Moral indignation and human outrage are writ large in the Holocaust memorials growing ubiquitous throughout Europe. How could such things happen? The question numbs the senses, but it doesn’t go away no matter how many times the question is asked. The suffering Jew replaced the wandering Jew in mythology and history in the 20th century, and the ancient history of expulsion was replaced with the cold efficiency of Nazi villains who sent Jews directly to the death camps.
Reminders are memorialized in bronze and stone in Venice in a beautiful square in the Cannaregio District where a bronze relief depicts how 200 Jews were forced to leave the ghetto for Auschwitz. Only eight of the 200 survived. A stone tablet addresses the 6 million Jews of Europe hunted down by “blind barbaric hatred.”
Now there’s something new, and a visitor to Europe can smell it. An old, old story is beginning again all over the Continent. The Jews are being scapegoated again. It’s bizarre and ironic that in the heart of Europe, where sympathetic tourists flock to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, the deportation memorial in Paris and the empty ghetto in Venice, poisonous anti-Semitism is returning in another guise, this time called “political analysis.”
“Somehow ‘world opinion’ has moved away from the old 20th century view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a complicated territorial dispute between two long suffering peoples,” writes the historian Shelby Steele in the Wall Street Journal. “Today the world puts its thumb on the scale for the Palestinians by demonizing the stronger and whiter Israel as essentially a colonial power committed to the occupation of a beleaguered Third World people.”
The ghetto in Venice was the first anywhere, named for “the geto,” or foundry, in the 13th century. The inhabitants were policed at night by guards at gates, on bridges or on boats in the canal. During the day, Jews could become prosperous as doctors, merchants and scholars.
Shakespeare made the ghetto famous in his play “The Merchant of Venice,” with the action played out against the exotic background of Venetian culture. Although there were no Jews in England when the Bard lived, he evoked the ubiquitous hatred throughout the centuries of the Jew as a moneylender and someone who did not share the prevailing Christian religion. Literary critics find abundant reasons to describe Shakespeare either as the anti-Semitic author of the villainous portrait or as a “philo-Semite” for humanizing the hated Jew: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is. If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
The Bard’s extraordinary poetry shaped perception and character in a comic play with tragic overtones. Several interpretations of Shakespeare’s words tap into attitudes projected onto the Jew - that he’s smart, successful and, because of that, more than a little shady. It’s the Jewish stereotype, and it’s at work again in freely expressed attitudes toward Israel. We heard it before Israeli commandos halted the flotilla trying to break through the blockade of arms and military supplies into Gaza. That incident merely exacerbated it.
Blatant anti-Semitism doesn’t work the way it did when Hitler was rising to power. The vocabulary has changed. Anti-Semites no longer talk in racial terms; the Arabs, after all, are Semites, too. Instead, spontaneous reactions to Israel are imbedded in political terms left over from Western colonialism in its “neo” strain. In this telling, Hamas is the equivalent of the Third World countries, less technologically advanced and exploited by the West. Rather than harness Western ideas and the good life, the 12th-century Islamic radicals transform victimhood into power, persuading the world that the failures and disasters of Muslims are always somebody else’s fault.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will return to Washington early next month to meet President Obama a month after his earlier visit was canceled in the aftermath of the flotilla fiasco. This will give Mr. Obama an opportunity, if he wants it, to redress the prejudices threatening the once-friendly relations between Washington and its only reliable ally in the Middle East.
In a meeting with the grand mufti of Jerusalem in 1941, Hitler prophesied that Jews would be gone from Europe after the war and his goal would then be to rid Arab lands of Jews, too. Things didn’t work out quite that way, but there are bad men still trying to keep that hope alive.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.