LOS ANGELES, Jan. 11 (JTA) — The globalization of trade and communications may soon be joined by a new globalization of anti-Semitism, according to a German scholar.
“The anti-Semitic virus may now be less virulent in Western Europe, but it is taking hold in new places, like Japan, and spreading in South America and throughout the Islamic world,” says Johannes Heil.
The 39-year-old historian is one of a small core of scholars who are expanding the boundaries of their field at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin.
The center’s academics and graduate students investigate the roots and permutations of anti-Semitism across the centuries — including the Holocaust — but they are adding a key factor.
“You cannot fully understand anti-Semitism unless you compare it with other forms of prejudice and group hatred,” says Heil. “We look at anti-Semitism as a paradigm for ethnic discrimination and persecution, genocide, forced migrations, nationalistic exploitation of racist beliefs and xenophobia.”
The center maintains close ties with other targets of prejudice in Germany, among them organizations representing Turkish and other foreign workers, gypsies and gays.
While Heil endorses anti-Semitism’s usefulness as a “comparative tool” of study, he acknowledges its uniqueness, if only for its tenacious durability.
A medieval historian by training, Heil is accustomed to taking the long view, and his special interests include anti-Semitic “conspiracy theories” of the 14th to 17th centuries, forerunners of the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a 19th-century forgery that purports to detail an international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world.
“We are still asking why anti-Semitism has lasted as long as it has, why it represents such a historical continuum,” he says.
Heil, who grew up in a Catholic family in a Frankfurt suburb, suspects this his interest in Jews began when his father gave the 9-year old boy a copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Later on, “by chance,” he took a university course on the history of Jews in Frankfurt, Germany, Anne Frank’s birthplace.
Now fully engaged in Jewish study, he went to Israel and, after taking a Hebrew-language crash course, enrolled in classes at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa, on and off, over a five-year period.
While there, he met and married Deborah, an Israeli architect. The couple’s two young daughters attend the Berlin Jewish day school, where they stand out because of their fluent Hebrew.
The center, the only one of its kind in Europe, was founded in 1982, with the financial support of the Berlin municipality. The Technical University, of which the center is a part, focuses on the sciences and engineering, but each student is required — under an old Allied occupation rule — to take two humanities courses.
In this way, the center attracts students from other disciplines, as well as from other universities.
Currently, there are five Americans studying for a doctorate at the center, and at any time scholars and post-doctoral students from foreign countries are enrolled under research grants and scholarships.
These recently included Russians doing a comparison study of their country’s historic anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and Japanese researchers for a project on the “politics of memory” to help their fellow citizens accept responsibility for Japan’s transgressions in the 20th century.
The center’s archives include collections of anti-Semitic newspapers and Jewish community periodicals in Germany, beginning in the 18th century. A clipping service scans 10 contemporary German newspapers for articles on neo-Nazi and right-wing propaganda.
The center also collects memoirs by Berlin Jews during the Nazi period and houses a project on “Unsung Heroes” — Gentile Berliners who aided Jewish citizens.
Along similar lines, the center has become a major resource for the German media, whose preoccupation with the country’s Jewish past and present seems to increase with the years.
In a perverse way, says Heil, the media focus encourages publicity-hungry neo-Nazis and skinheads.
“They know that if they kill a foreign worker, they’ll get an inside story in the local paper,” he says. “But if they vandalize a Jewish cemetery or lob a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue, there’ll be front-page headlines in every German paper and the German chancellor will visit the scene of the crime the next day.”