Anti-Semitism: Overview

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Anti-Semitism: Overview

Anti-Semitism is that hatred of the Jews that defines them as a threat to humankind. The most important contemporary quarrel about anti-Semitism is the issue of its very nature. While some scholars have been insisting for decades that there is no continuing phenomenon of anti-Semitism, arguing on the contrary that "Jew hatred" has reinvented itself many times, others adhere to the contrary opinion, seeing a direct line connecting pre-Christian to modern forms of anti-Semitism.


Throughout the ages, many peoples have fought one another in the hope of conquering the wealth and land of others, but the antagonists do not usually declare that the existence of their enemy is a danger to the future of all of humankind. Anti-Semitism began in the third century before the beginning of the Christian era. It was defined by Manetho (3rd century b.c.e.), an Egyptian priest who had been substantially influenced by Hellenistic culture. Manetho asserted that the Jews are the enemies of the human race and that it is necessary to remove the Jews from human society. Indeed, a line may be drawn straight from this pre-Christian anti-Semitism of Manetho through the Christian anti-Semitism of ancient and medieval times, to the modern era, when the hatred of Jews was redefined but not essentially changed by secular ideologies.

Manetho's main contention, an obvious rebuttal to the biblical account of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is that the Jews did not leave Egypt as the victors in a revolt against the pharaoh who oppressed them. On the contrary, the Jews were expelled from Egypt because they were lepers and, on the side, engaged in nefarious and destructive acts. The Egyptians threw them out into the desert because the Jews endangered the existing civilization of Egypt. They were, in fact, a threat to all other civilizations, as well. The Jews were therefore not like the Hittites, a powerful enemy with whom the Egyptians kept fighting but who were never regarded as a unique and fundamental threat to society. According to Manetho, the Jews ought to be expelled into the desert or quarantined wherever they appeared or, if these means failed, society as a whole had the right to defend itself by destroying the Jews. Thus, Manetho's "Jew hatred" was not a simple justification of a violent and vehement conflict.

There is a fundamental parallel between some anti-Semitic assessments of the Jews and the angriest descriptions in the Bible of the dangers posed by idolatry. This competing faith must be totally isolated and the idol worshipers must be walled off from the Jewish society, or utterly destroyed. So, in earliest times, the enemies of the Jews had no monopoly on the idea that a competing faith or way of life might be defined as so dangerous as not to merit the right to survive.

The Roman Empire

The basic "Jew hatred" as defined by Manetho was expanded by a number of Greek or Roman writers, historians, and statesmen. To be sure, not all Hellenistic literature in its two languages, Greek and Latin, was dominated by anti-Semitism. Some writers admired the steadfastness of the Jews and their continuing search for righteousness and social justicebut the majority of the Hellenistic creative forces were arrayed against the Jews.

Within a century or so, the issues came to a head over the large number of Gentiles who became converts, or who wanted to become converts, to Judaism. The Pharisees insisted that all converts to Judaism were joining "a new and godly commonwealth" (Baron, 1983, vol. 1, p. 181). This definition offered by Philo Judaeus (c. 13 b.c.e.between 45 and 50 c.e.), the leading Jewish intellectual figure of the first century b.c.e., was accepted to mean that a new convert was classified as a child who was now newly born as a Jew. This conversion meant that he disavowed his previous family, for according to Philo, such proselytes "have left their country, their kinfolk and their friends and their relations for sacred virtue and holiness" (Baron, 1983, vol. 1, p. 181). A generation later Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56c. 120 c.e.) made the same point but he expressed it in the language of a pronounced distemper with the Jews. Once they became converts to Judaism, they "despised the gods, disowned their own country and regard their parents, children and brothers as of little account" (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 182). As the Jews became more numerous and more powerful throughout the Roman Empire, Tacitus considered the Jews as subversive because they were the enemies of the three main pillars of society: religion, country, and family (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 194).

In this outlook Tacitus was following the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (14 b.c.e.?65 c.e.): "The customs of that most criminal nation have gained such strength that they are now received in all lands. The conquered have given laws to the conquerors" (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 191; quoted from De superstitione by Augustine in his City of God, 6:11). The same point had been argued by Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 b.c.e.), the supreme orator of Rome, a generation earlier:

Even while Jerusalem was standing and the Jews were at peace with us, the practice of their sacred rites was at variance with the glory of our empire, the dignity of our name, the customs of our ancestors. But now it is even more so, when that nation by its armed resistance has shown what it thinks of our rule. (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 192: quoting Cicero's defense in Pro Flacco, 28:69)

But the best summary of the anti-Semitism that recurs in major Hellenistic figures is present in the Book of Esther, the biblical account of the victory of the Jews over Haman, their archenemy in the Persian Court. This book was probably composed in the third century b.c.e. or perhaps even a bit later. Haman's arguments against the Jews are addressed to King Ahasuerus:

"There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws; and it is not in Your Majesty's interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury." Thereupon the king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the foe of the Jews. (Esther 3:810)

In these brief verses the essential, classic doctrine of anti-Semitism is summarized: the Jews are different from everybody else; their very existence is an assault on the accepted standards of religion and good conduct. It would be best for the Persian Empire if the Jews were utterly removed. Anti-Semitism has now been defined as the doctrine by which all of the rest of human society can defend itself against the arrogance of Jewish monotheism.

Nonetheless, the question remained very much alive in the consciousness of the Roman Empire in the first century: What is one to do with the Jews? Clearly they would not obey the laws that Rome imposed on all of its own people. Jews refused to participate in civic celebrations because these invariably required worship of the gods and especially of the Roman emperors as gods. The Roman rulers in Alexandria, and even more in Judea, made allowances for the peculiar stubbornness of the Jews, but there were recurring clashes between Jews and the Roman authorities. These issues could not be resolved through negotiation between Jews and imperial officials. On the contrary, the Jews themselves had to find room for living in the larger society. So their traditions had to be changed.

By the middle of the second century after the suppression of the last great Jewish revolt under Bar Kokhba (131135), the leading rabbis no longer expected a restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. They made peace with the notion that the Messiah would come at some future date and redeem the Jews from exile and powerlessness, but the date was unknown and unpredictable. The Jews had to make peace with the notion that they would live as a minority among other religions.

The capital of Palestine was de facto in Caesarea, the port city from which the Roman Empire controlled all of its various subjects in Palestine. Rabbinic Judaism also had its headquarters in Caesarea, where the court of its religious leadership, headed by the descendants of Hillel, was situated. The leader in the last years of the first century and the beginning years of the second century c.e. was Rabban Gamaliel II. He regularly made use of the public bathhouse in Acre, even though entering that building required that he walk under an arch that was adorned at its apex by an image of the goddess Aphrodite. Gamaliel's critics regarded his use of the bathhouse as a form of worship of the pagan goddess. He responded that, of course, he intended no such conduct. The image of the goddess served a purely civic function at the entrance of the bathhouse, which was a facility that belonged equally to all the citizens of the region, including Jews.

Rabban Gamaliel II defended his conduct as religiously neutral, but soon those who defined rabbinic law went further. Later rabbis ruled that Jews were commanded to visit the sick even among the idolaters, to bury their dead together with the Jewish dead, and to support their poor among the Jewish poor. In the Middle Ages, these rabbinic rules were summarized by Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides; 11351204) in his Code of Jewish Law, in the section on political law in what is written in the Hilkhot Melakhim (10:12). All of this was to be done "for the sake of peace" because it was written in Scripture that "God is good to everyone and His mercy extended to all of His creatures." It was said further that "its ways [that is, the ways of Torah] are the ways of grace and all its paths are peace." To be sure, these are not the only rabbinic opinions. There are many counterviews in the Talmud that Jews must maintain distance from non-Jews, but the more giving rulings suggest that Jews were looking for ways of accommodating themselves to a society that they had little hope of controlling or of converting to the Jewish faith.

Nonetheless, despite the rulings of the more liberal rabbis, the distance between Jews and non-Jews remained. These descendants of the Pharisees could never give up the notion that their religion was God's true teaching and that, at some unpredictable moment, the whole world would come to Mount Zion to be received and converted to the one true faith, the monotheism that Abraham had once proclaimed.

Christianity and Anti-Semitism

How could the Jewish religion be redefined so that it became a possible and even quickly accessible faith for all of humankind? The answer was devised by the first two or three generations of those who had adhered to the person and teaching of an itinerant Jewish preacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Despite centuries of thought and scholarly research, what Jesus himself believed is still not clear. The weight of the evidence is that Jesus regarded himself as a Jew who had come to wrest the leadership of his people from the priests who dominated in the affairs of the Temple and the Pharisees who had seized the initiative in defining the laws by which Jews were urged to live. In a few decades after his crucifixion, the religious leadership passed to a much more radical Jewish thinker, Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul; d. between 62 and 68 c.e.), who opened Judaism to all the non-Jews of the world without requiring that they accept the rituals and all the many restrictions that the rabbis had defined.

In its very beginnings Christianity could not choose the path that had been suggested by Manetho and elaborated by the pagan Hellenists, that Jews were by their very nature beyond redemption. On the contrary, Saul of Tarsus asserted in Romans 9 that Christianity was a shoot grafted on to the tree of Jesse, that is, that Christianity was the true offshoot of Judaismif only the Jews would accept the truth of their religion as it was now being expounded by those of them who had become Christian believers.

Even more fundamentally, Christianity could not present itself as a universal religion that was setting out to convert the whole world. It demanded only that those who joined it should include themselves in the transforming faith in Jesus, who had died for sins of humankind. How could anyone be excluded from this transforming faith and the salvation that it offered each individual? And yet, as the church fathers saw with bitter dismay, the Jews did not behave according to the Christian theological plan. Jesus had been born among them, but the Jews were obdurate. Their majority refused to accept the truth that appeared among them. To the church fathers, it was unthinkable that the divine message was unclear or, worse still, that the Jews understood the message but rejected it.

By the middle of the second century, church fathers such as Saint Justin (Justin Martyr, c. 100c. 165), writing in Greek, and half a century later, Tertullian (c. 155 or 160after 220 c.e.), writing in Latin, were critical of the Jews for not having accepted Christ. Within a hundred years, especially after Emperor Constantine (ruled 306337) proclaimed Christianity the state religion of Rome, later church fathers were offering an explanation for the obduracy of the Jews: they were too strongly in the grip of Satan, who had commandeered the synagogues and instructed the rabbis; the Jews could not see the truth of Christianity because they were now led by the enemy of God, the supreme anti-Christ. They were referred to as the "Synagogue of Satan" in Revelations 2:9 and 3:9. Two things could be done: Jews could be persecuted as the enemies of truth or the effort to convert them could be redoubled, over and over again, to persuade them to abandon their wrong-headedness. In this very early Christian explanation that the Jews were now "the synagogue of Satan" their otherness was explained, and the path was prepared that could lead to pronouncing the Jews to be totally dangerous to the rest of humankindand all of this on the basis of Christian theology. Manetho had decided that the Jews were dangerous to the health of humankind because they were lepers; the earliest church fathers defined a different metaphorthe Jews were a threat to the souls of men and women because they were Satan's disciples in leading them away from divine truth. Thus, the Christian relationship to Jews was defined as a paradox: the culmination of the triumph of the new faith would be in its conversion of the Jews, but the tasks of achieving this glorious time would be enormously difficult, because it involved direct war with Satan himself.

Early Christianity found a compromise between the two alternativesthat the Jews had to survive until they accepted Jesus and that they were by their very nature the hopelessly wicked "synagogue of Satan"by asserting both alternatives: the Jews could not be totally obliterated, for there would be no one left to represent them at the end of days when they would finally accept the Christian truth, but society had to be defended against the Jews or it would be hopelessly corrupted. Further elucidations of this basic paradox included the permission to keep Jews alive by allowing them to perform pariah tasks that were forbidden to Christians, such as lending money at interest, but the notion that those who had condemned Christ deserved the most severe punishment was never abandoned.

Since living Jews were the enemies of truth, they could be blamed for everything that went wrong in society. So, early in the fifteenth century, when Europe was swept by the Black Plague, which killed perhaps a quarter of the population, it seemed self-evident that this scourge was brought on the Christian majority by the small Jewish minority, which was full of hate and anger. It also seemed self-evident that the possessions of the Jews had been acquired by deception and by stealing from the Christians. It was, therefore, logical and even lawful to treat them like a kind of sponge; whatever possessions they had could be confiscated by the ruling power. In the course of the Middle Ages, there was hardly a place in Europe that had not expelled the Jews and forced them to leave without any resources with which to live. Nonetheless, the myth remained that in the divine plan Jews or at least some of them needed to be kept alive so their acceptance of the true Christianity would be the dramatic act that would point to the end of days. Some historians call this medieval version of hatred of Jews "anti-Judaism" rather than "anti-Semitism." It was only late in the Middle Ages that Christian anti-Semitism came close to completing its ideological journey by asserting that the Jews were hopelessly dangerous always, even after they might convert to Christianity.


The largest Jewish community in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries existed on the Iberian Peninsula, the southern half of which was then controlled and ruled by Muslim states and the central and northern half by Christians. Jews were a significant minority in both these regions of Spain. They were especially important to the Christians who wanted to force them to convert and thus strengthen the Christian majority in the region. At the end of the fourteenth century, the Christians did succeed in forcing Jews to convert by the tens of thousands. In a century or so, the number of such converts grew until the climax in 1492, when the combined kingdom of Aragon and Castile, under the joint rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, confronted the Jews with a stark choice: either convert to Christianity or leave the land of their Christian majesties. A quarter million Jews then still remained in all the lands of Christian Spain; the larger half accepted conversion, and the rest left, hoping to find some refuge in places where Jews were allowed to live openly, or semiopenly, as Jews.

There were many forces that led to this decree of conversion or expulsion, but the economic motive was dominant. Many of the Jews in Spain had made their way into the middle class and even beyond, so their Christian competitors presumed that the increasingly prominent Jewish role in Iberian commerce could be ended by forcing them to become Christians. The Jews would redistribute themselves in such fashion that they would no longer be dominant in trade and commerce. None of this happened. On the contrary, the "new Christians" used their new privileges to become not only more major figures in banking and the ownership of land; they also intermarried, quite rapidly, with high figures in the nobility and rose to predominant positions in the state, the army, and even in the Church. Some Jews thought it would be safer to move to the Spanish colonies in the New World. In the middle of the seventeenth century, Spain had developed its rule in South America through the viceroyalty of Lima in Peru. At one moment in those years the viceroy and the archbishop were both descendants, at least in part, of "new Christians," and so, Lima was known mockingly as La Juderia. The Inquisition redoubled its efforts in Peru and Mexico, the main centers of Spanish rule, to suppress Marranos (that is, new Christians who actually or supposedly practiced Judaism in secret).

But the "new Christians" remained powerful. The way had to be found to make these converts from Judaism into second-class citizens or worse. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the doctrine was invented of Limpieza de Sangre (purity of blood). It first became law in Toledo in 1449 and restrictions were widely adopted: those who could not prove that all four of their grandparents were "old Christians" were denied roles in government or in the Church. The taint that Jewish blood now brought with it was not different from Manetho's insistence nearly two thousand years earlier that Jews were lepers and thus infectious beings. Anti-Semitism had changed on the surface, but its basic thrust had remained the same. The Jews are a lasting danger to the majority.

Modern Anti-Semitism

The major shift in the definition of anti-Semitism occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Christianity was largely pushed aside among educated Europeans by the doctrines of the Enlightenment. The dominant cliché since the eighteenth century has been that the Enlightenment ushered in the age of equality of all religions and ethnic identities. This is largely true, but the most ideological wing of the Enlightenment asserted its own version of Limpieza de Sangre. The dominant figure in European letters in the second half of the eighteenth century was Voltaire (16941778). He paid some lip service to the notion that all people could be perfected including perhaps even the hardest case of all, some Jews, but his basic position was that the Jews were born with fanaticism in their hearts as Bretons were born with blond hair. It was not strange for Voltaire to assert such a view because he had himself defined negroes as not human beings; they were an intermediate stage between humans and monkeys. Voltaire and those who followed after him, such as Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach (17231789) and, to some degree, Denis Diderot (17131784), thus solved the problem of what to do about the Jews by declaring it to be a question of how to defend the bulk of humanity against a dangerous infection that was carried by people who looked human but really were alien.

This notion appeared during the debates of the era of the French Revolution in the writings and decisions of the most radical Jacobins who asserted, both in Paris and in eastern France, that giving the Jews equality was simply to make it more possible for them to realize their nefarious plots under more respectable cover. In the next half century or so, after the revolutionary era, some of the greatest figures of the European left (such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, and even Karl Marx) argued, often quoting Voltaire, that the Jews were a danger and that the Jews themselves had to be saved from their Jewish identity for their own sake and for the sake of humankind.

This doctrine of many of the radical Enlightenment thinkers was appropriated by the nationalists who took over European literature and political thought in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Their image of a nation was that it represented the purity of an older culture, and therefore, aliens who had not shared in that history had no role. Jews were certainly viewed as aliens from Asia who did not belong within any of the European nations. With variations, this doctrine became part of the thinking of the pan-Germans and the pan-Slavs, and of other European nationalists.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century at least three versions of anti-Semitism were very virulent in Europe. In tsarist Russia where some six million Jews, at least half of those in the world at the time, lived, the dominant form of anti-Semitism was based on many centuries of Christian hatred. In the last fifty years of its existence, the absolute rule of the tsars found it useful to deflect the angers of the poor by blaming the Jews as the source of all the troubles in Russia. In 18811882, pogroms swept through the realm and a mass migration of Jews fled the kingdom. Most of these refugees went west to America, but some were the first founders of the new Zionist settlement in Palestine. But even in tsarist Russia, where the ruling class and especially the tsars themselves were believing Christians of the old school, other, more modern forms of anti-Semitism contributed to the persecution of the Jews. Many of the archenemies of the tsarist regime nonetheless blamed the Jews. The new revolutionaries saw the uprising of the poor against the Jews as a movement to be supported because the Jewsso the revolutionaries arguedwere the capitalist oppressors of the poor of Russia. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, pan-Slavism was also gaining strength and importance in eastern Europe and especially in Russia. The essential doctrine of this movement was that the Slavs had been chosen by history, and probably by God himself, to be the superior people of all of humankind. Obviously, the ancient Jewish claim to closeness had long been nullified, and those who would maintain this claim were troublemakers, or worse.

These various assaults on the Jews were given prominence, and special bitterness, in the last years of the century by the appearance of the book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This book was, of course, a forgery that was concocted by agents of the tsarist secret police probably working in Paris, which was then the intellectual capital of Europe. In the Protocols all the forms of anti-Semitism were combined: Jewish capitalists and Jewish revolutionaries were actually engagedso the authors of the Protocols maintainedin a joint endeavor to undermine the civilization and culture of the European majority. The capitalist, Lord Rothschild, and the socialist Jews, who were trying to assassinate the tsar, pretended to hate each other, but this was not the truth. They were really partners in the immemorial Jewish enterprise, to undermine society in order to control it. The ultimate battle in the world was between those who would defend the majority culture and their immemorial enemies, the Jews. The Protocols have been repeatedly discredited as a fantasy, but this book has been reprinted in a variety of languages and continues to be read and believed by anti-Semites all over the world, including the newest recruits to the "great hatred" in the Muslim world and in Japan.

The essence of post-Christian anti-Semitism was a restatement of pre-Christian Hellenistic Jew hatred. In the middle of the eighteenth century, a second-level scholar and leader of the Enlightenment in France, the Count Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, had published a book of citations from Greek and Latin authors (Opinion des anciens sur les Juifs, 1769) in which the Jews were denounced as alien to European society and a danger to its future. This theme was carried forward in the next century and the one thereafter, to naturalize anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of both pre-Christian and post-Christian times. To be sure these attacks also derived some nourishment from Christian theology but this was not the essence of modern anti-Semitism. It was not necessary to denounce the Jews as Christ-killers; the charge of leprosy in various permutations was more than enough.

Nazi Anti-Semitism

The heyday of anti-Semitism, its ultimate climax, came with the rise of Nazism. Adolf Hitler and those who followed him were certain that they were engaged in a great and unavoidable task, the defense of European civilization against all forms of subversion by the Jews. Hitler's ultimate vision of the world was that it was poised on the verge of an ultimate war in which the Jews had to be destroyed. There was no longer any pretense that some Jews might be redeemable: this was now a war to the death. The results are well known. The overwhelming majority of the Jewish population of Europe, to the number of six million men, women, and children, were systematically murdered. The rest were saved only because Hitler and his allies lost the war. Nonetheless, the Nazis did not entirely lose their fierce war with the Jews.

The assault in the 1940s destroyed the most creative elements of the world Jewish community in the middle of the twentieth century. It changed the face of Europe, which was no longer a main center of Jewish life and creativity. More subtly, the emphasis within Jewish life has for the last half century been more on fighting off the attempt to destroy the Jews than it has centered on recreating the religious and cultural values that were destroyed. In the early twenty-first century those concerns were only beginning to be at the center of Jewish endeavors. Thus, Hitler's greatest success was to make of the Jews a people much more frightened for its future than it had been in the previous century.

After the victory in 1945 in World War II, Jewsand people of good will everywherethought that anti-Semitism would fade away. But anti-Semitism has not disappeared and in some parts of the world it is even more powerful than ever before. Society as a whole has not yet accepted the idea that those who will not play by its conventional rules are nonetheless entitled to a life of freedom and dignity. The question that was posed more than three thousand years ago, whether the Jews had a right to survive in a society that did not agree with the premises on which much of Jewish religion and culture is based, is still very much open. Will the societies that remember their pasts as Christians and Muslims make room for Jews? We cannot yet be sure.

See also Christianity ; Judaism ; Prejudice ; Toleration .


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Arthur Hertzberg