If We Thought Anti-Semitism Would Fade Away, We Were Wrong

Denis Poroy/AP Photo

Blaming Jews is a reflex available to angry, lazy minds in any political camp. This is what ties together several events of recent days, ranging from the horrific to the merely inexcusable. Here, flowers and signs sit at a memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue, where a man opened fire as worshippers celebrated the last day of a major Jewish holiday. 

Tucked into Rome's old Jewish Quarter is a small, well-curated museum telling the history of Jews in what was first the capital of the West's greatest empire, and then the capital of Western Christianity. During my visit not so long ago, a sentence from a single caption carved itself in my memory. During the 15th century, it said “In Italy, the persecutions [of Jews] were fomented by friars minor such as ... John of Capistrano.” 

I knew that name, albeit in a different form: When my parents retired, they moved to a beach town in southern California. The neighboring town was San Juan Capistrano. It's a quiet, prosperous place known forthe swallows that return there on the same day every March. The name always struck me as melodious. 

I looked up John of Capistrano. He was a “powerful preacher,” sent by Pope Nicholas V to subdue “the disbelieving Jews” in various lands, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. He demonized Jews, accusing them of “killing Christian children and of desecrating the host.” His sermons inspired riots and expulsions of Jews. In the city of Breslau, he personally conducted an investigation of supposed host-desecration, tortured suspects and wrenched confessions from them. More than 40 Jews were burned at the stake in June 1453.

In Rome that night, I thought about whether the vanilla California town should change its name. No, I decided. For one thing, John of Capistrano's offenses are hardly as well-known as those of, say, Robert E. Lee. A fight over his history might only anoint him as a symbol for dangerous people. (I confess, I worry that even by writing this, I could have that effect.) Besides, once you got started at removing the names of anti-Semites, the task would be endless. There'd be too many names from the last 2,000 years of history to paint over. 

Why mention this? The forgotten meaning of “John of Capistrano” is just a reminder that demonizing Jews is a thread running through the history of Western civilization. The habit of accusing Jews of whatever people disliked or feared or didn't understand—this habit precedes all modern ideologies. The American and French revolutions did not provide a cure, nor—as we now see—did a few brief decades of Holocaust regret. Blaming Jews is a reflex available to angry, lazy minds in any political camp. This is what ties together several events of recent days, ranging from the horrific to the merely inexcusable. 

About an hour's drive south of San Juan Capistrano is the town of Poway. That's where a gunman burst into a Chabad synagogue during services last Saturday, murdered one person and wounded three others. Apparently his gun jammed, or more would have died. The manifesto that he allegedly posted vomits up accusations against Jews ranging from the ancient (killing Jesus) to the up-to-date (plotting genocide against white people).

The gunman who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh just six months ago was reportedly obsessed with the last of those purported offenses. He allegedly accused Jews of financing Hispanic immigrants to come to the United States. In turn, he was echoing the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville who were convinced that Jews aim to “replace” white people.

All this has happened in the era of Donald Trump. It is impossible to separate the American renaissance of hatred in general or the resurgence of anti-Semitism in particular from the president. Trump's white nativist rants are his moments of honesty, in that they reveal what truly moves him. He's also the man who said there were “very fine people” among the Charlottesville neo-Nazis. He embraced the idea that George Soros—the face that the political right uses to embody the nefarious controlling Jew—financed an immigrant caravan. Trump finished his election campaign with a video accusing “global special interests”—all with Jewish faces—of controlling Washington and supporting Hillary Clinton.  

That said, the populist right is not alone in tapping into mythologies about Jews, as a couple other recent incidents show. They involve a hateful drawing and some hateful words, so it's uncomfortable to mention them after describing bloodshed. On the other hand, ignoring bigotry unless someone dies is unacceptable. And the reality is that the mythology is so readily available that anyone—right, left, or between—can unthinkingly borrow it. 

The picture is the now notorious cartoon published by the international edition of The New York Times. It showed a dog with the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading a blind Donald Trump. Conceivably, if such a cartoon had run to illustrate an opinion piece arguing, say, that Trump had blindly swallowed Netanyahu's ideas for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, it would have been legitimate. (The argument itself would be weak, but that's for subject for another day.) 

But the cartoon ran on its own, thereby implying that Netanyahu has led Trump into pretty much anything he has done. Imposing tariffs on baseball gloves or trying to sabotage Obamacare might also be Netanyahu's idea. Though the dog had Netanyahu's visage, the artist added a Star of David hanging from his neck, suggesting that Netanyahu merely provided a recognizable face for Israel, or for Jews—an alternative Soros. The line between those two possibilities shrinks to nothing when the picture shows the fair-haired, unseeing Trump wearing a black skullcap, in the final indication that the naïve Gentile has fallen completely under the Jews' control.

In the least bad case, the anonymous editor who picked the cartoon didn't notice that this is bigotry. The Portuguese cartoonist himself said he was only criticizing Israel—and that the fuss over his cartoon came from the “Jewish propaganda machine.” As a defense, this is more of a confession. The Times has apologized, and promised to do better.

Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has not apologized, at least not as of this being written. The latest item to surface from the British Labour leader's past is a forward he wrote in 2011 for a new edition of Imperialism: A Study, written by John A. Hobson in 1902. Corbyn praised Hobson's “great tome.” He did not notice or distance himself from the book's assertion that European finance is controlled “by men of a single and peculiar race, who ... are in a unique position to control the policy of nations.” Nor was he perturbed by Hobson's claim that no “great war could be undertaken by any European State” against the will of the “house of Rothschild”—the bankers who played the role in anti-Semitic imagination that Soros does today. 

Last year it emerged that Corbyn had defended a London street mural showing men with oversized noses playing Monopoly on the backs of brown people. When the anti-Semitism was pointed out, he responded that he hadn't looked closely at it. This time he hasn't responded at all. Both incidents are part of the much larger crisis that has stained and divided Labour under Corbyn, who says he despises racism—but doesn't notice it when directed against Jews.

It turns out that a habit as old as dehumanizing Jews doesn't vanish. Anti-Semitism is a chronic illness that flares up when politics is polarized, when demagoguery stands in for policy, when people face changes they can't understand and want a villain.

But it can be pushed back to the margins again, to remission. It can become as dormant and nearly harmless as the history behind a quiet beach town's name. Making that happen requires building inclusive politics, without demons, without dehumanizing. Here's one test of inclusive politics: If you don't notice anti-Semitism, or if you don't take it seriously, you haven't gotten there yet.   

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