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No comparison in our times to antisemitic oppression of the past

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Framed by merciless antisemitism in the French military, Captain Alfred Dreyfus is portrayed meeting with his defence counsel after international pressure forced a review of his court martial in 1899. (Photo: usna.edu/Ethics)

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Controversy has arisen over the Israeli government’s recent decision to temporarily prevent non-Israelis from entering the country because of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

American businessman Martin Oliner (writing in the Jerusalem Post on January 1) recalled that Theodor Herzl cited the “distress of the Jews” in explaining the need for a Jewish state in his 1896 book, Der Judenstaat. Today, according to Oliner, “Jews around the world are once again in distress,” this time because of the Israeli travel decision.

It’s certainly unfortunate that many Diaspora Jews are temporarily unable to attend family events in Israel or complete business deals with their Israeli partners. But when one surveys the suffering that Jews were enduring in the 1890s, at the time Herzl was writing his book, is there really a basis for comparing it to the distress that some contemporary Diaspora Jews are experiencing?

In Czarist Russia, discrimination and violence against Jews reached such levels that U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, in his annual message to Congress in 1891, denounced “the severe and oppressive civil restrictions… [and other] harsh measures now being enforced against the Hebrews in Russia,” as a result of which, he forecast,“over 1,000,000 [Jews] will be forced from Russia within a few years.”

Konstantin Pobedonostsev, adviser to the Czar, reportedly remarked in 1894 that one-third of Russian Jews should leave the country, one-third should become Christians, and one-third should die.

In The Russian Jew Under Tsars and Soviets, the eminent historian Salo Baron found that after the ascension to power of Czar Nicholas II, in 1894, “the old screws of legal and administrative discrimination [against Jews] were turned more tightly.” The quota on Jews admitted to Russian universities and colleges was lowered from 7 percent to 3 percent, and the number of Jewish paupers in Russia grew by 27 percent from 1894 to 1898. “In many communities fully 50 percent of the Jewish population depended on charity,” Baron wrote.

Discriminatory legislation (the infamous May Laws) was partially extended to Russian-occupied Poland in 1891, deepening the misery of Polish Jewry.

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In Germany, there was a massive surge of antisemitism in the 1890s, ranging from a blood libel trial in 1891-1892 to a series of electoral victories for Jew-haters. The number of openly antisemitic deputies in the Reichstag increased from one to five in 1890, and then to sixteen in 1893, and the Conservative Party became the first major political party in modern Germany to embrace antisemitism, vowing to “fight the multifarious and obtrusive Jewish influence that decomposes our people’s life.”

The rising tide of antisemitism prompted German Jews to create defense groups such as the Association for Defense Against Anti-Semitism (1890) and the Association for Defense Against Anti-Semitism (1892), as well as the more assimilationist Centralverein of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (1893), and, because of campus antisemitism, the Confederation of Jewish Fraternities (1896.)

Herzl was particularly troubled by events in France, and in Austria, where he had lived since his teens. The Dreyfus Affair, which Herzl followed closely, began in 1894, culminating in mass anti-Jewish riots in Paris in 1898.

In Austria, the openly antisemitic Karl Lueger became mayor of Vienna in 1895 and was repeatedly re-elected. Adolf Hitler later cited Lueger as a source of inspiration.

This snapshot of the distress suffered by some major Diaspora communities in the 1890s is obviously quite different from what Jews in the Five Towns or Beverly Hills are experiencing today.

This is not to minimize the unhappiness of those who have missed family celebrations or whose academic conferences have had to be conducted via Zoom. But the history of the Jewish people is filled with all too many instances of life-or-death distress. Careless historical comparisons contribute little to the public conversation concerning temporary travel restrictions to Israel.

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, and is reprinted by permission of the author.

Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies; his most recent book is The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust. 

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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