Lifestyle & Belief

Passover and modern anti-Semitism: a reflection


"The last Jew in Vinnitsa." 1941. Vinnitsa, Ukraine.



LONDON — Passover is the time of year when all Jews — even the most secular — reflect on what it means to be Jewish. And all Jews feel some sense of amazement that an event that may or may not have happened 3,500 years ago has been celebrated continually for at least 2,500 of the years that have followed.

I can't offer you statistics to back up that assertion, but take it from an insider, if a sociologist or pollster made a study asking Jews about the Passover story as a source of identity, most would put it near the top.

Another thing that binds the Jewish community, regardless of degree of religious commitment, is the lingering sense that anti-Semitism is never far from a resurgence. During the Seder service we read aloud from the Haggadah, " … in every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction."

Most of us in the community, even if it's a long time since we've been called a 'dirty Jew,' listen to those words closely. History teaches us we must pay heed.

By chance this Passover season I came across this photograph on a Reddit page called History Porn where people post historic pics from all eras. 

The photo is titled "Last Jew in Vinnitsa" and was completely new to me, although it is apparently famous. Like most of you, I am over-familiar with photos of the concentration camps in the days after they were liberated.

There is something different about this photo, taken in 1941 in a town in central Ukraine, that makes it striking: the individual nature of the victim. Most Holocaust photos are about a mass of people, corpses or skeletal figures or obediently standing in rows awaiting death. These pictures convey the impersonal scale of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”

In this photo, however, it is a single figure suspended between life and death. Atop the lip of the mass grave, German infantrymen of the notorious SS unit Einsatzgruppe D, looking bored, are waiting for the executioner to shoot the last Jew already so they can get on with whatever mundane task they have to do next.

Below the victim are the Jews who have already been shot. Their corpses are billowing up like the bodies floating around the edges of Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel.

As for the last Jew himself: he looks secular, clean-shaven with a modern haircut.  He seems resigned to his fate but looking into his eyes, he also seems to have enough pride left to feel hate, not fear.

When the words of the Haggadah were read the other night the image of the Last Jew in Vinnitsa came back to me.

Does such Jew hatred still exist in Europe any more? A couple of times a year there are reports of rising anti-Semitism. But they are at best anecdotal. 

There is no European equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League compiling regular statistics on anti-Semitism. There is no European Union body that measures anti-Semitism either..

That's not surprising. After all there are virtually no Jews left in Europe. Eighty years ago most of world Jewry lived here. From France to the eastern reaches of today's EU there were around 9 million members of the community. Today, it is around 1.5 million — if you include Russia and Ukraine. It is 1.1 million if you don't.

The phenomenon of anti-Semitism is hard to pin down, although that doesn't stop some members of the community — usually on the ultra-Zionist wing — keeping up a steady drumbeat about its resurgence.

Whatever you read, anti-Semitism isn't on the upswing. On the other hand, anti-Semitism hasn't gone away. Last year for GlobalPost I reported from Poland and Ukraine on the phenomenon of Anti-Semitism without Jews.

Anti-Semitism can take the form of visiting Holocaust denial websites on the internet and believing what you read there, or purchasing a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion at university rallies in support of the Palestinians where the book is often for sale.

The reality of anti-Semitism in private Muslim homes in the UK is the subject of this recent article in by Mehdi Hasan in The New Statesman

In the article Hasan, who is highly critical of Zionism, points out that the Jew-hatred doesn't have much to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict. He asks that his fellow Muslims acknowledge their casual anti-Semitism but doesn't offer a solution to educate them away from their ignorance.

Allow me to make this suggestion: perhaps members of the Jewish community could be encouraged to invite a Muslim family to Seder next year. Let them join in reading from the Haggadah the tale of Jewish liberation from bondage and maybe, before starting the ceremony, circulate the photo of the Last Jew of Vinnitsa. 

All that you need to understand modern Jewry is contained in those two stories.