Numerous recent news reports show that Europe is experiencing a resurgence in anti-Semitism. A Syrian-Palestinian refugee in Germany beat a man on the street because he was wearing a Jewish kippa. An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor was brutally stabbed to death and burned in her Paris apartment. Anti-Semitic rhetoric and ideas are gaining traction online.
After the horrors of the Holocaust, why are people not learning from the mistakes of the past, but repeating them instead?
As usually happens in such situations, there is plenty of blame to pass around.
Some blame President Trump for announcing that the United States is moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, which illogically gets connected with the idea that Trump supports and encourages Nazis. Others blame the growing popularity of nationalistic ideology in various far-right political groups. Many argue that rising anti-Semitic attitudes are directly related to an increase in Muslim immigrants to Europe.
And while the 2013 EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 40% of all violent acts and threats against Jews came from Muslim extremists (with 14% from people with left-wing politics, and 10% from people with right-wing views), it is not helpful to trade anti-Semitic ideas for anti-Islam views.
So what is the source of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and more importantly, what is the cure?
The source of the problem is what French Sociologist René Girard (1923-2015) called “the scapegoat mechanism.” The scapegoat mechanism is a device used by all people, cultures, and societies to create peace in a time of great turmoil. When two or more people are at odds with each other, and both recognize (either consciously or non-consciously) that they cannot afford to allow their differences to escalate, but neither wants to back down and give way to the other, they begin to look for a scapegoat.
If the two warring parties can agree on a scapegoat, then they will unite together to blame all their problems on this third-party outsider. They will blame this other person or group for causing all the problems, and then they will join forces to condemn, accuse, exile, and possibly even kill them. Having united together and shifted the blame onto someone else, a temporary peace descends onto the relationship, and the two who were previously at war can now move forward in brotherly love.
History, literature, religion, and sociology reveal that this scapegoat, third-party “outsider” is always someone who is “different” in some way. They might be richer or poorer. They might be a foreigner, or of a different religion. They might have some sort of deformity, or “strange” way of dressing and talking. These differences make them perfect targets for the scapegoat mechanism to work. (See a longer explanation of René Girard’s ideas here.)
Since Jewish people have always been exiles and foreigners in others lands, a “peculiar people” who seek to maintain their heritage, traditions, beliefs, and morals in foreign countries, they have been easy targets for the scapegoat mechanism. If they had assimilated by adopting the values, beliefs, morals, customs, dress, language, and religious practices of whatever land they were in, they would not have been as easily targeted as scapegoats.
The United States has typically not targeted Jewish people as scapegoats, because the country is, by its nature and since its founding, a “melting pot” of cultures and civilizations. This is not to say that we do not practice scapegoating; we do. It is just that our targets are different, and tend to rapidly change from one generation to the next, depending on a variety of cultural events and circumstances. But in Europe, the Jewish people have always stood out.
In recent decades, however, tension has been growing between the native Europeans and the growing number of Middle Eastern and African immigrants. They were two cultures and two people groups who were beginning to clash. Both groups had enough foresight to know where their escalating violence would lead, but neither group was willing to back down. So the non-conscious search for a mutually-acceptable scapegoat began. It appears that many Europeans and immigrants have settled, once again, on scapegoating the Jewish people.
So what is the cure? What is the answer? What is the way out of this mess?
There are only three ways out of escalating violence. First, there can be the escalation of violence until eventually, the contagion of violence consumes everyone in a war of “all against all.” This is partly what happened in the two World Wars. Second, there can be an attempt at peace as the warring parties unite together in a war of “all against one.” This is the scapegoat mechanism, but it only achieves a temporary peace, and eventually loses its force and leads right back to the first option.
The third option is the only way forward. It is the option in which each group and person admits their own contribution to the escalating violence, allows themselves to forgive and be forgiven, and agrees to refrain from further violence. Given the state of current world affairs, this seems like an unlikely option. But when our only choices are between non-violence and non-existence (as both René Girard and Martin Luther King Jr. recognized), maybe some leaders will have the courage to give it a try.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and are not necessarily those of World Religion News.
WRN Featured Contributors are comprised of two groups: A) The official spokespersons affiliated with a religion or religious organization or B) WRN hand-picked religion and theology writers from around the web. If you would like to be a featured contributor, please contact us here.