A Chilly Breeze of Hate, a Hungarian Conductor and the Prospects for American Anti-Semitism

by Bob Schwartz

Ivan Fischer
Those of us who grew up Jewish in late 20th century America had a pretty good experience of tolerance, certainly compared to even our parents’ generation. The Holocaust had an immunizing effect, not so much because people saw where such ugly expressions of hatred might lead, but because it was harder to hold those views—at least publicly. There was not an immediate spillover effect, so common prejudices against blacks, women, gays, and other intolerance “classics” continued, while new groups such as Muslims were added all the time. Hate takes no holiday.

The news was not without stories of anti-Semitism. And if we lived in certain parts of the country, we might be more likely to feel like a stranger, and even to hear somebody we liked talk about bargaining as “Jewing” someone down. Oh well, that was ignorance talking, and overall those folks often had a good heart. Maybe the greatest deterrent to taking it too seriously was the Jewish cohort who daily found an anti-Semite around every corner. It wasn’t that there weren’t and aren’t anti-Semites everywhere, including some positions of high profile and power, it’s just that the progress Jews have made in acceptance and mainstreaming made these anomalies. There were other groups still having a much tougher time.

A story from this weekend’s New York Times prodded that complacency, just a little. It comes not from America at all. It is from Hungary. There, anti-Semitism and nationalism are on the rise, to the point where the country’s most celebrated conductor, Ivan Fischer, has written and staged an opera about it. Called The Red Heifer, it is about a 19th century incident in which Jews were blamed for the murder of a peasant girl. But contemporary elements make clear that this is not a story about historical artifacts. The whole world context of the opera is not just Hungary; much of Europe, particularly but not entirely those in the former Soviet empire, are trying to establish new identities in these trying times. That insurgent identity frequently involves a broad menu of nationalistic intolerance. See, for example, the treatment of gays in Russia and the rise of neo-Francoism in Spain. And where there’s a list, Jews are on it. That doesn’t make sense, but not making sense is precisely the hallmark of all this.

It is no secret that certain kinds of intolerance are a little more obviously a part of American life today. There can, for example, be argument about whether the unprecedented disrespect and vitriol for the President is purely political. It isn’t, and most know, or should, that race is near the heart of the hate. Americans too are having hard times that may continue for a while. Even if the current crop of demagogues seems penny-ante compared to “real” American demagogues of the 20th century—the Huey Longs, the Father Coughlins, the Joe McCarthys, the George Wallaces—demagoguery it is. And if we hope and do transcend history, it may be that some things don’t or can’t change: where there’s a list, Jews are on it.

One of the saddest phenomena of recent years is the ultra-ironic sight of a Jewish vigilance about anti-Semitism bizarrely combining with near-paranoid anti-Islamism. E-mails have circulated praising Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders, who advocates keeping Muslims out of the Netherlands and out of all (supposedly) white and Western Europe, lest those white and Western values be despoiled, or worse. Why this appeals to some Jews may not be a mystery, but it is moral madness.

And yet. These are stressful times around the world; outside of war, the most stressful in generations. Distrust and fear of “the other” is bred in the human bone. We must work to rise above and to mutate it out. If you have any sense of history—and all of us should study to be amateur historians—you may at certain moments get a little instinct, a buzz, a foreboding that you hope is way off, one that might be as much about you as about the state of things, and thus should be shaken off. On the other hand, there is the cliché: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that somebody isn’t out to get you.

Two truths co-exist in America. Public anti-Semitism has never been at a lower ebb, and will not return to earlier levels. Privately, the truth is that the vast majority of Americans have never met a Jew, and know little about Judaism except the occasional news story or that it is the primitive religious precursor to Christianity. That unknowing is not pernicious, even if it’s not ideal. But seeing what is going on in the rest of the world is a reminder that vacuums can be filled by suspicion, perplexing troubles need someone to blame, and this “other” or that “other” is just too convenient not to accuse.

For American Jews, it is overstatement to call this a chilly breeze. There is not much in the air at the moment. But intolerance is a funny thing. It has a life of its own, and it doesn’t always take the same course. Over-vigilance and paranoia can be counter-constructive and debilitating. This doesn’t mean that closing your eyes works either. What’s happening thousands of miles away is not happening here. But who’s to say who’s next, once the dogs of hate are let loose.

There are never enough occasions to repeat the famous words of Martin Niemöller, the Protestant pastor who was a public foe of Adolf Hitler and who spent years in concentration camps. In a sense it is his translation of Christian (and Buddhist) non-judgmentalism and non-dualism. If you think you are not different but/or are “the right kind” of different, you are mistaken.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.