Editorial: The Hunger Blames

Should the history of Jewish persecution in rough economic times inform our opinions on how to deal with the world’s economic struggles?

We answer in the affirmative, because we can’t avert our eyes from the rampant hatred toward Jews that spreads during severe downturns.

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Economic issues have dominated the recent European elections, most notably in France and Greece. While the overt focus has been the tug between financial austerity and stimulus to kickstart woefully sagging economies, the recessionary tone has underlying implications for Jews and the always lurking shadows of ethnic and religious hatred.

Especially disturbing in the recent political round was the strong showing by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party in Greece, which won 7 percent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections. The leader of the Golden Dawn Party, Nikos Mihaloliakos, has already been condemned by the interim Greek government and the Greek Jewish community for denying that there were gas chambers or ovens at the Nazi death camps.

The Greek situation mirrors the one that’s developed recently in Hungary. JTA writer Ruth Ellen Gruber reports that the debate over anti-Semitism in Hungary has sharpened “since the anti-Roma (Gypsy), anti-Israel and anti-Jewish Jobbik movement entered the Parliament two years ago as the country’s third largest political party.”

Which brings us to France and its recent elections. With a Jewish population of almost half a million, making it third to the United States and Israel, France has been convulsed by a spate of anti-Semitism such as the cold-blooded terrorist murder of a rabbi and three Jewish children at a Jewish day school in Toulouse. 

While outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy was not uniformly loved among French Jewry, he was applauded for his immediate trip to Toulouse to express his outrage at the killings and solidarity with the French Jewish community. As leader of the Socialist Party, incoming President Francois Hollande also condemned the murders and reaffirmed his party’s historic repudiation of anti-Semitism.

Yet espousing the right policies against anti-Semitism (and any ethnic and religious hatred, for that matter) is only part of the story. For while prosperity does not guarantee an absence of scapegoating, national financial peril almost always exacerbates it.

So while we might all have our own views of the right prescription for economic maladies in the abstract, as Jews we have to at least consider the prospect that an austerity program intended to reduce debt and chase away inflation could have potentially horrid consequences to us in the short run.

Sarkozy had worked very closely and in tandem with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to demand that economically stressed members of the European Union like Greece, Spain and Portugal accept the bitter medicine of strict austerity. 

Hollande has repeatedly stressed the need for stimulative growth, pointing out that draconian austerity can actually increase economic woes rather than bringing relief.

The latter position garnered support at both the recent G-8 summit at Camp David and at the NATO meetings in Chicago, both hosted by President Barack Obama.

Our views of what’s best for long-term prosperity, for economic sustainability, for capitalism and for the social good, must be tempered by the very distinct prospect of substantially worse anti-Semitism during tough downturns. We say this for three reasons.

First is the obvious, that Jews will fare better in almost any economic condition that doesn’t encourage finger-pointing, excuse-making and chest-thumping.

Second, and more expansively, we think that any culture that doesn’t let those on the bottom rungs fall into the economic abyss, and that provides hope and opportunity for those who aspire to succeed through hard work and commitment, no matter their starting point, is a culture in which bigotry and hatred is less likely to succeed.

Third, nations that can find compromise balancing points between circumventing long-term debt and rampant inflation, on one hand, and the public-private partnership needed to create current jobs and growth, on the other, are determined to govern at a point much closer to the center than to an extreme. That’s always a good thing.

It’s a tough balance — we make no bones about it. It’s tempting to espouse one’s view on macroeconomic matters without regard to social welfare. But in real life, it just doesn’t work that way.

And when it comes to Jewish social welfare, we have to think about our own safety, security and well being, and that of our fellow minorities. For if we do not, as we have learned time and again, there is no assurance that others will.