Monday, January 9, 2012

Jews and Muslims and Catholics: the traitors within

I noted with interest the similarities between the 19th century anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement in the United States with modern European anti-Muslim movements. Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher warned that the mass of superstitious Catholics in the US were loyal to Rome, not Washington, and their potential treachery was 'like a train of powder between an enemy's camp and our own magazine'. I was reminded of the modern arguments that segregated Muslim populations in Europe are loyal to Mecca in rejection of the local national identity, are in fact a growing traitorous minority that itches for the overthrow of secular democracy.
Now I am reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes; A Hidden Inheritance, which describes the hatred his wealthy Jewish ancestors faced in 19th century Paris. Again I see some similarities, but also big differences in the kinds of bigotry.

The Muslims and Catholics during their various eras of mass migration ended up in the US or Europe clustered around the bottom of society. They were feared for their numbers and their fertility, for swarming into great ghettos, chattering in their own languages, worshipping their own gods. These were mass movements that felt threatening for their poverty and crime and for the potential they offered corrupt democratic politicians pandering to vote banks. They were seen as the slime at the bottom of society, criminal and backward and always threatening to engulf the natives in riot and chaos and rape.

For the 19th century French, the Jews were alarming for other reasons. These were a tiny minority, but very, very significant because of their extraordinary wealth and their dominance of the finance sector. Writing in 2012 after the collapse of a banking system that saw widespread denunciations of bankers, it is interesting to see the French of 1882 scapegoating the banking elite too. That time much of the elite were especially alien to investors who had lost their savings because they were Jews.
Like the Catholics and Muslims, the Jews were thought to have divided loyalties. With massive financial clout, de Waal's ancestors the Ephrussis were able to threaten distant governments:
Their threat to flood the markets with grain in response to Russian pogroms was taken seriously in an excited report in a newspaper during another crisis. '[The Jews] ... have learned the potency of this weapon when they made Russia hold her hand in the last Jewish persecution... by reducing Russian securities twenty-four points in thirteen days. "Touch another of our people and not another ruble you shall have, to save your empire," said Michel Ephrussi, head of the great house of Odessa, the largest grain dealers in the world.' The Ephrussis were, in short, very rich, very visible and very partisan.
The Jews here seemed to be disconnected from the French nation state, more loyal to Jewish cousins living on the Black Sea than to their French countrymen and women. Their clout, and their danger, came from wealth instead of numbers. The Muslims and Catholics were threatening because of their failures, their consistent poverty and sprawl. The Jews were threatening because of their success.
Curiously the Jews were mocked for integrating too, using their wealth to slip deftly into the highest of European society. They were the nouveau riche who leap-frogged ancient European noble families into respectability and treasure, commissioning coats of arms and living in beautiful old homes that belonged once to the European aristocracy. De Waal's ancestor Charles, who was a renowned art critic and friend of the great Impressionist artists of France, was still dismissed by the anti-Semites as being obsessed only with gold. While Catholics were derided in the US for their flamboyant religiosity in poverty, the Jews were jealously mocked for having a childish magpie instinct to collect and flaunt expensive trinkets. Try as they might to seem European and dignified and tasteful, the intermarried web of stateless Jewish financiers were seen as threatening outsiders, even 'oriental'.

I suppose in all these examples the minority group was seen to be alien, disloyal, dishonest, empowered either with wealth or numbers, and willing to use this power to harm the native majorities. Perhaps it is this power that unsettles the natives. I was astonished to see a note made by Charles Lindbergh, aviator and racist, in his diary that: 'Whenever the Jewish percentage of total population becomes too high, a reaction seems to invariably occur.' How similar to the 21st century chain email that listed the ever-increasing harm an ever-increasing Muslim population does to a country. Yet I'm still a little puzzled by the hatred of the wealthy Jews, since those groups most feared and alienated today seem to be the poorer groups, the Roma, Bangladeshi, Nigerian, and Pakistani. Wealthier minorities like Britain's Jews and Sikhs seem to attract less rage.

That's just a casual observation - am I wrong? I know there are tensions between the wealthy Chinese minority in Malaysia and the poorer Malay majority, but I generally thought that the poorer minority groups tended to be feared more than the rich. Any thoughts, or counter-examples from around the world?

Is it the power of minorities that unnerves the natives, or something else? Share your thoughts below.


  1. There is the case of the lebanese in west africa.

    In India, we have zoroastrians, who are spectacularly wealthy, extremely influential but insignificantly tiny as far as population is concerned. We also have even tinier populations of jews whose history goes even longer.

  2. Great, thanks Rohan. How do Indians feel about the Zoroastrians?

    I realise that there would have been a lot of anti-British, anti-Protestant bigotry directed against the wealthy Anglo-Irish Protestants in Ireland during the 20th century. There, though, the Protestants might have been seen as alien precisely because of the colonial history of Britain in Ireland, a bit different from the situation of migrant minority groups.

  3. Surprisingly, there has never been any anti-zoroastrian feeling in India. The main reason is that zoroastrians are concentrated in only 2 states in India. (they number just 69,000 in India). There is no real home country to which they feel attached to. They are extremely integrated and they are viewed as a patriotic community because many zoroastrians were either providing financial support to the freedom movement or participating themselves (the chief of the army during the 1971 India-Pakistan war was a zoroastrian and the 2 most important generals under him were sikh and jewish :D).plus zoroastrians as a community have made huge contributions to Indian society. The Tata group for example is a large multi-national conglomerate but in India, it is viewed as a very patriotic company.

  4. Nice one! So if I understand rightly, the Zoroastrians are associated with Persia, am I right? Yet today Iran is an Islamic Republic. So perhaps there is no sense in India that Zoroastrians have any kind of non-Indian national identity? No suspicion that they are more loyal to Iran than to India.

    The Catholics, Muslims, and Jews all at some stage or another, were suspected of being loyal to foreign powers - perhaps that is one of the most significant sources of unease and bigotry towards a minority group. The Zoroastrians in India must have good Indian nationalist credentials!

    I wonder how Malays feel about the Indian and Chinese Malaysians - are they seen as being loyal to India and China first?

  5. I am guessing the fear of the 'unknown' and 'the other' people is quite common. And its a fact that poorer people tend to be involved in more VISIBLE crime like theft and assault than the richer folk.

    This could easily be exploited by politicians in a democratic system to whip up anti-whoever fevor to gain publicity and garner votes. I am not sure if such exploitation can occur in a system where public opinion does not count.

  6. Well done for completely ignoring the millions of poor destitute Jews wiped out in pogroms in Eastern Europe and by the Holocaust. Your argument is ridiculous. Jews are still persecuted and live in fear. How often do Catholics or even muslims need to have police protection simply to go to their places of worship or to their faith schools? Yet Jews do still today. Why? Because of hundreds of years of hatred by those very same groups who 'claim' persecution yet are in fact the persecutors.

  7. Hey Shabaz, thanks for your comment, didn't see it until just now.

    Anonymous thanks for the comment, though I don't quite follow your point. I'm not discussing the Holocaust or pogroms here. Who are those groups you mention, who claim persecution? Out of curiosity I'd be happy to hear about the places where Jews need police protection for school, though.


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