JEWISH-AMERICAN HALL OF FAME • JEWISH MUSEUM IN CYBERSPACE
ANTI-SEMITIC BIGOTRY AS CHRONICLED BY HISTORICAL MEDALS


 

My earliest and most vivid experience of anti-Semitism took place while still a child. One day I was over at a neighbor’s farm playing with a young boy who was in the care of an elderly woman. She called him in from playing outside so he could do his daily religious education exercise. I went with him into his room. His lesson that afternoon was from a comic book type bible with gaily colored figures and scenes on every page. The particular story that he was to read that day told of how the Jews killed Christ. That episode made a great impression on me. As I saw it, the main theme of the story boiled down to this: Jesus was the most wonderful and most important person ever to exist, and the Jews killed him. My young friend would be made to read this story almost every day that I was there.

Another tale, told to me by a friend many years later went something like this:

"While a young girl, my grandmother warned me to be careful during Easter because during this time of the year Jews would find young Christian girls and put them into a barrel containing nails pointed inward. They would then roll the barrels down a hill in order to get the girl’s blood, which the Jews would use in various religious rituals." This story, told to her each Easter, made enough of an impression on my friend that it was still vivid in her memory, and she could still recall and relate the event some 50 years later. Many variations on this theme surely have been told and re-told.

It seems likely that this type of religion-based indoctrination in the home contributes substantially to the anti-Semitism that is prevalent throughout the world, and provides an insight into how anti-Semitic feelings could be sustained from one generation to the next.

I recognized fully that these little anecdotes are overly simplistic and that far more subtle and more sophisticated "explanations" are given nowadays in order to inculcate individuals into anti-Semitic attitudes. Perhaps such indoctrination is not nearly as prevalent now as it was in the past, but it certainly still exists in some communities, and slanderous stereotypical caricatures of Jews, some of which are based on religious ideologies, still persist in many parts of the world.

Academic evidence supporting the proposition that such feelings are passed down through generations was recently provided in a study published by Voigtländer and Voth (2012) on The Medieval Origins of Anti Semitic Violence in Nazi Germany. By comparing actions local towns in Germany exhibited at different periods in history, they found that communities that reacted to the Black Death some 600 years ago by blaming and massacring Jews were far more likely to lead pogroms against Jews in the 1920s, to vote for the Nazi Party, to turn Jews over to the Nazis and to attack synagogues in the 1930s and 1940s.

The degree and persistence of these prejudices suggest that they are maintained not merely by a haphazard, informal recitation of anti-Semitic stories, but that a more formal instruction is also involved, either secularly or religiously inspired, and propagated either in schools or through religious studies. One must surely entertain the possibility that there is embedded in the teachings of the dominant religions, Christianity and Islam, concepts that allow, or even encourage, anti-Semitic feelings. Indeed, there is ample evidence that religious theology is sometimes subverted and used to inculcate the adherents into anti-Jewish acts. Writings from the most sacred Christian and Muslim texts, i.e. the New Testament of the Bible and the Qur’an, are frequently quoted and exploited to justify such prejudicial feelings against Jews.

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