Anti-Semitic actions speak louder than hateful words

In the same week that Pope John Paul II proclaimed that anti-Semitism is a sin never again to be tolerated, campaigners for Vladimir Putin darkly announced on Russian TV that one of his main opponents for the presidency was supported by Jews and should therefore be shunned.

But the culture of anti-Semitism is not easily reduced or created by such proclamations.

Czarist Russia was the birthplace of the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" because the minions of the czar knew that the Russian culture of anti-Semitism would be politically helpful.

When Lenin came into power, he proclaimed that anti-Semitism was never again to be tolerated. But in later years, when Stalin smelled trouble for himself, he loosed a vicious reign of terror against Jews in the Soviet Union.

Stalin knew that the Russian culture of anti-Semitism was still alive and well, and so do Putin's people. Obviously, the TV ad didn't hurt Putin. He won the election a few days later and became Russia's new president.

In contrast, it would be unthinkable and politically suicidal for the presidential campaigns of Al Gore or George W. Bush to warn that the other one is supported by Jews and therefore should be shunned. However, that is not because Americans are genetically superior or because they come from countries in which the culture of anti-Semitism was weak.

Remember that the largest ancestral group in America came from Germany and that an anti-Semitic culture was imported from all the countries of Europe.

When the English and Scotts-Irish first came to America, for example, they brought one of their popular ballads and sang it up and down the Atlantic Coast. "The Ballad of St. Hugh" is about a Christian boy killed by Jews for ritual purposes, featuring such lyrical lines as "The Jewess laid him on a dressing table and sticked him like a swine."

However, the nature of the American society gradually eroded the culture of anti-Semitism, especially over the last 50 years, while it continued to flourish in Russia.

Proclamations alone did not primarily cause that erosion. Russia had such proclamations, including Lenin's. But in a quiltwork and democratic America, behavior changed. The society came to insist on equal rights and opportunities for everyone. Then, integration took place and negative feelings faded.

Of course, words are not unimportant. But too much should not be expected of words in the short term unless they are connected to actions.

If Pope Pius XII had ordered his priests to lead public protests against Nazi actions or to organize assistance for Jews, for instance, it might well have made some difference during World War II.

And while it is admirable — and good for the soul of the Catholic Church — that Pope John Paul II has fervently declared anti-Semitism a sin, that does not mean his words will be quickly accepted by all Catholics.

He has also declared birth control a sin, but most American Catholics practice it. Still, it has been documented that most American Catholics already avoid anti-Semitism, in the voting booth and elsewhere, because they have been affected by the nature of the American society.

By the same token, if Putin should now condemn anti-Semitism, that will not by itself seriously affect the Russian culture of bigotry, any more than did Lenin's proclamation. The fate of Russian Jews depends more on whether he moves to generally democratize Russian society.

Of course, American Jews should insist that our government speak and act decisively against anti-Semitic expressions in Russia, as we have done in the past. But American Jews should also actively explore and support any role that our government can play in the real democratization of Russia. And while attacking any expressions of anti-Semitism, we should not lose our vigilance about further strengthening our own democratic society.

While we can be grateful for kind words, have we not at long last learned where our self-interest lies?