Part IV Antisemitic – A Historical Sketch

This blog has only two purposes – to provide some evidence that antisemitism is indeed the world’s oldest hatred, and second, to show that the phenomenon of antisemitism comes in many sizes and has many different expressions difficult to capture in any single definition. Rather, over the ages, antisemitism has had a number of variations and different expressions and, therefore, meanings that can best be understood in terms of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of a family resemblance where the meaning at one extreme has little resemblance to the one at the other extreme. That which is thought to be connected by one essential common feature, such as “hatred of Jews,” may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities in which no one feature is common to all.

Hebrew biblical texts tell two stories of antisemitism, one that takes place in ancient Egypt and the other in ancient Persia. In Exodus, the ancient Hebrews who were initially treated very favourably by Pharaoh, four hundred years later are regarded as a threat and a menace. They were enslaved and subjected to onerous labour. The Hebrews were regarded as dangerous enemies of the entire Egyptian civilization. From one perspective, the Hebrews escaped from slavery and the tyranny of the Pharaoh at the hands of God. It is a tale of liberation. However, from the Egyptian perspective, as in the pen of an Egyptian priest, Manetho, at the beginning of the third century BCE, the Hebrews were expelled from Egypt because their practices challenged and even threatened the Egyptian divine order and because the Hebrews in their ritual and culinary habits were “unclean.” Antisemitism then was primarily theological, sociological and political.

The second tale of antisemitism takes place in Persia in the Book of Esther. Haman, the villain of the tale, attempted to perpetrate a genocide against the Hebrews, but his efforts were thwarted by Esther, a Hebrew, who had become the ruler’s favourite concubine, and her uncle, Mordechai. God plays no part. Instead of a hatred rooted in theology and different practices, it is a tale of a power struggle in which persecution of a minority population is used to advance the status and authority of someone in power who wanted to expand and consolidate his power.

According to historians, large-scale Jew-hatred and persecution began after Alexander the Great conquered the entire Middle East and Jews came into intimate contact and competition with members of other nations. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian in Contra Apionem,counters the efforts of Apion in the first half of the first century of the Common Era (CE) to depict Jews in a very unfavourable way. There were evidently many other anti-Jewish writings. Professor Menachem Stern of Hebrew University, before he was killed in Israel by a terrorist, collected much of those anti-Jewish writings in a three-volume study of antisemitism in the ancient Greek and Roman world (Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism).

In many of these writings, it is not a matter of a theological war or a power struggle, but the efforts of the Jews themselves and their unique set of laws and practices that arouse the wrath of their neighbours. In other words, Jews were criticized and even attacked simply because they were Jewish, even if they were not viewed as either an imaginary or real threat. The first anti-Jewish pogrom in history took place in Alexandria in 38 CE witnessed directly by the Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria who traces the sources of this hatred to competing theologies. In the Roman historian Tacitus from the second century CE, it is the Jews who are portrayed as full of hate, as “haters of humanity,” people who keep themselves aloof and separate and thereby attract by their own practices the hatred of others.

As Philo wrote, Jew-hatred was widespread and taught “from the cradle onward…most people in Alexandria are taught that Jews are bad people. Children are instilled with hatred of Jews.” The result was the first genocide of Jews recorded in history when Flaccus became the Roman governor of Egypt and Alexandria and quickly removed the citizenship of Jews in the satrap of Palestine at the same time as he committed sacrilegious acts by erecting idols in Jewish sacred spaces. The confining of Jews to ghettos and widespread pogroms targeted Jews. In the same way as Iran treats the leaders of the Baha’i community in the present, the authorities then treated the Jews by arresting their leaders, confiscating their property and frequently executing them. It is hard to tell then where a political power struggle leaves off and economic opportunism begins. And often the theme that the Jews brought on hatred of themselves because they practiced cancel culture and denied the reality of the gods of other societies is blamed as the source.

Sometimes the rationale is theological. Sometimes it is ethnic and sociological. At other times it is political. And at still other times, there is a strong economic dimension to the persecution. Sometimes it was even a matter of a security threat and a problem of defence of the realm and, therefore, primarily a military matter. Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities recorded how Tiberius banished all Jews from Rome and punished those who would not accept forced conscription in the Roman military. However, with the development of Christianity, anti-Jewish hatred becomes overwhelmingly theological.

In the Christian Gospels, the Gospel of John is often represented as explicitly antisemitic in its interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. The Jews are there portrayed as killers of Christ. In Matthew 27:35, the Jewish leaders tell Pilate, “His blood be on us and our children,” but there is controversy over whether “us” refers to the Jews or all humanity who reject Jesus as their saviour. However, as Jesus challenged the Pharisees in the Gospel According to John, “I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you … You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him.” (John 8:37–39, 44–47) This tradition grew and spread within Christianity until challenged by St. Augustine, particularly in his later writings. 

Christianity may be about the supersession of Judaism by Christianity (Paul teaches that the church is the “new Israel” or “spiritual Israel”), but not about its deliberate extinction or elimination by the hands of Christians. Jews may have forfeited their birthright to be the people of God and Paul may have taught and expected the mass conversion of Jews before the second coming of Christ, but until then, Jews were to be left alone. For the Jewish and Christian religions had the same roots. Pagans could be coerced into becoming Christians, but not Jews. (Cf. Paula Fredriksen (2008; 2010) Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defence of Jews and Judaism)

In Augustine’s view, the real enemy was Manichaeism, a claimed Christian belief system to which he originally subscribed. There was the world of flesh, the world of evil, a material world to which Jews clung, versus the world of the spirit that was dedicated to personal salvation through acceptance of Jesus as the saviour. All practices inherited from Judaism were to be excised and discarded in favour of the spiritual. This was easily extended to the excision of the Jews.

Augustine rejected this dichotomy and instead read the Old Testament as case history for the universal theology that emerged through the teachings of Jesus. The Old Testament provided examples and illustrations of that which the New Testament taught. Instead of the definition coming first and the cases following as illustrations (as in the current debates over antisemitism), the cases emerged first in history and then were collected under a universal theology in the New Testament wherein justification came by faith alone. The Law of Moses directs the believer towards Christ, but the real objective is faith in Jesus Christ the Saviour who understands the purpose of the Law and lifts the veil covering it. Jews are simply a people which has failed to come to a recognition of why Jesus came and gave his life as a sacrifice for humanity.

In spite of Augustine, the view of Jews as tolerated proto-Christians versus the Jews as the embodiment of materialism runs as a constant through Christian history. In Islam, there is a different dichotomy, one between a favourable portrait of Jews and Judaism in many passages of the Koran versus a more prolific collection of “anti-Jewish” quotes in the Hadith (the collected anecdotes about the Muslim prophet Mohammed’s life) and in the Sirah (the early biographies of Muhammed) with many derogatory claims about Jews (Israi’liyyat or Israelite stories). Based on these, a multitude of Jewish stereotypes are frequently cited in Friday prayers when Israel is being attacked. (Cf. Andrew Boston (2008) The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History)

The Muslim treatment of Jews was generally more generous in the Islamic world in spite of the Fez massacres in the eleventh, thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Beginning with the First Crusade in the eleventh century in Spain, Jewish communities by contrast thrived under Muslim rule when Cordova became a centre of Jewish culture during the Muslim Spanish Golden Age. Compared to the treatment of the Jews in Christendom, Jews enjoyed a long period of relative tranquility under Muslim rule. Antisemitism came to be much more identified with Christian Europe than the Middle East.

Though blood libels against the Jews, forced expulsions along with confiscation of their properties, persecutions, accusation of the abduction of Christian children and their ritual murder, and pogroms took place against the Jews in the Middle Ages, and especially during the Crusades (12,000 Jews were murdered in the Rhineland alone), we are more familiar with European non-theological antisemitism which reaches back to the Renaissance and the expulsion of Jews. Jews were blamed for the Black Death in the Fourteenth century.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was perhaps the most rabid antisemite of the period advocating oppression, pogroms and expulsion. “We are all at fault for not slaying them.” Christopher Marlowe’s play written at the end of the sixteenth century, The Jew of Malta,is more about the theme of antisemitism itself rather than itself an antisemitic diatribe. Though ostensibly about theological disputation, psychological motivation plays a much larger role. The play is about opportunism, deception and greed rather than religion or ethnicity. Is Barabas a monster or a radical vengeful killer who has become thoroughly immoral and a cold-blooded terrorist?

“First, be thou void of these affections:
Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear;
Be moved at nothing; see thou pity none.”

Shakespeare takes this new approach a step further, but with far less gore and immorality even though Shylock would have his pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice. Avariciousness, resentment, financial gain – these are the roots and impetus to antisemitism, not theology or ethnicity or political power. The motives are tangled, but religion only provides a veil. And when extended as antisemitism to all Jews, Jews are portrayed as full of deceit and morally repugnant, impelled by possessive individualism rather than any community-wide loyalties. Calling them “the enemies of Christ” and “blasphemers” was only a cover for a complementary immorality in a very cynical world.

Economics, politics, xenophobia, irrational fear, and other factors became intertwined and even inseparable by the theology that justified the persecution. Antisemitism continued through the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century industrial revolution, with its emphasis on race. According to my late colleague, Arnold Ages, the driving force behind French antisemitism was ideology, not a religious ideology, but a secular ideology that emerged as the secular religion of France to replace Catholicism. It was called laicité. Voltaire in his rational universalism in his Lettres philosophiques, Dictionnaire philosophique and Candide, was rabidly antisemitic and expressed an animosity to Jews that became extreme hatred by the time he died.  

This secular enlightenment antisemitism would be superseded by the German racism of Richard Wagner, but especially the rabid antisemitism of his sister with their joyful celebration of German paganism and the twilight of the gods. This was at the root of what became antisemitism and the most horrific expression of antisemitism in history, the racially rooted and motivated Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered. The narrative told that justified such a horror was that, in the alleged antisemitic view of the world, Jews promoted a vision of the world in they conspired to dominate the globe through control of international finance at both the highest international levels of commerce to local money lending in the cities, towns and villages of the Western world.

Though this enormous monster overshadowed the more genteel antisemitism of men like Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States and Mackenzie King in Canada, both of whom rejected allowing Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to come to the United States and Canada respectively, the beast of the Holocaust should not overshadow these other expressions of antisemitism that are more polite and not directed to extermination. But they facilitated that extermination with their prejudices, indifference, ignorance and inaction.

After centuries of mutations and aberrations, after the widest array of expressions of antisemitism that a singular definition can barely comprehend, there allegedly emerged a new form of antisemitism, an extreme form of anti-Zionism that even denied Jews the right to self-determination, the right to be a self-governing people. This was the height of irony of modernism. For the latter in the form of Dutch philo-Jews like Hugo Grotiius, modelled the new nationalism that marked political modernism with the inspiration of the nationalism of the ancient Hebrews.

That nationalism would come full circle in the beliefs of the British Christian Zionists who, in the mid-nineteenth century, began advocating the return of Jews to their national home and the resurrection of the Jewish homeland in a modern Jewish nation-state. Therefore, with the emergence of Zionism, it should be no surprise that antisemitism mutated into a new form that rejected Zionism, not simply as the ideology of a competing party for the same land, but as inherently illegitimate, for Jews enjoyed no national rights of self-determination in the new antisemitism.

The contemporary controversies among the three definitions of antisemitism accept this development but differ in the extent of its implications and, therefore, in what types of speech and action that can be labeled antisemitic.  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s