Viral Antisemitism? The Enduring Challenge of “The Other”

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 7:00 pm

Viral Antisemitism? The Enduring Challenge of “The Other”

Rykestrasse Synagogue
The Rykestrasse synagogue in East Berlin survived “Kristallnacht” of 1938 and was the only functioning synagogue in former East Germany. (photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
As we prepare to leave for Israel, I’m noting the strange and disturbing global outbreak of celebrity antisemitism: Charlie Sheen’s rant at his former producer; John Galliano’s rants at perfect strangers; and now a top boy band in Japan makes an appearance in Nazi garb.
These kinds of images are at once familiar and bizarre. For Jews, admittedly, “bizarre” may be too detached a word for something that is directly threatening and frightening. So it is up to the rest of us to consider what I mean in using that word to point at the way in which Judaism is a favored face for a persistent, shape-shifting specter in the human psyche: the global “other” — strange, difficult, despised, and intimidating at once. And “viral” is a good way to describe its incurable yet off-and-on interdependence with the human condition.
I first became aware of this in former East Germany, where I spent time in the 1980s as a journalist. Antisemitism was a strong current just beneath the surface. But there were virtually no Jews left in that part of Germany. There hadn’t been for decades. The specific nature of German grievances against Jews was obviously fictive. Laid bare was an amorphous fear of the abstract “other,” of difference itself.
Writing about this, naming it, feels like perilous territory — but territory we are morally called to walk.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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