THE words ``anti-Semitism'' and ``Holocaust'' connote both what happened to Jews and what the depths of human cruelty are. Anti-Semitism existed long before the Holocaust ever took place, though not by that name, which was first coined in the late 19th century. Before then, back to the days of Jesus and earlier, the Jew was hated, ridiculed, or killed simply because he or she was a Jew. Just as the Romans persecuted them and the early Christians, so the latter, once in power, did unto Jews.
The Holocaust was the most horrible expression of Jew-hatred, but it was not the only example of mass and massive murder. In 20th-century Europe, genocide was practiced against Armenians, and in 19th-century America, against Indians, Orientals, and Mormons. For decades, it was said, ``The only good Indian is a dead one.'' A ``Chinaman's chance'' was an expression of utter futility. And Mormons were targeted for genocide, with Missouri's governor declaring in 1838 that they ``must be exterminated or driven from the state.''
Nevertheless, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are unique phenomena, not only for the unprecedented pain and bloodshed they caused, but also because they were and remain the problems of Christian peoples, with Jews the victims. No other group in Western history was so totally marked for destruction, and no other group had so few people to help them. Though England, Canada, and America admitted some refugees during World War II, many more were denied entrance, much to the satisfaction of their respective populations.
Too often, anti-Semitism is discussed as if it were a characteristic of the nonbelieving, neurotic, and ignorant, although throughout the ages it was also practiced and validated by the God-fearing, sane, and educated: Nazism arose in the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms and of prizewinning scientists. In the Western world, academics and religious leaders went along with, or practiced, anti-Semitism, whether during the Crusades, KKK rallies, or ivory tower seminars on race. Too many ``nice'' people played ``a'' key role in carrying out the Holocaust, just as they did in capturing, selling, and holding of slaves, whether by Roman Catholic Spain and Portugal, Dutch Reform Netherlands, Anglican England, or multi-Christian America.
Forty years have passed since World War II, but the attitudes and beliefs that motivated the Holocaust still linger among:
People who deny the Holocaust ever took place, or who claim the number of its victims was grossly exaggerated.
People who blame Hitler alone, as if he had no collaborators in Germany or neighboring countries, without whose support he could not have overrun Europe, let alone captured and railroaded Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs to their death.
People who say Jews brought about, or even deserved, what happened to them, or that God punished them for their sins, for not accepting Jesus Christ, or for not following the Torah -- blaming the victims instead of the victimizers.
People who equate what happened to Jews to what happened to Poles, Balts, and Slavs during World War II, or to what happened to Vietnamese or Cambodians in recent years, though in none of their countries was every single Pole, Balt, Slav, Vietnamese, or Cambodian earmarked for extinction.
People who accuse Jews of being too sensitive or too given to crying anti-Semitism -- as if they had no memories of 6 million coreligionists murdered.
People who resent the rebirth of Israel, tolerate its enemies, or criticize it for wrongs ignored in other countries.
People who join vigilante, superpatriotic, and super-Christian groups like the KKK, the Aryan Nation, or the Christian Defense League, all of whom hate Jews (and blacks).
People, young and old, who defame, vandalize, and desecrate Jewish homes, cemeteries, and places of worship.
And yet, there is hope:
There were people who helped, protected, and rescued Jews -- few in number, to be sure, but enormous in courage and faith.
Many present-day youth do not have the biases and prejudices of their parents and grandparents.
Some Christian churches, particularly the Catholic Church, are revising beliefs and liturgies about Jews and reviewing their actions and nonactions during the Holocaust.
More and more Protestant and Catholic writers and scholars are probing the roots of Christian anti-Semitism.
Among Jews, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust will always ignite feelings of remorse, defiance, foreboding; the phrase ``Never Again'' has become rallying cry and oath -- no more Holocausts for anyone and no more silence to any intimation of one.
Philip Perlmutter is executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.