March 9, 2011
It could be when you’re pulled over for drunk driving (Mel Gibson); your economy slumps (Mahathir Mohamad); Hollywood spurns you (Marlon Brando); someone calls you ugly (John Galliano); or your website intended to expose a superpower’s evil intentions has convinced few of any such thing (Julian Assange) – when the going gets tough, the roughed up can be counted on to blame the Jews.
Assange and Galliano were the latest celebrities to scapegoat the Jews, the WikiLeaks founder claiming there was a Jewish media conspiracy against him, the design director at Christian Dior reportedly declaring his love for Hitler in a drunken tirade at a trendy Parisian bar.
In doing so, Assange lent credence to the suspicion that he is not, as he claims, dedicated to unearthing global injustices but fixated on America and its allies. Galliano was immediately suspended.
Of course some observers take this all as proof that there is a Jewish conspiracy at play; that Jewish influence was behind the vociferous repudiation of their bigoted remarks.
But it is the court of global opinion – inclusive of so many non-Jews – that usually delivers justice to the anti-Semite.
Take the case of Mahathir, who blamed the Asian economic crisis on a cabal of Jews and then just before retirement (in a Zinedine Zidane-like moment) claimed that Jews run the world by proxy.
The Malaysian ruler’s conspiratorial rants won him points at home and elsewhere in the Muslim world but discredited him internationally. To this day, unfair as it may be, much of the world knows only of Mahathir’s disdain for Jews.
The silver lining of these celebrity outbursts is that they are reminders that more than five decades after the end of the Holocaust, in which up to six million Jews were systematically murdered, the evil of anti-Semitism still plagues us; for every Assange and Galliano who spills the beans, there are countless more who choose to conceal their scorn.
Why the persistence of anti-Semitism?
The easy answer, rife in the Muslim world, is the Palestinian crisis. But that doesn’t justify anti-Semitism; Israel the state is not one in the same with Jews worldwide.
Yet often the two are conveniently conflated, because hatred for the Jew proves stronger than love for the Palestinian (seen in for instance the discrimination Palestinians face in Israel’s neighboring countries). Drawing attention to the very real injustices worthy of outrage committed against the Palestinians is thus used to rationalize a sweeping, indefensible hatred of Jews.
Sift deeper, though, and one often finds the forces of ignorance, envy and dogma at play.
Envy – for Jewish achievement, seen in nearly every major field, from science, education ad the arts to literature, business, and entertainment.
Ignorance – of Jewish ways. Many of my Malaysian friends confess to have never knowingly met a Jew and are surprised to learn that many of their favorite celebrities, from Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein to Gwyneth Paltrow and Jerry Seinfeld, are Jewish. (It appears, at least in the case of Seinfeld, that Malaysia’s censorship board didn’t know either, or the eponymously named sitcom, with its Jewish cast and overtly Jewish characters and humor, would never have aired in the country. Safe further to assume the board would not have let “Dinner for Schmucks” play in cinemas last year if it knew that schmuck is Yiddish slang for the elongated petrusion of the male anatomy.)
Dogma – by way of religion. Verses in the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the unadulterated word of God, depict Jews unflatteringly. Which helps explain why the status of a “good” Muslim nearly never diminishes among fellow Muslims when he or she express hatred for Jews.
Politicians and media also play a role in advancing anti-Semitism, particularly in the Muslim world.
Consider Malaysia, where authorities consider Islam “too sensitive” for non-Muslims to discuss but deem it perfectly acceptable to burn an Israeli flag and shout anti-Semitic slogans in the street after Friday prayer. It’s ok to denunciate Jews in the mainstream media, and evidence suggests there’s even an official effort to keep Malaysians ignorant on the topic. For instance, the government-run press made no mention of the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust five years ago, while space for an alternative view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is invariably denied. (Even the “Jewish-controlled” New York Times regularly makes room for Muslim and pro-Palestinian perspectives.)
I am not of the opinion that any individual or collective people, including Jews, should be beyond reproach. And folks like Abe Foxman of the ADL in my view have on occasion proved a little too quick to claim anti-Semitism and threaten with a lawsuit, which works as a form of censorship.
But in so thoroughly and systematically emphasizing one side of the ledger, anti-Semitism in turn is seen as a perfectly rational position. Nearly no form of vilification, no matter how absurd, is renounced. Jews are plotting to take over the world. Jews faked the Holocaust. Jews were behind 9/11. (Mahathir blamed the tragedy on “Hollywood,” a not-so-veiled synonym for Jews. “There is evidence that the attacks were staged,” he said. “If they can make Avatar, they can make anything.”)
Anti-Semitism of course is not merely a Malaysian or Muslim problem, as Galliano and Assange remind us. But as they also show, in the larger world, where a healthy resistance to the evil has emerged, there is in the 21st century often a price to be paid for one’s bigotry and ignorance. And that’s progress.
* This entry also appeared on Malaysianinsider.com