Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe Rears Its Ugly Head Again

Article excerpt

With the demise of communism, historic ethnic hatred is making a virulent comeback.

There is a long history of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. After World War II, it was linked directly to a specific communist policy of eliminating the infrastructure of Jewish life. Jews found it difficult, if not impossible, to attract younger members of the community because celebrating their religious identity was considered a hostile and anti-communist act. Contact with Israel and Jewish cultural and religious institutions worldwide was proscribed. Virulent attacks on Israel and Jews often were voiced by government bureaucracies.

The treatment of Jews by the communist regimes must be analyzed within the context of the treatment of other religious and ethnic minorities. Under communism, the pressure for assimilation was intense. The differences, both religious and ethnic, between the various groups - Jews as well as others - were ignored, hidden, or actively suppressed by government bureaucracies. Because Marxist-Leninist theory denied the legitimacy of ethnographic differences, they simply were declared to be nonexistent.

However significant the impact of communist policy, there is a long prior history of anti-Semitism in these countries, with social, economic, political, and religious roots. Under communism, it was not allowed open expression. There were little anti-Semitic graffiti or openly anti-Semitic articles in newspapers unless they were government authorized. Nevertheless, this historic animus never was eradicated. The speed and ease with which it emerged after the fall of communism is indicative of the fact that it long had festered under the surface.

Much of contemporary anti-Semitism can be attributed to the socioeconomic dislocation that has emerged since the demise of communism. While the often caustic debates over democracy, nationalism, and the role of an opposition have added fuel to the fire and fostered its increased expression, the entire issue would not have come to the surface had it not existed as an undercurrent suppressed by the previous regime.

Now that communism has been eliminated, Jewish life has improved dramatically. It is ironic, however, that, because of the more open expression of anti-Semitism, Jews in many Eastern European countries feel less secure. Many of the existing formal and bureaucratic obstacles which had prevented the free development of the Jewish community have been removed. Jewish schools, camps, youth groups, seminaries, and university-level Judaic studies programs have been established. Communal institutions that existed under the communists in a limited and precarious fashion are flourishing. This is an exciting and positive development and has prompted some to project the possibility of a reconstruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Yet, at the same time, popular anti-Semitism has percolated to the surface. Anti-Semitic graffiti, articles, religious homilies, political slogans, and vandalism have appeared in virtually all Eastern European countries. The sale of traditional anti-Semitic material, including the infamous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has been reported.

This anti-Semitism is not a new sentiment. In many respects, it is the same as before, but now, instead of emanating from official government circles, it is coming from other sources. On some levels, it is more frightening to Jews, being far less predictable and sometimes more openly virulent. Before, it could be attributed to a hated government policy. Now, it seems to be coming from one's neighbor, harking back to an age-old teaching: "The Jews are the cause of all our problems."

Blaming Jews for communism

In many of these countries, Jews are held responsible for the miseries suffered under communism. Because of the anti-Semitism they endured at the hands of the Nazis, there were Jews in each of these countries who embraced communism after World War II. …