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Complete lies! (01/2024)

Defamed and excluded.

Interview: Noëmi Kern

For centuries, “the Jews” have been held responsible for all manner of disaster. Where do these accusations come from? And how can we tackle antisemitism? A conversation with historian Erik Petry.

Mann mit Kippa
Jews are members of society and yet, according to anti-Semites, they do not really belong. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Professor Petry, you study the history of antisemitism. What are the roots of this hostility toward Jews?

Conflicts between different groups over territorial claims, for instance, have existed as far back as antiquity. But with the emergence of Christianity, a new element came into play: a profound rejection of Judaism as a religion.

Legends that defame “the Jews” can be debunked (see box). So why do they persist, and why do new ones develop?

When society manifestly rejects a specific group, it causes these stories to persist. There’s more to it than simply being angry at someone. With antisemitism, we often have people saying, “Jews are awful. But I know one who isn’t like that.” But these individual exceptions don’t change society’s overall opinion about Jews.

Why not?

One important reason is that people assume that Jews don’t really belong to society. Imagine a circle: The circle is society. Jews are inside the circle, they’re an active part of society and members of its economic and occupational networks. For antisemites, however, Jews are in their own circle, which is pushed to the edge. For them, Jews don’t belong in this view. When one group decides that some people don’t belong, it quickly leads to the idea that “they must be doing something odd.”

How does it affect Jews, being repeatedly accused of causing harm in the world?

There are two ways of dealing with it. We can see this especially clearly in 1930s Switzerland, regarding the threat to Jews in Germany. One reaction is that you decide you must act; you need to stand up and say: “I’m Jewish. You’re defaming us and we won’t allow it. We are Swiss citizens.” The other option is to stay very quiet so as to avoid provoking any antisemitism. But that restraint is useless. It doesn’t make the problem go away. The antisemitic accusations exist independent of how Jews behave. Actively highlighting antisemitism and fighting back seems to be the better way.

Where does antisemitism occur in our society?

In the vast majority of cases, people aren’t aware of the stereotypes they’re using. They also don’t realize what they’re actually doing when they use them. When someone says, “Jews always have money,” that’s absolutely antisemitic. Because they’re attributing something to Jews that has a very negative connotation. Someone who has money tends to be looked at with suspicion. As far back as the Middle Ages, merchants were considered slightly suspect, always on the lookout for a good deal. This negative meaning is then applied to Jews collectively.

Are there any positive stereotypes about Jews?

It’s often ambiguous. Many attributions are linked to a specific image that doesn’t actually fit the situation and can be very quickly twisted around: “Those communities stick together” becomes “they don’t want anything to do with us.”

People always have prejudices against others. What makes antisemitism different?

Firstly, it contains a fantasy of extermination and salvation that doesn’t exist in this way in other types of racism. We see it right now in the Middle East conflict: If Israel weren’t there, everything would be fine. When racism and antisemitism are lumped together, the lines become blurred. One is also not a subgroup of the other. You can’t tell the Jewish population that they should go back to where they came from, as people used to do in the 19th century. They are part of the European population. But they have been forced to the edges of society and they’re stuck there. In my research, I distinguish between “foreign” and “other”. The foreigner arrives and eventually belongs. Like the Italians who came to Switzerland as guest workers in the 1950s. With antisemitism, Jews are the other. They never reach the stage of belonging.

Would more dialogue between Jews and gentiles help overcome these prejudices?

First of all, it’s important to understand that the dialogue between mainstream Christian society and Jewish society rarely occurs on an even footing. And you have to accept that, as a group, Jews might be quite reluctant at first and won’t always find everything great. That comes from their experience: Can I trust these people now? I think we really need to address it anew with every generation and teach people how antisemitism is constructed and instrumentalized, what the dangers of antisemitism are for Jews and for society as a whole, and what the historical consequences were.

Defamatory stories on the test bench.

Well poisoning

In the Middle Ages, no one could explain where the plague came from. An idea developed that said Jews were poisoning wells to kill Christians. Jews drank from the same wells as everyone else. While there were perhaps fewer plague deaths among Jews, they were a much smaller population. Also, Jewish scholars have theorized that Jewish purity laws (such as handwashing before eating, and taking ritual baths) may have helped protect Jews from contracting the disease.

Blood libel

This story emerged in the middle of the 12th century in England. Jews were accused of taking the blood of murdered Christian children and using it to bake matzos for Passover. First, blood is not an ingredient in matzos. Second, blood is the seat of the soul in Judaism, so eating blood is prohibited. This is why kosher slaughter exists: Animals must be drained of blood completely before they can be eaten. Eggs are also checked individually: If one contains a red dot, it is considered impure and cannot be eaten.

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

In the late 19th century, allegations emerged that Jews had held a meeting in which they decided how Judaism should take over the world. This was recorded in the “protocols,” which were published as a book. Researchers (in particular the historian Michael Hagemeister) have identified the fabricated pieces that were used to create the protocols. Both the alleged meeting and the protocols themselves are entirely fictional—but the notion of an international Jewish conspiracy still exists today. The allegation that “Jews control the banks” is one of the modern-day expressions of this belief.

Racial science

In 19th-century racial science, the linguistic term “Semitic languages” gave rise to the idea that there was a separate Jewish (Semitic) race. It was then said that people of this race were inherently amoral and of low character. The ideas of racial science have long since been debunked, but the notion that certain groups have amoral behavior in their DNA still exists in European societies. It is a common trope in antisemitic constructs.

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2024).

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