Stereotypes galvanize hostility by dehumanizing a person or group, with no appeal to thinking. At best, in the hands of political cartoonists and satirists, stereotypes illuminate political and cultural observation with wit and insight. At worst, stereotypes appeal to man's capacity to hate, to direct terror against the innocent.
The Nazis used stereotypes of Jews to rally the storm troopers and led in a direct line to the concentration camps as whole nations (with a few honorable exceptions) turned their backs on the Jews.
Although the Jewish stereotypes through history have seesawed between Jewish helplessness and Jewish wealth and power, the Nazis successfully drew on both images, marking as targets both the unwashed orthodox of the ghetto and the "greedy bankers and businessmen" who - so they thought - had been successfully assimilated.
Stereotypes of other races and tribes have come and gone, borne on the tides of history, but Jews have never eliminated irrational resentment toward the sons and daughters of the diaspora. Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, speculated that of all the 20th century social diseases, anti-Semitism would continue beyond the national, political and religious connections of geography. Current events suggest that she may be right.
Columnist Barbara Amiel, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, demonstrates how anti-Semitism has been revived among her countrymen. She quotes a European aristocrat during World War II: "I can't wait for this war to end, so a gentleman can be an anti-Semite again." The war ended, and the gentleman once again settled into his anti-Semitism.
"Modern anti-Semitism sits well with this anecdote," she writes. No honorable Brits would parade their anti-Semitism when the country was at war with the Third Reich, but with Hitler safely out of the way, they could retreat to their salons to sneer, joined by the intellectual elites and their friends in the media.
The editors of the left-leaning London Independent felt no compunction publishing a cartoon of Ariel Sharon, naked, eating a Palestinian infant, an insidious update of the blood libel dating from the Middle Ages, that Jews kill Christian babies for the blood to use in Satanic rituals.
The blood libel, rendered an absurd curiosity of history in the West, is a staple of print and conversation in the Middle East, where Jews are frequently said to murder children for their blood as an ingredient in bread.