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Opinion | Jeff Jacoby

Hitler, Pharaoh, and the anti-Semitic culture of victimhood

Throughout history, imagined wrongs became excuses to attack Jews

In this April 19, 1943, photo, a group of Jews is escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers.

file 1943/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In this April 19, 1943, photo, a group of Jews is escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers.

Holocaust Remembrance Day always falls during the week that follows Passover. At first glance, the two would seem to have little in common — one memorializes the millions of European Jews annihilated by Nazi Germany; the other commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Yet for all their obvious differences, a fundamental similarity links these two crucial chapters in Jewish history. Both were attempts at genocide — and in both cases the perpetrators justified their savageries by claiming that they were the real victims, threatened by the people they intended to wipe out.

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At the Passover Seder, retelling the 3,000-year-old story, Jews read the passage from Exodus in which Pharaoh rationalizes the lethal repression he is about to inflict on the Hebrews. “Come, let us deal wisely with them,” he declares. “Otherwise they may become so many that if there is a war they will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the land.” His notion of dealing wisely: slave labor, followed by mass murder. “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews, you shall throw into the Nile.’ ”

Thirty centuries later, the same pattern preceded the Holocaust.

“The Jewish people stands against us as our deadly foe,” railed Adolf Hitler in 1922, “and will so stand against us always.” More than 100,000 Jews had served in the German army during World War I; 12,000 had fallen in battle. Yet Germany’s defeat was blamed on a “stab in the back” by disloyal traitors — especially the Jews. To this baseless libel the Nazis added others, such as the grotesque claim of race defilement. “The Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race,” Hitler seethed in “Mein Kampf.” Such a villainous enemy could be shown no tolerance and given no quarter: “It must be the hard-and-fast ‘Either-Or.’ ”

Within weeks of coming to power, the Nazis launched the reign of terror that would culminate in the Final Solution. At every step, their crimes against the Jews were described as self-defense. “The Jews of the whole world are trying to destroy Germany,” screamed government posters as the Nazis unleashed a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses. “German people, defend yourselves!” In every issue of Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper published for more than 20 years by Hitler’s ally Julius Streicher, a front-page banner proclaimed: “The Jews are Our Misfortune.”

Down through the millennia, this has been the model for the most virulent, violent anti-Semitism. Jews were depicted, facts and logic to the contrary notwithstanding, as victimizers. Then they were victimized with astonishing ferocity and inhumanity.

At every step, the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews were described as self-defense.

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In her magisterial history of the 14th century, “A Distant Mirror,” Barbara W. Tuchman describes how readily the outbreak of the Black Death was blamed on the Jews — and with what murderous results:

“On charges that they were poisoning the wells, with intent ‘to kill and destroy the whole of Christendom and have lordship over all the world,’ the lynchings began in the spring of 1348 on the heels of the first plague deaths. The first attacks occurred in Narbonne and Carcassonne, where Jews were dragged from their houses and thrown into bonfires. . . . The charges drew a picture of an international Jewish conspiracy emanating from Spain, with messengers from Toledo carrying poison in little packets [and] rabbinical instructions for sprinkling the poison in wells and springs.”

The Jews’ defenders, including Pope Clement, pointed out that these were demented lies. Yet so powerful was the fury against them, and so avid the hunger to believe them guilty of every bad thing, that thousands were slaughtered or dispossessed.

Anti-Semitism is mankind’s oldest hatred, irrational, obsessive, and seemingly indestructible. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist whose childhood was spent in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, recalls being instructed “practically on a daily basis that Jews were evil, the sworn enemies of Muslims whose only goal was to destroy Islam.” She grew up hearing Jews blamed for everything from AIDS to war; “if we ever wanted to know peace and stability,” she was taught, “we would have to destroy them before they would wipe us out.”

The Jew-haters always see themselves as victims, and their victimhood becomes their license to persecute. It is a phenomenon as old as the pharaohs and as contemporary as Al Qaeda. Hitler took it to an unprecedented scale. But while Hitler died in 1945, genocidal Jew-hatred lives on.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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