The Persistence of Anti-Semitism
The conditions facing Jews throughout modern history were consistently unfortunate. Subjected to the hatred of crusading Christian societies, continuously relegated to an isolated and disenfranchised place in politics and remanded to a perpetuation of their ancient customs under the close scrutiny of those who wished to see such customs relegated to ancient times, Jews persisted in such contexts as Europe and Central Asia only according to their will to withstand injustice and misery. But with the inception of the Enlightenment era in the late 18th and 19th century, social values began to change and with them, so too did the perspective held of Jews. Though not elevated to anything resembling an equal status in society, in nations such as France, England and Germany, opportunities would be presented to Jews to become a part of specifically non-Jewish European customs and identifying cultural proclivities. This would mark the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment, but would also mark a lapse in European anti-Semitism inconsistent with its long past and its immediate future. Both of these reveal a historical proclivity toward severe terms of anti-Semitism that gives root to the discussion here. Though there may be no tangible way to determine ‘why’ anti-Semitism has persisted from centuries of European oppression up to the events of World War II and directly into modern-day Europe and America, it is clear that anti-Semitism often bears a close and direct relationship to important events in world history. Among these, claims as to the Jewish role in the death of Jesus, perceptions of the Jews as being isolated and untrustworthy within nationalistic cultures and more modern conflicts regarding the statehood of Israel have all contributed to the negative impressions foisted upon the Jewish people.
It must be widely considered that perhaps the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of 6 million Jews in the Nazi concentration camps of Europe, would be the defining event in the modern history of Judaism. The ancient religion would emerge from the atrocities to which it had been subjected with a redoubled tenacity in returning its people to the biblical Promised Land of Israel. When revelations of the terrors afflicting the Jews had become fully apparent to the world, the religion’s portrayal in the media would take a decisive turn from ambivalence and tacit contempt to a deep sense of collective shame, guilt and sympathy. When we characterize it in this way, it must be noted that this is intended to distinguish the new acceptance of Judaism from true tolerance, and instead to note it as an action inspired by a collective global sense of responsibility for the sheer breadth of evil visited upon the Jewish people.
A recognition that as a whole, the world had failed to protect a people whose contribution had been nothing less than the introduction of ethical monotheism to humanity would give the international community over to an acknowledgement that anti-Semitism had long been an undercurrent in the caricatured portrayals of the Jews in entertainment, journalism and other forms of popular culture. For the first time, mainstream forums such as media, business and politics would begin to reconsider the extent to which negative or narrow stereotypes of the Jewish people could be construed as anti-Semitic. Indeed, there was a direct connection between Hitler’s use of anti-Jewish propaganda and the readiness with the which the German people accepted the Final Solution. Thus, a critical consideration of the ways in which Jews were being portrayed and the ways in which Jews were seen would being to improve the global Jewish image. However, there would remain a steady undercurrent in westernized parts of the world of hostility toward this minority group. And in the eastern world, sharp divisions between Jews and Muslims over issues concerning Israeli statehood have provoked a far more explicit and aggressive anti-Semitism. This resulting balance would lead us to the very divided image of Judaism in modern media.
Many of the traditional sentiments underscoring anti-Semitism and leaning on such virulent generalizations denoting the Jew’s financial miserliness and his grotesquely large nose have since that time been removed from the mainstream discourse. Popular media, especially in the United States, is mindful of a general public sentiment that is reluctant to embrace any of the old stereotypes that had proven so dangerous in the hands of German propaganda-makers during World War II. Yet, it is the very symbol of Jewish suffering and redemption that today also represents the biggest challenge to the world’s perception and portrayal of Judaism. (Popper, 1) To this extent, it may be said that for some—many of whom are likely to have already possessed some culturally rooted bias against the Jewish—the perception that the Jews demanded rather than earned sympathy following the Holocaust would give way to resentment. This would in turn promote a great many conspiracy theories, fueled by anti-Jewish sentiment, relating the imposition of this sympathy with the rise of Jews to economic power, to social recognition and even to global power. Some, called Holocaust revisionists, believe that the Holocaust did not even occur. In spite of the great extensiveness of documented evidence, produced in photo, video and written form by the concentration camp liberators and by the Nazi perpetrators themselves, revisionists argue that the events of the Holocaust had been concocted in an elaborate scheme by the Jews to garner world attention, which could then be channeled into long-standing goals of Zionism.
Indeed, this stated connection between the Holocaust and the Zionist movement does bear relevance to our discussion, both in terms of the way that the two events would relate in the sequence of modern Jewish history and in the regard that Zionism would become one of the single most persistent and, today, salient causes for anti-Semitism. The State of Israel, declared the Jewish National Homeland in 1948, has since its existence provoked deeply emotional responses from all parties involved. Exacerbated by its 1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which it continues to control to this date, Israel has since its existence been at the center of an extremely complex and uncertain conflict which has alienated it both from many neighbors in the Middle East and from many philosophical opponents to its chosen tactics. The hardline military tactics which it has utilized to defend itself against the Arab neighbors which literally surround the tiny country, as well as those tactics which it has used to stem resistance in the above-mentioned occupied territories, has placed the Jews at the focal point of vocal international consternation. (Popper, 2) The media’s portrayal of Israel figures perhaps most heavily today in its depiction of the Jews and thus in the shared public perception in places such as Europe, the Middle East and even in the United States.
While we are unlikely to see the mawkish, rabbinical penny-pincher on today’s sitcom or talk show program, 24 hour-a-day news channels broadcast the details of Israel’s ongoing military and human rights concerns with a lack of nuance that is itself quite damaging to the veracity of public information. Today, the connotation is often directly tailored in such contexts to deliver bites of information without the historical background which might shed accurate light on a long-standing historical conflict. Absent of such nuance, the tendency of footage on Israeli defense tactics is to assess a moral wrongdoing on the part of the Jews. It seems evident that the depiction of Israel is inherently slanted in such a manner as to depict the Jew as warmongering, oppressive and theocratic, yet the media’s consistent failure to truly elucidate the implications of its occupation in the Palestinian territory or to represent aspects of Israel which transcend the militarism made necessary by its geographical disposition have enabled the uninformed perspective to form amongst many that the Jewish state is radical, aggressive and roguish. More than the classic stereotypes facing the Jews in prior centuries, it is the image of the rifle-toting 18 year old soldier that most declaims the virtue of the Jew in today’s media. By interesting point of fact, this is an image that directly counters the one promoted in Hitler’s Nazi Germany and even in modern stereotypes, that the Jew is an unfit and physically meek figure. Hitler would use this image to account for claims that Jews couldn’t be trusted or that they were cowardly by their physical and emotional nature.
And as recent cases in popular culture illustrate, there does genuinely exist an often unspoken but continually relevant mistrust of the Jews amongst other cultures. The inflammatory notion that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is a mythologized over-simplification of history that has helped to sustain an unwavering if often invisible image problem for the Jews. The spotlight created by the situation in Israel has been very pertinent to this conception of the Jew as deceptive, combative and imbued with a sense of superiority. (Patterson, 1) This notion has been a long-standing provocateur of resentment against the Jews, whose historical texts identify them inherently as being the Chosen People.
Though both the crucifixion and the preferential self-proclamation have created contentiousness that has throughout history prompted explicit conflict between Jews and typically hegemonic Christian cultures, today this conflict takes form in less expected contexts.
As a primary and notorious example, in 2004, director Mel Gibson became embroiled in controversy for producing what may likely be considered the most direct and explicit work of anti-Semitism created for mainstream consumption since WWII. In The Passion of the Christ, which would ultimately gross more than $370 million at the box office, Gibson would retell the story of Jesus with a focus on the myth of the Jew as a weak, effeminate figure whose treachery caused the death of the Messiah. (BOM, 1) The recall of an otherwise fading perspective on the Jews—at least in the context of vocalized media discussion—returned the pointlessly divisive question to the public discourse, likewise causing a firestorm that would have a dramatically negative effect on Gibson’s theretofore well-cast public image. Though Gibson denied claims of his anti-Semitism, arguing that the film was made only according to the way that he interpreted the bible, it was likely by no coincidence that the actor-director was arrested several months later for driving under the influence and, during his arrest, made aggressive remarks to arresting officers regarding the deceptiveness and evil of the Jews.
The Academy Award winning director would prove with this film and his public behavior that anti-Semitism is alive and well in even the most public and liberal of contexts such as Hollywood. The response from both anti-Semites and Jews would be substantial and immediate. Its successful performance in the box office would illustrate that support does still exist for this media depiction of the Jews. However, the far larger effect than these immediate returns would be the actor/director’s castigation at the hands of critics, the media, the public and his industry, itself very influenced by a considerable Jewish representation. Many in the public, this repudiation would show, had come to understand that distortions and anti-Semitism has created many of the false or stereotyped claims about the Jews.
The Israel question, in contrast, remains very much a situation that keeps the world sharply divided in its interpretation of media coverage. Even Jews themselves are very mixed on their feelings toward the treatment of the Palestinian people and the media’s portrayal thereof. However, in our present conflict in the War On Terror, Israel must play a key role both in the conflict and the approach of peace. Thus, the portrayal of the Jew in the media and the perspective held of Jews in the world, whether positive, negative or indifferent, does accurately indicate that his relatively small population within the world community is far overshadowed by his salient stature and his determinant impact on world affairs. In devoting so much coverage to a group that is roughly one/fifth of a percent of the world’s total population, the United States media has correctly fostered an impression of Judaism as greater in its impact, representation and accomplishments than in its modest size. It is perhaps this fact above all others that accounts for the persistence of anti-Semitism.
BOM. (2004). “The Passion of the Christ” Lifetime Box Office. Box Office Mojo. Ret. 4/29/08 <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=releases&id=passionofthechrist. tm.>
Lappin, Robert. (April 17th, 2000). Judaism ©. Am Echad Resources. Ret. 4/29/08< http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/article/466/>.
Patterson, Charles. (2006). Mel Gibson and the Gospel of Anti-Semitism. Jewish Virtual Library. Ret. 4/29/08< http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti semitism/gibson.html>
Popper, Nathaniel. (2005). Israel Aims to Improve its Public Image. The Jewish Daily Forward. Ret. 4/29/08<http://www.forward.com/articles/israel-aims-to improve-its-public-image/>
Pergola, Sergio della. (2002). World Jewish Population. Department for Jewish Zionist Education. Ret. 4/29/08< http://www.jafi.org.il/education/100/concepts/demography/demjpop.html>.