Anti-Semitism and the Festival of Lights

As of this writing, two days from the New Year, there have been 13 anti-Semitic attacks in New York in the last three weeks.


In 1969, I finished high school and struck off for a European adventure with a friend. For 11 weeks, we wandered the continent, sleeping in railway cars, hostels and on the couches of fast friends we made. We ventured as far as Morocco and, one lovely afternoon, on a street in Tangiers, I came face-to-face with anti-Semitism. It was my first encounter.

I had struck up what seemed like a friendly conversation with a local fellow. He was obviously quite educated, and we had an animated discussion about Israel. Something I said triggered a change in my new companion. A dark shadow crossed his face and he looked at me with abject hatred, proclaiming loudly that I was a Jew!

Gravestones with swastikas painted on them
Some of the 96 graves vandalized with swastikas in Quatzenheim, France in February (Photo by Hadrian/Shutterstock.com)

For a brief moment I tried to continue the dialogue. This was interrupted when he pulled out a rather large knife. I turned tail and ran as fast as I could, with this fellow chasing me, waving his knife and shouting expletives. He finally tired of the chase and I found myself back among friends, enjoying a pleasant evening and falling asleep under the stars on a Tangiers beach.

As an adult in the U.S., I continued to experience various forms of anti-Semitism. A common expression in business circles at the time was a metaphor for bargaining—to “Jew them down.” My playful response whenever anyone used this expression was to suggest, “No, let’s gentile them down.” This was often met with a bit of shock and some uncomfortable laughter.

I thank God that there are people like Jim out there. Folks who recognize prejudice for what it is and refuse to sit quietly by.

All prejudices begin with an emotional sense that the other fellow, being different from oneself, is to be feared or even despised. At first the prejudice comes out in mild form—jokes, stereotypes, a willingness to believe the worst even when better information is at hand.

The next step is to escalate the prejudice by disseminating lies and half-truths through the media. This is certainly how the Jews were dehumanized. A classic case is that of U.S. auto mogul Henry Ford. Mr. Ford purchased a Detroit newspaper in 1919 and used it to spread a constant barrage of anti-Semitism.

Newspaper article

Appearing on the front page every week, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem” was based on a notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This fake document, purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination, was an anti-Semitic hoax, first published in Russia in 1903.

Media in the U.S. and abroad found anti-Semitic stories catered to the underlying prejudices of readers. Such stories made it okay for many to be overt with their bigoted feelings about Jews. Instead of recognizing the truth and denouncing those whose agenda was destruction, the majority of the public went along with it, accepting the banning of Jews from social clubs, business, government, education and even scientific institutions.

The Holocaust followed. Fear and hatred overcame the German populace as it acceded to this nightmare. In the U.S., the same seeds planted reaped a harvest of death, where lives could have been saved. Desperate to escape the Nazi regime, Jews seeking asylum were turned away en masse from the U.S. and most other world governments. Many were returned to Germany and their fates sealed. A refusal by the U.S. government and the Allies to acknowledge the existence of the death camps and act early in the war led to millions more senselessly perishing.

In this season, may each of us renew our own personal vows to be an example of a life of kindness, compassion and wisdom. 

When I was traveling through Arkansas with a business partner, our host pointed out a burned-out establishment and proclaimed it was “Jew fire,” implying it was arson for profit, set to collect insurance proceeds. I was in the back seat and was so shocked I could not retort. My partner Jim, a tough Catholic, raised in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, immediately called the guy out. Our host mumbled apologies and my partner insisted our discussions were over. We boarded a plane and that was that.

I thank God that there are people like Jim out there. Folks who recognize prejudice for what it is and refuse to sit quietly by.

Menorah

This is the holiday season and with it, comes Hannukah, the Jewish “Festival of Lights.” Jews the world over light candles on each of eight nights, in remembrance of a long-ago war that threatened the destruction of the Jewish people. We also remember more recent times, when the complete annihilation of the Jews was, once again, so close to hand.

Jews are called upon by religious scripture to exemplify to the world lives of love, compassion and wisdom.

“I the LORD have called unto you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and submitted you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).

In this season, may each of us renew our own personal vows to be an example of a life of kindness, compassion and wisdom. May we each take responsibility for our fellows and endeavor to never give in to prejudice—and to fight it no matter what. 

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