Will the Financial Crisis Encourage Anti-semitism?

During times of crisis Jews get nervous, and for good reason. How many generations have learned the meaning of the word “scapegoat” the hard way?

Amid the current global financial meltdown, some have pointed out Jewish names in the news or hyped classical anti-Semitic tropes of “Jewish bankers.” How serious is the threat, and what should we be doing?

Some of the anti-Semitic charges first appeared on white supremacist and other hate Web sites. These are small in number, a few thousand from well over 100 million sites. They blame “Zionist criminals” for most things that go wrong in the world, so should we be surprised they update their offensive material?

Anti-Semitic messages have increased on some Internet discussion groups, and this is disturbing. The good news, however, is that Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo have adopted terms of service to counter hate postings and are removing much of the material once they are alerted to it.

No American politician or media personality has blamed Jews for the financial crisis. Obviously, to do so would be absurd. Many actors from every imaginable background had their hands in this meltdown. But while hard-core anti-Semitism has little correlation with rationality, we should derive comfort from past episodes when Jews have been alarmed during troubling times in which Jews were implicated. Attitudinal surveys regularly showed the concerns, while understandable, proved unwarranted. Jews were not blamed for the 1973 Arab oil embargo, for example.

On the international stage, however, the ground is more fertile for serving up Jews as scapegoats. Fresh in our minds is last month’s U.N. General Assembly speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who delivered a classic anti-Semitic diatribe accusing “Zionists” of “dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers.”

That this outrageous address came just a couple of weeks before the meltdown on Wall Street and in other global markets means it might resonate with some Arab and Muslim audiences. Not surprisingly, as the financial crisis deepened, Hamas took up the mantle, asserting that Jews are to blame.

There is the potential for anti-Semitism to grow during difficult times. This is all the more possible in the age of the Internet, a medium in which slanders and rumors are easily circulated and too easily believed. Indeed, a conspiratorial storyline already has appeared.

On Oct. 3, a Web site associated with the Holocaust-denying group The Barnes Review posted an article with a fake byline titled “The Voice of the White House.” Displayed next to another article from the Bloomberg news service, which described how Lehman Brothers lost $400 billion before it went bankrupt, the fake article asserted that the $400 billion was sent “frantically” to Israel and that “the senders are all Jewish.”

Other sites picked up the item as real, and as the London Jewish Chronicle reported, the allegation appeared in the comment section of the Independent newspaper’s Web site for eight hours before it was removed. It likely will reappear or circulate via e-mails for some time.

The story wasn’t as quick to emerge as the charge that Jews were told not to go to work on 9/11, which still is widely believed in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world. But it has the same element of alleging the uncovering of a “secret truth.”

Elsewhere in Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has emerged as a key venue to combat anti-Semitism. The OSCE special representative for anti-Semitism, Gert Weisskirchen, has been raising the concern about increased anti-Semitism related to the financial crisis, and the need for European leaders and institutions to be prepared to speak out.

No one knows whether the Lehman Brothers falsehood will have traction or become another on the long list of canards with a short and inconsequential life span. The “bright line” test will be how mainstream institutions around the world react in the days and weeks ahead: Will they condemn, ignore or endorse such hatred?

What they do, or don’t do, will be key.

(Kenneth Stern is the American Jewish Committee’s expert on anti-Semitism and extremism.)

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