Blog: Through Testimony

Understanding Modern Anti-Semitism through Memories of Propaganda

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 11:39am -- deanna.pitre

Contributor: Martin Šmok

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 11:39am

The Visual History Archive enables its users to observe the history of political utilization of anti-Jewish prejudice since the beginning of the 20th century until the century's end. Teaching about the mechanisms of hatred and the real goals of the propagandists is of utmost importance especially in what used to be the Soviet Block, where the liberation from Nazi regime did not necessarily mean the end of anti-Jewish propaganda.

Many local memory-bearers were gradually forced into emigration, but their testimonies from the Visual History Archive could serve now as eye opening educational assets in their countries of origin, instrumental for deconstructing the many layers and residues of national, ethnic and class hatred of the Jews.  

It was not only the genocidal German Nazi regime that used the artificial construct of the Jew as a mortal enemy in the public sphere. The Jew is the traditional scapegoat of European civilization, today an archetype of enemy combining ancient religious hatred with propagandistic stereotypes borne out of the fears connected with birth of the civic, republican society and later the nation-states. A more modern Jewish enemy construct is connected to the fears brought about by the destruction of the old empires, the October revolution and the Soviet invasion of newly independent Poland after the end of WWI. After the Holocaust, within a few years the Communist regimes of Europe created their own Jewish enemy, a Zionist, "the most trusted agent of American Imperialism.” The well-tested Jewish scapegoat construct was too efficient for the Communists not to utilize.

For the Communists, the Nazi definition of a Jew was repurposed using the words "person of Jewish origin" or "a cosmopolitan,” and additional national or class enemy constructs were blended with the racial one. The label of being a Zionist could be applied to anybody who ever had anything to do with anything Jewish. And of course, every Zionist was a traitor and a spy, evil saboteur backed by the Wall Street and America, enemy of the people. "We are not anti-Semites, we fight and oppose only Zionism" was the main apologetic slogan applied while using the Nazi racial laws to label people destined for liquidation as Zionists.

The initial anti-Jewish witch-hunt that swept through Hungary, Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in 1949 -1953 kept returning in a milder form in subsequent years, roughly every time the Soviet weapons lost a war in the Middle East. Maybe you have heard about the anti-Zionist campaign in Poland in 1968 that drove thousands into emigration, or read the official statements labeling the Prague Spring as yet another Zionist conspiracy.

There are testimonies about all of these events in the Visual History Archive. And they should be used in education.

Why do I think analyzing the Communist anti-Jewish propaganda is important for the students of today? Because so much of it is still alive and well. Unlike the Nazi lies and repulsive caricatures, the Communist textual and visual representations of the Jews do not carry a stigma of being something bad. Often they are considered objects of art. They do not talk about the Jews, after all, they talk about the evil Zionists. The old propagandistic texts are read by youngsters who had no experience with real-life Communism, and the Western public especially is getting attracted to the ideology of class war.

Using the relevant content from the Visual History Archive in a proper educational setting would enhance knowledge of the real-life meaning of this ideology, and users could learn about its impact on individual human lives. By comparing the propagandistic texts with the precious witness testimonies, the understanding of mechanisms of propaganda could be cultivated. Such a practical skill is much needed, and not only in Europe, where a new bloody war is being fought resulting in a propagandistic media overload. I believe being aware of methods of propaganda is an integral part of a set of skills usually called critical thinking.

One can find hundreds of testimonies in the Visual History Archive describing showtrials with “Zionist conspirators” and the effects of the resulting anti-Jewish hysteria. Edgar Semmel remembers a different kind of a trial. Between 1953 and 1957, dozens of Czechoslovak Jews were arrested and tried for distributing social assistance to the needy. Edgar’s father was one of the last arrestees in 1957, shortly before the campaign was stopped.

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Martin Šmok

Martin Šmok started with USC Shoah Foundation as an interviewer nearly 20 years ago and continues to work with the Institute as its Senior International Program Consultant based in the Czech Republic. Šmok lectures at the Teaching with Testimony in the 21st Century teacher education programs held throughout Europe, coordinates outreach efforts and manages the creation of regional testimony-based educational assets.

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