Wall Street Journal
By IRA STOLL
Walking down the street in my solidly upper-middle-class New York City neighborhood the other day was a neatly dressed man angrily cursing into his cell phone about “Jew Wall Street bankers.”
I was headed in the opposite direction and didn’t stop to interview him about his particular grievances, but the brief encounter crystallized for me a foreboding that the financial crisis may trigger a new outbreak of anti-Semitism.
It is a fear that is being articulated ever more widely. President Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, Robert Reich, frets on his blog, “History shows how effective demagogic ravings can be when a public is stressed economically.” He warns that Jews, along with gays and blacks, could become victims of populist rage.
In the New York Jewish Week newspaper, a column by Rabbi Ronald Price of the Union for Traditional Judaism begins, “In the 1930s, as Germany’s economy collapsed, the finger was pointed at the Jews and the Nazis ascended to power. The famous Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jew was falsely accused of treason in France, followed on the heels of economic turmoil.”
At this juncture, the trepidation may yet seem like paranoia, or special pleading akin to the old joke about the newspaper headline, “World Ends in Nuclear Attack: Poor, Minorities Hardest Hit.” Everyone is feeling the brunt of the recession; why worry about the Jews in particular? After all, Jews today have two refuges: Israel and America, a land where Jews have attained remarkable power and prosperity and have a constitutionally protected right to exercise their religion freely. In that case, why worry about potential danger to the Jews at all?
One answer is that the historical precedents are exceedingly grim. The causes of the First Crusade, in which thousands of Jews were murdered, are still being debated, but some historians link it to famine and a poor harvest in 1095. As for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the foremost historian of its causes, Benzion Netanyahu (the father of Israel’s new prime minister), writes of the desire of the persecutors “to get rid of their debts by getting rid of their creditors.” More generally, he writes, “it is an iron-clad rule in the history of group relations: the majority’s toleration of every minority lessens with the worsening of the majority’s condition.”
Lest this seem overly crude economic determinism, consider that the Jews have been victims not only of unrest prompted by economic distress but of attempts to remedy such economic distress with socialism. Take it from Friedrich Hayek, the late Nobel Prize winning Austrian economist. In “The Road to Serfdom,” Hayek wrote, “In Germany and Austria the Jew had come to be regarded as the representative of Capitalism.” Thus, the response in those countries, National Socialism, was an attack on both capitalism and the Jews.
There are ample indicators of current anti-Semitic attitudes. A poll conducted recently in Europe by the Anti-Defamation League found 74% of Spaniards believe Jews “have too much power in international financial markets,” while 67% of Hungarians believe Jews “have too much power in the business world.” Here in America, the Web site of National Journal is hosting an “expert blog” by former CIA official Michael Scheuer, now a professor at Georgetown, complaining of a “fifth column of pro-Israel U.S. citizens” who are “unquestionably enemies of America’s republican experiment.” And over at Yahoo! Finance, the message board discussing Goldman Sachs is rife with comments about “Jew pigs” and the “Zionist Federal Reserve.”
So will the Jews come under attack? The existence of the Jewish state guarantees refuge for Jews around the world, but it carries with it its own risks. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said that if the Jews “all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them world-wide.” It’s a comment all the more chilling as Nasrallah’s Iranian sponsors are on the brink of making a nuclear bomb.
As for the idea that Jewish professional, political, and economic success in America is a guarantee of security, that, too, has its risks. As Yuri Sleskine recounted in his book “The Jewish Century,” in 1900 Vienna more than half of the lawyers, doctors and professional journalists were Jewish, as were 70% of the members of the stock exchange. In Germany, after World War I but before the Nazis came to power, Jews served as finance minister and as foreign minister. Such achievements have a way of being fleeting.
It may yet be that the Jews escape the current economic crisis having only lost fortunes. But if not, there will have been no lack of warning about the threat. When Jews gather Wednesday night for the Passover Seder, we will recite the words from the Hagadah, the book that relays the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt: “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” This year, they will resonate all the more ominously.
Mr. Stoll is the author of “Samuel Adams: A Life” (Free Press, 2008). SB123906114937094859.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
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