On America Online, there is a popular feature called Judaism Today: Where Do I Fit? (keywords: Judaism Today - Non-AOL members: www.jewish.com/news/gilmann.shtml.)
People anonymously send in e-mail to the author of the feature, Gil Mann, and he selects one for a public response in his Jewish e-mail column. This column is now syndicated internationally in Jewish papers and websites.
A question that has come up in my (mostly non-Jewish) community recently is the classic, "Why are the Jews always getting picked on?" I would be grateful if you could provide me an answer and direct me to resources that can answer this question for both school-age children as well as curious adults.
Some years ago, my wife was a 4th grade public school teacher. She had no Jews in her class and one day told her kids that she was Jewish. One of the kids in her class formed two guns with his fingers, pointed at her and made a rat-atat-atat machine gun sound.
This 11-year-old obviously learned this thinking and behavior somewhere -- probably at home. When my wife told me this story, I asked myself, as your non-Jewish friends have asked you, Why?
The question is especially salient now, with the terrible outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe of late. Blaming Israel is simplistic and another column altogether. (Israel was certainly not on the mind of my wife's 4th grader.) Some are saying and writing that we are back to the 1930s again. Books have been written with many explanations of why Jews have always been hated. This complex problem deserves lengthy treatment. With that as a caveat, I will offer a few words of explanation.
At the root of the problem I believe is the fact that humans are insecure tribal creatures. We are easily threatened by people who are different. Since Jews appeared on the planet, we have certainly been different. We suggested the radically different (and highly disruptive) Jewish notions that there is one God and that humans are therefore inherently equal; we dress, eat and behave differently. These and other differences have confused, offended, frightened, and angered non-Jews around us.
Adding to the problem of human insecurity is widespread ignorance and misinformation about Judaism. Misconceptions run the gamut from the crazy idea that Jews have horns (based on an incorrect translation of the Bible) to the inaccurate assertion that Judaism is a race. (Judaism is a "way of life" to which anyone can convert.)
Some of these misunderstanding are innocent. Many are malicious and evil. Horrible lies about Jews have been spread by anti-Semites to ferment hatred. Also, these lies about Jews have been used for political purposes. Over centuries, in part to stay in power, the Church, monarchs, Nazis, Communists, Arab dictators and others have blamed and focused the misery of their masses on the Jews.
These lies include that Jews killed Jesus, caused The Plague, spread AIDS to non-Jewish children, want to control the world, already control banks, government and media, and drink the blood of non-Jews for Jewish holiday celebrations (this last lie - amongst others-- is currently widely circulated in the Arab world.) In the course of history, these lies have so regularly been disseminated, that they have a life of their own. Anti-Semites quote ancient anti-Semites and footnote earlier anti-Semitic writings to prove the authenticity of the lies.
On top of lies and innocent misconceptions, there is another factor that can lead to misunderstanding: Jewish etiquette can be an affront to others. I seldom see this reason mentioned, but growing up in the gentle, polite and non-Jewish Midwest of the U.S., I am sensitive to how Jewish manners differ.
Specifically I refer to the Jewish tradition that encourages dissent, arguing, standing up for what we believe in, protesting the status quo and speaking up for the powerless. I view this list with pride, but it is easy for me to see how non-Jews (especially leadership) could view this behavior as arrogant and threatening. Making this worse is the confusing idea that Jews are "the chosen people." You can see some of this played out in the story of Joseph and how his brothers resented him and his words.
In all that I have written, I definitely do not mean to suggest that Jews deserve to be hated! I have tried to explain that combining human insecurity; widespread ignorance (which includes the propagation of wicked lies about Jews) and Jewish culture and you have a fine recipe to get picked on.
But in the final analysis, this is tragic and wrong because fundamentally, Jews are people like most other people: we work, we play, we laugh, we cry and hope for a world of peace. The solution is for Jews and non-Jews to know each other better. Learning is the key.
Two resources to further answer your question that I'll suggest are the book Why the Jews by Prager and Telushkin and the Web site: www.igc.apc.org/ddickerson/antisemitism.html
I hope you'll share this with your non-Jewish neighbors and that you both find these comments lead to mutual respect and understanding. Thanks for writing!
He is also the publisher of "Being Jewish" magazine.
Gil's work on this book, on America Online and this column are all done pro-bono. He welcomes your e-mail comments and questions about this column or any subject at DearGil@aol.com.