- - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The resurgence of anti-Semitism may be alarming, but it is no surprise.

Anti-Semitism has been with us since Babylonian times, well before the birth of Jesus, and has managed to survive through rare good times (Moorish Spain, for example) and horrors too frequent to recount, including the Crusades, ghettoes, expulsion from Spain, Portugal, England, France and other countries, and finally, we might have thought, the Holocaust.

No surprise, however, does not mean no new alarm.

The role of the scapegoat has been assigned to Jews by people who do not even know any. Scapegoating fills a visceral need in most societies. Especially in times of uncertainty and anxiety, when economic insecurity and fear of conflict cloud our horizons, the ability to focus on the “other,” the minority in our midst, is the knee-jerk relief. It’s all “their” fault. Whole civilizations have been built and destroyed on this premise. Some whole cultures have been scapegoated out of their very existence, or marginalized to a degree that they are no longer useful as objects of blame for the ills a community or a country suffers.

The Jews, however, have continued to survive and so, invariably, are found to fill the bill when blame or shame is to be diverted for political reasons, or are available as a rallying “villain” when a new group seeks power. After all these centuries, toxic myths about Jews learned at mothers’ knees, or in Sunday School, or on the playground exist like a palimpsest in the consciousness of even the most “civilized” and educated among us. And let’s face it, in most of the “developed” world, minds remain all too ready to buy into fear of and blame on the “other” in a heartbeat.

Today information abounds, from and through a myriad of sources. We are bombarded from all sides, and rare is the consumer of news who fact-checks the stories from all sides. We proclaim loudly and righteously for free speech, knowing that without it there ultimately is no hope for freedom itself. But free speech requires due diligence. As I write, pictures of a flood (caused by nature) in Gaza, published on Facebook in November by a United Nations agency, surfaces as “today’s news” of deliberate flooding of the same area by Israel opening a dam in an act of hostility. The “dam” does not exist. How many would bother to check out this “information”? How many are incited instead to condemn Israel, Zionism and Jews, all conflated as one hated or feared entity?

Free speech includes free lies and free propaganda. And when the lies, innocent errors, misinformation and propaganda fit our already existing, perhaps unacknowledged, biases and prejudices, too many of us will believe them all too eagerly. The free-floating anti-Semitism of yore now too often has a new, specific focus in the state of Israel, the very existence of which is used to confirm all kinds of beliefs, from the affirmation of the Second Coming or a religious New Awakening, to evidence of the old canards about Jewish cabals. Under a veil of everything from left- to right-wing ideals, feelings about Jews become commingled with attitudes about Israel.

Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe have grown in number even while the Jewish population has remained stable or has shrunk. In the United Kingdom, where Jews are only half of one percent of the population (a total of fewer than 300,000), the reports of violence, property damage, abuse and threats against the Jewish population more than doubled in 2014. Despite assurances from government officials, sending their children to Jewish schools or attending synagogue where armed guards are needed surely has a chilling effect on British Jews. And the pattern repeats across the Channel, where French and Belgian Jews have been targeted and killed in recent attacks. What can a child be learning when he finds out that he need special protection from potential attacks while he’s in school just because of his very identity?

Our attitude toward Jews in society is like the canary in a coal mine. The manifestation of anti-Semitism is a clear indicator of sickness that can be lethal, a warning that irrationality and mindless clutching at myth instead of seeking clear-eyed solutions to problems is where we are heading. The speed at which the cyber age produces new information is dazzling, and for many, clinging to superstition and finding a sense of security in entrenched prejudices provides the reassuring comfort of familiarity. How else can we explain today’s hostility to science, to evidence of climate change, to the persistence of Holocaust denial, to the appeal of radical terrorism? How can we explain the burgeoning attitude of intellectual fascism on the campuses of universities where free speech is threatened and “divestment” becomes a mask for prejudice?

While we guard free speech, we must guard against our own “programmed” reactions and decisions. It is not easy to look inward. It is difficult to search our own attitudes, examine the stereotypes we hold and separate myth from reality. It is particularly hard, when emotions run deep, to understand that “Jewish” does not mean “Israeli,” just as “Muslim” does not mean “Palestinian.” Apparently the conflation of religion, culture and nationality is too complicated to untangle for many of the purveyors of information we rely on as well. Nevertheless, this is what each of us has to do.

Thelma Reese, Ed.D., is the author with Barbara Fleisher, Ed.D., of “The New Senior Woman: Reinventing the Years Beyond Mid-Life.” www.ElderChicks.com

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