Explaining antisemitism – by Deborah Levine

Antisemitism goes back long before the term was  coined by a German historian in 1781. Violent attacks and expulsions of Jewish communities span centuries. The Babylonians exiled Jews from Zion, the earliest use of the term, into Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions. The Romans forced Jews into Europe. Blamed for causing the Black Plague, Jews were driven out of England, France, Germany, and Italy. They fled to Eastern Europe but experienced violent pogroms and isolation into The Pale. Throughout it all, the elements of antisemitism rarely changed.   

For example, the Blood Libel dates as far back as the Temple in Jerusalem with claims that Jews sacrificed Greeks. It reappeared in the Middle Ages when an English cult announced that Passover Seder wine was actually Christian blood. Centuries later, a mob destroyed a synagogue in Damascus for this blood libel. As recently as 1928 in New York, Jews were accused of kidnapping and ritually killing a young girl.

Economic antisemitism also originated in the Middle Ages when Jews were excluded from many trades and land ownership. Resorting to money lending, Jews became stereotyped as hooked nosed “Happy Merchants” and destructive global financiers. Shakespeare’s Shylock perpetuated these theories which also appeared in the Russian Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Nazis used the  “Happy Merchant” graphic that linked Jews with money and global power, to promote disgust towards Jews. A Nazi propagandist even used it in a children’s book, ensuring antisemitism in the next generation.

Another medieval theory that targeted Jews blamed us for the Black Plague. It’s echoed today by extremists claiming that Israel’s Mossad ‘invented’ COVID as a bioweapon. By saying that wealthy George Soros funded it and attaching the Happy Merchant meme to the COVID-19 virus, they’ve mixed in the global financier conspiracy theory.

We all know the Swastika. Originally a Hindu symbol, it appeared on artifacts from pre-Christian European cultures. When a German archaeologist discovered the hooked cross on the site of ancient Troy, he linked it to similar shapes on ancient German pottery. Other European scholars theorized that the symbol represented a shared Aryan culture spanning Europe and the swastika became a symbol of “Aryan identity”. By 1920, the Nazi Party had adopted it as the symbol of a racially “pure” state. Jews were considered a dangerous “race”, requiring total separation from “Aryans”.

In 1880, 88% of the world’s Jews lived in Europe. Massacres, expulsions, the Holocaust meant a major decline of Europe’s Jewish population. Voluntary migration, especially to the Holy Land, had been restricted for centuries and even Napoleon granting citizenship to Jews did little change that. But a trickle of immigration picked up steam and many Jews immigrated to North America. They hoped for a better life here, but it hasn’t been without challenges.

Jews who had emigrated to Brazil were later expelled. When they first arrived in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654, the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant tried to remove them. But the Dutch West India Company saw the benefit of Jewish merchant networks. They stayed, but thirty years later, when they asked for the right to worship in public, it was refused. But by 1740, Jews were given legal status which Europe wouldn’t do for another 50 years.

Jews acculturated and advanced into the American middle class which fueled some resentment. Following economic downturns in the late 1800s, Southern and Midwest farmers claimed that urban Jews were corrupt international bank owners who were exploiting and ruining family farms.

Industrialization only fueled the hate. In 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta, was convicted of murdering a young female employee. Given the trial’s blatant antisemitism, Georgia’s governor reduced Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. An enraged mob responded by pulling Frank from prison and lynching him. Violence against Jews increased during World War I, as Americans feared the possible spread of Bolshevism. Jews had frequently been labeled as Bolsheviks, especially given the increased rate of immigration. By 1924, Congress had imposed immigration restrictions aiming to resurrect the white Protestant character of 19th-century America. Throughout Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and most of the Holocaust, America maintained these restrictions on immigration.

Jews already in America faced education quotas, discrimination in professions, and bans from clubs and civic associations. In 1922, Harvard proposed a 15 percent quota on Jewish students because too many Jews would provoke more antisemitism.

The media reinforced that fear. Henry Ford published antisemitic conspiracy theories, reprinted sections of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and was commended by Hitler. Radio show host, Father Charles Coughlin, justified Nazi violence against Jews and a re-energized KKK encouraged attacks on Jews and Blacks who threatened  White America and the “Aryan race.”

In 1939, a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden attracted 20,000 fans. Anti-interventionists blamed Jews for dragging America into World War II. And some claimed that America’s real enemies were Jews controlling motion pictures, the media, banks and our government.

Fortunately, we saw a post-war decline of antisemitism, and again in the civil rights era. And with the 1965 Second Vatican Council’s repeal of Jews collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. Centuries of the Church’s teaching of contempt ended. But antisemitism endures, and has resurfaced with a vengeance.

Today’s antisemitism surge goes back decades with supremacists blaming Blacks and Jews for corrupting white America. The Southern connection is an ongoing reality and attacks were made on Atlanta’s oldest synagogue in 1958. Five men linked to the white-supremacist National States’ Rights Party were arrested. None were convicted. In 1960, Temple Beth-Israel in Gadsden, Alabama was attacked by a 16-year old.  Antisemitism gained a new generation.

At the same time, George Lincoln Rockwell founded the American Nazi Party, basing it on the strategies and ideals of the Nazi era. Rockwell denied The Holocaust and called Martin Luther King Jr. a tool of Jewish Communists trying to take over America. He saw Hitler as “the White savior of the twentieth century” and founded the phrase, White Power.”  Rockwell blamed Jews for the civil rights movement even as they were targeted by Elijah Muhammad, an early leader of the Nation of Islam whom Rockwell called the Hitler of the Black man. In 1967, Rockwell was murdered by a disgruntled member, but related organizations spread into the Midwest and his magazine, The Stormtrooper, is available online.

When I was the JCRC director of Tulsa’s Jewish Federation after the Oklahoma City bombing, I saw that neo-Nazism was deeply rooted in American soil. There was active recruitment of young men into the Skinheads version and they would leave brochures claiming that Blacks and Jews were sub-humans and eradicating them was not immoral or a crime. There were several so-called communes of white supremacists, some going by the label, Christian Identity Church.

Tulsa attracted Holocaust Denier, David Irving, who gave a presentation, which I attended, at the local library under a fake name. The attendees had been summoned from around the region by email. They’d adapted old tropes to new technology which continues to promoted antisemitism nationally and internationally, which is where we are today.

The FBI trained me and my colleagues in the African American and Native American communities in security, knowing that we were all at risk. One of the FBI agents in Oklahoma is now head of our local FBI headquarters and debriefed us at the launch of Mayor Berke’s Council Against Hate.

The echos of the past continue. Blogs spread ancient canards about Jews trying to control the world. Videos about the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Hitler’s Mein Kampf have been on Youtube. A QAnon member threatened a Jewish congressmen with lynching like Leo Frank. The deadly march in Charlottesville incorporated the global takeover theory with the chant, “Jews will not replace us.” African American celebrities have repeated Farrakhan’s antisemitic theories that echo ancient tropes. By the way, that prompted me, Mizpah Congregation, and local Black leaders to revitalize a Black-Jewish Dialogue, active now virtually and globally, to connect and counteract this hate.

Action is a must as I remember sitting with an architect at a downtown restaurant in 1999, planning the current Federation building. Stunned, we watched the TV as Buford Furrow Jr. attacked a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center and day camp. The White Supremacist shooter allegedly told FBI investigators that he wanted “a wake-up call to America to kill Jews.” Message received… and it shaped our plans for the building’s design.

Since then, some attacks on Jews have blurred the line between Anti-Zionist and antisemitism including 2 attacks on synagogues in New York, on El Al airlines at the LA airport, and on the Seattle Jewish Federation. But these incidents are outnumbered by recent white separatist attacks including on Pittsburgh’s Congregation Beth El, Congregation Ahavath Achim in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon, the  Overland Park Jewish Community Center, Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, and the Hanukkah stabbing at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York.

This partial list doesn’t include failed plots and the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries. We know that each new incident is part of a broader pattern. It’s true not only here in the US, but in Europe where nationalistic movements are resurging to protect the national identity and “purity”. They’ve defaced cemeteries, vandalized Jewish-owned stores, assaulted Jews on neighborhood streets, on trains, and outside of synagogues. The Eastern European situation can be summed up in a recent report of a Bosnian-Croat soccer fan holding a Nazi flag during a march, while Police stood by, allowing the flag and repeated shouting of “Sieg Heil.”

Last year, I wrote about European white supremacist groups and their International convention held at a state-owned park near Nashville in my opinion column for The Chattanooga Times Free Press. I was targeted by name on neo-Nazi websites. Fortunately, the FBI has my back. Besides, I follow Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel’s words, “…there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Did you know that Wiesel came through Chattanooga years ago? I learned that from my massage therapist who informed that I was lying on the bed where she’d treated him during his stop over. If that isn’t b’shert (fate), I don’t know what is. It’s obviously time to be involved more than ever. That’s why I co-authored When Hate Groups March Down Main Street.

Chattanooga’s Hadassah chapter asked me to address antisemitism with Michael Dzik (Exec. Director of the Jewish Federation) and Chattanooga’s Mayor Andy Berke. Here is my Nov. 15, 2020 presentation. 


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