The ability of humans to hate is boundless and apparently, never-ending. Just as the flu virus mutates from season to season, hatred also seems to mutate and have its season.
If you look back in time, you’ll note that some years the flu virus is stronger, more deadly and unpredictable. We vaccinate “vulnerable” populations, only to find that everyone is potentially vulnerable. The Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, the greatest number between the ages of 14 and 34. It killed ten times more people than World War I.
Hatred is also a virus. It flourishes and morphs. It is global. Some strains are deadlier than others. It flares up, it spreads. Once started, it is difficult, if not impossible, to contain. The breeding ground for hatred changes from century to century and place to place. Political and military leaders, such as Hitler and Stalin, and groups such as ISIS, create the perfect climate for hatred to flourish.
As a Jewish person, I’ve studied our history and know that hatred for us is always just below the surface. It periodically boils over. When something bad happens, people have two main options.
First, they can try to figure out how it happened and work together toward a solution.
The other option, the one that leads to hatred, is to ask “Who did this to us?” Rather than ferreting out the root cause, we look for someone to hang it on. We even have a name for it, “Scapegoating.”
The scapegoat, first referenced in the Book of Leviticus, was a goat chosen to be burdened with the sins of the community, and then led off to the wilderness, taking the sins with him. In contemporary use, the burden is placed on the Jew, or the Republican, or the Democrat, or Hispanic, or the African-American, or the Muslim-American and most recently, immigrants from South America, whom, we are told repeatedly by our president, are rapists, murderers, and drug dealers and who will steal jobs from ‘real’ Americans.
Today, we have many ways to spread hatred. It spreads from the pulpit, the Oval Office, the television, radio and press. Hatred can easily find its willing audience via the internet, tweeting directly into your hand-held device, or the computer screen in your teenager’s bedroom. It can target individuals and groups. It can attract and galvanize fanatics and followers. We even have a term for the rapid spread of an idea or image. We say something has “gone viral,” just like that deadly influenza.
Jews have been the traditional scapegoat for centuries with every woe in the world blamed on them. Millions of Jews have been killed since the Middle Ages for the simple “crime” of being Jewish. In more universal terms, any dominant group can find a scapegoat for their misfortune, wretchedness, or distress by simply pointing a finger at “the other.”
The past few years have seen an increase in anti-Semitism. Some attacks are verbal, some violent, some passive-aggressive, some political. Some say they are anti-Zionist, which is the newest cloak of an old hatred whipped to a frenzy by political extremism playing on fear and the desire to place blame for social issues on the new scapegoats.
Within the past two years there has been an historic rise in anti-Semitic incidents and online attacks. Near St. Louis, Missouri, 150 headstones were toppled at a Jewish Cemetery, and Swastikas spray painted on the stones. Last week a cemetery in Omaha, Nebraska was desecrated, knocking over 75 headstones. An attack on any cemetery of one group, such as Jewish or Catholic, is an attack on entire culture. Closer to home, the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center in Fairfax has been vandalized twice; the last time it was spray painted with 19 Swastikas. In Pittsburgh, 11 Jews were killed and 7 wounded in a mass shooting during a prayer service. In San Diego one congregant was killed and three wounded. The killer calmly told the 911 operator “I’m defending our nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.”
Hate that begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews. Overt anti-Semitism is the canary in the coalmine, and, most recently, a bellwether for the direction the country seems to be going. Political rhetoric that calls out any group as the cause of societal problems can quickly redirect our attention from fixing the problem to placing blame.
Just like the deadly virus it is, hatred in America is mutating.