The Holocaust had begun to feel like ancient history, but the urgent new focus on the Middle East reminds us all how virulent anti-Semitism lives as a force in the world.
Just as the Nazis forged a militant fanatical hatred of Jews, Islamic fanatics have forged a modern theory of hatred, illustrated by similar Nazi-like depictions of Jews.
In "Peace: The Arabian Caricature: A Study of Anti-Semitic Imagery," Arieh Stav, director of the Ariel Center for Policy Research in Tel Aviv, documents the vicious anti-Semitic cartoons that proliferate in the Arab world with public and official endorsement. Historically, these caricatures are not unique to the Arab world, but what this book makes clear is that in the Middle East today they are commonplace, generating stereotypes of evil, fusing anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.
In the present crisis, the portrait of the Jew in the Middle East emerges as an ugly and perverse mix of theological, moral, racial, social and political negatives. If you think these images are pushed only by the usual suspects, such as Syria and Iraq, think again. They proliferate across the spectrum of our so-called allies in the coalition, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These caricatures are all the more powerful because they're graphically dramatic and symbolic in countries where many people cannot read.
Jews were forced to wear a yellow patch with a six-pointed star in "sophisticated" Europe, identifying them as vermin that had to be exterminated.
In the Middle East, the Jews of Israel are caricatured as snakes and cockroaches, to be similarly annihilated.
Eastern European Jews were frequently described in metaphors of disease, to be eliminated lest they infect the larger society. Jews in the Middle East are described as a cancer in the body of the Arab world, a malignant tumor that must be surgically removed.
Stav's book, written two years ago, illustrates how popular cartoons generate violent attitudes toward Israel in general and Jews in particular. Just as in Germany, where Jews over the years sometimes earned reprieve from prejudice, Jews have enjoyed occasional protection from Muslim rulers in the past. But it's naive to think that anti-Semitism isn't a driving force of modern Islamist terrorism.
One of the stubborn rumors that circulated among Muslims immediately after Sept. 11 (and among certain other Israel-bashers) was that the airplane attacks were initiated by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. The rumor was accompanied by the kind of lie that lent both specificity and credibility, that 4,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were warned not to show up for work, and escaped the catastrophe.
The rumor was quickly squelched in this country when many of the dead and missing were identified as Jews. But the rumor has the legs of "unshakable truth" for Muslims in the streets of Cairo, Jerusalem, Riyadh, even London.
More than half a century ago, anti-Semitism was indelibly imbedded in the psyche of the Third Reich, which led inexorably to the Holocaust. But in recent years, the Germans have worked tirelessly to document that terrible past and its government has spoken out boldly about the threat of Islamist terrorism.
Many Germans are humiliated that they unwittingly gave shelter to several of the terrorists who flew the death planes.
When Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder returned home after meeting George Bush in Washington this month after surveying the destruction of the terrorists, he suggested that Germany is now prepared to enter a new phase in its post-World War II history, to send its army abroad "in defense of freedom and human rights." This is not likely to thrill millions of Europeans, but it shows where German sentiment lies.
He expressed the "unreserved solidarity" of his government behind the United States. He has endured criticism from the Green Party's pacifist wing and part of his coalition, which has demanded a pause in the bombing of Afghanistan.
Many of the Greens, however, including Joschka Fischer, the German foreign secretary, remain mindful not only of the free world's vulnerability to the terrorists if they are not stopped, but of the terrible treatment women, children and minorities suffer daily at the hands of the Taliban.
These Germans have learned from their country's history and rediscovered a
conscious awareness that both words and deeds are needed to fight against evil. They remind us all that this is no time to be a passive bystander.