It is said that “an antisemite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.” This chestnut of dark Jewish humor (is there any other kind of authentic Jewish humor?) can perhaps help us better understand the significance of the antisemitic tweets written earlier this week by Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The comments evoked the age-old antisemitic imagery of Jews as money-grubbing power brokers who use their insidious networks to further their own causes at the expense of others. Simply pointing out that lobbyists like AIPAC use their financial resources to influence governments is not in and of itself antisemitic. However, when accusations of undue influence peddled by Jews converge with antisemitic dog whistles like money and power the dotted line quickly solidifies.
When cases of antisemitism appear in public they are seldom discussed in isolation. Many talented writers have used these tweets to remind wider audiences of the origins and dangers of the image of Jews as Shylock. Instead of simply adding this event to the list of anti-Jewish actions taken in the name of protecting innocent gentiles from the international Jewish financial conspiracy, we can use it to help us see how antisemitism exists today in a wider context.
Events like Rep. Omar’s tweets (for which she has apologized) often invite comparisons to the ultimate act of antisemitism, the Holocaust. That event, which resulted in the murder of one out of every three Jews on the planet, is often used as the yardstick by which all other acts of antisemitism are measured. When antisemitism appears in the mainstream, those of us who study the Holocaust are frequently asked where and how this new event compares to the crimes of the Third Reich. I frequently hear “It’s just like 1933, right?” or “It’s 1939 all over again.” While comparing individual acts of contemporary antisemitism to the crimes of the Nazis is always a pointless endeavor, comparing responses to those acts can give us deeper insight into our own world, and perhaps the future.
For many European Jews the Holocaust began the evening of November 9–10, 1938 with Kristallnacht. During this state-sponsored anti-Jewish riot, 91 Jewish men were murdered, thousands more were arrested, 267 synagogues were burned to the ground, and countless homes, businesses, and Jewish institutions were destroyed. Around 9:30 AM on the morning of November 10, about 50 rioters arrived at the Jewish orphanage in Dinslaken, Germany. As the rioters began smashing the windows of the orphanage and destroying the furniture, a teacher, Yitzhak S. Herz, shouted to his frightened wards to run outside and flee. Naively, Herz and some of the boys ran to two local police officers and begged for assistance. “Jews do not get protection from us,” was the response from the police to the frightened orphans.
This heartbreaking betrayal stands in stark relief to the heroic actions of the six Pittsburgh Police Officers wounded while responding to the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018. While the same animus motivated the perpetrators of these two attacks (Kristallnacht and Tree of Life), institutions responded very differently.
Similarly, as waves of antisemitism once again wash over Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has unequivocally rejected anti-Jewish rhetoric and marched alongside Jewish leaders in Berlin in solidarity with her Jewish citizens and Jews the world over. A powerful statement from any world leader, but the significance of this stance is magnified by her occupying the office once held by Adolf Hitler.
In Paris Merkel was joined in another march by the French President and scores of world leaders in response to the attack on a Kosher supermarket and the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. In 1942 it was the French police who were rounding up Jews, deporting them to Nazi concentration camps aboard SNCF trains, the French national railroad.
Today, within hours of its posting, Rep. Omar’s tweet was roundly repudiated by every leader in her own party, not just her political opposition.
These examples of leaders and communities actively embracing pluralism and rejecting hate are not a naive grasp for a silver lining in an otherwise dark sky; antisemitism and jingoistic nationalism are most definitely on the rise globally, but unlike in 1938, the leaders of most western liberal democracies are actively voicing their opposition to the type of hate which went almost unchecked in Nazi Germany.
In a notable aberration, when a white-nationalist march in Charlottesville, VA descended into a riot resulting in the death of 32-year old Heather Heyer, President Donald Trump refused to unambigiously condem the Neo-Nazis, uttering his infamous equivocation: “there were some very fine people on both sides.” No, there were not.
President Trump’s shocking inability to hit what should have been the softest of political softballs, denouncing Nazis, garnered a storm of criticism from both his political allies and opposition.
As best as I can tell, Rep. Omar’s tweet and the fallout from it have not exposed a crypto-Nazi in a new Congresswoman, but have shined a light on a larger community of people unwilling to abide hate speech. The Unite The Right rally in 2018 to mark the anniversary of the Charlottesville riot managed to unite somewhere between 20 and 30 supporters who were drowned out by thousands of counter-protestors. While instances of overt antisemitism are clearly on the rise, public indifference is not.
Our best scholarship tells us at the height of Hitler’s popularity, the summer of 1940, about 10–15% of the German public strongly supported Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and about 10% of the public believed in their antisemitic measures. This means 85–90% did not believe in what happened on Kristallnacht. Unlike the response to the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue when Temples across the country were full of well-wishers, in the 1930s the German polity tolerated the state-sanctioned antisemitism. While the percentages of people harboring those antisemitic feelings today are consistent with the numbers from the 1940s, the public response is clearly very different, and for the better.
Condemning hate speech in the streets when the perpetrators are far away is easy… the home front poses different challenges. The real test is not how we as a country respond when a Muslim woman of color broadcasts an antisemitic Tweet (no national elections will be lost criticizing a Somali immigrant in a headscarf); our real national test is how each of us respond when our beloved uncle begins his contribution to the Thanksgiving dinner conversation by saying, “have you heard the joke about the Jewish lawyer who…?” That’s a whistle we can all hear, yet frequently pretend not to.
Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.