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The oldest hatred

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest hatred, and it is with us still.

A little more than a year ago I wrote about the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library of the ancient world. It was in the Great Library that Euclid wrote his geometry, Archimedes discovered principles that would form the basis of classical science and a team of 72 rabbis translated the Pentateuch into Greek.

When the Library was destroyed long ago, countless irreplaceable works of literature, philosophy and history were lost to us forever. I chose to write about this because the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina had recently opened on the site of the original Library. Built with the support of UNESCO, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was, I suggested, a beacon of hope in a world scarred by the genocide and tyranny of the Twentieth Century.

I have been forced to reconsider my optimism after reading that the Library recently displayed an Arabic translation of a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a Jewish holy text. On the very site where over two millennia ago the Jewish scriptures were translated into the common tongue of the day, one of the most virulently anti-Semitic texts ever written – which has been described as “a warrant for genocide” – was now being presented as a Jewish holy book, equal to the Torah.

The Protocols were written in czarist Russia, but the book is most infamous as a seminal text of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda. It purports to be a document detailing the secret plans of a cabal of Jewish elders to gain control of the world. The text is a crude forgery, discredited long ago, and its contents are outlandish even by the standards of conspiracy theories. But despite all this, it is believed by many millions of people in the Muslim world – it is of course a simplification to speak of “the Muslim world,” but no more so than speaking of “Europe.” As Orwell noted, “One of the marks of anti-Semitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true.”

I am not suggesting that Islam is inherently anti-Semitic. On the contrary, for much of Islam’s history, Jews suffered considerably worse persecution and discrimination in Christian Europe than they did in Muslim countries. It should also be noted that many of the anti-Semitic themes that are so common in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are European imports. One common claim, known as the blood libel, is that Jews use Christian blood to bake matzah for Passover and it has its origins in medieval Europe. One of the many books in circulation that repeats this libel, “The Matzah of Zion,” recently went into its eighth edition in Syria. Until recently its author, Mustafa Tlas, was the Syrian Minister of Defense.

One gauge of the depth of anti-Semitism is the extent of its acceptability – the extent to which even senior statesmen and other public figures can make slanderous and hateful claims about Jews with impunity.

Although not of a comparable scale, there are also disturbing signs in modern Europe, where surveys continue to report widespread anti-Jewish prejudices and where in many countries there have been upsurges in the amount of violent assaults on Jews and arson attacks on synagogues. Last year the chief rabbi of France, Joseph Sitruk, felt compelled to suggest that Jewish men should not wear their skullcaps in public so as to “avoid becoming a target for potential assailants.”

Last November in the city of Terre Haute, here in Indiana, a Holocaust museum was partially destroyed in an arson attack, and there have been similar attacks made on synagogues in San Francisco and Alameda, Calif., and Syracuse, N.Y. Many sources also report a significant increase in violent assaults against Jews, as well as reports of ethnic slurs and verbal harassment.

One of the false lessons we sometimes draw from the history of the Holocaust is that anti-Semitism has its natural home on the political Right – we infer this in part because we are largely ignorant of the history of Italian fascism, which was ultranationalist but not anti-Semitic.

Nothing compares to the Holocaust in the extent of the evil perpetrated on the Jewish people, but nevertheless the sad fact is that history has shown that virulent forms of anti-Semitism are capable of being grafted onto almost any ideology. August Bebel, a friend of Karl Marx, once called it “the socialism of fools.” In the century that followed, there was no shortage of fools. Last year, copies of The Protocols were sold at a number of prominent anti-war rallies.

The rule should be simple: We should show no more tolerance for anti-Semitism amongst those we consider our political allies than anti-Semitism amongst our political opponents. Indeed, when we notice that the conspiratorial theories about the malignant influence of Jews within the government are currently a theme found on both the Left and the Right, we should probably recognize the limited usefulness of those terms for establishing who our political allies are.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.