Questions about Anti-Semitism

Balint Vazsonyi

The exceptional musician - pianist, conductor, and my friend from the 1960s - Daniel Barenboim wrote a lengthy article under the title "Germans, Jews, and Music," that appeared March 29 in the New York Review of Books. His thoughts were prompted by the turmoil surrounding the Staatsoper in Berlin of which he has been music director, and a reference to him by a member of the Berlin Senate as "the Jew Barenboim."

Mr. Barenboim seems far more interested in the future of the venerable theater than in the general outcry unleashed by the utterance. But he used the opportunity to offer some profound observations about music and Judaism, both of which are home ground for him - and about Germany where he has been resident for many years. As befits a man of his gift, knowledge and experience, he views Germany in terms of centuries, as opposed to the 12 years of National Socialist rule.

"Judaism," Mr. Barenboim writes, "is not easily explained: it is part religion, part tradition, part nation, and partly an immensely various people. It is hard to deal with, as much for the Jews themselves as for everyone else..." Ignorance of history, and failure to assimilate it, he continues, "could lead to a new anti-Semitism, or to philo-Semitism, which would be as wrong as anti-Semitism."

Another way of expressing the same sentiment is that every form of discrimination is discrimination, and as such to be avoided at all cost. There is a saying, "there is no bad publicity." By the same token, there is no good discrimination when it comes to individual human beings.

In order to evaluate how contemporary America rates in this area, it is important to observe that discrimination of the negative kind is an ancient human trait. Its presence seems to be natural to man; only its absence is noteworthy. In that context, Americans have done a remarkable job, as they have in all aspects of the human condition since the inception of the country. Residents in and around the nation's capital have the opportunity to drive through Old Town Alexandria and see the plaque commemorating the first synagogue. All can read the correspondence that led to the eternal prohibition of a religious Test "as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" - one of the mind-boggling jewels of the American Founding, to be found in Article VI of our Constitution.

You need to have some idea about the rest of the world in 1787 to comprehend the magnitude of that half-sentence in our Constitution. In Hungary, for example, Austrian Emperor Joseph II, "the enlightened ruler," was considering allowing Jews to take on a family name, albeit from a short roster of colors and occupations. That they called enlightenment.

Given that America then was light years ahead of the rest of the "civilized world," it is disturbing that anti-Semitism exists in America today. No - not the kind that will land people in concentration camps or worse, not even the kind that will keep anyone out of the country club. It is more often than not a low-intensity resentment that people have trained themselves to bottle up. Bottled-up sentiments never are good for a nation's emotional health.

I have thought about these matters long and hard, and my conclusions may not win popularity contests, but here they are.

If our purpose is to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate the factors that end up as walls between people, we have to be consistent. We have to get ever closer to equality in the affairs of man - an aspiration as old as the round table in the legend of King Arthur, and as the Declaration of Independence. In that spirit, I agree with Daniel Barenboim that philo-Semitism is as wrong as anti-Semitism.

Let me begin with music. Ludvig van Beethoven was as much an icon of communist regimes as Richard Wagner under the Nazis. Now Richard Wagner wrote many essays, and one of them bears the title "Jews in Music." Beethoven did nothing similar. But V.I. Lenin was obsessed with Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, and it was the subject of endless documentaries and plays in the Soviet realm. Holding Beethoven responsible for Lenin's admiration of him would be nothing short of idiotic. Why is the continuing obsession to hold Wagner and his music responsible for the Third Reich any more rational?

Because there is discrimination at work in matters of discrimination. In our contemporary body politic, nothing associated with a century of horrors under communist regimes is viewed comparable to the twelve years of Germany under Adolf Hitler.

Least of all those who perished.

Latest estimates are close to a hundred million.

Let us be clear: the systematic, organized, assembly-line approach adopted by Germany for the extermination of Europe's Jews is without precedent or parallel. But in terms of duration and numbers, the victims of communism beat every record in the annals of history. Alas, there are no newsreels of liberating those camps, because they were never liberated. And there are few if any documentaries on the History Channel, or stories on the large and small screen.

Yet for a mother who lost a son, it makes little difference whether the reason was race, religion, social status, or political views. For an orphan, the murder of his parents is the same whether they were Jews in a small Russian village, or the proprietors of a few acres of land in a small Russian village.

I wonder whether there is a better way than hate crime legislation. I wonder if a way to combat anti-Semitism is through the equal treatment of victims and martyrs.

I wonder if the American Left, by whatever label they go, could make a genuine contribution by renouncing the glorification of communists, and placing their mass murders on par with that of the Nazis. Should we not, in our struggle to deal with discrimination among the living, remember ALL who died?