Sunday, August 8, 2010

Anti-Semitism, Part I

Breakfast, Sunday morning, at a place with great croissants and good coffee, the sort of venue that leads either to serious talks or absurd discussions with nothing in-between. I’ve been reading Sarah’s Key, a devastating novel if you’re French, Parisian above all, and born shortly after World War 2. I’m all three.

The novel was suggested to me by a friend who knows I am working on a book about post-War Paris.  Shorn of its tresses, it deals with the events of July 16 through 18, 1942, when French police rounded up more than 13,000 Parisian Jews on the order of the Vichy government, kept them captive in an arena called the VĂ©lodrome d’Hivers for three days without foods, water or medical help, then sent them to Auschwitz where they were gassed. It’s commonly referred to as the Vel d’Hiv massacre, and it was only a few years ago that the French government recognized the country’s responsibilities.

The nature of the event was not taught in the school I attended in Paris as a child. I never heard anyone—anyone—refer to it, not my parents, not their friends, not Jewish acquaintances whose arms bore concentration camp tattoos. 

So my playwright friend P and I started wondering about the origins of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, because the continent’s history—be it French, Italian, Spanish or German, Swiss, Belgian, Austrian or Portuguese—is rife with violent incidents, faith-based massacres, deportations and discriminations. They’re there, just below the surface, rarely spoken about yet all too obvious.

According to most scholars, anti-Semitism may date back to the third century BCE. Alexandria was then the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. Edward Flannery, author of The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism, first published in 1965, quotes an Egyptian priest and historian of the period who wrote that the Jews were expelled from Egypt for being lepers. One of the earliest anti-Jewish edicts, promulgated by Antiochus Epiphanes circa 170-167 BCE, sparked the revolt of the Maccabees in Judea. The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described an attack on Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE in which thousands of Jews died.

In later times, passages in the New Testament were often quoted to support discriminations against the Jews, and according to Wikipedia when Rome turned to Christianity in the 4th century,  “Jews became objects of religious intolerance and political oppression. Christian literature began to display extreme hostility to Jews, and this occasionally resulted in attacks on Jews and the burning of synagogues.

“Emperor Constantine I instituted several laws concerning Jews: they were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to circumcise their slaves. Conversion of Christians to Judaism was outlawed. Congregations for religious services were restricted, but Jews were allowed to enter Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Discrimination became worse in the 5th century. Jews were barred from the civil service and the army. The Jewish Patriarchate was abolished and the scope of Jewish courts restricted. New synagogues were confiscated and old synagogues could be repaired only if they were in danger of collapse. Synagogues fell into ruin, were converted to churches, or were destroyed.”

Skip forward many centuries to modern Europe.  Anti-Semitism is still there though better veiled. Disraeli, a Jew, becomes Prime Minister of England.

In Russia anti-Semitism intensified in the early years of the twentieth century and was given official favor when the secret police manufactured and promulgated the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document purported to be a transcription of a plan by Jewish elders to achieve global domination by any means necessary. To this day, the Protocols are cited by Muslim authorities and other anti-Semites as genuine and used as a basis for war and discrimination.

In France, the Dreyfus Affair pitted sons against fathers. Was Dreyfus indeed a spy? No, as it turns out, he wasn’t, but the coals of anti-Semitism, never extinguished, are fanned back to life.

In the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, Wikipedia tells us, Jews were discriminated against in employment, access to residential and resort areas, membership in clubs and organizations, and in tightened quotas on Jewish enrollment and teaching positions in colleges and universities. The Leo Frank lynching by a mob of prominent citizens in Marietta, Georgia in 1915 turned the spotlight on anti-Semitism in the United States and led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. The case was also used to build support for the renewal of the Ku Klux Klan which had been inactive since 1870.
Anti-Semitism in the United States reached its peak during the interwar period. The pioneer automobile manufacturer Henry Ford propagated antisemitic ideas in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. The radio speeches of Father Coughlin in the late 1930s attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the notion of a Jewish financial conspiracy.

In the 1940s, the aviator Charles Lindbergh and many prominent Americans led The America First Committee in opposing any involvement in the war against Fascism. During his July 1936 visit he wrote letters saying that there was "more intelligent leadership in Germany than is generally recognized."

to be continued... 

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