Anti-Semitism, or prejudice against the Jews or Jewish culture, has plagued the world for almost 2,000 years. The Jews were scapegoats first in the ancient and medieval Christian world and then in the modern world. Anti-Semitism is one of the greatest examples throughout the course of human history of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
The history of the Jews has been marked with triumph, but also great tragedy. Nearly 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome, the Jews were forcibly expelled from their homeland, and the diaspora took them to various parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. The birth of anti-Semitism can be traced directly to Christian anti-Jewish attitudes. The early Christians were frustrated that the Jews did not convert to the new religion, and the anti-Jewish hostility can be found in the New Testament in the Gospel of John and letters of Paul. Many Christians believed that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and the term “Christ-killer” was applied to the Jews throughout the Middle Ages.
From the 4th century onward, Christians shunned the Jews and forced them to live in ghettos. Jews had to wear distinct medieval costumes and in many parts of Europe a yellow badge to signify that they were Jewish and to warn the Gentile population. As the centuries progressed, the animosity that Christianity had toward its sister religion gradually escalated into homicide. In 1095, Christians slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims during the Crusades. In 1347, the Black Death swept across Europe, taking the lives of nearly half of the population. Christians eventually accused the Jews of poisoning the wells, thereby bringing about the plague. The Christians slaughtered thousands of Jews in retaliation. The violence continued in the 15th century as Europeans accused Jews of ritually murdering Christian children. The blood libel myth lasted until well into the 20th century and led to extraordinary violence against the Jews. Anti-Semitism continued in the late 1400s in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition as hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century offered a glimmer of hope for the Jews as the religion of Christianity effectively divided in half between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Jews of Europe anticipated tolerance from the Protestants, but unfortunately that was not to be, as Martin Luther penned the most anti-Semitic document ever written in 1543 entitled, “On the Jews and their Lies.” The relationship between Jews and Christians remained tense for centuries to follow.
At the start of the modern era, Jews residing in Western Europe had reason for optimism. In the mid-18th century, the enlightened despot Frederick the Great allowed for some Jews to live outside of the restrictive ghettos in historic Prussia. The movement toward emancipation continued in the early 20th century as Napoleon Bonaparte destroyed the remaining ghettos in Western Europe. Jewish Emancipation appeared to be a distinct possibility but unfortunately failed to materialize as a new form of anti-Semitism developed focusing on Jewish control of the economic and social aspects of European life. In the capitalist nations of Western Europe, Jews proved to be a convenient scapegoat for all the shortcomings of European society. As nationalism increased in Western Europe, so too did anti-Semitism. Germany was the birthplace of modern anti-Semitism, as pseudoscientists like Wilhelm Marr, Georg von Schonerer, and Herman Ahlwardt and the composer Richard Wagner blamed the Jews for all of Germany’s problems. France also experienced a rise in anti-Semitism in the late 19th century. Edouard Drumont’s anti-Jewish newspaper, La Libre Parole, experienced widespread circulation. In the late 1890s, the nation was bitterly divided during the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal that centered on a Jewish captain in the French Army who was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. Captain Dreyfus was innocent but was convicted solely on the fact that he was Jewish.
In 19th century Eastern Europe, the Jews faced an even more dangerous situation. The Czarist Government of Russia forced the Jews to live in the Pale Settlement, and the Jewish population was subject to frequent attack. By the 1880s, homicidal anti-Semitic attacks were so frequent that a new word, pogrom, was ushered into the Russian vocabulary. In 1881, Alexander III became the new czar of Russia and immediately adopted measures to keep Jews from owning land.
He also slashed Jewish university enrollment by 90%. The May Laws of 1882 placed further restrictions on the Jews, stripping them of the most fundamental of human rights. Because of these harsh restrictions, many Russian Jews left the nation permanently, settling in Western Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Pogroms intensified in Russia over the next 25 years as Russian mobs slaughtered thousands of Jews and destroyed or confiscated large amounts of Jewish property in the Pale Settlement. Not only did massive Jewish emigration occur in late 19th-century Russia, the Jews also began to search for a Jewish nation in what was more commonly known as Zionism.
Zionism had its origins in the Pale Settlement in Russia in the 1880s and was a direct response to European anti-Semitism. The objective was to establish a Jewish state somewhere in the world as a way to provide a safe haven for the Jews. In 1896, Theodor Herzl took control of the Zionist movement. Herzl was born in Vienna, Austria, and was raised in a fully assimilated Jewish family. After witnessing the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair, the journalist Herzl became an avowed Zionist. In the Zionist Congresses in Switzerland, Jewish delegates discussed various locations for a Jewish nation, including Argentina, Uganda, and Palestine. Unfortunately, a Jewish state did not come into existence by the early 20th century, and the movement suffered another setback with the untimely death of Herzl in 1904.
As the early 20th century progressed, many Jews attempted to leave the European continent and settle in Palestine or the United States. By 1930, the Jewish population in the United States was the largest in the world. Although anti-Semitism in America paled in comparison to Europe, it was nevertheless prominent in the 1920s and 1930s. Before the Great Migration (1881–1921), anti-Semitism in America was virtually nonexistent. However, as large numbers of Russian Jews began arriving in the United States in the late 19th century, American public opinion pressured Congress to restrict the numbers of Jews and other undesirables entering the nation. Congress responded by effectively sealing the nation’s borders in 1924. The United States had been a Protestant nation for Protestant people, and now Americans faced a sizable Jewish population and a large Catholic population. The Ku Klux Klan experienced resurgence in the 1920s in response to these unwanted newcomers. African Americans, Jews, and Catholics were all targets of the Klan as membership in the organization soared. Universities across the nation imposed a quota system to limit the amount of Jews who could enroll in medical, law, or graduate school. Many Americans considered Jews to be communists or subversive elements who could inflict considerable harm on the nation. The automobile manufacturer Henry Ford reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. The Protocols, a proven forgery by 1921, alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that sought to control the world. Anti-Semitism reached its apex in the United States in the 1930s during the Great Depression. A Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Charles Coughlan, led his own crusade against Jewish Americans, despite the fact that his own Detroit parish had been victimized by frequent cross burnings of the Ku Klux Klan. The “radio priest,” as he was called, railed against the evils of New Deal legislation and Jewish influence in the nation. Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi apologist and sympathizer, also espoused antiSemitic remarks at various rallies in the United States throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. AntiSemitism was a significant problem in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, but it never reached the levels of Europe. In the second half of the 20th century, anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States began a steady decline.
In the aftermath of World War I, many Germans blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the war. More than 400 anti-Semitic organizations formed in Germany in the 1920s, despite the fact that the Jews amounted to less than 1% of the population. The Nazi Party, one of the more prominent of the new German political parties, tied together extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, accused the Jews of stabbing Germany in the back and conspiring to ruin the nation. When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, he put his German nation on the road to genocide. AntiSemitism reached its most horrific chapter during the holocaust as a supposedly civilized and cultured nation participated or stood idly by as nearly 6 million European Jews were murdered through systematic execution and starvation. The holocaust took the lives of nearly 70% of the Jewish population in Europe and more than 50% of the Jewish population in the world.
In 1948, the nation of Israel came into existence, fulfilling the Zionist dream of the 19th century.
Anti-Semitism, while declining slightly in Europe, increased significantly in the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century. Although the nation of Israel was established, a Palestinian state failed to materialize. The violence between Jews and Arabs was all too predictable. The Arab-Israeli conflict is still unresolved in the present day, and there is little reason for optimism in the near future.
Anti-Semitism has affected the world for almost 2000 years. The irrational hatred of the Jewish people stands as testimony to the dangers of intolerance. For as the great holocaust historian Raul Hilberg warns, “as long as a group of people are not fully assimilated into a society they walk a tightrope between acceptance and annihilation.”
- Arendt, (1973). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt.
- Hilberg, (2003). The destruction of the European Jews. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Poliakov, (2003). History of anti-Semitism (Vols. 1–4).Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, http://sicsa.huji.ac.il/