An ancient contagion thrives

Posted: Dec 08, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Egypt's newspapers typically print cartoons depicting Jews, with exaggerated hooked noses, devouring Palestinians. The BBC defends the depictions as "political" but not anti-Semitic because the authors are without "any historical hatred of Jews as a race." It's merely coincidence, of course, that the Israelis of our time bear a strong resemblance to the Jews depicted in the Nazi newspapers of the 1930s.

A cartoon in an Egyptian newspaper depicts an ugly Jew with the requisite enormous nose, in a yarmulke, throwing daggers at a child with angel wings, tied to a stake. Blood drips from the child's wounds and puddles at her feet. A Jordanian cartoon depicts a ravenous Jew at table with knife and fork at the ready, eager to devour a tasty human dish on a silver platter about to be set before him by Uncle Sam.

In the history of anti-Semitism, stereotypes extend to protectors of Jews, as the Uncle Sam cartoon suggests. The anti-Semitism of the British and European elites quickly leads to hatred of America, because democratic America supports democratic Israel. France and England should logically cherish Israel, too, as the lonely democracy in the Middle East, the only redoubt of free speech, free religion and the freedom to have no religion in that miserable corner of the world. But logic dies in resentment and hatred.

Anti-Semitism is nurtured by the left on our own campuses, sometimes disguised as merely anti-Israel sentiment. Sometimes Jews themselves lend cover. Marches against the war in Iraq in support of Palestine are fueled with anti-Semitic smears. At San Francisco State University, Jews marching in support of Israel were greeted with cries and posters warning that "Hitler did not finish the job."

Criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and criticism of Israel, even harsh criticism, is fair enough.

But it's not fair enough to draw on racist stereotypes. It's one of the sadder ironies of our time that the Jews established a home of their own in Israel as an inoculation against anti-Semitism only to discover that the ancient disease is alive, well, thriving - and threatening.