Antisemitism: A History

Sixteenth Century through Eighteenth Century: Ghettos, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Talmud on Trial Again

Many of Europe’s oldest cities contain distinctive Jewish quarters, enclaves where Jews historically congregated and lived together. One of the oldest of the Jewish quarters can be found in Alexandria, Egypt, created during Roman rule. Many of these historic Jewish quarters developed because of communal needs—the need for a quorum of 10 Jewish men for prayer services, religious travel restrictions on the Sabbath, and the desire to live close to synagogues and Jewish schools. Jews chose to live within geographic proximity of each other to better maintain their participation in the larger Jewish community.

Not all Jewish quarters were established by choice, however. The sixteenth century introduced a new concept to the world that would affect Jewish life for the next 400 years: The ghetto. The Venetian Ghetto is both one of the most famous ghettos that remains in existence and one of the oldest. Germany, in 1462, instituted the Frankfurt ghetto, Frankfurter Judengasse (“Jews’ Lane”), a walled-off street where Jews were forced to reside. The Juddengasse remained in operation through 1811. Jewish Sights in Frankfurt am Main, accessed October 2, 2019, http://en.juedisches-frankfurt.de/;
“Frankfurt-Am-Main,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://dbs.bh.org.il/place/frankfurt-am-main.
Although the Juddengasse predated the Venetian Ghetto, it would be the Venetian Ghetto that introduced the concept to the Western cultural lexicon.

Prior to the fourteenth century, Jews were allowed to travel to Venice for business but were not permitted to live within the city. This changed in 1385 because of a need for Jewish money-lending services during a war with the neighboring city of Chioggia. “Jewish Venice,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://www.jewishvenice.org/history-culture/. On March 29, 1516, Doge Leonardo Loredan (the title “doge” is the equivalent of duke) of Venice decreed that the city’s Jews would be separated and confined to a single area of the city. The term “ghetto” originated in the Venetian dialect as a derivation of the word “geto,” meaning foundry, as the area Loredan designated was close to a foundry. David Laskin, “500 Years of Jewish Life in Venice,” New York Times, March 9, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/travel/venice-italy-jewish-ghetto.html. Within the ghetto, Jews were limited to only a handful of professions, such as selling clothing or practicing medicine. And, of course, moneylending. “Jewish Venice,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://www.jewishvenice.org/history-culture/.

Loredan’s solution to Jewish residency began to spread in 1555 after Pope Paul IV decreed that Jews should wear distinctive clothing and reside within ghettos; their property was confiscated and sold to Christians. “Rome,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://dbs.bh.org.il/place/rome. Jews were permitted to leave the ghetto during the day but had to return by sunset when the gates were locked. Jews who thought they might escape at night were prevented by Christian guards stationed at the gates, for which the Jewish residents were also required to pay. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 129.

By 1650, approximately 4,000 people resided within the confines of the Venetian Ghetto. Napoleon Bonaparte eventually dismantled the ghetto in 1797 after conquering Venice during his march across Europe. “Jewish Venice,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://www.jewishvenice.org/history-culture/;
David Laskin, “500 Years of Jewish Life in Venice,” New York Times, March 9, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/travel/venice-italy-jewish-ghetto.html;
William Nicholls, Christian AntiSemitism: A History of Hate (Northvale: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993), 302.
In Rome, however, the ghetto remained in use until Pope Pius IX ordered its gates torn down in 1846. “Rome,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://dbs.bh.org.il/place/rome. Though they were no longer restricted there, Jews continued to reside in the Venetian Ghetto. Some 1,300 Jews remained in the ghetto by the beginning of World War II, but only seven returned to the ghetto after the war. “Jewish Venice,” Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, accessed September 20, 2019, https://www.jewishvenice.org/history-culture/.

As Italy was creating a new paradigm for its Jews, Germany was also undergoing changes that would profoundly affect Christianity as well as form the basis for future accusations against Jews. In 1517, German theology professor Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther took issue with Pope Leo X selling indulgences—the cancelation of penance for sins—in order to raise money for renovations of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther’s proclamations argued against the practice and began Europe’s Protestant Reformation. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 116-127;
Martin Luther, “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences (The Ninety-Five Theses” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 8-20.

Luther’s earlier writings were devoid of antisemitic overtones, but later in his life that changed dramatically. Luther once wrote that Jews might be swayed toward accepting Jesus if they were shown more compassion. He argued in his 1523 essay That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew that Jews should be allowed to live among Christians and called for the lifting of restrictions on Jews in order to convince them to convert. Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 144-151. Later in life, Luther denounced Jews and urged their persecution. In 1543, Luther penned On the Jews & Their Lies, in which he claimed the Jews “so poisonously slander” Christianity. Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 286. Luther classified the Jews as a “damned, rejected race” and suggested that their homes and houses of worship should be destroyed, rabbis should be forbidden from teaching under the threat of death, Jews should be forbidden from travel, all Jewish money and valuables should be confiscated, and young Jews should be placed into forced labor. Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 284-303.

Luther’s antisemitism was firmly rooted in the historical antisemitic tropes of Christianity. Luther attacked the concept of the Jews being God’s chosen people, which he described as boastful and undeserved (e.g., “They praise and thank God that He made them a special people …being full with arrogance, envy, usury, avarice, and every kind of wickedness.” Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 294.).

Luther also attacked the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the messiah (e.g., “We want to demonstrate that we believe properly and that they completely err in this point about the Messiah.” Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 286.). Luther further condemned the Jewish belief that the messiah will still come, accusing the Jews of holding so firmly to the idea that “if God Himself spoke publicly” that the messiah “had come long ago,” the Jews would “see God Himself as the devil….” Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 295. Throughout the book Luther drew on biblical verse to demonstrate God’s rejection of the Jewish people and why good Christians should thus reject the Jews as well. Luther accused the Jews of being “thoroughly rebuked [by God] as a disobedient, evil people and the worst whore….” Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 294.

Almost 500 years after Luther’s death, his writing endures as a mainstay for those who seek a basis within Christianity to prove the Jews are the “bloodthirsty and vindictive people” that Luther described. Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” in The Essential Luther, ed. Tryntje Helfferich (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2018), 291. The Nazis used Luther’s writings as support for their own positions with Protestant clergy. Christopher J. Probst, “Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany,” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.ushmm.org/research/publications/academic-publications/full-list-of-academic-publications/demonizing-the-jews-luther-and-the-protestant-church-in-nazi-germany. In November 1933, for example, the Nazis held “German Luther Day,” celebrating the sixteenth-century writer. Conspiracy theorists such as Paul Boggs have also referenced the work. In 2017, Boggs published On The Jews And Their Lies: 9/11, a reprinting of Luther’s work that he used to advance his conspiracy theories that Jews were responsible for both World War II and the September 11, 2001, attacks. Paul Boggs, On The Jews And Their Lies: 9/11 (Christchurch: Silvanus Publishing Incorporated, 2017). On the Jews and Their Lies remains one of the most enduring antisemitic screeds in history, similar in impact to the famed Russian forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

Luther plumbed Christian biblical texts to support his conclusions about the Jews. A little over 100 years after Luther’s death, another German scholar decided that to fully understand the Jews and their duplicity one must immerse himself in Jewish texts. Beginning in 1680 at the age of 24, German scholar Johann Andreas Eisenmenger began a 17-year deception posing as a Jew. He attended yeshivas (Jewish religious schools) and studied under well-known rabbis, including the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Amsterdam, David ben Aryeh Lieb of Lithuania. Henry Abramson, “He posed as a righteous Jewish convert for 19 years. Then he wrote a 2,000-page anti-Semitic screed,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 6, 2019, https://www.jta.org/2019/08/06/opinion/he-posed-as-a-righteous-jewish-convert-for-19-years-then-he-wrote-a-2000-page-anti-semitic-screed.

In 1700, Eisenmenger published Entdecktes Judenthum (“Judaism Unmasked”), which fueled new suspicions and conspiracies about the Talmud and its contents. Eisenmenger declared Germans to be a distinct subset of Christianity and, using Talmudic sources, argued that the Jews reviled gentiles and Christians in particular. He further built the specter of the Jewish threat by quoting from an unidentified Jewish text calling for the destruction of all heathens and portraying Jews as religiously devoted to the act of murdering gentiles. “Because this rule must still be observed by them to this day,” he wrote, “those [Jews] who live under us follow it without question. It pertains to all Christians, and so they [the Jews] are not allowed to save any of them [the Germans] from death.” Pierre James, The Murderous Paradise: German Nationalism and the Holocaust (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 2001) 72-73.

To combat this threat to Germans, Eisenmenger called for an end to Jewish “freedom” in trade because it was giving them dominance over Germans. He also demanded an immediate ban on synagogues, Jewish public worship, and communal leaders and rabbis. Paul Lawrence Rose, Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany: From Kant to Wagner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 8f. In 1699, ahead of the book’s release, the local Jewish community petitioned Emperor Leopold I—then the Holy Roman emperor and king of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia—to stop its publication out of fear that it would cause a violent antisemitic backlash. Henry Abramson, “He posed as a righteous Jewish convert for 19 years. Then he wrote a 2,000-page anti-Semitic screed,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 6, 2019, https://www.jta.org/2019/08/06/opinion/he-posed-as-a-righteous-jewish-convert-for-19-years-then-he-wrote-a-2000-page-anti-semitic-screed. Despite the petition, Eisenmenger successfully published the book a few years later.

Eisenmenger died suddenly in 1704 from a stroke shortly after his book’s publication. The book, however, remains a source of academic insight into early German antisemitism. According to the late Penn State University Jewish Studies scholar Paul Lawrence Rose, Eisenmenger amassed “quotations from the Talmud and other Hebrew sources revealing to all how the Jewish religion was barbarous, superstitious, and even murderous.” But, Rose noted in his book Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany: From Kant to Wagner, Eisenmenger’s scholarship “belied the author’s evident preoccupation (like Luther) with tales of Jewish ritual murder of Christian children and poisoning of wells.” Paul Lawrence Rose, Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany: From Kant to Wagner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 8f. According to historian Henry Abramson of Touro College, “Eisenmenger strove for accuracy in citation and translation, but criminally distorted the meaning of the passages in context with unacceptably tendentious commentary to promote awful lies like the infamous blood libel….” Henry Abramson, “He posed as a righteous Jewish convert for 19 years. Then he wrote a 2,000-page anti-Semitic screed,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 6, 2019, https://www.jta.org/2019/08/06/opinion/he-posed-as-a-righteous-jewish-convert-for-19-years-then-he-wrote-a-2000-page-anti-semitic-screed.

Its academic inaccuracy notwithstanding, Entdecktes Judenthum became a primary source for other antisemitic scholars seeking support for their theories and conspiracies regarding Jewish practice and the Talmud that exist to this day. In the nineteenth century, conspiracy theories about Jews—from Jewish power and world domination to blood rituals and devil worship—were further cemented with the publication of the Russian forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. This 1905 publication claimed to be a reproduction of marching orders to a global Jewish cabal that sought control of the press, finances, and governments using the so-called protocols contained within the book.

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