The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), by Helmut Walser Smith – Reaction Essay

The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town Book Cover

In The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), Helmut Walser Smith uses the murder of Ernst Winter in Konitz in 1900 as a lens through which to examine the historical place of the Jews in German and Christian society. The narrative is constructed like a murder-mystery novel that contains analysis both of the event itself and historical anti-Semitism. Smith does an excellent job of interjecting his analysis into the narrative in a way that maintains the pace and “action” of the story, with the exception of Chapter 5, “Performing Ritual Murder,” which is necessarily more abstract, but feels out of place, as if it just happened to find itself in the middle of an otherwise fluid narrative.

Through his examination of Winter’s murder and the reaction of the people of Konitz, Smith touches on the idea of nations, nationalism and state formation. Who gets to be German? What are the criteria? In a period of crisis, clear lines were drawn between “us” and “them,” with the Jews being clearly placed outside of German society. Based on Smith’s work, the majority of the Jews in Konitz led what might be called average lives. Many did not see themselves as very different from their neighbors. Some rejected Judaism and Jewishness altogether, like the boy that incriminated his father in an 1882 trial regarding a ritual murder charge in Tisza-Eszlar in Hungary (Kindle location 1801). Reform Judaism was on the rise. Most Jews clearly wanted to separate themselves from their past and become German, to one degree or another. What stopped them was latent anti-Semitism that continued to come to the fore during times of crisis.

Another important force that buttressed anti-Semitism during the early 1900s was the press. Because of Germany’s high literacy rates and the apparent freedom to publish uncensored material, “journalists” like Bruhn were able to cater to a demographic that craved news that satisfied their existing world view that supposed Jews really did commit ritual murders. Bruhn, and others like him, leapt on every opportunity to publish sensational stories, much like modern tabloids, invariably making the situation for Jews worse. It makes one question how free the press should be allowed to be. Why does the free press work in the modern US, but so obviously failed in Germany in 1900? One possibility is that the people were not so far removed from natural, learned behaviors imparted to them by their religious affiliation and past.

Smith attempts to explain this by looking at the history of ritual murder accusations and their relationship to the idea of host desecration. The idea that Jews might desecrate the “host” through desecrating a cracker perpetuated the image of Jews as Christ-killers, as people beyond the pale of civilization. Ritual murders were supposedly re-enactments of the murder of Christ. In a period of secularization, where highly educated people were denouncing ritual murder as a myth from an age of barbarism, average people were still by-and-large defining themselves based on religious affiliation. It is interesting that when it came to Jews, Christians in general united in hatred against them, regardless of their personal denominational affiliation.

One of the weak points of Smith’s work is the failure to more clearly link the events that happened in Konitz with Hitler, whom he discusses in the opening of the book as representing the fringe, rather than the mainstream of German society (Kindle location 152). In fact, Smith’s narrative, which shows a nearly united Christian front, ready to accept and lie to support ritual murder charges, seems to contradict that statement. Like the ritual murder charge, anti-Semitism in general did not die out, but rested “in repose,” both among Catholics and Protestants and served as the unifying factor that excluded Jews from belonging to the nation, which in turn constituted the imagined state (Kindle location 1552).

Indonesian Maid Beaten To Death By Malaysian Employers

via Yahoo! News:

Hani was rescued from her employers’ home a week ago. She was found by another Indonesian cleaner hired to replace her who noticed a foul smell coming from a locked bathroom.

Police said that when she was found she was tied up around her arms and legs, and was bruised all over her body. Among her injuries were a serious wound to the right leg that exposed the bone.

Local papers reported Hani had been abused by her employers almost daily during the two months she worked at their home.

One of Asia’s largest importers of labour, Malaysia depends heavily on domestic workers, mainly from Indonesia, but has been criticised for not passing legislation to govern their rights and conditions.

In May, the government announced plans for new laws to protect domestic workers from sexual harassment, non-payment of wages and poor working conditions.

Indonesian maids typically work seven days a week for as little as 400 ringgit (113 dollars) a month.

I hadn’t had much exposure to the practice of having hired help in the home until moving to Singapore. It’s apparently a very common practice in Asia, which surprised me.  In the United States it would be nearly impossible for the average person to afford hired help, but in Asia even middle-income families can generally afford a maid.  The reason for that is that the wages paid to these domestic helpers is very small in comparison to ‘normal’ wages made in the country where they work.

From what I’ve seen in the admittedly short time I’ve been in Asia, people rely on their domestic helpers to care for their homes and even their children in some cases.  They work long hours, often 7 days per week depending on the employer.  So, why is it that there’s no legislation to protect them?  Why is it that they’re paid a wage that’s so small local children would reject it from a part-time job?

These women leave their homes in search of a better life and are often used as the butt of a joke, or abused, sometimes sexually.  Then there is the rare occasion where a domestic helper is beaten to death, or commits suicide.  It’s disgusting.

Sometimes it’s not possible for these women to pick up and leave and go back home.  How could they if they’re paid so little they can’t afford the ticket?  Or if their wages are being withheld?  Or if they’re locked in the house and not allowed out?

Islamic Honor Killings: Tulay Goren

You know that “hot stories” sidebar thing on the right side of the Facebook newsfeed?  Well, I happened to click through on an article from Mail Online about a father accused of murdering his 15 year old daughter as an ‘honor killing’.  I’d read about another instance where that happened in Canada.

If you’re not familiar with honor killing, here’s a quick definition from Wikipedia:

An honor killing (also called a customary killing) is the murder of a family or clan member by one or more fellow family members, where the murderers (and potentially the wider community) believe the victim to have brought dishonor upon the family, clan, or community. This perceived dishonor is normally the result of (a) utilizing dress codes unacceptable to the family (b) wanting out of an arranged marriage or choosing to marry by own choice or (c) engaging in certain sexual acts. These killings result from the perception that defense of honor justifies killing a person whose behavior dishonors their clan or family.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the annual worldwide total of honor-killing victims may be as high as 5,000.[1]

It’s a common relatively occurrence in Arab culture, which is where the majority of Muslims come from. So, it has become one more item on a long list giving Islam a bad reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world.  As if they needed anything else, what with extremists blowing themselves (and the people around them) up left and right.

I understand that there are differences in culture, but I also believe in the priceless value of human life.  It should never be taken for something as ridiculous as a perceived loss of honor.  How can a culture ever hope to mature if it continues to practice such outdated and obviously flawed ideologies?  It’s not ok to kill your daughter just because she wore shorts to school instead of a Hijab.

Article aside, I was more disturbed by the comments being left in Facebook, which seemed to paint all Muslims as being evil terrorists bent on the destruction of the world.  I’m not Muslim myself, but I’ve had the opportunity to know quite a few Muslims and I can say with some assurance that none of them want to blow me up. So, I pointed out in the comments that Christianity has been used as a reason to commit horrible acts, like the Crusades, Inquisition and even the Salem Witch Hunts.

The response was that those weren’t ‘real’ Christians and that Islam is violent, and that it’s evil in general.  I had pointed out that if Christians lived according to some of the stuff that’s in the Old Testament we’d seem pretty odd and scary too.  So, this person lambasted me, saying that Jesus did away with all that Old Testament nonsense.  That being the case I pulled out a bunch of quotes that are less than pleasant about slaying people and burning them that’s in the New Testament.  I also pointed out that you can’t blame the whole for the actions of a few, that there are extremists in both groups.  Another person chimed in that Christ didn’t abolish the law of the Old Testament.  He said that He came to fulfill it.  Christians still observe the 10 Commandments so there must be validity to that statement.  I also threw in some quotes from the Qur’an that I found that support the idea of Islam not advocated wanton murder.

In any case, this person wouldn’t have any of it.  The person is hell bent on believing that Islam “advocates violence and oppression and murder” and that “JESUS never advocated violence, oppression and murder”.

So, I told her this:

“But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.”

Luke 19:27

The message never really got through to her and I don’t believe it will. There are people who are so blinded by popular media, bad personal experience, or a combination of the two that they will refuse to see reason.  From what I’ve seen, different news channels in the US slant things different ways.  It’s a ratings game.  They don’t tell the news.  They cater to their audience.  I’m kinda starting to prefer Al’Jazeera, because it seems more impartial and maybe I just feel comfortable with a 3rd party (usually Brits) reporting on matters.  Of course, Al’Jazeera is funded by Qatar, so who knows?  Maybe there’s no such thing as unbiased reporting anymore.

I’m sure there are violent aspects of the Qur’an, Shari’a, and other Islamic religious texts, but the same can be said of Christianity and Christian religious texts.  Both religious groups have committed travesties over the course of history.  Does that mean that people that belong to particular religious groups are inherently bad?  I don’t think so.

I think we all just need to keep things in perspective.  Just because someone’s Christian doesn’t mean they’re going to drink poisoned Kool Aid and commit mass suicide, and just because someone’s Muslim doesn’t mean they’re going to strap on a bomb and blow themselves up.  Get a grip on reality.

Note: This is not a debate about the validity of either religion. Any comments left on this post bashing either religion, rather than discussing the idea proposed here, will be removed, and depending on what’s said, the commenter will be banned by IP address.  NO hate speech.  Thank you.