Historical antisemitism peaked with the Nazi genocide, but the nightmare is centuries old.
With its monotheistic theology, Judaism was viewed with deep suspicion by polytheistic societies in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt where nearly a million Jews lived among polytheistic Egyptians, Greeks and the governing Romans. The ‘first pogrom’ in Alexandria in 38 AD was ordered by Roman governor Flaccus. Thousands of Jews were beaten, raped, and paraded through the streets to be burned on bonfires.
That Jesus was Jewish and crucified by the Romans were two major stumbling blocks to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Many scholars believe that the Gospels were written with the desire to reach out to the Roman emperors in order to preserve the religion and ensure its longevity. To achieve this, the responsibility of the Romans for Jesus’ death needed to be minimized and his ‘Jewishness’ downplayed. This historical revisionism is evidenced by early Christian texts attributing blame to Pontius Pilate and Emperor Tiberius whereas later texts refer to ‘the Jews’ and also paint the Romans in a more sympathetic light. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, further embellishments would be added to Christian doctrine regarding the death of Christ which would set in motion two millennia of anti-Jewish antagonism.1
Synagogue of Satan
The Church soon developed a symbolic opposition to all things Jewish. Jews were held up as the demonic other, the ‘black and treacherous Judas’, and the ‘synagogue of Satan’. Christian theologians and emperors would wax poetic in their demonization of the Jews, and churches would be adorned with ‘sacred art’ depicting the righteous denigration of Judaism. By 534, the Justinian Code would degrade Jews to second-class citizens. Attempting to build a synagogue would be punished by death and forfeiture of all assets. The Toledo Synods of seventh- century Spain forced Jewish children to live with Christian families after the age of seven.
Jews under Islam
Muhammad originally viewed the Jews as potential allies. However, when the Jews of Medina refused to convert to Islam, he had all the Jewish men of the city slaughtered and the women and children taken as slaves. Despite this, as Islam spread, Jews were accepted as ‘people of the book’ (dhimmi) along with Christians and were generally accorded better treatment than in Christian societies. However, they were usually forced to live in separate areas (mellah), and were made to wear certain garbs so that they could be easily identifiable. In 807 Caliph Harun al-Rashid ordered all Jews to wear yellow badges. Wooden devils and apes were nailed on the homes of Jews and their places of worship were destroyed under the reign of Caliph al-Mutawakkil from 850. The later period of Moorish Spain (al-Andalus), however, is seen as one of the golden ages of Judaism where persecution was rare and Jewish culture flourished.
‘Dark Ages’ indeed
European crusaders en route to ‘liberate’ Jerusalem from Islam, murdered thousands of Jews at the close of the 11th century. The Church forced the remaining Jews to wear distinctive clothing (yellow badges in France, pointy hats in Germany) in order to discourage relations with Christians. Hebrew scriptures were ordered by the Popes to be destroyed in large public book-burning gatherings in local town squares throughout Europe. Passion plays were used to reinforce Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ and other anti-Jewish transmissions and were often followed by pogroms. ‘Blood libel’ surfaced as part of the demonology of ‘the Jew’, appearing first in 1144 England where Jews would be eventually expelled after a series of pogroms. The most famous blood libel accusation involved the allegation of a ritual murder of a young boy in Italy, Simon, in 1475 who was later made a saint (the official Catholic Church account lasted until 1950). The Inquisition established the notion of blood purity – anyone with an eighth Jewish blood was considered to be impure even if they had converted to Christianity.
Variations on a theme
When the plague ravaged Europe, many blamed the Jews, accusing them of poisoning the wells. This led to spontaneous mob lynchings all over the continent. Increasingly antisemitism took on a more economic and cultural character.
In the Middle Ages it was illegal for Christians to lend money. Money lending, seen as a ‘devilish trade’, was one of the only professions allowed to Jews, who were forbidden to engage in most other economic activity. This increasingly led to the stereotyping of Jews as ‘greedy moneylenders’ seeking to ruin Christians. When economies were stressed, Jews would be the first to be blamed by the authorities who found in them useful scapegoats during times of crisis.
The concept of the ‘Wandering Jew’ (doomed to wander the earth without a home as punishment for killing Christ) appeared in 17th century popular culture, reinforcing ‘otherness’ and justifying expulsion from European countries. Jews were increasingly seen as having loyalty only to the ‘Jewish nation’ (which was then a euphemism for the Jewish community rather than a particular state).
The revolution will not be Judaicized
Despite protestations from French philosopher Voltaire, Jews were eventually given full rights after the French Revolution. They increasingly came to be associated with a number of different leading revolutionary movements and ideologically liberal currents. Demagogues would stir up the population on charges that ‘the Jews’ were infecting the minds of the populace with egalitarian ideals, socialism and humanism, as well as entrepeneurship, social democracy and internationalism. As such, they were often seen as either enemies of the state, or agents of it.
By the mid-19th century, hatred of Jews was seen through the lens of racialism. The ‘Jewish problem’ could no longer be solved through conversion since the inherently evil Jewish ‘race’ was incurable. French philosopher Ernest Renan posited the notion of Aryan racial supremacy over the superficial ‘Semitic mind’. His German contemporary, Paul de Lagarde, mobilized such concepts in Prussia where he advocated the complete destruction of European Jewry, whom he saw as ‘bacilli and tapeworms’. It was around this time that German journalist Wilhelm Marr founded the League of Antisemites in 1879, which was the first organization committed specifically to combating the alleged threat to Germany posed by the Jews and advocating their forced removal from the country. Czarist Russia and neighbouring Ukraine also embraced the new politics of racism by encouraging pogroms against Jewish communities and creating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to cement popular hysteria about Jews.
The development of nationalism and the demise of monarchies led to new waves of antisemitism. In France, the infamous Dreyfus Affair of 1894, where a French Jewish army captain was falsely charged with passing military information to Germany, exposed deep antisemitic undercurrents in French society. The alleged actions of one person were blamed on the entire ‘race’ – represented by the public’s hatred of the ‘dirty Jew’, as outraged novelist Émile Zola would describe it in his famous open letter to the President titled J’accuse...! (I Accuse...!). Jews were attacked and their shops plundered in one of the darkest episodes of French antisemitism.
War of the Worlds
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was quickly seen by counter-revolutionaries as the ‘Jewish Revolution’ and once again the Protocols were used to incite people to murder Jews in southern Russia. Henry Ford began his lifelong fight against the ‘International Jew’ who was seen as the human embodiment of the ‘evils of socialism’. In parallel National Socialism in Germany rose on a programme of antisemitism as a political movement to eradicate the ‘evils of capitalism and international finance’.
The Nazis built on millennia of myths and stereotypes to dehumanize utterly the Jews in the public mind, paving the way for the endlösung (final solution). Skilful deployment of the ‘methodology’ of antisemitism (scapegoating, demonization, Christian animosity, racialism, nationalism, supremacy, fear and superstition) led to the logical conclusion of industrially planned genocide of the Jews. German Jüdenhass (Jew hatred) influenced most ‘neutral’ and ‘allied’ countries to reject Jewish asylum seekers, thereby indirectly sentencing millions to their deaths.
When the horrors of the Holocaust began to be revealed, public sympathy encouraged suppression of antisemitic sentiment, particularly in Europe. The devastated Jewish population, however, was not reassured, and the Zionist movement took on vital importance to the vast majority of European Jewry who felt they would never be equal citizens. Mass emigration to Palestine, the biblical homeland, became an imperative for many who dreamed of a Jewish state to protect them from the scourge of antisemitism. This was reinforced by early Holocaust denial and Nazi apologists such as the German Council of the Evangelical Church which published in 1948 a declaration justifying the Shoah: ‘The doom of the Jew is silent proof that God will not stand for any nonsense in warning us Christians and admonishing Jews.’ Continuing pogroms against Jews in Poland after the War buttressed the notion that Jews were not safe in Europe even after the Shoah. The State of Israel was born. Many Jews in Muslim countries were now targeted by political movements opposed to the Jewish state, leading to massive pogroms in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq and eventually mass emigration to Israel.
In 1965 the Catholic Church finally repudiated the charge that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ through a set of reforms known as Vatican II. Many Christian fundamentalists, however, rejected these reforms and their views have been most recently popularized by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
After the Six Day War in 1967, which led to the occupation of the West Bank, Sinai, Gaza and the Golan Heights, a significant segment of the Left abandoned its support for Israel. Most communists supported the Soviet anti-Zionist stance. The New Left tended to characterize Israel as an imperialist nation. In 1975 the UN passed a resolution calling Zionism a form of racism. Some Jewish organizations were excluded from anti-racism conferences as a result. The UN resolution was rescinded in 1991.
The Six Day War and resultant occupation led to an explosion of antisemitism in the Arab World and general sympathy towards the plight of the Palestinians. By association with the state of Israel, the ‘Jewish state’, Jews were now increasingly being seen as oppressors instead of victims. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon led to a resurgence of attacks in Europe, blurring the lines between legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies and antisemitism. This prompted some to describe a ‘New Antisemitism’ – one which thrived among the radical Left and Muslims.
The polarizing politics of the Cold War in the 1980s saw the Far Right’s popularity increase. When Austrian presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim was discovered to have fought with the Nazis during the War, it led to intense outbursts of antisemitism. The fall of the Soviet Union led to the increasing popularity of nationalist movements and the revival of feverish Judeophobic sentiment. Openly antisemitic political parties gained mass followings, such as France’s Front National, whose leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came alarmingly close to threatening the presidency in France, forcing Left voters to support rightwing Chirac to stave off the Far Right candidate.
After the Wall
On 28 November 1993, Russian antisemitic newspaper Pamyat was embroiled in a libel suit over the validity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The court, made up entirely of non-Jews, ruled that the document is indeed a forgery. During this period, hundreds of thousands of Jews were finally allowed to emigrate from the former Soviet Union, many citing antisemitism as the main reason for their flight.
The 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires raised fears of a new level of antisemitism – 86 were killed and hundreds wounded. This was followed by a string of horrific attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in Rome, California, Düsseldorf, France and Tunisia. The last few months have seen more extreme events, including stabbings in Antwerp and Paris, the bombing of two synagogues in Istanbul, attacks on French Jewish schools and community centres and the desecration of a mural painted by Jewish children being transported to concentration camps from France. In addition there was the arson of a museum in Indiana dedicated to children who suffered from Nazi medical ‘experiments’, and a string of cemetery desecrations and death threats across the globe.
Despite its long and dark history, it would be wrong to depict antisemitism as an unbroken continuum. There were periods of relative tolerance and peaceful cohabitation between Jews and non-Jews, particularly in the later period of al-Andalus and 14th century Poland. The post-War years have been some of the most tolerable for Jews ever. The current resurgence of antisemitism globally, however, is cause for deep concern.