Modern Persecutions: EuropeIcon by Chire Regans

Anti-Semitism appears, either withers or thrives, but seems never wholly to disappear from the modern world. The conditions of Jewish life that once called forth hostility may have altered dramatically. Yet anti-Semitism seems to have a life of its own, impervious to objective reality. Time and again, it has risen to the surface in particular societies, demonstrating its capacity to move sizable groups of people to action of an innately destructive nature. Knowledge of its history is the only weapon, fragile though it may be, against endless recurrence.

In May 1988, Steven Cokely, an adviser to the mayor of Chicago and his link to the black-nationalist movement of Louis Farrakhan, accused unnamed Jewish doctors of purposely infecting blacks with the AIDS virus in order to further a plan for world domination. Nurtured by first the local, and then the national, media, the resulting furor escalated into successive charges and countercharges. As Cokely defended himself against Jewish critics, it became clear that anti-Semitism had lost none of its emotional power and neither the actors nor their audiences had any inkling of the long history that had set the stage for their ritual performances.

The accusation that Jewish doctors conspire to poison their trusting patients is nearly a thousand years old. Its most recent incarnation, the "Jewish doctors' plot" against powerful leaders of the Soviet Union in 1953, had lethal consequences for Jews. The incident reveals some of the mechanisms by which a specific, historically conditioned anti-Jewish prejudice can lead to much larger disturbances of political life.

Three girls on a train on their first segment of the trip to Palestine. Photo from the National Archives.

Black and white leaders with no sympathy for anti-Semitism remained silent, and the controversy soon grew into more than a debate on the merits of Cokely's charges. His defenders urged blacks not to stand by while the white power structure condemned another of their courageous leaders to impotence. Showing solidarity with one of their own became far more important than the offending of Jews, who, if not engaged in medical experiments on blacks, "certainly dominated black economic existence." The mayor's reluctant dismissal of Cokely only added to anti-Jewish feeling. The ouster was seen-and not by blacks alone- as evidence of the control that Jews had over the media, and further proof of their power to exert political pressure. What had begun with the repetition of old accusations about Jews developed into a much broader conflict about justice, oppression, and the force of evil.

Doubtless the "Cokely affair" will soon disappear from memory, recalled, if at all, as no more than an inconsequential flurry on the political scene. Few people of goodwill would wish it otherwise. Yet the troubling issues the episode raised, and particularly the pivotal role of anti-Semitism in it, are worth considering carefully. Few would deny that blacks suffer from real problems or that these problems have real causes and possibly, real solutions. But why clothe protest in this particular mode? Cokely, whether he intended to or not, succeeded in mobilizing a section of the black community- though a comparatively small one, it is true- to express its anger at victimization by Jews and whites in general. Anti-Semitism was central to this success. It gave Cokely instant access to people's emotions and riveted the attention of a larger, more passionately involved audience than less-inflammatory methods were likely to give him. The enduring power of anti-Semitism, at least in part, lies in its capacity to do exactly this.

Although anti-Semitism was more politically powerful in Austria, more explosive an issue in France, and more deadly in Russia, Germany remained at the forefront of ideological and organizational developments.

German anti-Semitic parties and organizations bore many different names and conducted fierce debates with one another on questions of political strategy and ideology, but this should not obscure their essential similarities. All of them drew the bulk of their membership and support from the lower middle class of the towns and cities and from small-scale farmers, the social groups hit hardest by the financial crash of 1873 and the subsequent twenty years of economic dislocation in Germany. With outmoded skills and undercapitalized businesses, they found it difficult to adapt to their nation's transformation from an agricultural to an industrial market economy. Measuring their own decline against what appeared to be the dramatic rise of Jewry since emancipation (1869), these "little people" were ripe for anti-Semitic politics.

Even before the anti-Semitic parties appeared on the scene to exploit this popular resentment of Jews, much had been written about Jewish responsibility for the economic downturn of the 1870s. Accusations that Jews had planned the crash to serve their conspiratorial ends, that even the government of Prince Bismarck had sold out to Jewish interests, were widely circulated in respectable newspapers and by means of sensational pamphlets, broadsides, and caricatures. The venerable economic charges, adapted to the conditions of the 1870s, dovetailed neatly with the older indictments of Jews. Their undermining of traditional moral and cultural standards, usurpation of the professions, overrunning of the universities, domination of the popular press, visible presence in left-wing radical and right-wing reactionary circles- all this fed into a political action movement aimed at what anti-Semites depicted as the awesome growth of Jewish power.
As in Austria and France, the broader target of the anti-Semites was liberalism, whose many enemies held it responsible not only for the emancipation of Jews but for the laissez-faire economic policies that had brought disaster. Indeed, Jews participated vigorously in liberal politics; nearly 85 percent of them voted for one of the liberal parties in this period. They were also associated with capitalist developments in journalism and retailing that threatened the well-being of many who flocked to hear Stoecker's speeches or read Marr's pamphlets. The taint of Jewishness reached beyond liberal economics to tarnish hallowed liberal beliefs in human equality, human rights, and the efficacy of reason in public discourse. Cosmopolitanism gave way to a rigid chauvinism. Equal rights for women, even as a theoretical aspiration, was rejected by the anti-Semites, among others, as just one more evil departure from tradition. With the emergence of a powerful socialist presence, antisocialism gradually assumed ever-greater importance for the anti-Semites, firmly establishing the antidemocratic tendencies already present at the birth of the movement. A revulsion against all progressive and modern trends provided anti-Semitism with its emotional energy. It rapidly developed into an alternative view of the world, with answers to all questions and prescriptions for salvation.

Anti-Semitism continues to insinuate itself into the political life of nations, animate hate groups, fascinate intellectuals, and remain a tool of government in many thrives in the Arab world and occasionally disturbs the peace of western Europe, Latin America, and the United States. It has recently cropped up in Japan, a country with little previous history of anti-Semitism.

Jews are still being discriminated against and occasionally murdered, not because of what individuals have done but because of the way the group to which they belong is conceptualized- that is, on the basis of anti-Semitic ideology.