Antisemitism - A Brief History
Antisemitism is the prejudice towards, or discrimination against Jews. It has existed to some degree in the Western world since antiquity and has become a global phenomenon with the advent of the globalization of information and ideas. Antisemitism can manifest itself in a number of forms, including discrimination against individuals, the dissemination of hate literature about Jewish people, arson directed against Jewish cultural or religious institutions, or organized violence against Jewish communities (pogroms).
Evidence of antisemitism can be found during antiquity among the Greeks and Romans. Antisemitism during this period was based on the Jewish peoples' unwillingness to conform to the religious and cultural norms of the prevailing culture. Because religion in the Greek city-state was heavily tied up in notions of local patriotism, foreign religions or philosophies that threatened the legitimacy of the state had to be suppressed. Judaism was particularly dangerous because it denied the existence and importance of local gods, and considered the Mosiac law superior to civil laws. The blood-libel myth (in which Jews allegedly killed non-Jews for religious purposes), was started by an ancient Greek historian, Apion. His book, History of Egypt alleged that Jews would kidnap a Greek soldier, fatten him up for a year, and then burn him alive in the woods. After the death of the victim, the Jews would consume the flesh while shouting oaths against the Greeks.
The ancient Romans prided themselves on their tolerant, cosmopolitan attitudes, which stood in direct opposition to insularity exhibited by many Jewish communities. They viewed the Jewish opinion of themselves as the "chosen people" to be arrogant and intolerant. Because Jews refused to participate in the emperor worship cult or state-sanctioned polytheism, many Roman intellectuals considered Jews to be bad citizens. The famous Roman historian Tactitus said of the Jews, "The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred: on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor." The fact that Jews had their own customs and laws, suggested to Romans that the Jews considered their culture to be superior to that of the Romans. According to Prager and Telushkin, "Roman soldiers in Jerusalem publically demonstrated their contempt for Judaism, one going so far as to expose his backside in the Temple court during Passover, while another destroyed a Torah scroll before the eyes of the Jews." The harshness of Roman rule for the Jews is illustrated by the fact that two major rebellions occurred in Palestine, eventually culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 135 AD. The ability for Jews to freely practice their religion during the Roman Empire was dependent on who was emperor. For example, the emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD) ordered the Jews of Rome to be expelled from the city of Rome in the year 19 AD, while Hadrian (76-138 AD) allowed Jews to be exempted from the ban on circumcision.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Jews were a protected, albeit despised minority. Their presence was tolerated, but they were restricted to certain trades such as money-lending, could only live in certain areas that were known as ghettos, and had to wear distinctive clothing to distinguish themselves from Christians. Prejudice against Jews during the medieval and Renaissance periods stemmed from the fact that Jews had different cultural norms than the majority, but also because they were conspiciously non-Christian in an era when Christianity was the foundation of Western civilization. Jewish communities were occasionally the target of pogroms, particularly during the Easter season when Passion plays (dramatic retellings of the trial, suffering, and crucifiction of Jesus Christ) that claimed that the Jews as a people were guilty of the crime of deicide (killing God) incited the masses into antisemitic frenzies. Jews were also accused of crimes such as well-poisonings, blood-libel, Host desecrecration (defaming the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of the Eucharist), and causing the bubonic plague. Many countries, such as Spain, England, and Portugal eventually expelled their Jewish residents.
During the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, many European countries began to eliminate discriminatory laws against their Jewish populations in a process known as the Emancipation of the Jews. However, as religious antisemitism declined, racially-based antisemitism began to emerge. According to this view, each race or ethnicity was biologically and culturally distinct, meaning that Jews (who had no country at this point in history) would never be able to fully assimilate in any country that they inhabited. Thus, a Jew would always remain a Jew even if he or she converted to Christianity or practiced no religion at all.
Race-based antisemitism also emerged during the same period in which nationalism (the belief that citizenship in a nation-state is defined by ethnicity) started to become a major political movement. Consequently, Jews were often held up as examples of unwelcome foreign elements that diluted the "purity" of the national culture. In Germany, this took the form of the völkisch movement (roughly translated as the folklore or folkdom movement), which celebrated the German spirit in art, culture, and philosophy - while denouncing the contributions of Jews in German society. The "Germanic spirit" was believed to be heroic, noble, with a love of nature and a willingness to fight to protect the fatherland. This was contrasted with the "Jewish spirit," which supposedly represented decadent cosmopolitianism, vacant materialism, and cultural and racial decay. Many leading Nazis, such as Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Hitler were involved with the völkisch movement in some way prior to joining the Nazi Party.
The antisemitism of the völkisch movement resulted from the belief that rich Jews were responsible for the monumental changes that occured in many Western societies with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. As European society became more urbanized, major social problems occurred; women and children had to perform heavy labor for long periods of time (twelve hours a day or more), unsantitary slums led to a proliferation of disease and crime, the rise of mass culture eliminated traditional customs, and revolutionary communist and socialist movements sought to overthrow existing political regimes. Because many of the rich court Jews and their families were able to reinvent themselves as private bankers and industrialists, the belief began to spread that a cabal of rich Jews were behind the miseries of captialism.
Jews were also blamed for communism. This stereotype was based on the fact that Jews held a disproportionate number of the Bolshevik Party's top leadership positions, such as Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev. Nonetheless, Jews were still a minority in the Party, making up only 7.2 percent of members in 1922. Furthermore, the number of Jews in top positions declined rapidly when Stalin began purging the Party of possible threats to his power. By 1940, there were virtually no high-ranking Jews left in the Soviet Communist Party. It should be noted that the perentage of Jews overall that were communist was very small; Jews who were communists had a tendency to disparage "Jewish particularism" and expressions of traditional religious expression, thus making them unpopular with the Jewish community as a whole. Despite this, Jews became associated with violent revolutionary movements, as well as exploitative forms of industrial capitalism.
Although the Holocaust is an extreme example of unchecked racism and antisemitism, antisemitism is far from dead. Many of the same stereotypes that were used hundreds of years ago continue to appear in antisemitic propaganda in the twenty-first century.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace and Company: New York, 1951.
Prager, Dennis and Telushkin, Joseph. Why the Jew: The Reason for Antisemitism. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.