Prejudice, like politics, is local. It breeds like mosquitoes beside a stagnant pond where the bites need scratching. That's why every wave of immigration ushers in its own form of prejudice because the latest ethnic group to arrive competes for jobs with those locals who are the most economically insecure.
There are exceptions, of course, where prejudice flows across national boundaries and taps into the hatred of larger populations with less specific reasons to be threatened. Anti-Semitism is one of those obvious exceptions. While it comes and goes like waves at the ocean front, anti-Semitism never completely stops its ebb and flow on the global map. The history of the last century is a dramatic reminder of all that.
The Nazis may have initiated the Holocaust, making the Jews a scapegoat for inflation and poverty after World War I, but they couldn't have been so successful in their attempt to exterminate them if they hadn't had lots of help from East European friends.
Franklin Roosevelt, on this side of the ocean, was loath to go public with information over the murder of the Jews in Germany before Pearl Harbor because he didn't want to set off the arguments of a vocal group of antiwar anti-Semites in America who would try to make U.S. entry into the war in Europe look as though it was in defense of Jews. His State Department was muted on the atrocities of the concentration camps for which they had ample evidence during the war because it wanted no extra sympathy exerted on behalf of saving Jews.
"It's always something," as Gilda Radner used to say.
The English, who never had many Jews in their midst, nevertheless felt a strong antipathy toward them. Both Shakespeare's Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" and Dickens' Fagan in "Oliver Twist" drew on anti-Semitic stereotypes for emotional shortcuts to arouse audience and reader aversion for fictional villains.
The Jew, it seems, is easy for others to caricature, whether victim or survivor. So "the lambs who went to their slaughter" at Auschwitz in one grossly unfair characterization, have been replaced with Israeli soldiers, who fight back, described by an Oxford University professor in The (London) Observer magazine as "the Zionist SS."
The comparison of the Jews to the Nazis is commonplace among Palestinian sympathizers in Europe and the Middle East. It is especially virulent among European intellectuals and journalists who attempt to camouflage their anti-Semitism in political virtue as a defense of the Palestinian "victims."
Such comparisons raise a question for Richard Bernstein in The New Times: "Does the ferocious moral condemnation of Israel mark a recrudescence of that most ugly of Western diseases, anti-Semitism?" he asks. "Or is it legitimate, if crude, criticism of a nation's policies."
It's a question that can't be answered in any absolute way because anti-Semitism is often mixed with other motives and anti-Semites exploit other motives. But it would be foolish to dismiss what's happening today as a phenomenon isolated from age-old anti-Semitism.
When 40 Jewish graves were desecrated in a Rome cemetery last month, a country that has currently gone out of its way to avoid the anti-Jewish bigotry that was rising in other European countries, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said, "Italy has a deep-rooted tradition of civility." But he added, "Not even Rome is immune from the barbarity of anti-Semitism."
The "but" is important. The Middle East crisis has ignited the passions of leftists and anti-globalists in Europe who seize on it to characterize the United States and its sidekick Israel as unfeeling toward the poor of the world. Hence, the Palestinians become the poster children for victimization, emblematic of the have-nots in the world economy.
But it would be naïve to ignore the revival of ancient stereotypes, fueled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the Anti-Defamation League, the United States organization that documents worldwide anti-Semitism, polled 2,500 people in Belgian, Germany, France, Denmark and England - 500 in each country - a third expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. One in five Britons believe that Jews had too much power in business; more than 10 percent believed Jews use shady business practices.
While it not anti-Semitic to question the military strategy of Israel, it is anti-Semitic to dehumanize Jews. While it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, it is anti-Semitic to condemn only Israel and ignore the Palestinian atrocities toward innocent people. A cartoon in the Ethnos, the main pro-government paper in Greece, contains a cartoon where two Israeli soldiers look like Nazis slaughtering innocents. "Don't feel guilty, brother," one of them says. "We were not in Auschwitz and Dachau to suffer, but to learn."