Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From?

Image: A woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Jews burned alive for the alleged host desecration in Deggendorf, Bavaria, in 1338, and in Sternberg, Mecklenburg, 1492.

Anti-Semitism has deep roots in Western culture, roots running back to ancient times.

Anti-Semitism is a fancy word for the hatred of Jews. It was coined by Germans in the 19th century as a more scholarly-sounding substitute for Judenhass, “hatred of Jews.” It refers only to Jews; anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias are separate issues. It’s a mark of the bigotry of the coiners that they didn’t bother to notice Muslims and Arabs. “Semitic” is a language group which includes Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. There is no such thing as a Semite (again, it may be used by someone who wants to sound fancy, but that’s it.)

The concept of Jew-hatred is as old as Western civilization. It has evolved over the centuries, and not in a good way. It began as complaints about character flaws. The Greeks looked down on the Jews for laziness because we insisted on keeping Shabbat.

“In remembrance of the exile of his people, Moses instituted for them a misanthropic and inhospitable way of life.” – Hecataetus of Abdera, 3rd c. BCE

The Romans had an addition beef with us: we were unmanageable and kept revolting against their Empire. They also regarded the Sabbath and the sabbatical year as laziness. They thought our religion was downright perverse.

“Jews hold sacred what everyone else calls profane, and permit what everyone else thinks immoral. They sacrifice rams and bulls as an insult to the gods of the Egyptians. They are lazy and rest one day of the week, and one year out of seven.” – Tacitus, 1st c.

Early Christianity began as a sect within Judaism. They split off over disputes about the necessity of brit milah (circumcision.) After the Great Revolt against Rome, Christians had a strong incentive to convince the Romans that they were a completely separate religion from Judaism. In the gospels, which most scholars date after the Great Revolt, there are verses that become the seeds of religious anti-Semitism, for example:

So when Pilate saw he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and upon our children.” – Matthew 27:24-25

Later Christian scholars interpreted verse 25 as the Jews taking responsibility for the death of Jesus. As the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus (Jesus = God) developed, Christians saw Jews as committing the crime of deicide, the murder of God.

What, then, to do about the Jews? This became a pressing question as Christianity gained followers and respectability in the Roman world. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) formulated a plan for the Jews that held until about the year 1000. He said that Jews were “a special people” who serve as a warning that lack of faith in Jesus would be punished. Therefore, according to Christianity, the murder of Jews was not permitted, but the humiliation of Jews was a good and necessary thing.

(Note: This was the prevailing doctrine until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. The publication of the document Nostra Aetate (“Our Age”) put an end to this doctrine. Some other Christian denominations have followed suit, others haven’t.)

The Emperor Theodosius II (402-450) of the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire made Christianity the established faith of the Empire in 483. He published the Theodosian Code of laws, which placed restrictions on Jewish life. Jews were forbidden to convert anyone to Judaism. They were barred from the military and from the civil service, except for tax collectors. No new synagogues could be built.

This code was soon after adopted by the Western Empire as well. Thus religious anti-Semitism became a matter of state as well as religion throughout the region that had been the old Roman Empire. Under this situation, the Jews as a people continued to observe their traditions, although sometimes individual Jews did assimilate into Christian society.

This was the situation up until the First Crusade (1096-99). Crusaders marched across Europe towards the Middle East, charged with recapturing the Holy Land from “infidels.” As they traveled, they encountered Jewish communities which they sacked for being “unbelievers.” By some counts, one-third of the Jews of Europe were murdered by Crusaders. The communities of the Rhineland were particularly affected. Soon after, the Jews of Constantinopel (Istanbul,) Syria, and Jerusalem suffered as well.

I “will go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the Crucified by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name “Jew.'” – Godfrey of Bullion (1060-1100)

Things got progressively worse for the Jews of Europe following the Crusades. While Augustine’s teaching was still the official teaching of the Church, it was no longer observed by the laity of Europe. Jews were not citizens of the nations of Europe. They were prohibited from most ways of making a living. Wherever they lived, it was at the sufferance of the local ruler, subject to sudden expulsion. We had become a people with no citizenship, no home.

At intervals, there would be accusations that a Jew or a Jewish community had stolen a Christian child, to use the blood to make Passover matzah. This is known as the Blood Libel. Matza, of course, is made of flour and water, and Jews are forbidden by Jewish law from the consumption of any blood whatsoever; even rare meat is forbidden by kashrut (kosher laws.) However, logic was less exciting a story than the idea of child-murdering, blood-sucking Jews, so the Blood Libel became the default explanation for child murders in Europe. (Click the link for more information about the Blood Libel.)

In most of Christian Europe, where the law of the land and the laws of the Church were one and the same, Jews had very few ways of making a living open to them. One way was actually prescribed by the Church. Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest (see Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19-20) but Jews were allowed to fill the economic gap. They were allowed to lend money at interest to Christians, providing a service without which economies cannot grow.

No one loves the person to whom they owe money. This heightened the hatred of Christian Europeans for their Jewish neighbors. It also put the Jewish communities at greater risk for expulsion, since if the ruler wished to erase his debts, all he needed to do was banish the Jewish community.

The fact that Jews had been scattered again and again around Europe meant that an individual moneylending Jew might have cousins in cities across the continent. This made it easy to move funds from one city to another, and one country to another. These family networks were the first international banks. At the same time, this situation gave rise to the anti-Semitic trope of the evil Jewish banker. It was the seeds of the accusation that Jews were a conspiracy to control the world.

The expulsions from one country to another reached a crescendo in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decided to “purify” Spain of all unbelievers. They issued the Alhambra decree which gave non-Christians, including Jews, a choice: convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be killed. Sephardic (Spanish) Jews scattered all over the world, from the Islamic lands to the East to the Spanish colonies in the Americas.

Some Jews chose to convert to Christianity. It is at this point that we begin to see a racial element to Jew hatred, because those families that converted were known as New Christians and were under suspicion for centuries to come. They were regarded as unreliable converts, liable to revert to Jewish practice, and the Inquistion became the system and court within which they were examined, sometimes under torture, and executed. “Jewish blood” was a liability in Spanish life into the 20th century.

It is worth noting that this colonial period in European history is the same point at which other notions of race began to pick up devotees, as white Europeans encountered dark-skinned people who had resources they wished to colonize. That process is much easier with the concept of race to justify it.

So by 1500, three of the tropes of modern anti-Semitism were in place: the blood libel, the moneylending “international” Jew, and the idea of Jews as a race whose undesirable characteristics are inherited.

More history of course would follow, but for those looking for the roots of modern anti-Semitism, the picture is set. For instance, the blood libel still circulates in the Palestinian and Arab press, both in its original form (murdered children provide blood for Jewish pastry) but in new forms (murdered children provide organs that can be sold on the black market.) The trope of the “globalist” Jew who seeks world domination through an international conspiracy to destroy Western white society has its seeds in the European hatred of its designated moneylenders. The notion of Jews as a race would bear evil fruit in the eugenics of the Nazis, and it is still a trope among American anti-Semites today. (When I converted to Judaism, an old acquaintence tried to assure me that we could stay friends because I wasn’t “racially Jewish.” Ugh.)

So don’t let anyone tell you that anti-Semitism is only about Nazis, or that it is dead. It survives in a thousand clichés, such as “Jewing them down” or alleged compliments “Jewish accountants are the best.” It survives in the belief that George Soros is the spider at the center of a vast international web of conspiracy, when in fact he is a Holocaust survivor and philanthropist. It survives in any talk about Jews as a race when actually we come in all colors and backgrounds. It survives in the notion that Jews care only about other Jews, and in the belief that every recession is actually engineered by Jews.  It survives in conspiracy theories that Israelis were behind 9/11.

Speaking of Israel, since the establishment of the State of Israel, we have had to deal with a phenomenon known as the “New” anti-Semitism, or anti-Semitism of the Left. To learn more about that, I recommend An Open Letter to a UCLA Alumna who Confused anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism by Rabbi John Rosove or the book The New Anti-Semitism by Phyllis Chesler.

If you want to fight anti-Semitism, I suggest reading Nine Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. I do not understand why this hatred is so persistent, only that it is vital that we fight it. Many other bigotries are fed by anti-Semitism: white supremacy and racism to name just a couple.  Two organizations that fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds are  ADL: The Anti-Defamation League and The Southern Poverty Law Center.

May the world be protected from such evils.

May we see the humanity in every human being.

May the day come when all human beings treat one another with the dignity and mercy  they wish for themselves. Amen.