Convenient Scapegoats

July 1, 2020

by: Nathan Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications

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“Anti-Semitism is best understood as a virus. It has no logic. Jews were hated because they were rich and because they were poor; because they were capitalists and because they were communists; because they held tenaciously to an ancient faith and because they were rootless cosmopolitans, believing nothing. Hate needs no logic. It is a sickness of the soul.”

– Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Throughout history, global crises—whether financial, political or health in nature—have united people in a common sense of suffering. At times this coming together is for the good of society in dealing with the crisis at hand. More often this unification revolves around the need to assign blame for the origin of the crisis, triggering hate and even violence toward the perceived instigators. One people group always finds themselves at the top of the list of potential culprits: the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism is lurking just under the surface of too many human hearts, and all it takes is a little nudge for open hatred to flare up against the Jewish people. As the world grapples with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and global race riots, the Jewish people and the Jewish state have once again become a convenient target of blame.

Scapegoat Theory

The concept of a scapegoat originates in the Hebrew Bible. On Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) two kid goats were brought to the door of the Tabernacle to be presented to the Lord (Lev. 16:5–10). Through the casting of lots, one goat was destined for sacrifice, and the high priest figuratively attributed the intentional sins of the Israelites to the other before releasing it into the wilderness.

The cruel irony is inescapable that throughout history, the Jewish people have played the role of scapegoat. The Encyclopedia of Social Psychology defines scapegoat theory as “the tendency to blame someone else for one’s own problems, a process that often results in feelings of prejudice toward the person or group that one is blaming.”

Scapegoating has become a functional form of anti-Semitism. Jewish people are often seen as harmful elements of society, and the responsibility for any crisis can be projected onto them. This method of blame can be used to explain any calamity that transpires in society and conveniently leaves the non-Jewish individuals void of any responsibility. Scapegoating is often accompanied by aggression, which is not randomly attributed but rather follows existing patterns of bigotry. The responsibility for many of the world’s ills has been attributed to the Jewish people, and the undeserved retribution has left an indelible hurt.

History of Blame

It is an unfortunate reality that much of the historic scapegoating of the Jewish people originated from professed Christians. As the Black Death (bubonic plague) ravaged Europe in 1348, Christians leaders grappled to understand the origin of the plague that had befallen the continent. As there was no real understanding about how diseases spread and because some Jewish communities escaped infection, wild anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were conjured up. Pope Clement and Franciscan Friar Herman Gigas claimed that Jews, in an attempt to destroy Christianity, “poisoned the wells and springs everywhere.” Their accusation resulted in horrifying persecution and the mass extermination of Jews at the fiery stake.

Labelled as polluted carriers of typhus in Europe and transporters of tuberculosis and cholera into the United States, Jewish immigrants were repeatedly scapegoated, leading to the US immigration policy in the 1920s being basically anti-Jewish. In actual fact, Jewish immigrants had a longer life expectancy than “indigenous” Americans and in fact had lower levels of disease in their communities. However, the scapegoating continued and expanded to include many other societal failures, especially during the period between the two World Wars.

In 1915 Henry Ford blamed the Jews for instigating World War I, and in the late 1930s, Adolf Hitler scapegoated the Jews for the economic problems and resulting poverty the German people experienced. The Nazi propaganda machine fine-tuned scapegoating, uniting its citizens in a manipulated loathing and anger toward Jews that eventually led to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Scapegoat Nation

In more recent times, the scapegoat model of anti-Semitism has expanded to include the culpability of the Jewish state in all kinds of nefarious dealings. Some of the allegations are downright ridiculous. Egypt and Saudi Arabia accused Israel of infiltrating their countries with poisoned fruit and vegetables in 2007, even believing that AIDS-infected melons had made their way to Riyadh. At the height of the 2006 Avian flu scare, Syrian media reported that Israel had deliberately developed the virus to subdue the surrounding Arab nations. Israel is blamed for, among other things, the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the 2008 global financial crisis and the continuing unrest in the Middle East.

Fast forward to the current COVID-19 crisis: the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy has been monitoring efforts to delegitimize Israel by scapegoating the Jewish state with allegations of orchestrating the global pandemic. The haters of Israel and pro-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) organizations have gone so far as to equate Israel and the Jewish people to a coronavirus which spreads its infectious influence for political or financial gain. In an article for the Times of Israel, Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, said: “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it.”

When Will It End?

Indeed, it appears that history is repeating itself as the Jewish people and Israel are scapegoated at every opportunity. We witnessed vile caricatures of Jews as vermin carrying “the real plague” at an anti-lockdown rally in Ohio. In Paris shouts of “dirty Jews” rang out during an anti-racism march while protesters brandish banners accusing Israel of massacring Palestinians. The scapegoating and hate may never end, but Christians like you and I must not stand idly by as false accusations are made against our friends. We have a responsibility to acknowledge the hatred that is hiding behind each anti-Semitic trope and combat it with truth and love.

Photo Credit: The scapegoat of Yom Kippur - Khazanova/shutterstock.com

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