We are inured to the presence of a small number of neo-Nazis among us. We are accustomed to the rants that emerge periodically from the mouth of Minister Lewis Farrakhan. But are we at all prepared for the possible emergence of widespread anti-Semitism in the United States?
True, mainstream America has dispensed with overt bigotry. But it was not all that long ago that many country clubs and even universities maintained quotas for the number of Jews they would admit. Growing up in a well-to-do suburb of Boston in the 1960s and 70s, I was aware of anti-Semitic attitudes just beneath the surface of everyday life. I was aware of these attitudes because from time to time both children and adults I knew made anti-Semitic remarks. I do not recall a single instance when a voice, or even an eyebrow, was raised against such remarks.
Today anti-Semitic words are rarely heard, even in private, except on the very fringes of our society. Has America moved beyond anti-Semitism, or have anti-Semitic attitudes just been buried a bit deeper in the American psyche? If Mr. Gibson can, at the prompting of a few tequilas, go into an anti-Semitic diatribe, what might other people -- less well-off, less worldly people -- say, and perhaps do, under certain circumstances?
Can we simply dismiss this as inconceivable? In 1929, just before the onset of the Great Depression, the Nazis held 12 seats in the German Reichstag, and Adolf Hitler was little more than a comic figure on the world stage. In 1930 the Nazi Party suddenly increased its number of Reichstag deputies to 107, in 1932 it became the largest political party in Germany, and a year later Hitler became chancellor. Millions of mainstream, middle-class Germans had changed their views and their votes almost overnight, in spite of the overt and disgusting anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Attitudes can change very quickly under certain circumstances.
We need to look hard for solutions to problems that may blow up suddenly in our faces-the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, the enormous federal budget deficit, our almost total dependence on foreign oil. Should these problems reach critical mass simultaneously, or almost so, it is not inconceivable that we could see something along the lines of a million-man march on Washington, with every man shouting, "The Jews are responsible. . . ."
Can it happen here? Do we want to find out? Perhaps Mel Gibson has a lesson for us, after all.