Anti-Semitism: 2,000 years of scapegoating the Jews
The scapegoating of Jews has been a widespread phenomenon for over two thousand years. Probably its most damaging example is the claim by many Christians that all Jews throughout the centuries are responsible for the death of Jesus, the alleged son of God. This early scapegoating was partly fueled by the apostle Matthew who introduced the notion that the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus claimed responsibility for his death by saying, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” Such an extreme accusation meant that in these Christians’ eyes, Jews were the embodiment of absolute evil: they were both capable and guilty of committing deicide. The accusation of Jews being the embodiment of absolute evil has, in turn, become the core motif of anti-Semitism over the millennia.
It has provided the infrastructure for a variety of other forms of scapegoating the Jews, with contemporary versions including the scapegoating of Israel, and for an unlimited array of false accusations. Over the centuries, it has also led to massive pogroms, expulsions and many other forms of discrimination of Jews.
Much of the theoretical basis for analyzing the scapegoating phenomenon was laid several decades ago by the French-born philosopher Rene Girard.
He wrote, “The victim or victims of unjust violence or discrimination are called scapegoats, especially when they are not punished for ‘the sins’ of others, as most dictionaries assert, but for tensions, conflicts, and difficulties of all kinds…Scapegoating enables persecutors to elude problems that seem intractable.” Girard’s definition covers many aspects of the scapegoating of Jews and Israel.
Part of the contemporary scapegoating of the Jews and of Israel is based on the mutation of recurring old hate motifs. A few examples will illustrate this.
A classic scapegoating motif claims that Jews intentionally make others ill. In the Middle Ages, when many Europeans died of the plague, known as the Black Death, Jews were scapegoated and falsely accused of having caused the epidemic by poisoning the water wells.
Similarly, in recent decades, Israelis have been malevolently accused by the Egyptian media of poisoning Israeli fruits and vegetables exported to Egypt. In 2007, panic ensued in Saudi Arabia caused, by a rumor that Israel had smuggled AIDS-infected melons into the country via a secret “ground corridor.” The Saudi government had to go public to explain that this virus cannot be transferred to people via fruit. At the height of the avian flu scare in 2006, the official Syrian state daily, al-Thawra, wrote that Israel had intentionally developed the virus in order to harm its Arab neighbors.
These examples are but a small selection of contemporary samples of this scapegoating sub-motif.
Another popular anti-Semitic scapegoating motif is the blood libel. In Christian Europe it has its historical origins in Norwich, Britain. In 1144, the Jewish community was falsely accused of having killed a 12-year-old Christian boy, named William, for ritualistic purposes. Such anti-Semitic blood libels have ever since been perpetuated in Christian environments, from where they spread to the Muslim world.
A CONTEMPORARY variant of the blood libel falsely accuses Israel of organ harvesting. In August 2009, the largest Swedish daily, the Social Democrat Aftonbladet, published an article by Donald Boström entitled “Våra söner plundras på sina organ” (“Our sons are plundered of their organs”).
Boström claimed there were rumors that the IDF was killing Palestinians and harvesting their organs for transplants – in collusion with the Israeli medical establishment.
A new element concerning scapegoating is that quantitative data have become available regarding its importance.
One illustrative example concerns the murderous 9/11 attacks on the United States by Saudi Muslims.
Many Muslims in the world do not attribute these attacks to their co-religionists, but rather to Israel. A 2009 University of Maryland poll – eight years after the 9/11 mass murders – found that 31 percent of Jordanians, 19% of Palestinians, 17% of Egyptians, and 6% of Azerbaijanis believed that Israel was responsible for the September 11th attacks.
A 2015 poll carried out by the official Palestinian Authority newspaper, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher terrorist attacks in Paris showed that 84.4% of Palestinians interviewed believed that “the attacks were suspicious, and that Israel may be behind them.” Only 8.7% of those interviewed blamed the attacks on rising Islamic fundamentalism in Europe.
Since the Great Depression, Jews have also been scapegoated as being the cause of global financial crises. Jews and Israel have been blamed for the 2008 global recession and the Eurozone crisis. A 2009 Anti-Defamation League survey, held in seven European countries, found that 31% of respondents believed that Jews in the financial industry were responsible for the economic meltdown. A Boston Review survey of Americans held that same year found that 38.4% of respondents attributed some level of blame for the recession to the Jews.
Israel is also scapegoated as being the cause for all the unrest in the Middle East. Some Western politicians claim in bad faith that if Israel would cease building settlements within the disputed territories, violence in the Middle East would cease; alternatively, and absurdly so, it is claimed that the establishment of peace between Israel and the Palestinians would put an end to the massive killing campaigns of Muslims and others by Middle-Eastern Muslims. Yet another scapegoating variant is blaming Israel for the persecution of Palestinian Christians by Palestinian Muslims.
It is high time that the State of Israel begins to systematically expose those who are responsible for such frequent scapegoating and false accusations.
Where possible, Israel should specifically attribute the crimes it is accused of to those who actually commit them, who are often Muslims, but sometimes others.
Manfred Gerstenfeld’s book, The War of a Million Cuts – to be published this month – analyzes how Israel and Jews are delegitimized, and how one can fight these attempts at delegitimization. Jamie Berk is a researcher working toward an MA in political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.