Over the years, many books have been written about antisemitism from different perspectives. How is your book different?
Many books have addressed the ‘why’ of antisemitism. Why are the Jews so hated? Why have such things been inflicted on them? Why do they continue to be targeted? This book will go some way to explaining the ‘why’ but my central interest is the ‘how’? How does antisemitism function in practice? How is it transmitted around the world and from generation to generation?
This question of ‘how’ led me to the seven deadly myths. It is through this complex and well-honed mythology that antisemitism thrives. As Isaac Herzog said in reference to my book:
By shifting emphasis from the ‘why’ of this puzzling and dangerous phenomenon to the ‘how’ of the mechanics of its transmission, Ryvchin points to the possibility of actually confronting and diffusing it.
You mention in your book that it could be used in the classroom. There is discussion about Holocaust education — and how it has failed, both in making people knowledgeable and in changing attitudes. What do you think are some of the causes for this and how would your book and a curriculum based on it overcome these problems?
Holocaust education is vital and I support it entirely. Within the study of the Holocaust we learn not only about the process by which the European Jews were destroyed, we observe everything of which man is capable of – sadism, cruelty, heroism, strength, apathy and cowardice. But in terms of understanding the hatred of the Jews, the Holocaust answers few questions. In fact, it raises these questions to fever pitch and leaves them unresolved. This is why despite so many admirable endeavors in Holocaust commemoration and education, antisemitism has continued to rise.
Trying to understand antisemitism through the Holocaust is also highly problematic as it positions antisemitism as a historical event and not something in the here and now. It would be like trying to teach anti-Black racism and ending the story with the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. It also falsely positions it as solely a product of race science, fascism and totalitarianism which completely ignores its political and religious sources and manifestations.
This has all contributed to the extremely limited and poor understanding of antisemitism in society, despite it being the most lethal and persistent hatred. This is why it is essential to teach antisemitism itself, what it looks like, how it is expressed, what it continues to do to our communities and wider society.
Why do you think antisemitism persists even after the Holocaust — why wasn’t the world “scared straight” by the murder of 6 million Jews?
Because antisemitism was too ingrained. Antisemitism was soaked into the world’s consciousness through centuries of lies, mythology and propaganda. It emanated from religious sources, nationalist heroes and popular culture. Even the horror of the Holocaust and the most devastating war in history could not dislodge it.
As is often forgotten, Jews continued to be massacred in Europe even after liberation from Nazi occupation. To give one example, the Polish Peasants Party passed a resolution in 1946 thanking Hitler for destroying the Jews and calling for the expulsion of any survivors. Forty-two Jewish survivors were clubbed to death in Kielce, Poland. One of the heroes of the Sobibor Camp Uprising was murdered by nationalists after escaping a camp which had virtually no survivors. So of course, today, when the Holocaust is considered ancient history to many, the same myths and conspiracy theories that made it possible, are resurgent.
If, as you write, antisemitism is not just a result of bad information but is a result of “a defect in reasoning” what is the best we can hope to accomplish in the fight against antisemitism?
Our aim in fighting antisemitism is not elimination – it is a disease without a cure. Our aim is to inoculate as many people as possible from catching it.
There are only two ways to do this. The first is education. But it must be the right education. If we can systematically debunk antisemitic mythology, as my book does, far fewer people will be susceptible to it. Once this education occurs, there has to be engagement. The mythical Jew – bloodthirsty, all-powerful, vengeful, obsessed with money cannot coexist with the real, flesh-and-blood Jew. The more that people see the real Jew, the weaker these myths become.
Considering the longevity and intensity of antisemitism, to what do you ascribe the survival of Jews and the Jewish identity?
Antisemitism has certainly been a contributing factor to our tenacity. It has hardened our minds and matured our souls. Being hated and excluded also makes us seek familiar company.
But the secret to our survival, in my view, stems from our perspective on life which stems from our teachings, our traditions and national holidays. We live life as though on a mission. This gives us our restless energy, our refusal to be bystanders and our refusal to submit and die. We have important work to do.
You write that your book is not only for the classroom but also for policymakers — how could you see your book being used?
During my recent US book tour, I had the honor of presenting to law enforcement about my book. They were fascinated by this approach of reducing antisemitism into these 7 deadly myths. This provided them with a clear means of monitoring antisemitism, seeing the sorts of mental processes that lead to horrific acts and enabling them to prevent hate crimes in future.
This education is really critical to understanding antisemitism, how it works and how it can be stopped. Antisemitism is so poorly understood and any plan to combat it must begin by overcoming this. This is where my book can be really helpful.