There is much irony in the status of American Jews. We are arguably better off than any sizable population of Jews anywhere in the world throughout history. American Jews are nonetheless justifiably defensive. We are defensive because we need not look far to see the fragility of our privilege.
Last week’s news alone illuminated this fragility. On one hand, classical anti-Semitism is alive and well in the world. In Russia, the birthplace of many anti-Semitic tropes, the blood libel reared it ugly head again. In Russia’s third largest city, Novosibirsk, Haaretz reported that dozens of homes were plastered with posters warning, among other things that, “These vermin are still performing rituals, stealing small children and draining their blood to make their sacred bread.” For a long time, such lies served as the basis for waves of anti-Jewish pogroms. For those who are unfamiliar, not only is cannibalism clearly unacceptable in Jewish law, but consuming blood of even kosher animals is prohibited. Most anti-Semitism relies on mixing a small amount of truth into the lies, but this total lie persists even today in places, like Russia, where it is hardly novel.
On the other hand, a newer anti-Semitism is on the rise in Western Europe – largely re-imported by Muslim immigrants. I use the term “re-imported” because classical anti-Semitism was brought to the Arab and Islamic world from Europe in 1840. The blood libel appeared in Damascus in that year and was blended with certainpre -existing anti-Jewish sentiments to form this new anti-Semitism. It was strengthened by the Nazi influence in the region leading up to and during WWII. Today, this new anti-Semitism is coming home to Europe.
This second news story is not about Jews per se. It is about the consequences that have been felt by those involved in the Muhammad cartoon controversy. I connect the two because I have a friend who lives in Denmark, and I know a family that lived in the Netherlands. My friend in Denmark cannot wear a Star of David around her neck because of fear of Islamic violence. The family from the Netherlands came here, in part, out of fear of anti-Semitic violence. The violence stirred by the controversy and the violence felt by those I know is the same thing. It is also the violence that has chasedSalman Rushdie into years of hiding.
The New York Times reports that the cartoonist who made the cartoon with a bomb in Muhammad’s turban, Kurt Westergaard, has been through five safehouses and that a plot to kill him was revealed last month. A man with the same name as the editor who published the cartoons, Flemming Rose, has had to change his name. Ironically,Westergaard has produced cartoons that are arguably far more disrespectful towards Jews and Christians. Even Westergaard admits regret at creating a cartoon that depicted a Palestinian Arab wearing a yellow star – a reference to the yellow stars worn by Jews during the Holocaust. The New York Times details multiple incidents of censorship in Western Europe prompted largely by fear of Islamic violence.
I have no doubt that the European majority hates Arabs and Turks and Muslims far more than they hate Jews. The hatred of Muslims in Europe is unequivocally wrong and indefensible. But, it is the Jews who are leaving out of fear of racist violence – not the Arabs or Turks or Muslims. We may be less hated by the European majority, but we are more at risk of violence because of the hatred that exists against us.
This is why American Jews raise the issue of anti-Semitism in America, sometimes at the risk of appearing overly defensive. We want to raise awareness of the problem before we, like our European (and South American – but that is for another time) family, feel the pressure to leave our homes. It is also why many of us are not sympathetic to those who feel that we allege anti-Semitism unfairly. When I know Jews who cannot wear symbols of their faith because of fear of violence, it is hard for me to take seriously that I am censoring people when I merely raise the possibility that they are encouraging anti-Semitism. Read the New York Times article on the real censorship taking place violently in Europe, and then we can talk about what censorship is and whether Jews are being too defensive.