Connect dots: After Charlottesville, journalists should cover anti-Semitism as distinct from 'racism'

The past week once again underscored for me the connectedness of earthly phenomena -- including, most decidedly, what's happening in the news business.

Comments made in Washington -- or Bedminster, N.J. -- reverberated in Pyongyang. An ugly and disconcerting clash in Charlottesville produced global bulletins, with good cause.

So excuse me if this post strays from my assigned GetReligion role, which is to focus on analysis of international stories and trends, and instead zig-zags between the foreign and the domestic.

Call it connecting the dots -- in a very personal way.

The week saw a plethora of screaming headlines (and shouting cable talking heads) going on about the threat of nuclear war with North Korea and -- incredibly -- the possibility of U.S. military intervention in hapless Venezuela. And then, at week’s end, came Charlottesville, the consequences of which will surely keep the news media engaged for some time, or at least until the next all-engulfing story comes along.

President Donald Trump finally got specific Monday about the underlying cause of Saturday’s clash between an assortment of alt-right white supremacists and their fellow travelers, and a large number of counter demonstrators, one of whom was killed when a man identified as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi sympathizer is alleged to have driven his car into the crowd of counter demonstrators.


North Korea surely has potential consequences that are far greater for more people in Asia and elsewhere than do Venezuela (a non-story born out of another thoughtless remark by our commander in chief) and Charlottesville.

But I'm going with Charlottesville here, because, as I was told in Journalism 101, all news is local and personal. And I happen to be an American and a Jew and what I learned a half-century ago in journalism school remains true.

I’m disappointed that the president did not also directly address the anti-Semitism, the historical casting of Jews in the archetypal role of the villainous “other” out to undermine, in its American iteration, traditional white Christian (culturally if not religiously so) society. Not after how openly anti-Semitism was displayed in Charlottesville.

This Washington Post analysis piece does a good job of explaining why that happened in the context of what ostensibly was a dispute over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

It’s not enough for the president to lump anti-Semitism under the rubric of racism, as he did, because in American society today “racism” generally refers to the white-black divide, and to a lesser degree, the debate over immigration.

Because most American Jews are of Northern European ancestry, as I am, they're undeniably white. That makes "racism" an imprecise term. Moreover, this serves to deflect attention from the growing instances of anti-Semitism we’re seeing in the U.S. and abroad. (Trump may still address anti-Semitism directly, given the political pressure I imagine he’s feeling. But I'm not holding my breath.)

Ironically, prior to Charlottesville I was going to post this week about  another ominous story published just days earlier in the Washington Post and datelined Oranienburg, Germany, the former site of the infamous Sachsenhausen Nazi concentration camp.

The well-done piece details a visit to the site by Muslim immigrants to Germany, a nation still dealing with it's responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust that -- it should not be forgotten -- arose out of its own deep and widespread cultural fixation on the evils of Jews and Judaism rooted in historic European Christian anti-Semitism. (I'm aware that the Nazi leadership can hardly be called "Christian" in any religious sense, and that it also persecuted and killed many who fiercely opposed the regime because of their Christian beliefs.)

Here’s a hefty chunk of the story’s opening:

ORANIENBURG, Germany -- He walked across the bleak expanse of what was once the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, toward the gas chamber that had been stocked with liquid Zyklon B, and posed the question that still strains the conscience of modern German society.
“How was it possible?” Osman Jamo asked.
Yet he also wondered why the site, where barbed wire and guard towers stood dark against the brilliant sunshine of a summer afternoon in this town north of Berlin, had been preserved at all.
“Maybe the Jews want to keep these places going so they can be seen as victims forever,” he said of Sachsenhausen, which was mainly used for political prisoners but by the beginning of 1945 held 11,100 Jews.
Jamo’s response is not the usual reaction to Europe’s postwar conversion of concentration camps into memorials and museums, places of atonement and civic education that ask visitors never to forget the Nazi past.
But this was not a typical tour -- nor was Jamo a typical visitor. This was an effort to sensitize Muslim migrants to the dark history of the country that today offers them asylum.
Two years ago, Jamo, 38, fled to Germany from Kobane, a Syrian city occupied by Islamic State militants in late 2014. His ambivalent response to the suffering of Jews at Sachsenhausen speaks to centuries-old religious strife as well as to the political conflict that has torn the Middle East since Israel’s founding after World War II.

Please read this entire story. It speaks volumes about the growing fear among European Jews that their time on the continent could be winding down, as it did in the Muslim-majority nations of the Middle East and North Africa following the fury that erupted over the reestablishment of a Jewish state in their midst.

Be sure not to skip over this quote, buried deep in the story, and intended by the speaker to explain that not all Muslims in Germany are, simply by virtue of their religion, anti-Semitic.

“Anti-Semitism is not a question of ethnicity,” Langer, [a German Jew who works with the Muslim community on interfaith issues and] has done rabbinical training, said. “It’s a question of social and cultural influences.”

Get that? “Social and cultural influences.”

I'd say that holds true in the United States as well; that white anti-Semitism in 2017 America is, in the main, no longer a theological issue so much as it is a result of deeply imbedded social and cultural influences that linger as handy palliatives for those unable to cope with their economic and social frustrations and their fears that their futures may hold even less promise.

Psychologically and politically speaking, blaming others seems to be a primary human survival mechanism.

My bottom line: If ever there was a time for journalists to focus on anti-Semitism in America, this is it.

Don't dismiss it as all Trump’s fault or as a mere sidebar to the admittedly larger story of the breakdown of the historic though largely illusionary American social construct. And try talking with ordinary Jews and not just their designated media spokespeople, who too often are self-appointed anyway. The same goes for interviews with non-Jews, particularly in cities, towns and rural areas removed from the nation’s major Jewish population centers.

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