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Posted Wednesday, February 3, 1999

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Making the antisemites pay

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University of Illinois, Chicago

February 2, 1999

MILTON GOLDIN is certainly right when he says "America is not Germany." But once upon a time, Germany was a place where the rule of law and the institutions of the state had wide legitimacy in the population.

Before 1914, the legal pursuit of antisemites was one of the prime strategies of Jewish organizations and, to a lesser degree, individuals. In my opinion it worked well. Not only did it cost the libel-prone bigots a lot of money and considerable time in jail, but it robbed them of respectability with the broad public. Being sentenced in the kaiser's court sometimes ended a political career; it rarely was seen as a "badge of honor."

The then equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League nailed every major and many, many minor antisemites. They cried foul against the snitches, of course, and began to suggest that the court system was a tool of the Jews, but such was the consensus about the Kaiserreich that this sort of revolutionary attitude did not have much resonance in the larger society and rather scandalized even the mainstream antisemites. Antisemitism was not defeated but it was kept at bay, a fringe phenomenon that did not threaten the lives or property of Jews.

This all changed after the loss of World War I and the founding of the Weimar Republic. The Republic became increasingly associated with defeat, foreign influence, weakness. It steadily lost credibility and legitimacy. When an antisemite was pursued in the courts and even when convicted--and again, all the big ones were--it meant something far different than under the kaisers. Now, it was a badge of honor, like being on Nixon's Enemies List. Hitler could proudly state in 1924 that he had been convicted by the Jew Republic, a sure sign that he was defending the true interests of the German people. This sentiment went down well with whole groups of disaffected Germans.

The point of all this is that Milton Goldin's defense strategy works only when the rule of law has the power of popular consent behind it. What worries me about the present state of affairs in America is the eroding of respect for institutions and procedures and values that have made it possible for Milton Goldin to protect himself against bigots. I see in my students cynicism rather than skepticism, contempt for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and an unwillingness to be caught believing in anything too hokey.

This is much more disturbing to me than the lunatics and miscreants out there who are beyond the reach of rational discourse when it comes to the subject of Jews. I guess what I fear is that America could become (Weimar) Germany.

Richard S Levy Department of History (M/C 198)
923 University Hall
601 S Morgan St
Chicago, IL 60607-7109
Phone: (312) 996-3141
Home Phone: (773) 248-3791 Home fax: (773) 525-8740 email:


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Our opinion
Weimar USA: This is a very real and present danger for the Jewish community which Irving prophesied in his speech to students at Washington State University on April 13, 1998. The Jewish community in the United States are rapidly approaching the same entrenched positions of influence and power that they enjoyed in pre-Hitler Germany. Not necessarily a good thing.

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