Anti-Semitism, literally referring to hatred of Semites but commonly understood as hatred of Jews, is a late nineteenth-century term for a phenomenon almost as old as human history. One of the earliest recorded instances of anti-Semitism occurred more than four hundred years before the birth of Christ, when a Jewish temple on an island in the Nile was wantonly destroyed by a group of Egyptian priests. The Egyptians are still at war with the Jews, or at least that portion of Jewry that inhabits the state of Israel; but the modern Egyptians are hardly alone in disliking Jews and in believing that the Israelis are less a Middle Eastern people than an alien army of occupation. The entire Arab world is anti-Zionist, and so are Arab sympathizers in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the United States. The Russians also dislike Zionists and/or Jews—it is not always easy to distinguish between the anti-Semite and the anti-Zionist, since they tend to behave in similar fashion. In short, despite the fact that the conscience of much of the civilized world was scarred by the Nazi murder of more than six million Jews, anti-Semitism retains its power in several countries and is everywhere a force to be reckoned with.
There are important differences, however, between modern forms of anti-Semitism and the older varieties. Modern versions, of which Nazi racism is the archetype, are both more ideological and more virulent than ancient types. The early Greek anti-Semites, for example, like all antiSemites ever since, saw Jews as “different,” but the differences they stressed were not those of the later Christian era. They could make little sense of either the theory or practice of Judaism, and what little they understood they disliked. Their own polytheism, with its numerous gods and attendant cults, festivals, feast days, and ceremonial rituals, seemed to the Greeks preferable to monotheism, which, in the Jewish version, called for fasting, days of atonement, dietary and sexual restrictions, and other chastisements. Functioning, in effect, as the Puritans of the pagan world, Jews were regarded with curiosity and barely concealed dislike. Even the great Roman historian Tacitus could not refrain from observing, in connection with the belief that the Jews worshiped Bacchus, that the “cult [of Bacchus] would be most inappropriate. Bacchus instituted gay and cheerful rites, but the Jewish ritual is preposterous and morbid.” It also appeared to Tacitus that Jewish customs in general were “impious and abominable, and owe their prevalence to their [the Jews’] depravity.” Jewish “prosperity,” Tacitus continued, is largely due to the fact that “. . . they are obstinately loyal to each other, and always ready to show compassion, whereas they feel nothing but hatred and enmity for the rest of the world” (Tacitus, The Histories, vol. 2, pp. 202–208, 211–218).
Tacitus was not alone in believing that Jewish religious practices were an abomination. Plutarch, the Greek biographer, thought it possible that Jews abstained from pork because the pig was an object of veneration, whereas Strabo, the geographer, attributed such abstemiousness, along with “circumcisions and excisions,” to “superstition.” Apion, the most dedicated anti-Semite of the ancient world, suspected that Jews drank the blood of gentile children and also provided a novel explanation for the Jewish observance of the Sabbath. Apion wrote that after a six-day march during the exodus from Egypt the Jews “developed tumors in the groin, and that was why, after safely reaching the country now called Judaea, they rested on the seventh day, and called that day sabbaton, preserving the Egyptian terminology; for disease of the groin in Egypt is called sabbo” (Josephus, Against Apion, vol. 1, p. 301).
Despite these calumnies, the Greeks and Romans did not attempt to destroy Judaism root and branch; that phase of anti-Semitism began with the conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312. The first two centuries of the Christian era constitute, on the whole, a mixed period. Various edicts banned the study of Talmudic law, and under Hadrian Jewish scholars were not permitted to hold classes or meet with students. Caracalla, on the other hand, conferred full citizenship on the Jews in 212, and during the reign of Alexander Severus (222–235) the ethnic and religious character of Judaism was formally recognized. While Jews were not allowed to proselytize, they were permitted to practice their religion and live at peace with other citizens.
During the reign of Constantine (306–337) and his successors, the position of Jews in the Roman Empire was greatly altered. Christians were forbidden to convert to Judaism under penalty of death, but Jews were encouraged and at times almost forced to become Christian converts. The Theodosian and Justinian Codes of the fifth and sixth centuries excluded Jews from positions of authority. Intermarriage between Jews and Christians was prohibited, and Jews were forbidden to own Christian slaves. Social intercourse with Christians was strictly regulated. The construction of synagogues was banned, although established places of worship could be kept in repair. Notwithstanding the official church opposition to the employment of force against Jews, there were numerous anti-Jewish demonstrations and acts of violence aimed at Jews individually and collectively.
Nevertheless, Jewish life and culture survived in several areas of Europe, notably Italy, France, Visigothic Spain, and Byzantium. Despite forced conversions, massacres, and a great variety of proscriptions affecting religious practices, Jewish communities managed to survive, and in Spain, by the eleventh century, to flourish. Indeed, for almost five hundred years, culminating in the “golden age” of Jewish history from the eleventh to the early thirteenth century, Spanish Jews under Islamic rule enjoyed freedoms and privileges unparalleled in any of the Christian countries of Europe. The blending of Jewish and Arab cultures was stimulating to both Jews and Muslims and produced discoveries of enduring significance in such fields as medicine, mathematics, physics, and astronomy. For the first time in centuries Jews were permitted to engage in a variety of careers, and in these careers many Jews made important contributions to the character and quality of life in Islamic Spain.
The position of Spanish Jewry was not shared by Jews elsewhere. Isolated in gentile communities and therefore all the more vulnerable to discriminatory acts, the Jews of France and Germany, in particular, were constantly exposed to persecution. The crusades at the end of the tenth century, marked by wholesale butchery of Jews and frequent Jewish suicides, were a clear demonstration of what Jews could expect from crusading Christians, and in this respect the crusades anticipated much that became relatively commonplace during the Middle Ages. Legal and other types of restrictions affecting Jews multiplied rapidly, especially after the Third and Fourth Lateran Councils (1179 and 1215). The Fourth Council declared flatly that Jews were outcastes with whom there was to be no social mingling, much less intermarriage. They were not to hold public office, employ Christian servants, or leave their homes during Easter week. The council decreed that since Jews were infidels, they were henceforth to wear a special badge of identification—a round patch of yellow cloth—on the upper garment.
In certain cases, however, these severe restrictions succeeded only in whetting the appetite for extreme anti-Semitism without satisfying it. England expelled the Jews in 1290, and in France, after a series of massacres, extortions from the Jewish community, and other harassments, Jews were banished in 1394. Germany designated Jews servi camerae, or serfs of the state, and as such they were heavily taxed and confined to the petty trades. The Spanish Jews were not expelled until 1492, but during the preceding century and a half, following the expulsion of the Arabs, the Jews were subjected to incessant persecution by the Catholic rulers of Castile and Aragon. Even the ostensible converts to Catholicism, the marranos, were not free from the tortures of the Inquisition, established in 1480 by Ferdinand and Isabella.
The intolerance of the Middle Ages, while multicausal in nature, owed more to religious fanaticism than to any other single factor. In addition to believing that persecution of Jews enjoyed divine approval, the church hierarchy suspected that Jews were responsible for various heretical tendencies, such as the Albigensian movement. Later, during the Reformation, many Catholics regarded Protestantism as a Jewish conspiracy against the church. Rank-and-file Catholics and more than a few of the clergy held the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, and large numbers of Catholics, perhaps most, were convinced that Jews engaged in bizarre religious practices, such as drinking the blood of Christian children and defiling Christian maidens on certain ceremonial occasions.
Since it was Judaism itself that was at fault, the church for many centuries would accept nothing less than the wholesale conversion of Jews to Christianity, in a word, the extirpation of Judaism as such. Jews unwilling to convert were to be treated as perpetual pariahs, and hence it was hardly unchristian for Pope Paul iv in 1555 to require that Jews wear a badge of identity to mark them forever as a people separate and inferior. He also created the ghetto by decreeing that Jews were to live apart from Christians, and he added, for good measure, a list of professions and occupations from which Jews were to be excluded.
It should hardly be construed from this, however, that the Protestant sects were more tolerant of Jews than the Roman Catholic church. Luther himself indulged in bigotry, especially after 1530, when he became convinced that Jews would not convert to Christianity in great numbers. He asked rhetorically in 1543,
What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? … Let me give you my honest advice. First, their synagogues or churches should be set on fire.… Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed…. Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books.… Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more.… Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden.… Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury.… Seventhly, let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses.… [If there is any danger, Luther counseled, of Jews doing harm to their gentile overlords]… let us drive them out of the country for all time… away with them. (In Marcus  1960, pp. 167–169)
By the end of the seventeenth century Jews had been expelled from many parts of western and central Europe, and where they were not expelled, they were, with only a few countries excepted, forced to live in ghettos, subjected to pogroms, and humiliated in countless ways. The German Jews who had migrated to Poland before 1648 were butchered by the thousands during the Cossack revolt against Polish rule. Elsewhere, while they were regulated more by edicts and less by mob violence, the laws affecting them were largely based on medieval caricatures and stereotypes. At best, they were minimally tolerated.
Nevertheless, by the end of the eighteenth century a variety of influences—political, economic, intellectual—were combining to create an era of relative toleration. On September 28, 1791, the French National Assembly that resulted from the Revolution conferred equal citizenship upon Jews, and everywhere Napoleon’s armies marched local authorities were urged or required to follow the French example. England emancipated its Jews in 1860 (they had been readmitted in 1655), and Germany granted Jews equal rights in 1870. It was only in eastern Europe that the majority of Jews still lived in conditions approximating those of medieval Europe. The world’s largest Jewish population was confined under Russian rule to an enormous ghetto, and there it was to remain, persecuted almost continuously, until 1917, The fortunate Jews were able to migrate to western Europe and the United States; the remainder stayed behind, pogromized by the imperial army, tsarist police, Cossacks, Poles, White Russians, and others.
The years immediately after World War I seemed to mark the dawn of a new epoch for European Jewry. The Treaty of Versailles appeared to guarantee the political, social, and cultural rights of minorities in eastern Europe. The new Polish Republic emancipated the Jews, and in 1917, the Balfour Declaration, issued by the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, announced to the world that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people …” (Kohn 1963).
But it was more than thirty years before the national home was, in fact, established, and by that time it was too late to save most of the Jews of Europe from the Nazi holocaust. Hitler’s task of extermination had been made easier, in a sense, by the frequent pogroms in Poland, Rumania, and the Ukraine during the 1920s. By 1945, as a result of Hitler’s mass liquidation of the Jews, the so-called “final solution,” there was no longer any important center of Jewish life in central and eastern Europe. The Jewish population of the Soviet Union, estimated to total between one and two million persons, enjoys little religious or cultural freedom. In effect, therefore, the future of European Jewry is confined to the countries of western and southern Europe, especially the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Denmark. In these countries anti-Semitism takes the form of discrimination in certain types of employment and of social snobbery.
Similar types of prejudice exist in the United States, but there is evidence that they are diminishing in intensity. The American Jewish community, numerically the world’s largest with a population of more than five million, has traditionally enjoyed hospitality, although there have been times throughout American history when dislike of Jews was manifest. Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam (now New York), for example, tried to exclude Jews from the Dutch colony, and two hundred years later General Ulysses S. Grant, suspecting that Jews were trading with the enemy and engaging in black market activities, endeavored to expel them from areas occupied by the Union army. The United States has occasionally heard the voice of religious anti-Semites, such as Father Coughlin, and it is familiar with the writings of literary anti-Semites, among whom the most prominent have been Henry Adams, John Jay Chapman (in his later years), and Ezra Pound. Henry Ford in the 1920s did much to spread the idea that the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion was the Jewish master plan for world conquest, and in the 1930s it was still possible for avowed anti-Semites to appear before congressional committees in opposition to the appointment of a Supreme Court justice solely on the grounds that he was a Jew.
It is beyond question, however, that American Jews have fared better than the Jews of any other country. Despite occasional outbreaks of antiSemitism and the social and occupational discriminations affecting Jews, anti-Semitism has never been a matter of official government policy. The United States constitution states explicitly that no religious test shall ever be required for public office, and no American president has ever been a declared anti-Semite. Moreover, while no Jew has ever been nominated for the presidency, Jews have served with distinction as Supreme Court justices, governors, senators, and congressmen.
Although many first-generation and secondgeneration Americans have known anti-Semitism in the home, church, and school, as adults they have not taken to Jew-baiting, nor have they instituted pogroms or concentration camps. The influenza epidemic after World War I was not blamed on Jews, and the South did not attribute its defeat in the Civil War to a Jewish conspiracy. To be sure, some professional anti-Semites have issued pamphlets “proving” that the fluoridation of water is a Jewish plot to weaken Christianity and the civil rights movement a Jewish conspiracy to “mongrelize” the white race, but it does not appear that these efforts are taken seriously by the majority of Americans. On the contrary, one notes fewer hotel and resort advertisements that include the phrase “Christians only,” fewer universities that make use of the “quota” system for Jewish applicants, and fewer fraternities and sororities that refuse to admit Jewish students.
On the other hand, various studies suggest that ignorance about Jews is widespread, especially among young people, and it is far from clear that latent prejudice, as distinct from the manifest variety, has sharply diminished. According to one survey of the attitudes of high school children, “anti-Jewish prejudice of some kind and degree is found in 29 to 38 per cent of the high school students.” Of the students questioned, 82 per cent overestimated the number of Jews in the United States; 28 per cent believed that Jews have too much economic power; 12 per cent thought Jews were overprivileged; and 9 per cent were of the opinion that Jews have too much political power (Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith 1961, pp. 9–10).
Clearly, much that is known both about the nature of Jews and the nature of anti-Semitism has not penetrated the high school systems of the United States, and it is doubtful that education abroad has been more successful in this respect. Education must also take account of the stubborn fact that prejudice is essentially a learned response that develops at an early age out of family and neighborhood contacts; perhaps most prejudice develops between 6 and 16 years of age (Allport & Kramer 1946). Since these years are almost precisely the school years for most of the population, it would be highly desirable for the schools to devote at least as much attention to prejudice as to, say, driving lessons and home economics.
There is also much evidence that anti-Semitism, like other forms of prejudice, feeds on a variety of personality disorders. Frustration and deprivation, for example, generate hostile feelings toward Jews and other minorities (Adorno et al. 1950; Frenkel-Brunswik & Sanford 1945; Meltzer 1941). Indeed, it would appear that personality dynamics has much more to do with prejudice than the economic, cultural, or “racial” explanations usually associated with it. Thus it is possible to believe, as some anti-Semites do, that Jews are wealthy and powerful and also control radical movements, including the Communist party. The correlates of these beliefs are less with class, income, and religious backgrounds, although these are not unimportant, than with the personality structure of the believer. In a word, he needs to believe that Jews have all the money, or run the country, or own the newspapers. If he were deprived of this belief, which is the modern counterpart of the earlier notion that Jews drink the blood of Christian children, he would turn to another, equally false.
It remains true, however, that modern antiSemites have fewer justifications for their prejudices than their predecessors. The notion that the Jews killed Christ and are therefore the possessors of a type of racial guilt, a notion that has inspired many a massacre and pogrom, was presumably undermined in 1965 when the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council officially . declared, “What happened to Christ in his Passion cannot be attributed to all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor to the Jews of today” (Vatican Council … 1965, p. 24). The council deplored “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Vatican Council … 1965, p. 24). Such a declaration, clearing Jews of the charge of “deicide,” should do much in the future to reduce anti-Semitism everywhere, especially in the Roman Catholic countries.
The economic roots of anti-Semitism have also been exposed and at least partly destroyed in recent years. Jews have long since ceased to be thought of as exclusively moneylenders and pawnbrokers who are unable and unwilling to engage in manual labor and agricultural pursuits. The achievements of the farming kibbutzim in Israel have demonstrated that the land responds no less to Jewish than to gentile hands, and the image of the Jew as acquisitive is necessarily blurred in the acquisitive society. The belief in superior and inferior races is thoroughly discredited, and each year there are probably fewer people who believe that Jews are different from other ethnic groups in any important respect.
Nevertheless, the Jew as scapegoat has been important for almost 2,500 years, and sometime, somewhere, he may be important again. For the deprived Negro in New York’s Harlem it is easy to imagine that slums and poverty are the result of exploitation by landlords and merchants who are predominantly Jewish, and the white supremacist in the southern United States has no trouble believing that Jews are responsible for the civil rights movement. Such belief systems, like the belief systems that accompany other types of prejudice, are not dislodged by simple argument, and indeed there is no simple solution for the problem of anti-Semitism. But if there is a solution at all it will take the form of efforts to promote in all humankind more maturity and rationality, more willingness to face one’s own shortcomings, and more awareness of the great contributions Jews have made to civilization.
Arnold A. Rogow
Adorno, Theodor W. et al. 1950 The Authoritarian Personality. American Jewish Committee, Social Studies Series No. 3. New York: Harper.
Allport, Gordon W.; and Kramer, Bernard M. 1946 Some Roots of Prejudice. Journal of Psychology 22: 9–39.
Anti-defamation League of B’nai B’rith 1961 What the High School Students Say: A Survey of Attitudes and Knowledge About Jews and Nazism. New York: The League.
Frenkel-brunswik, Else; and Sanford, R. Nevitt 1945 Some Personality Factors in Antisemitism. Journal of Psychology 20:271–291.
Freud, Sigmund (1934–1938) 1964 Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Volume 23 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.
Glock, Charles Y.; and Stark, Rodney 1966 Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism. New York: Harper.
Kohn, Hans 1963 Zionism. Pages 956–957 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 14th ed. Chicago: Benton.
McWilliams, Carey 1948 A Mask for Privilege: AntiSemitism in America. Boston: Little.
Marcus, Jacob R. (1938) 1960 The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315–1791. New York: Meridian.
Margolis, Max L.; and Marx, Alexander (1927) 1958 A History of the Jewish People. New York: Meridian.
Meltzer, H. 1941 Hostility and Tolerance in Children’s Nationality and Race Attitudes. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 9:662–675.
Miller, Arthur 1964 On Obliterating the Jews. New Leader 47, no. 6:6–8.
Rogow, Arnold A. (editor) 1961 The Jew in a Gentile World: An Anthology of Writings About Jews, by Non-Jews. New York: Macmillan.
Simmel, Ernst (editor) 1946 Anti-Semitism: A Social Disease. New York: International Universities Press.
Sombart, Werner (1911) 1913 The Jews and Modern Capitalism. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.
Valentin, Hugo (1935) 1936 Anti-Semitism Historically and Critically Examined. New York: Viking. → First published as Antisemitismen i historisk och kritisk belysning.
Vatican Council, Second, Session 4 1965 Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. New York Times October 29, p. 24, col. 5 ff.
Wirth, Louis 1928 The Ghetto. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1956.
"Anti–Semitism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/anti-semitism-0
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