Thursday, April 03, 2008

Of Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism as a term is somewhat of an oxymoron, as it refers to hatred of the Jewish people and not the much larger group of other Semitic people. From ancient Assyrians to present-day Arabs, this Semitic population populates much of the Middle East. The term "antisemitish" was first coined in mid-1800s in Germany. Many continued to use a different expressions when speaking of Jews, such as "Palestinians living among us". The word "Semitic" simply indicates that a person is a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Today, "Palestinian" has gained a new meaning, referring to the non-Jewish population of the area, although it wasn't until 1950 when the Palestine Post changed its name to Jerusalem Post.

We all know about the horrors of the Nazi death camps and usually blame the Germans for the death of millions of Jews in Europe. But throughout history since the Middle Ages the most intense Antisemitism has been in Eastern Europe, among the Slavic people. During the German occupation Poland was the only country where anyone (along with his/her family) caught helping a Jew was automatically subject to the death penalty. The Polish people did some murderous work of their own for which they later blamed the Germans, such as the Jedwabne pogrom on 1941. Even after the war was over, the remaining about 10% of the pre-war Jewish population, wanting to return home from the death camps in Poland, found their Polish and Lithuanians neighbors very hostile. Pogroms still took place, for example in Kraków (1945) and in Kielce (1946), the latter fourteen months after the war was over. One would have thought that people had learned their lesson about the terrible destruction hate brings. It is no wonder that most of the remaining Polish Jews rushed to leave, either to Palestine, soon to be called Israel, or to a Western country, such as the United States.

As the Polish and Lithuanian people were Roman Catholic, all this did not help the relations between the Jews and the Church. A question remains whether people committed their horrible deeds because of their religion and its old accusations of Jews being the killers of Jesus, or did the Church get a bad rap because these people happened to be Catholic. A truth is probably somewhere in between, although I have a hard time believing that a true Christian would have had anything to do with the rampant Antisemitism.

The Jews of Germanic Europe were often non-religious and wanted to blend in with the local population. Proper German was spoken by all, unlike the Yiddish of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belorussia. It has been said that the German Jews were more German than the country's own inhabitants. Unfortunately many of them were also relatively well off during the time when Germany was struggling financially. It is easy to imagine an envious and even bitter mood spreading in Germany and Austria of this time of hardship and hyperinflation when the bankers, doctors and well-to-do shopkeepers happened to be Jewish. One can find some primitive reasoning behind the hatred of this part of population, just as Americans didn't like their "Hebrews", preventing them from entering many everyday activities, from enrolling in colleges to spending a night in a first-class hotel. In the 1930s this country had more of Hitler's admirers that probably any place outside of Germany itself. We joined WWII reluctantly after all. Some of that hesitancy to go to war would have been smart advice later on, even during this administration.

The Eastern European Jewry was hardly a target for envy. The people living in the Pale often barely eked out a living farming and those in the cities' ghettos didn't fare much better. It wouldn't have been easy to blame a starving Jew for one's own misery, unless a deep-rooted hate mechanism had existed from the childhood on. Perhaps Americans can understand this better than I do, as people in this country often grew up in such an atmosphere where the target of hate could have been a Black, Native American, Chinese, Italian, Hispanic, or a Jew. In every misery one seems to need a scapegoat. I wonder who it will be this time as our lives seem to go from bad to worse. At some point people's anger will be directed at those who seem to do increasingly well when others' suffering increases.

It would be interesting to study anti-Semitism in the United States by comparing it during the last 80 years or so in various cities. I would be surprised if New York or Los Angeles could keep up with the sentiments in Chicago and its large Polish population. Such a comparison might give insight to understanding the phenomena of hating another ethnic group. My home country, Finland, has had serious racial issues with its "Blacks", the Gypsies or the Roma. But at least the country has a clean record with their small population of Jews. Its constitution from 1919 specifies that Jews are to be treated as equals to other Finns in every respect. Yes, during the Continuation War 1941-44 Germany sent some troops to Finland to help it defend herself against Stalin's Red Army. It must have been somewhat of a shock for the German soldiers to find out that they were under the command of a Jewish officer.

The Western Washington University's Hillel, which my daughter Anna is the president of, is sponsoring their Holocaust Memorial Week this spring, as well as an "Israel @ 60" festival. Bellingham has two concentration camp survivors, one of whom, Noémi Ban, has made it her life's quest to educate younger people of the nightmare Europe lived through not so long ago and to make sure it won't be forgotten. She will be speaking and as usual, the lecture hall will be full as everyone loves the articulate and lovable old Hungarian lady. It is ironic how loosely the term "survivor" is used today. The reality show by that name doesn't help matters any. I remember seeing an advertisement for some kind of remembrance-related enterprise where a descendant of Viennese Jews was advertised as being one. Never mind that the person was born in the United States well after the war and had a worry-free East Coast childhood that hardly resembled life in Birkenau. Perhaps a couple months in such a camp would have made him a more humble individual and earned the right to call himself a survivor.

The picture above this blog entry is from the Peters Edition of a Prokofiev Sonata. It is amazing what a different spelling can do. Switch two letters and you end up with PORK OF JEW. Funny, I could swear I used to know a false friend by that name, but of course I can be mistaken.

Photo: Nazi supporters in Los Angeles give the Hitler salute
at a rally opposing the boycott of German goods. May 1934.
UPI/Corbis-Gettman, New York