Antisemitism: A History


Antisemitism throughout history has been both a response to the presence of Jews and a manifestation of the fear of Jews. Jews often represented the ultimate Other in society. They remained at the same time a part of and separate from the rising Christian civilization in Europe.

Jews remained separated from society partly by their own habits but largely by decree. The communal nature of Jewish religious practice dictated that Jews live near each other in order to have the proper quorum for prayers and to uphold travel restrictions on the Sabbath and holidays. This led to the development of Jewish quarters in medieval towns, which became ghettos after official decrees ordered that Jews should be physically separated. Jews remained behind walls for 400 years, further contributing to suspicions as to why it was necessary to separate them from society.

What took place behind the walls of the ghetto remained a mystery for most. This created a natural aversion among Christians to Jews living in their midst, and therefore, few made the effort to look beyond what they had been taught. They instead theorized based on their limited knowledge and suspicions. The misunderstood nature of Jewish practices helped feed into myths surrounding them. Observers would see Jews hanging a mezuzah—a scroll of biblical verses—on their doors and recall something from the Bible about Jews in Egypt painting their doorframes with blood. The natural conclusion was that Jews were again using blood for some sort of ritual purpose, contributing to the development and promulgation of the blood libel, that Jews employed Christian blood in sacrifices and other rituals such as matzah preparation.

In the sixteenth century, a legend emerged in Prague of a giant sculpted from clay and given life by a rabbi using Jewish mysticism in order to protect the Jewish community. According to legend, the Golem of Prague would appear when the Jews of Prague were in crisis. Dan Bilefsky, “Hard Times Give New Life to Prague’s Golem,” New York Times, May 10, 2009, To the Jews the Golem represented hope for a savior. To the outside world, however, the Golem represented Jewish entanglement with the occult and further ingrained fear of unknown Jewish practices.

Like Christianity, Islam has promoted the notion of Jewish rejection: God rejected the Jews based on their rejection of biblical laws. Still, Jews living under Muslim rule historically were not subjected to the same restrictive conditions as those living in Christian Europe. Jews were People of the Book, and God had given them opportunities to repent if they desired. Even so, Jews in Islamic societies were still largely relegated to second-class status at best.

These religious roots of antisemitism informed centuries of restrictions and conspiracies. This culminated in mass events like the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust, while feeding everyday bigotry. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Jewish political fortunes had wholly shifted. Jews enjoyed unprecedented political and economic freedoms and had reestablished their biblical homeland in Israel. This ascension began slowly with Napoleon Bonaparte’s emancipation of French Jews in the early eighteenth century, but it wouldn’t be until after the horrific events of the Holocaust that Jews would attain true emancipation. The large Jewish migrations to America of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came at the same time that other nationalities and ethnic groups were migrating to the United States. Like other minorities, Jews were subjected to widespread discrimination, but eventually, discrimination gave way to success. And that success bred jealousy among those left behind.

Russian immigrants to America brought with them tales of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and rumors of Jews’ role in the violent revolution that had overthrown the czar. The earliest form of Christian antisemitism holds that Jews betrayed Jesus and then demanded his death at the hands of the Romans. Here again were tales from Russia of Jews betraying their king—this time the czar—and overturning the societal order. This pattern has repeated throughout history, from the machinations of Jews murdering William of Norwich in 1144 to fears that Jews were causing the bubonic plague by poisoning water wells. Antisemitic conspiracy theories have been and remain focused on the alleged role of Jews behind the scenes, carrying out secret plans to dominate non-Jews.

A meme posted to Facebook in December 2019 alleging a global Jewish conspiracy.

With the rise of the Internet and, in particular, social media, these theories have taken on new life as antisemites now have new ways to spread their propaganda and connect with others who share their views. While the Internet has made it easier to find information that dispels myths and conspiracy theories, it has also made it easier for those who traffic in conspiracies to find followers and create echo chambers that affirm and reinforce those conspiracies. Despite the best of intentions, centuries of ingrained antisemitic attitudes, will take a great deal more time to overcome.

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The media and commentators have noted an increasing number of antisemitic attacks and the emergence of what many are calling the new antisemitism.

Read about Antisemitism in the 21st Century

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