Anti-Semitism is again back in the news.
Some of the posters at the Charlottesville white supremacist demonstrations this weekend featured a man taking a hammer to a Star of David — the biggest threat, the thing that needs to be destroyed. Marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil!”, a direct translation of the Nazi slogan “blut und boden,” which plays on the notion of Jews as powerful, dangerous interlopers.
This comes toward the end of a summer that included the Chicago Dyke March ejecting participants with a Star of David on a gay pride flag on the misguided-at-best grounds that it went “against the march’s anti-racist core values” and heated debates about whether Gal Gadot, an Ashkenazi Israeli, is a person of color. Particularly in recent years, there has rightfully been increased talk about the ways in which many Ashkenazi Jews in America do have white privilege.
So are we oppressed? Or what? The reasons that question may feel complicated go back around a thousand years. Since the dawn of modern anti-Semitism, hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the idea of Jews having unique sorts of advantages.
In the Middle Ages, Jews were barred from many trades and professions, and it was sometimes illegal for Jews to own land. It was convenient for local authorities to permit Jews to work in trades that were repugnant to Christians — most notably moneylending, which was associated in the Christian world with depravity and sin.
From a Jewish perspective, moneylending was a useful line of work for two reasons. First, it was somewhat portable, and when times were lucky it enabled our ancestors to have liquid assets — both of which were practical during an era when expulsions of Jews from villages and even whole countries were not uncommon. It was also profitable. Most late medieval and early modern European polities taxed Jews at jaw-droppingly high rates, so loaning out money was essential for communities’ survival. A very small subset of Jews began handling money because it was a viable option and a practical necessity. And then they were resented for it — and identified with the work in a way that Christian bankers never were. Even as early as 1233, anti-Semitic drawings depicted the usurious Jew, using many of the same themes one might find in a quick Google search.
Most Jews throughout history lived a fairly precarious existence, economically and otherwise. Many times in history we have been tolerated, and even embraced, by the rulers and locals of our host country. But we have also been subject to expulsions, pogroms, Inquisitions and genocide many times over — often, indeed, fueled by the trope of the greedy, crooked Jew serving as the scapegoat for other stresses and complexities in society. Often, the shift from living in peace to the bottom dropping out happened very quickly.
So here’s the paradox: Anti-Semitism and Jewish privilege are, and have long been, two sides of the same coin. Even now, I feel it keenly.