The recent tragic events in Pittsburgh took my thoughts to Professor Robert Wistrich’s seminal study of anti-Semitism. Coining the phrase ‘the longest hatred’ to denote the phenomenon, and making it the title of his book, Wistrich describes the longstanding and widespread occurrence of anti-Semitism. In a subsequent tome, ‘A Lethal Obsession,’ he traces in great and exhaustive detail the outbreak of the phenomenon across cultures, countries, nationalities and religions. Starting with the period of early Christianity, when the adherents of the new religion felt compelled to demonstrate their rejection of the ancient faith by denigrating its devotees, the book traces the many expressions of anti-Semitism throughout the ages up to the present day.
The ultimate culmination of anti-Semitism was of course the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, but the phenomenon could be found in every European country throughout the middle ages, at a time when modern nations had not yet been established in their final form. The crusades that sent countless multitudes of men across Europe to fight for the Holy Land did not spare the Jews living in the countries through which they passed, nor those in the Holy Land either. The massacres at that time of Jewish communities along the Rhine have not been forgotten. Nor have the pogroms that devastated the Jewish communities of eastern Europe and Russia in more recent times. As the countries of western Europe waged war on one another, they did not omit to oppress, slaughter and decimate the Jewish communities they encountered.
In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare gives his Jewish character Shylock a human face and voice when he says ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ and goes on to show that a Jew is a human being with feelings like anyone else. At a time when Jews were banned from living in England and portrayed as the offspring of Satan, subhuman and the source of all evil, to express such a sentiment was truly revolutionary. Shakespeare’s play may have been based to some extent on Christopher Marlowe’s play, ‘The Jew of Malta,’ but in that instance the main character displays no mitigating humanity and is as conniving and murderous as befits the prejudiced stereotype of the Jew current at that time.
So to accuse President Trump of being responsible for the murderous attack in the synagogue in Pittsburgh is not strictly fair. Inflammatory rhetoric is just that, inflammatory rhetoric. Whether someone commits an act of violent aggression as a result of that rhetoric or of some internal mental imbalance is immaterial. Unless the machinery of aggression or annihilation is available, or the wider situation enables acts of violence to be performed by the wider society, as was the case with the crusades, the pogroms and the Holocaust, words remain just words. It could be said that the general availability of firearms in America is to blame, and that claim does have some weight. But it cannot be denied that until this week’s attack no similar act has been perpetrated against Jews, other than isolated incidents of beatings and desecration of cemeteries.
My own experience in the Midwest of the USA brought me into contact with the underlying enmity towards Jews (and Israel) and various minorities felt by some Americans, and I have described these individuals and their activities in my recent book, ‘All Quiet on the Midwestern Plains.’ In real life, however, I did not encounter any violence, and the Jewish community was not subjected to acts of aggression.
Like many Jews in England, as a child I experienced some instances of anti-Semitic speech or acts, but nothing of any great severity. Instances of that kind may have been partly behind my decision to come and live in Israel, but many Jews, including several of my Jewish friends, have forged successful careers in England, the USA and elsewhere. They have been able to rise above encounters with anti-Semitism and even act to combat it. But who knows? Perhaps the strict gun controls in England have prevented violent actions from being committed against the Jewish community there.
All that remains is to hope that irrational hatreds can be set aside and an atmosphere of tolerance towards minorities, whoever and wherever they may be, can be fostered. What is needed is for religions and communities to work together to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment that is evident throughout the Western world. After all, the paramount aspiration repeated in so many prayers of so many religions is the desire for peace.