What to Know About the Deep-Rooted History of Antisemitism

A late 19th-century German journalist named Wilhelm Marr, who popularized the term “anti-Semite,” intellectualized Jew-hatred, decoupling it from earlier ritual-based blood libels like those about Jews drinking Christian babies’ blood and instead referred to Jews’ “alien essence” and “tribal peculiarities.” Nazi eugenicists also focused on our “racial inferiority.” We couldn’t convert our way out of their hatred if we tried.

It’s important to remember that Jews are a tiny percentage of the population: about 2% in the U.S. and .2% worldwide. (At the dawn of Nazi rule in 1933, Jews made up less than 1% of the German populace.) For comparison, more than 30% of the world’s population is Christian and about 24% is Muslim, according to 2015 figures. And yet people regularly overestimate how many Jews there actually are. A spring 2022 survey by YouGov found that Americans believe 30% of the country is Jewish. We’re seen as having an outsized presence even if, nearly 100 years on, there are still about 1.5 million fewer of us than there were before the Holocaust. It doesn’t matter our numbers; antisemitism exists even in places with few to no Jews. It can breed on both ends of the political spectrum.

What’s more, antisemitism is a prejudice that has produced little collective sympathy historically. Whether due to ingrained ideas about “power,” “privilege,” or “insularity,” Jews are often blamed for “inciting” antisemitism. In 1938, Gallup conducted a poll shortly after Germany’s Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) intimidation and murder campaign, in which Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed, Jews were killed, and tens of thousands of Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. The survey found that while most Americans disapproved of the Nazi’s actions, a staggering 54% agreed with the statement, “the persecution of Jews in Europe has been partly their own fault,” and a further 11% agreed it was “entirely” their fault. After the Holocaust, antisemites accused Jews of fabricating or exaggerating the tragedy, with some saying it was an “excuse” used to garner sympathy in order to establish the state of Israel.

Even in current times, when we speak out about antisemitism, a familiar cycle often plays out. As The Atlantic‘s Rosenberg has repeatedly pointed out, antisemitism is a self-reinforcing fallacy: “The antisemite claims that Jews control everything. Then, if they’re penalized for their bigotry, they point to that as proof. Heads they win, tails Jews lose.”

Ask a Jewish friend how they feel about, say, a Jewish president and you’re likely to get an ambivalent response. Our happiness and pride for a fellow Jew’s success can be unfairly muddled by feelings of whether this will further feed conspiracy theories and make things worse for us in the long term. We’re left posting on social media about how, well, not that many Jews are successful or powerful, as though the global cabal conspiracy would be true if there were more of us in those positions. It’s a gross, uncomfortable feeling.

It’s important to remember, too, that these tropes aren’t just upsetting (to us or to anyone who opposes bigotry, I’d hope), they’re also extremely dangerous. Attacks against Jews constitute the majority of religious-based hate crimes in the U.S., despite our tiny overall numbers, with Orthodox and Hasidic Jews the most visible targets. Antisemitic ideology has proliferated in recent years, inspiring multiple recent mass shootings, including the May 2022 shooting in Buffalo, New York, where the shooter expressed support for the conspiracy theory that Jews were “puppeteers” orchestrating the “Great Replacement.” The canard posits that Jews are behind non-white migration to the U.S. in a sinister attempt to replace or dilute the white race. Antisemitism isn’t just a problem in the U.S. It appears to be on the rise globally as well.

We’ve fought for our collective survival for centuries. It’s critical, now as much as ever, that we’re not alone in this fight.

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