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Anti-Semitism: A Convenient Hatred

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What keeps hatred alive? Many people thought antisemitism would disappear after the Holocaust, but it did not. Nor did it disappear when many Christian churches acknowledged that Jews were not responsible for the crucifixion. And antisemitism and other hatreds have persisted despite tough laws against discrimination, hate crimes and hate speech. To understand why hatreds endure, we have to confront history. Histories that are not confronted can never be reconciled and yet most people -- including many Jews-- know very little about the history of antisemitism.

Some fear that remembering the ugly and horrific moments in our collective past perpetuates hatred. Journalist Pilar Rahola, a former Spanish lawmaker, disagrees. "A lack of memory leads to ignorance," writes Rahola, and "ignorance produces prejudice, and prejudice breeds intolerance." She has described her own nation as "one that has never confronted its responsibility with regards to antisemitism -- neither in the past, nor the present."

In 1492, Spain expelled its entire Jewish population and did not officially overturn that order of expulsion until 1968. Today Spain has Europe's smallest Jewish population with less than one-tenth of one percent of the nation's total. And yet surveys conducted by national and international organizations consistently show that more than 500 years after Jews were forced out of Spain, antisemitism is still deeply embedded in the culture.

Hatreds are taught directly and indirectly, consciously and unconsciously, in small places close to home. Those teachings are bolstered by the media and other groups in a society, sometimes overtly and sometimes very subtly. Few people can recall how they came to see an entire group of people as "other" or "different." It happens so gradually that it feels normal, natural, even right.

Once a collection of lies, stereotypes and myths are entrenched in a society, it has always been relatively easy for a ruler, a general, a charismatic preacher, a rabble-rouser, or a disgruntled neighbor to use them to achieve their own goals. Thus antisemitism has long been a convenient way of uniting one's own followers and recruiting new ones by turning "us" against "them." Those same lies have also been used to extort money and other property from Jews and divert attention from "our" own shortcomings. In times of stress, conflict and dis-ease, the cry is often heard: "The Jews are to blame!"

The history of antisemitism makes it clear that hatreds are not ideologies; they are not sets of beliefs but collections of often contradictory lies that play to our deepest fears and anxieties. And hatreds always evolve to reflect the times. When religion was the dominant force in society, antisemitism was almost always discussed in religious terms. By the late 1700s, many Europeans claimed they were living in a new age -- the Age of the Enlightenment. Philosopher Immanuel Kant described the leaders of this new age as those who dared to "reject the authority of tradition, and to think and inquire." Modern science grew out of that daring. So did the idea that "all men are created equal."

The "enlightened" could exclude one group from another only by demonstrating a "natural difference." In other words, discrimination had to be justified by "scientific" evidence showing that human nature differs according to age, gender, and "race." Until the 1700s, the word race was widely used to refer to a people, a tribe, or a nation. By the end of the century, it described a distinct group of human beings with inherited physical traits and moral qualities that set them apart from other "races." Increasingly, opposition to Jews was linked to their "race."

Jews were now seen as "too different" to be "true Spaniard," "true Germans," or any other nationality. They were considered a separate and dangerous "race." The old stereotypes were recycled to reflect that "new" understanding. After World War II and the Holocaust, that kind of racism began to go out of fashion. Not surprisingly antisemitism did not. It simply evolved.

History matters. Elie Wiesel once wrote that "Although we today are not responsible for the injustices of the past, we are responsible for the way we remember the past and what we do with that past." Only through the process of facing history and ourselves can we hope to stop the hatred and prevent further violence.

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