In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, another highly infectious virus is also flourishing: anti-Semitism. Like the coronavirus, this “social virus” spreads via personal contact; unlike coronavirus, it can also be spread via the media.
Social viruses are difficult to contain or eliminate, being easily incubated and aggressively transmitted in our connected world. And, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out, anti-Semitism, like viruses, can only survive by mutating. He pinpoints four mutations of anti-Semitism over the centuries.
The xenophobic Hellenists merely looked down upon their subject societies as barbarian. Christianity changed that. When Jews did not flock to the new religion, Christians turned against them for not recognizing the messiah and even for participating in his death.
The second mutation appeared late in the 11th century with the Crusader pogroms and the first blood libel in the mid-12th century. Jews were denounced as demonic, spreading plagues, poisoning wells and killing children. This intensified Jewish persecution.
The third mutation, race hatred, sprang up in the late 19th century. Enlightened citizens considered religion a relic of the past, so Jews were categorized as a “race.” But it is not possible to change your race, so the only way to eliminate the Jews was to exterminate them. This, of course, led to the Holocaust.
After World War II, the Nazis’ horrific treatment of Jews conferred a sort of “herd immunity” against anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States. Jew hatred fell into disfavor in society as a whole.
But 70 years later, people who lived through the war have died off, and Western society’s herd immunity has dissipated. Anti-Semitism has again reared its ugly head. The number of incidents rises yearly, along with flourishing organizations prejudiced against Jews and other minorities.
What happened during those decades after the war? Where was anti-Semitism hiding and incubating? In the Arab world.
How did this virus jump to Arabs? They had no history of blatant anti-Semitism, as Christians did. But they did have dictatorial, pan-Arab Ba’athist or similar regimes and rulers with Nazi sympathies and in most cases, Nazi allies.
Many Arab leaders admired Hitler and some developed warm relationships with the Nazis. Admiration led to emulation, especially in attitudes toward Jews. Virulent anti-Semitism spread throughout the Arab world, silently incubating and intensifying, waiting for a trigger, or “vector,” to break out again.
In the 1930s there were Nazi-inspired pogroms in Algeria. Violent Arab attacks exploded in the 1940s, beginning with the 1941 Farhud in Iraq, when 180 Jews were massacred and 700 injured. Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Damascus and Aleppo in Syria followed suit. No State of Israel existed to blame for these riots.
After World War II, as Jews struggled for their independence, the virus mutated yet again—the fourth mutation according to Lord Sacks—with this “new and improved” anti-Semitism focusing on Jews as a nation. The State of Israel earned even more Arab enmity after the Six-Day War, when it was no longer the underdog but the conqueror.
The British, during their Mandate, lopped off 78 percent of the designated National Homeland for the Jewish People and gifted it to Abdullah, son of Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, as a consolation prize for losing Saudi Arabia. Yet the Palestinians still fight for the 22 percent left to the Jews.
Now Israel is the “oppressor,” and in a stunning turnabout, compared to the Nazis. The Palestinians are the “victims,” and their story—filled with blatant lies—has become accepted as historical “truth.”
Wealthy Arab nations have given billions of dollars to U.S. universities for Middle East Studies programs over the years, effectually turning our campuses into seething cauldrons of sometimes-violent Palestinian advocacy, depicting Israel as an evil actor. Jewish students are marginalized and targeted.
Social media foster this growing anti-Semitism, which is fed by massive ignorance and social conformity. Will Witt made a film for Prager University, asking university students to name the only democracy in the Middle East with rights for women and gays. “I don’t know … Egypt?” replied one student. The only one to name Israel was an obviously observant Jewish student.
Soon there will be drugs and vaccines for the novel coronavirus, but none for anti-Semitism. As we are acting to stop COVID-19, and we must also act to address anti-Semitism, calling it out on social media and in the education system. The only known protection against this virus is the sunlight of awareness combined with aggressive legal and legislative action.
That is why the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and its key definitions and examples must be advocated in all countries where one resides and affixed to appropriate anti-racism laws currently on the books. If you are concerned about this reemergent virus it is incumbent on you to educate yourself and your colleagues and representatives on IHRA today.
I would like to thank Devora Krischer for her assistance with this article.
Samuel H. Solomon is the chairman of Hetz.