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Memories Are Short, Hatred Is Forever

March 15, 2004|Omer Bartov

East Galicia was once the site of a rich Jewish civilization dating back several centuries. But last March, when I visited what is now West Ukraine, the snow-swept streets and squares were silent. Ancient cemeteries had become marketplaces, ruined synagogues were garbage dumps, mass graves were unmarked and forgotten. The Nazis murdered the Jews; in the years that followed, the local population erased their memory.

But not quite. The local Ternopil newspaper carried a headline: "Jewish Pogrom." The Jews, the article claimed, were again trying to take over Ukraine. It was as if the 500,000 murdered Jews of Galicia were going to rise from the mass graves and crematory ashes and reclaim their space (and stolen property) in this ethnically cleansed province.

The fear of Jewish return is one element in the new anti-Semitism spreading in many parts of the world. Two-thirds of European Jewry was murdered by the Nazis in World War II. For Adolf Hitler, the Jews represented ultimate evil. They polluted the German race and culture, brought pernicious modernity and capitalism, promoted internationalism, caused and profited from wars, became parasites on the labors of others and plotted to take over the world. This was a potent mix of anti-Jewish Christian prejudice and newfangled "scientific" racism.

Hitler's beliefs should not have come as any surprise to the world. In 1925 he wrote in "Mein Kampf" that World War I would have ended differently had several thousand Jews been gassed. In 1928 he declared in his "second book" that Nazism had taken up the fight against the "execrable crime against humanity" represented by Jewish existence. In January 1939 he "prophesied" to the entire world that if a war were to break out, it would result in the extermination of the Jews. Yet it was difficult to believe that such rhetoric would be translated into policy. It was thought that Hitler would be constrained by the realities of diplomacy, the limits of Germany's power, the national interests of the Reich and the political partners with whom he had to make policy. And when it was discovered that Hitler had almost fulfilled his "prophecy," it was too late.

Europe then vowed "Never again!" And, for a while, anti-Semitism became a bad word. But memories are short and vows tend to be broken, whereas deeply embedded cultural and religious prejudices are hard to eradicate.

Europe's anti-Semitism did not vanish. It was banished to the fringes of society; it was buried in the recesses of people's consciousness; it was transformed into philo-Semitism and fads for things Jewish; it seeped back in as self-righteous indignation against Israel; and it was exported into the Muslim world. Now that it is back, we can see where it was hiding all these years.

The new anti-Semitism employs images strikingly similar to Hitler's. It condemns the Jews as controlling the world's only superpower and seeking to take over the rest of the world, as promoting a destructive policy of globalization, as supporting the allegedly criminal and illegitimate Nazi-like state of Israel. It is obsessed with fantasies of secret cabals, visions of bloody upheaval and apocalyptic devastation. Like its Nazi predecessor, it promises to do to the Jews what they are supposedly doing to the world. It is inherently, then, genocidal.

But rather than being the policy of one state, this new anti-Semitism is the domain of very different cultures, political ideologies and religious teachings. Its more soft-core manifestations can be found in the European left, camouflaged as anti-Americanism and an anti-Zionism that denies Israel's right to exist. Right-wing anti-Semitism has also come out of the shadows, as was most clearly seen when the German Christian Democratic parliamentarian Martin Hohmann publicly described the Jews as a "people of perpetrators."

The effect on public opinion is tremendous. A majority of Europeans see Israel as the most dangerous country in the world. Although criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies is both legitimate and necessary, denying the right of Israeli citizens to live in peace in their own country is unjust.

But the new anti-Semitism has found its most lethal incarnation in the Muslim world, where it has become a prevalent subculture, a focus of identity, a rallying cry for the masses, a tool to divert attention from the real reasons for poverty and despair, and a cause for militant mobilization and destructive urges. Ranging from the speech of Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to the charter of the Palestinian organization Hamas, this rhetoric is infused with the same terrifying images of Jews that were haunting Hitler. And we know where Hitler's obsession led.

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