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Cultural Diversity: Breaking Barriers, Widening Perspectives
For two millennia scurrilous myths about Jews abounded in Christian lands. We have seen how the medieval Christian myth of the Jew as Satan’s agent conspiring to destroy Christendom helped spawn the modern nationalist myth of a Jewish cabal plotting to rule the planet. This myth and others about Jews, including their racial inferiority, were widely believed by many people and unashamedly propagated by members of the cultural elite— all this in a scientific age that had experienced the critical spirit of the Enlightenment. The Nazis employed these myths to justify their war against the Jews:
They were cleansing Europe of parasitical subhumans who threatened the fatherland. The zeal and brutality displayed by both the SS and ordinary Germans involved in the extermination process attest to the immense impact these myths had on people’s thinking.
The systematic slaughter of two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe shamed many people and awakened them to the evilness and danger of anti-Jewish myths. It also spurred a growing Christian-Jewish dialogue that has fostered greater understanding and tolerance. As a result, the propagation of old myths about Jews has greatly abated in Western lands, at least in respectable circles. Nevertheless, anti-semitism still has the capacity to ignite people’s meanest feelings and distort thinking, as in the disturbing phenomenon of Holocaust denial.
A number of writers, some of whom are or have been affiliated with academic institutions, have deliberately and cruelly manufactured a new myth— that of Holocaust denial. These people argue that during World War II the Germans had no policy of extermination; the Jews invented the Holocaust to gain world sympathy for Zionism and to wrest enormous indemnity payments from innocent Germans. Using their putative capacity for conspiracy, financial power, political influence, and control over the media, say the deniers, Jews have managed to dupe the world.
In the tradition of earlier anti-semites, Holocaust deniers intend to inflict maximum pain on Jews, for they know that the Holocaust touches the Jewish soul like few other issues. Anti-semitic and neo-Nazi movements throughout the world have gleefully adopted the cause of Holocaust denial—anything to hurt the Jew. Through their own productions—books, pamphlets, video cassettes, comic books—the Internet, advertisements in college newspapers, and radio and television programs that give them an audience in the interest of “fairness and free speech,” they disseminate this new anti-semitic myth. For many of these Jew-baiters it is also a way to profiteer.
Holocaust denial, which flies in the face of all documentary evidence, including the testimony of eyewitness survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders, demonstrates anew the fragility of human reason and the seemingly limitless capacity of the mind to embrace the most grotesque beliefs. It is still another illustration of the power of anti-semitism to drag the mind into the murky waters of the irrational.
Let us suppose that some white racist produced a book denying that blacks were once slaves in this country. In the preface he summed up his position:
“I have written this book because I feel that I have a moral duty to expose a great hoax that continues to do great harm to the American people. Contrary to everything we have been told, bondage slavery never existed in the United States. Blacks invented the myth that their ancestors were enslaved in order to wrench welfare payments and affirmative action programs from the government. The Africans that Europeans and Americans brought to the New World came voluntarily seeking a better life, and were fortunate to be given this opportunity. The accommodations of Africans on the ships crossing the Atlantic were no worse than those of the crew, and they were encouraged to sing and dance.
“But unlike European immigrants, Africans, many of whom still retained their savage ways, were unable to fend for themselves in the American colonies; in order to survive, they asked to be placed with caring families who provided them with food, and shelter, and work. Most blacks were satisfied with this arrangement, but occasionally the authorities were compelled to use force against criminal blacks. It is unfortunate that the North, whipped into a frenzy by the lies and distortions of black rabble-rousers and their Abolitionist dupes, launched an unjust war against the South. Since the Civil War, blacks have engaged in a vile conspiracy to misrepresent the antebellum labor system by calling it slavery.
“Everywhere they have cunningly forged documents and planted misleading information that continue to deceive gullible historians. So great is their power that they were able to pressure white plantation owners and their descendants to confirm this myth, even though they knew in their hearts it was untrue. I have only one reason for writing this book—to present the truth to the world. Those who fear the truth, or are victims of a well-orchestrated black propaganda campaign, will call me a racist. But I will persist in my struggle, which I regard as a sacred duty.”
The arguments advanced by Holocaust deniers are just as grotesque and their motivation just as fraudulent and mean-spirited. But one of the painful lessons of recent history is that the most absurd and hateful ideas, cleverly packaged and tirelessly repeated, do have an effect on people, particularly when Jews are the target.
-Perry, Marvin and Schweitzer, Frederick M. Antisemitism:
Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan,
New York, NY, 2002.
Reflection Exercise #3
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