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From the NS archive: The reign of anti-Semitism

23 July 1932: These incidents afford an ominous foreboding of developments that may yet occur in the future unless the governments concerned resolve to put their houses in order.

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Anti-Semitism is thousands of years old. In this article, the Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Cohen, who served as secretary of the World Zionist Organisation, documents the “crusade” of violence against Jewish people that raged across Europe in 1932. The peace settlement following the First World War included a series of treaties designed to safeguard the rights of Jews, but in some states such treaties were being “violated both in the letter and in the spirit”. In Germany alone, more than 180 Jewish cemeteries had been desecrated over the last few years, and newspapers, particularly those under the influence of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Alexandru Cuza in Romania, were preaching anti-Semitism to readers. Cohen details incidents in Greece, Poland and Romania, where attackers were given light sentences – if any – and Jewish people, often students, were themselves charged for “taking part” in the riots directed against them. These incidents, Cohen writes, “afford an ominous foreboding of developments that may yet occur in the future unless the governments concerned resolve to put their houses in order”.

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A crusade of anti-Semitism has been raging from the Rhine to the Vistula, and from the Baltic to the Aegean Sea, during the past six months, with a vindictiveness that almost surpasses all previous manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred since the end of the war. The peace settlement included a series of minorities treaties designed to safeguard the civil and political rights of the Jews, as well as the security of their lives and property, in almost all the countries of central and eastern Europe, but, whilst those treaties are being observed for the most part in the letter, they are being violated both in the letter and in the spirit in certain states, and the League of Nations is apparently unable to effect any redress.

The wrongs to which the Jews have been subjected are both of a physical and a moral nature. They have been brutally attacked – to name only a few places – in Berlin and Vienna, in Warsaw and Vilna, in Bucarest and Salonika. Jewish students in particular have been the unfortunate victims of outbursts of hooliganism that have disgraced the universities of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Romania, and they are finding increasing diffic­ulty in being admitted to those seats of learning. Synagogues have been disfigured with the anti-Semitic "Swastika", or damaged, or destroyed, in different parts­; houses have been broken into; shops have been looted. In Germany alone, during the last few years, more than 180 Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, mostly by youthful vandals, who take a fiendish joy in the smashing of tombstones. The slanderous legend of ritual murder has been revived and innocent Jews have been put on trial. Numerous newspapers, especially those under the influence of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Professor Cuza in Romania, indulge in a veritable orgy of abusive accusation, preaching economic boycott, and threatening the Jews with confiscation of property, disfranchisement, and even banishment, if these paladins of patriotism should come into power.

The attitude of the different governments to these outbursts of savagery has varied. The German government has done its utmost to counteract the terrorism carried on by the Nazis, but its hand is not felt everywhere with equal force. The Polish government took energetic steps to suppress the anti-Jewish riots that raged at the universities a few months ago, though in its legislation and administrative practice it continues to show anti-Jewish discrimination. The Romanian government has displayed less effort than any other country to crush or even to check the anti-Semitic abuses within its borders, and no change of cabinet produces any change in the Jewish situation. These governments, and probably also those of the other countries concerned, may plead in extenuation of the wrongs perpetrated in their midst the racial enmity or the bitterness of desperation engendered by the growth of unemployment and poverty, as though the Jews are not equally the victims of economic distress. But what no government can defend is the injustice that is committed against the Jews in connection with cases of assault or destruction that may be heard in its courts, or that may be deliberately withheld from the courts. There are three such cases of recent occurrence that deserve to be widely known.

Last July a Greek mob sacked a Jewish quarter in Salonika, and burned down the dwellings of 54 Jewish families, the synagogue, the school, and other communal buildings. The local authorities tried to put the blame upon the Jews themselves by falsely alleging that they had been the aggressors, but M Venizelos declared in the chamber that the disorders had been fomented by a local chauvinist organisation and that justice would be done. After the lapse of nine months, during which the authorities made extensive inquiries, eleven persons were put on trial. A feature of the proceedings was an attempt to prove the genuineness of the discredited "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" by way of extenuation of the charge. On 17 April the jury found eight of the accused not guilty, and three guilty of incendiarism. The court thereupon pronounced a verdict of not guilty in all instances.

The second case relates to Poland. In the course of the violent attacks upon Jewish students that took place last November at the universities of Krakow, Warsaw, Vilna, Lemberg, and Posen, there was a ferocious assault, in which stonethrowing played a prominent part, upon a Jewish district in Vilna. More than a hundred persons were injured and over a hundred shops were devastated. In a scuffle a Polish student was hit, and died later of his injuries. The punishments inflicted by the authorities, after due process of law, make strange reading. One non-Jewish student was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, another to seven days, and the editor of a Polish paper, found guilty of anti-Jewish incitement, was fined 200 zloty (about £6 l0s.) or in default one month's imprisonment; on the other hand, six Jews were sentenced to imprisonment for terms ranging from two months to three years. In connection with the death of the Polish student, two Jews were put on trial, but the case against them completely collapsed, as the principal witness against them, a girl of low reputation, was found to have committed perjury and was arrested. On the other hand, another Jewish student, who was put on trial at the same time for alleged participation in the excesses, was found guilty on 18 April and condemned to two years' imprisonment. The judge, in pronouncing the sentence, made a remarkable speech, in which he declared that "the Jews are animated by a great profound enmity against Christians in general, and against the Poles in particular, since the days of the Inquisition, when Jews were burnt at the stake". And as though this were not enough, another five Jews are to be put on trial on the charge of taking part in the riots that were directed against them.

The third case relates to Romania. On 23 March some 200 members of the "Iron Guard," an anti-Semitic student organisation, held a meeting in their hall at Jassy to protest against some legal measures projected by the government in regard to the qualifications of advocates. In anticipation of trouble, the local authorities had a goodly muster of infantry, cavalry, and gendarmerie, who made a cordon around the building in which the students were assembled. Despite the imposing presence of these armed forces, the students sallied forth from their hall and attacked a synagogue in the same street. They smashed the windows, demolished the furniture, devastated the interior, stole many valuable ornaments, and desecrated ten scrolls of the law, which they carried out into the street and burned on a bonfire. Against the perpetrators of these act of destruction, spoliation and desecration, no action has been taken. The Romanian government has contented itself with the dissolution of the "Iron Guard."

These three cases are unfortunately not unique in the recent history of the ill-treatment to which the Jews are subjected in certain parts of the continent. But they illustrate the state of outlawry in which millions of Jews are unfortunately now living, and they afford an ominous foreboding of developments that may yet occur in the future unless the governments concerned resolve to put their houses in order, both in the interest of their own domestic welfare and in the interest of their good name among civilised humanity.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)