Leon Volovici is head of research at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He researched Romanian literature and the sociology of culture in his native Romania before turning to the study of Central and Eastern European Jewry. He emigrated to Israel in 1984. His publications include Nationalist Ideology and Antisemitism: The Case of Romanian Intellectuals in the 1930s (1991) and Antisemitism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: A Marginal or Central Issue? (1994).
CER: In your talk at the conference you discussed different ways anti-Semitism has been seen in Central and Eastern Europe. Do you think that now, in the 12 years since the end of communism, there are still distinct varieties of anti-Semitism?
Leon Volovici: Yes, there are distinct varieties because of the history of each country, the distinct culture and mentality and the specific history of each Jewish community. The common ground remains the stereotype.
CER: Can you say that anti-Semitism might be stronger in countries that have more economic problems or have a past history of anti-Semitism? Is there some sort of formula for anti-Semitism?
Volovici: A formula is hard to find. … Economic crisis or ethnic conflicts--involving or not involving the Jews--can provoke growth of anti-Semitic violence or incidents. But it’s not a deterministic relation.
CER: Under Stalin there was a strong anti-Semitic trend in the Soviet leadership, and some Central European communist countries followed the Stalinist line, although perhaps anti-Semitism was not so deeply rooted there. Do you see this today after communism, this sort of difference between Central Europe and Russia, the former Soviet Union?
Volovici: Stalin himself started, maybe very early, in the ’30s, to manipulate for political reasons a very insidious form of anti-Semitism. He himself was clearly prejudiced with anti-Semitic stereotypes. This became evident especially after the war, in the way he managed the [show] trials, his campaign to destroy the Anti-Fascist Jewish Committee by executing many Jewish writers and poets, the “Doctors’ Plot”--and at the same time declaring that Soviet ideology condemned anti-Semitism. This had an important impact on other communist regimes in Eastern Europe including in Czechoslovakia as well …
CER: … the Slansky trial …
Volovici: … yes, the Slansky trial, which had strong anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist elements. It was a kind of manipulative anti-Semitism. Later, after Stalin, the evolution was different in each country. You remember, for example, the Polish case: a great wave of official anti-Semitism in ’68. Yet at the same time in Romania you didn’t have this kind of calculated anti-Semitism--it came later, in the ’80s. Always you have the impression that it’s a tool which every political communist leader preserved in order to use when necessary. Because it works--or they are convinced that it works. But sometimes the reaction is the opposite, as in the same period in Poland. I visited Poland in the early ’70s, and being for the first time in contact with Polish intellectuals at the academy and the university, it was very evident for me that for this milieu--the real intellectual elite--to be an anti-Semite meant to be a collaborator with an anti-patriotic regime. It was something which must be totally rejected. So the reaction of society was not always as the political leaders expected. Sometimes anti-Semitism worked, sometimes it didn’t. But there was a great wave of anti-Semitism in Poland at this time, which provoked an enormous emigration, a kind of Judenrein. There was not a similar phenomenon in other countries.
CER: Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, is anti-Semitism in some countries still a hidden tool to be pulled out when a politician thinks it might be useful?
Volovici: In Europe now, I don’t think there is a country where the political leaders, the government, are manipulating or allowing anti-Semitism. It’s a great change in atmosphere. Anti-Semitism is rather connected with some extremist groups--sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left--very nationalistic groups, with some influence on major political parties.
AN ENEMY IN THE HOUSE
CER: About nationalism, and the connection if any between nationalism and modern anti-Semitism: In many countries of Central and Eastern Europe, nationalism is associated, especially in the 19th century, with striving for democracy and political freedom. But, at least now, nationalism has a sort of right-wing connotation, sometimes an anti-Semitic connotation. Is there a link between nationalism and anti-Semitism?
Volovici: Yes, there is a link. You mentioned the struggle for independent states, the struggle of national movements in the 19th century. It was a liberal trend, at a period when the new political leaders are promising to grant legal emancipation to the Jews. This is a romantic period. After the First World War, in the disappearance of the great empires--the Austro-Hungarian and so on--in the context of very strong ethnic struggles, Jews, even when they are not part of the struggle for borders, for territory and so on, they are in the middle of this conflict, they are accused of taking the part of the "other side" or of being against the national agenda. The nationalistic ideology, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, is based on an element which [also] became a source of anti-Semitism: the need for an enemy. You can mobilize people if you have a great enemy--which is sometimes external, the Russians, the Germans and so on--but you need, very frequently, an internal enemy to mobilize against--to be able to define oneself in opposition to "the other." The Jew has always fit this role because he is internal, his religion is different, sometimes he is socially successful, and you have all the tradition of religious prejudice and stereotypes, you can always utilize them to create an enemy which you must fight, and you can explain all your failures by this enemy.
CER: And yet today in most of the countries of the region, the Jewish population has dwindled to a tiny fraction of what it was before World War II. And yet anti-Semitism is still alive. Who is the "Semite" that the anti-Semites are against now? Who or where is this imagined Jew?
Volovici: This is a significant change in the situation of the Jews and the evolution of anti-Semitism because it is not really connected with the existence of the Jewish communities. You see an enormous difference sometimes between the amount of anti-Semitic propaganda, the number of anti-Semitic books and brochures, and a very small Jewish community, not socially significant, that can't create any social conflict. And we can even say that this rise in anti-Semitism is not a real danger for the small Jewish communities, because the whole goal of the anti-Semitic propaganda is against an imaginary Jew. It is necessary, even if the Jews were to disappear from this region, to have an enemy [on whom to blame] all the national catastrophes, the social problems, economic crises. Anti-Semitism still has this function, to explain everything bad by the Jews. So it's not so connected with the [actual] Jews.
CER: Many of the countries in the region are seeing significantly greater immigration, especially from Asia. And many of these countries have their own internal dark-skinned population: the Roma. Is there a connection between the mindset of an anti-Semite and the mindset of someone who says, "Immigrants are coming in and taking our jobs" or "Roma are lazy and good for nothing"?
Volovici: The common link is ethnic prejudice, but the differences, I think, are more significant. The hostility, and sometimes violent hostility, against immigrants or against Gypsies is concrete hostility toward these people, their presence, their differences, problems they raise, and one type of action is to reject this population. The difference, I think, between prejudice against immigrants in general and anti-Semitism is the specificity of anti-Semitism to use mainly irrational arguments against the Jews. You don't have something similar with other minorities. You can find very strong negative stereotypes, for example about Russians, about Germans, about Gypsies, Hungarians, Romanians, and so on. But you never find the kind of irrational, stereotypic images which are rooted in the Middle Ages, using very old stereotypes like blood libel, the accusation of ritual murder, the killing of Jesus, of God. These kinds of stereotypes still have an impact on mentality. It is very important to differentiate these two types of prejudice. Anti-Semitism is connected with religion, with mentality, to support the fight against the invisible Jew, which is connected with all kinds of conspiracies.
CER: Do you know of any positive examples in the past few years where governments or organizations have tried to counteract these old stereotypes through education or advertising?
Volovici: I can mention an important positive example of the church--mainly Catholic and Protestant, less so from the Orthodox world--with a visible effort to eradicate anti-Semitism justified by Christianity in the past. Efforts made by the Vatican have been very significant. Maybe it's not enough, but it's very important. It started in the ’60s [under Pope John XXIII], and the present pope has made very important efforts to change the general perception of the Catholic Church connected to Judaism, to relations with the Jews, and finally with relations to the state of Israel. I think it's a very important beginning. All these changes must be taken on by all the clergy to become reality. It takes a long time, but the effort is real.
CER: Professor Jan Gross in his talk yesterday mentioned that significant parts of the Polish Catholic Church were very hostile to his research on the massacre at Jedwabne. So there are cases where Catholic authorities may not be quite as liberal in their thinking as in other countries.
Volovici: Yes, but at the same time he emphasized, very correctly, that you have two groups in the Polish Catholic Church. You have a very important group of liberal Catholics, intellectuals, who are strongly involved in combating anti-Semitism and supporting a critical re-evaluation of the past without mystifying any dramatic event of the past like the Jedwabne massacre. And there is an important part of the Catholic establishment in Poland which is very reluctant in changing its position toward Judaism, and is connected with the most nationalistic and xenophobic positions. Here, I think, there is a kind of Polish paradox: the pope is from Poland, he is venerated for his personality and his Polish origin, but the changes he introduced in relation to the Jews are not really accepted by this part of the Catholic establishment. So it's a struggle which continues. The attitudes toward Jews and toward the Holocaust--it's a test which separates the groups, provoking a polarization inside the Polish church.
CER: You mentioned that some of the Orthodox churches have not made the same steps toward coming to terms with anti-Semitism. We've also seen that since the end of the Soviet Union, some of the national Orthodox churches are in effect the official state churches. Is this part of the problem for relations between the Orthodox churches and the Jewish communities?
Volovici: There are no problems with the actual Jewish communities, as I explained already. The problem is rather with their attitude toward Judaism in general. They are very reluctant to change some things, to explain some things, to look to the past, to make this topic a topic of concern, of education, of reflection, as the Catholics have done. This is a real difference. I don't say that the Orthodox Church is anti-Semitic. It's rather an ambiguous passivity and silence.
THE PARADIGM OF OPPOSITES
CER: It seems that anti-Semitism has some mythological aspects as a system of beliefs that can help people develop a sense of identity or to set them off from other groups. And it's also often said that modern society is lacking in foundation myths and role models. A mythology such as anti-Semitism, which has such negative connotations and negative consequences, but is so deeply rooted in the psyche--how can we get to that deep part of people's psyche and turn the myth around? Is it possible?
Volovici: I am not an optimist in this direction. Because all these things are so connected with mentality, with archaic prejudice. It's very difficult to change it. It takes a constant effort, not only for the schools, but also for the whole society. But change exists, change exists always. I can give an example from Romania, because I am very frequently there, and I teach in the universities. There is a clear difference of mentality between the older and the younger generation. For today’s students, growing up after the fall of communism, Ceausescu is history. They were small children when he fell, they are now 20, 23 years old. They are different. Part of all these prejudices, including the anti-Semitic heritage, came with them, because it's still more or less in the atmosphere, in the anti-Semitic press. But at the same time they are open to information, open to the Internet, visiting Western countries, understanding the world better, reading. They are not so ready to take this prejudice for granted and to accept it. I see there sometimes even a great sympathy for Jewish topics and Jewish history, a willingness to know more. Ignorance is a great source of stereotypes--the main source. If there is this curiosity to understand, to differentiate between individuals, not to judge on the basis of general stereotypes between different ethnic groups--in this sense there is a change from generation to generation.
CER: In conclusion, what is the future of anti-Semitism in Central and Eastern Europe, if you look to the next 10 or 20 years?
Volovici: I come from Jerusalem, but I am not a prophet. It is very difficult to predict. Because prejudice is a human product, a human attribute, I think there will always be different forms of prejudice, including anti-Semitic prejudice. The level of anti-Semitism depends on the evolution of societies, on ethnic conflicts and many other factors. It depends on the fate of democracy in the area, because in democracy you have a value of a critical approach, respect for the liberty of thought, and this is against prejudices. If there is a positive future for democracy, there will be a very low level of anti-Semitism, maybe insignificant. When the paradigm of opposites operates, great clashes of ideology, like now, it's a different story.
CER: Very briefly, do you see the expansion of the European Union as something that can help diminish anti-Semitism?
Volovici: Theoretically yes. But reality is always more paradoxical than our rational thinking. Who would have expected this rise of anti-Semitism in France, which was for us, for all Europe, the model of democracy and human rights? And now there is a rise of anti-Semitic incidents in France which is greater than anywhere in Europe. How to explain this, what is the connection with the immigrant community and so on? Maybe it's something that will change. For sure, expansion of the European community means an enforcement of democracy in the entire region, including the Eastern countries. It's positive, and this process means also to be more sensitive to anti-Semitic prejudices and discrimination. Yes, the effect could be positive.
Ky Krauthamer is the culture editor of Transitions Online.
- Archived articles about Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page