Tragedy holds lesson for SA - Saturday Star

3 November 2018 - Let Pittsburgh be a lesson to South Africans. Demonisation can have devastating consequences.

Sara Gon

The attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has been declared the deadliest attack against Jews in America’s history – but it came as no surprise to an organization that has been monitoring antisemitism for decades.

The American Defence League (ADL), founded in 1913 to ‘stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all’, has monitored a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents in America since 2016.

The league’s function in recent years has grown to include fighting cyber hate, bullying, bias in schools and in the criminal justice system, terrorism, hate crimes, coercion of religious minorities, and contempt for anyone who is different.

The ADL started tracking antisemitic incidents nearly 40 years ago in 1979. In this time, the highest single-year rise was recorded last year, when incidents in 2017 rose by 57% on 2016 figures. In the ten years between 2008 and 2017, the lowest year was 2013 and the highest was 2017.

Antisemitic incidents were most common in public schools, university campuses, parks and streets.

Frighteningly, public schools witnessed an increase of 94% from 2016 to 2017. Incidents on college and university campuses rose 89% over 2016’s figure. One must wonder at the role of parents, churches and lecturers.

Campus antisemitism comes from the radical left-wing and from Neo-Nazi groups.

After a wave of bomb threats to Jewish institutions in 2017 (including the ADL), the league’s chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said: “… But the real story is that one man with technology paralyzed our communities from coast to coast. In an era of rising rhetoric and emboldened extremists, we already are racing to mount new defenses for our institutions in the years ahead because next time we might not be so lucky.”

Tragic prescience.

Commentators have highlighted two issues in particular attributed to extreme right white antisemitism. The first is social media: bigots can express their hatred publicly to large, supportive responses. Haters can access a range of websites which share their agenda. Every myth and antisemitic canard is reinforced.

The second is the incivility and aggression of public discourse on campuses, in the media and in politics. John Locke said: "There cannot be greater rudeness than to interrupt another in the current of his discourse." Locke was one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, also known as the "Father of Liberalism".

Much criticism is being directed at President Donald Trump and the role of his divisive polemic in extreme right behaviour. The ADL says there was a dramatic spike in antisemitic incidents from about 80 in October 2016 to about 220 in November 2016, the month Trump was elected as president. They then spiked to the highest levels in three years in January, February and March 2017.

However, much of the backlash by those who voted for Trump is attributed to the arrogance and derision of the liberal left coastal elites towards Middle America, particularly the white working and middle classes. The liberal left’s political correctness has been seen as harmful to the situation of the above classes.   

South African Jews also face the most vile antisemitism on social media daily. This is an example: ‘@sajbd [South African Jewish Board of Deputies] The #Holocaust Will be like A Picnic When we are done with all you Zionist Bastards. F*ck All Of You’. Another tweet described Jews as ‘vermin, who Hitler should have exterminated completely’.

The author of this calumny is not on the far right or any right.

The origin of antisemitism lies in early Christianity. Any prejudice that emanates rightly or wrongly from religion is nigh impossible to eradicate. Since religion is imbued in a child from birth, prejudice becomes innate. 

In the three centuries after Christ’s death the conservative Jewish groups and the new Christian Jewish groups lived fairly harmoniously.

The first issue was Christianity’s positing of the divinity of Jesus Christ. For Jews to believe in Jesus compromised Judaism’s essence – the direct relationship with God. The accusation of the Jews being responsible for the death of Christ, however, sealed the Jews’ fate.

Deicide against all Jews was recorded in the second century CE. In the fourth century, John Chrysostom, the arch-bishop of Constantinople, made deicide the cornerstone of his theology; expiation, pardon or indulgence were not possible. He denounced Jews to prevent Christians from participating in Jewish customs and leaving his flock.

Emperor Theodosius I established Christianity as the Roman Empire’s official religion and, given the size of the empire, it spread very widely.

In the 5th-century Peter Chrystologus, Bishop of Ravenna, held that both the Jews present at Jesus’ death and the Jewish people collectively and for all time had committed deicide.

A recent South African example of this principle is “the original sin” that whites are tarred with –  the perpetration of dispossession and abuse from 1652 – which cannot ever be escaped through individual action or over the effluxion of time. 

Inevitably, superstitions arose, including the horrific blood libel. Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children to make unleavened bread in 12th century England. The immense irony is that Jews are prohibited by Jewish law from consuming blood.

The superstitions flourished in the Middle Ages. Some – there were more – include:

•   Desecration of the Host – the claim that Jews stole wafers and tortured them by sticking pins in them, crucifying Jesus again;

•   Jews as devils – Jews being depicted as pigs, as swarthy and hook-nosed, presumed to have tails and horns and to share the devil’s sulphurous smell;

•   Polluted Jewish blood – that Jews suffered from blood diseases that could only be cured by infusions of Christian blood.

•   Poisoning – In the 1300s, the Black Death claim about half of Europe’s population. Jews were not affected to the same degree due to traditional Jewish practices of hygiene and quick burial of their dead. So Jews were accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells.

•   Jewish World Conspiracy – the claim, originating in Spain in the Middle Ages that a council of rabbis met secretly every year to cast lots regarding which city should supply the Christian victim for the annual Jewish sacrifice. This myth ultimately mutated to world financial domination.

The Pittsburgh murderer is likely to hold dear some of these odious suspicions or variants of them.

Islam’s proponents regarded the third iteration of monotheism as the real true faith. Thus, Jews and Christians were regarded and treated as second-class citizens (dhimmi) – though, generally, Jews were never treated as badly by the Muslims as they were by the Christians.

However, degradation became violent antisemitism in 1840 (before the rise of Zionism) when French Catholics introduced the blood libel to Syria. The blood libel and the superstitions became and remain horribly entrenched in the Middle East.

Hamas condemned the massacre in Pittsburgh, claiming that as Palestinian victims of ‘Israeli terror’, the group relates to the shattered Pennsylvania Jewish community’s pain. Even in offering sympathy to Jews, Hamas accompanied it with a gratuitous attack on Israel. Hamas’s constitution is intensely antisemitic.

Irrespective of one’s opinion of the Israel/Palestine conflict, vilification through untruths and continual perpetuation of hatred through lies about ‘the other’ ensures that the conflict is irresolvable.

Let Pittsburgh be a lesson to South Africans. Demonisation can have devastating consequences. Our leaders owe it to us to stop demonising the other, irrespective of who the other is.       

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).