“Why have the Jews been persecuted so much for so long?”

The author with 12 and 13 year old students who are learning about Judaism.

Professor Joe Goldblatt

One of the reasons perhaps so many Jewish people may have become comedians or comedy writers is to prove to others that if you do not laugh you may indeed cry. Perhaps that is why I was caught off guard today when a 13 year old student asked me “Why have the Jewish people been persecuted so much when they have done so much good for the world?” At that moment, I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Her question came a few months after the Community Secruity Trust (CST) reported a huge increase in anti semitism in the United Kingdom. This increase directly followed the 7 October 2023 attack in Israel that resulted in the death of 1200 persons, the injury of thousands more, and the kidnapping of over 120 hostages. According to the CST, this surprise horrific attack was second only to the Holocaust in World War II in terms of the deaths of Jewish people.

I suppose that is why, without any personal protection equipment, other than my lucky Mezzuzah, I enter dozens of primary and secondary classroooms each year. The Mezzuzah is a good luck symbol that some Jews affix to the door posts of their home and then give it a light kiss upon entering to bring them good luck. I am hopeful that my Mezzuzah will have the same effect within our local schools, not only for me, but also for the children I teach.

As I struggled to answer my young interrogator’s complex question I began to explain the history of the Jewish people starting in Egypt when we were slaves and Moses, with help from the almighty, led us to freedom. I then began to recount all of the other times before 6 October 2023 when the Jewish people have been victims of the hate from individuals and groups. She was having none of it.

The 13 year old future politiciain looked me in the eye, rose and said “I read that of all the people in the world that percentage wise Jewish people have won more Nobel Prizes than anyone else and they are actually one of the smallest groups in the world. Therefore, I simply do not understand why they are continually persecuted when they have helped so many other people.”

I then turned to the theory of the scapegoat and explained that sometimes people seek to scapegoat other individuals or groups to assign them blame even when they are not at fault. Perhaps the worst case I mentioned, was when Adolf HItler’s evil scapegoating actions led to the murder of six million Jews.

Despite my passionate explanations, she was not buying any of my historic and theoretical justifications for what she saw as the reason for the evil behaviours of others in the past and present.

My thoughts then turned to questioning why in other groups there was not the same pointed hatred despite the crimes against humanity that they have been accused of committing. Many nation states and peoples throughout the world have committed obscene acts of violence and have not received the same degree of scrutiny nor protests as compared to the vile millennia long hatred experienced by the Jews. Therefore, it was very difficult for me to extricate myself from this moment when a very wise child was demanding that I explain the unexpalinable.

As I was packing up my suit case to leave I noticed that many of the students walked over to me and individually and in small groups warmly and sincerely thanked me for my talk to their class. They seemed genuinely pleased that I had taken the time to help them better understand the history of a small group of people who have often been misunderstood. This misunderstanding has often led to suspicion, dislike, even hatred, and violence. The simple but brave gestures of gratitude graciously offered by these students filled my heart with hope.

Another old joke, perhaps written by a Jewish comedian or writer says that during a Jewish family meal the head of the family might say a blessing that goes like this. “Thank you for not killing us, for not enslaving us, for not discriminating against us, and for not hurting us. Now, let’s eat.”

While indeed we may find that laughter is a balm for all of the evils of the past and the greater struggles we now endure in the aftermath of 6 October 2024, it is no cure for anti semitism. In fact it may be instead a form of palliative care to numb us from the pain we continue to feel. The only way to make the pain go away permanently is perhaps to make anti semitism a cureable disease. We have done this with other formerly deadly diseases and I am convinced we can do this with anti semitism as well.

Whilst there is no miracle prevention such as the vaccines scientists discovered to save millions of lives from Covid, there are small treatments that when combined together may just eventually bring about a future cure.

The first treatment is providing more education for young children about different faiths and beliefs so that from an early age they understand that those who appear to be different from them also share common values such as respect, generosity, and love. The UK Board of Jewish Deputies has recently launched an online learning programme for schools and the Edinburgh Interfaith Association has offered for many years an acclaimed in person Faith Road Show in primary schools that introduces thousands of pupils annually to different faiths and also to the services of local police constables to help reduce hate crime.

The second treatment is increasing the frequency and availability of positive dialogue for teenagers and young adults so that they are free to disagree with one another without being disagreeable. With trained and experienced facilitators, operating in safe spaces, this type of treatment may actually help young adults discover the greater common positive bonds among them.

The third and final treatment could perhaps be one of the most effective, although it may also be the most difficult to practice because of fear. We must call out racism, anti semitism, islamophobia, homophobia, and other hate speech when we hear and see it. We must regularly stand up and speak out in the public square to challenge the hateful behaviours of others.

Perhaps that is why when the young woman rose to explore my views about why Jews suffer disproportinately from hate crime that I found myself at a loss for words. However, I know see that in her question there is actually a tiny but potentially powerful answer.

The answer to why the Jewish people have suffered for thousands of years, may be in part because we need to finally roll up our sleeves even higher to promote more education, and the greater discipline and persistence that scientists have used to succssfully eradicate other diseases throughout human history.

Therefore, next time a young person asks me a similar question, I hope that I am better prepared to remind them that the answer may actually be found in their future behaviour and also inside those around them because they are now potential powerful influencers. In fact, future students similar to the young woman who asked me the difficult question, might just be in possession of the next wonder drug that will not only improve the lives of the Jewish people but for all decent people who, like their Jewish brothers and sisters, wish to bring forth a better world that desparately needs more goodness as implied in the question I could not answer.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His views are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.