Sunday, May 6, 2007

How dangerous Urban Legends can be

When Urban Legends Turn Ugly
by Charles Rammelkamp

We often think of urban legends as essentially harmless tales that have captured the popular imagination. However, some urban legends veer into superstition and prejudice when various attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are attributed to a particular group of people. One group that has been subject to this sort of urban legend is the Jews, who have been vilified over the centuries for many imaginary crimes.

The Jewish Kosher Tax

Where do urban legends end and malicious lies begin? Take, for instance, the claim that there is a secret tax on food either labeled with a “K,” a lowercase “u” inside a circle, or by the word “pareve.” How this tax works is unclear since taxes are collected by the government, but such details seem irrelevant to those who believe that Jews are inherently greedy.
Rather, these symbols indicate that the contents of the package were prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. The “K” means “kosher” while the lowercase “u” in a circle refers to the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, under whose auspices the food has been inspected and certified.

Similarly, the Yiddish word pareve means that the food is free from any animal by-products and thus, can be eaten with meat or dairy (in Jewish law, meat and milk must not be mixed). The organizations which provide the certification do, indeed, charge a modest fee for their services, but the cost of kosher certification that is passed onto the consumer is negligible.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purportedly the text of discussions among Jewish leaders that describe how Jews plan to take over the world by enslaving non-Jews, constitutes another insidious urban legend about Jews. Yet according to historian Benjamin Segel, the Protocols were fabricated in Paris at the end of the 19th century under the supervision of the Russian Okhrana (the Czar’s secret police) as a propaganda tool to stir up anti-Semitic sentiment.
The first known publication of the Protocols was in the Russian newspaper Znamia in 1903. In 1917, they were published again, this time attributed to Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement. This was a time of political turmoil in Russia, and a Jewish scapegoat was welcomed under such circumstances, to direct popular hostility away from those in power.

Two years later, the Protocols were distributed to members of the US cabinet and in 1920, Henry Ford printed them in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent as “proof” that Jews and Communists were trying to take over the world.

However, in 1921, Philip Graves, a reporter for the London Times, discovered that the Protocols had been plagiarized from two sources—an 1864 satire of the French ruler Napoleon III by Parisian lawyer Maurice Joly (entitled Dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in Hell) and Biarritz, an 1868 novel by German anti-Semite Hermann Goedsche. Graves debunked the Protocols in a long series of point-by-point refutations, after which a South African court ruled them a forgery and a Swiss court declared them a fraud. Subsequently, in 1927, Henry Ford publicly retracted his statement about the Protocols, and apologized for his diatribes, claiming his assistants had fed him false information.

But by then the damage had been done. In 1933, excerpts from the Protocols were used by Fascists in the Romanian parliament as a reason to expel Jews from the country. Adolf Hitler cited the Protocols in Mein Kampf, the influential anti-Semitic autobiography he wrote in prison in the 1920s. General Francisco Franco, the Fascist dictator of Spain, also referred to the Protocols when denouncing the Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The Protocols are also believed to be used today as proof that Israel’s designs on the Middle East go beyond the Palestinian territories. In fact, they have been published in Arabic, distributed to local populations by Islamic groups with government sponsorship, and even promoted as true on Egyptian television, as recently as the spring of 2003.

The Holocaust Was a Lie

Similarly, denial of the Holocaust is used to both demonize and trivialize Jews, essentially calling them liars who are only trying to gain sympathy for themselves as victims by spreading falsehoods about WWII’s Nazi death camps. Holocaust deniers claim that the systematic slaughter of six million European Jews did not really happen, or certainly not on the scale that was reported.

These denials began in 1947 when Maurice Bardéche, a French fascist, suggested that much of the evidence about the extermination camps were fabricated and that any deaths in the camps was attributable to disease and starvation. Later, scores of books, such as David Hoggan’s The Myth of the Six Million (1969), claimed that the Holocaust was invented by Zionists in order to discredit Germany’s attempts to maintain national identity and racial purity.

The issue naturally arouses strong emotions on all sides, and several famous court cases have been ajudicated on this very matter. The most famous occurred in the 1990s, when British historian David Irving, author of various books on Hitler, sued Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Georgia’s Emory University for libel, when she “outed” him as a Holocaust denier. Lipstadt won the trial when Irving was found to have used pseudoscientific evidence to misrepresent historical evidence in his books.

Jesus Killed by Jews

The New Testament Gospels have been a source of much misunderstanding, with the medieval Church portraying Jesus a a Christian who was killed by Jews. Rather, Jesus was a Jew whom the Romans killed in response to the political intrigues of the Sanhedrin. In fact, miracle plays of the Middle Ages incited pogroms against Jews by showing, onstage, the drama of Christ’s final days and his gleeful murder by Jews, who were usually portrayed with devil horns and tails. After the performance of such plays, European peasants would go on violent rampages against Jews, destroying property, raping, and killing, all in an act of “revenge.”

Though they can be benign and amusing, some urban legends have been used to reinforce stereotypes, which has often led to violence. We should always try to separate verifiable truth from unsubstantiated rumor when it comes to leveling serious accusations at groups or individuals.

source: mysteries magazine