Prejudice thrives in times of chaos and fear, and the collapse of the American economy has dragged a usually hushed anti-Semitism squinting into the daylight. Recently, researchers from Stanford and Columbia followed their darkest suspicions to a scandalous conclusion: One in four of the Americans they surveyed blamed “the Jews” for the financial crisis. Another 38 percent assigned them at least a little bit of blame. Somewhat surprisingly, Democrats were nearly twice as likely as Republicans to finger the Jews for America’s financial woes.
The findings, published in Boston Review (May-June 2009), echo a 2008 U.S. State Department report on global anti-Semitism that declared: “More than 60 years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is not just a fact of history, it is a current event.” The government report’s depiction of anti-Semitism in the United States was, however, limited to Holocaust deniers who find common cause among the hate groups scattered along the fringes of American society. It’s tempting to think of these groups as ideological islands separated from the rest of us by a vast sea of rational hearts. Not so.
Addressing the prejudice hovering around reports of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the outing of Bernard Madoff, a Christian Science Monitor op-ed noted in February: “Among the blameworthy were former President Bush . . . and, ahem, the American consumer. Scapegoating misses the moral of our own failures.” We are flirting with something more ominous than embarrassment. The anti-Semitism that found its fiery center in the ovens of the past century’s concentration camps was built upon countless small shifts in moral comfort zones. The philosopher Hannah Arendt called it the “consent of public opinion”—and she was not merely judging history, she was uttering ageless prophecy.