In teaching the Holocaust, one question I encounter is a stumper: Why has antisemitism lasted so long? The earliest slurs against Jews dates back to the 3rd century BCE and graffiti on the walls of cities such as Alexandria. The New Testament authors certainly fueled a new level of animus, one that hasn’t died down since.
Sociologically speaking, antisemitism is the cockroach of prejudices. It started culturally, then added a religious component (thank you, New Testament authors), and then took the most odious turn under the hands of the Nazis.
Raul Hilbert, the dean of Holocaust scholars, summed up the Nazi perfection of antisemitism this way:
- Religious: Christians said to Jews, “You have no right to live among us as Jews.” (Message: convert or suffer the consequences)
- Sociological/economic: “You have no right to live among us.” (Introduction of ghettoes)
- Biological: “You have no right to live.” (Perfected by Goebbels and Nazi medical professionals.)
Why do we regard this as the “perfection” of antisemitism? Because there was no way out. In phase 1 you could convert to Christianity. In phase 2, if you stayed with your own, things would be okay—except for the occasional pogrom. But phase 3 was inescapable in its logic and standing: the moment you were born, you became an enemy of the state with your first gasp of air. Your very existence was illegal and immutable, since there’s no way to change biology.
Antisemitism is once again on the rise, a stark slap in the face for those well-meaning liberals who think we’ve gotten “beyond that.” It’s not just Charlottesville or the multiple attacks on synagogues. It’s that in this world, where the majority feels threatened by the increasing number of minorities encroaching on their turf, Jews are once again the “other,” a categorization that many, Jews included, thought they had finally escaped.