anti-Semitism meet people’s needs, but they are needs of very different sorts, and this difference separates the benign spread of the meme of coffee culture from the malignant cultural virus of anti-Semitism.
Coffee culture has been built upon a positive element of our humanity, like our enjoyment of a rich flavor and a boost to our energy and feelings of well-being. Anti-Semitism, by contrast, grows out of the need of many people, especially in circumstances of fear and frustration and anger, to hate and attack the “other.”
Bigotry erupts in many forms throughout history and across the planet. But perhaps only racism — which also fastens on an enduring manifestation of “otherness” — is comparable in our civilization to the extraordinarily widespread targeting of the Jews for demonization and hatred.
(In a famous satirical song of Tom Lehrer’s, back in the 1950s, after each litany of examples of Group A hates Group B, Lehrer repeated the culminating line, “And everyone hates the Jews.”)
Anti-Semitism, then is extraordinary in the context of the many forms of bigotry in the world. And the reason for that extraordinariness is that it is the dark unintended consequence of the equally extraordinary achievement of the survival of the Jews as a people. That achievement needed only to be combined two other truths about our human systems: the proclivity of Us-vs.-Them kinds of people to attack the “Other“; and the tendency of the cultural systems of humanity, given time, to spread their memes to other cultures.
And so, we see the enduring, malignant cultural meme resurface:
- even as for three generations there have been scarcely any Jews left in Hungary, due to the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, Orban’s regime finds it useful politically to demonize George Soros. And so,
- even as American Jews have made major contributions to American culture for more than a century, the marchers in Charlottesville were aflame to threaten to “replace” the Jews trapped in a synagogue there. And so
- last weekend in Fairfax, Virginia, some found spray-painting swastikas onto a synagogue a way to express a hatred that met some important , if twisted, emotional need.