Anti-Semitism—which can be defined as deep antipathy to Jews and Judaism as such—has a long and unsavory history. Because Jews did not proselytize, they remained in most places a minority, subject like most other minorities throughout history to periodic discrimination and abuse by the majorities among whom they lived. Christian tradition in particular developed a theological animus against the Judaism that gave it birth, partly indeed because it gave it birth: it was necessary for Christians to do so in order to establish their own independent identity. Because Christians considered Jesus to have been the messiah foretold by the Hebrew scripture, Judaism in their view had been transcended or made obsolete by Christianity, and Jews were condemned for failing to “see the light.” Less subtle criticisms also were circulated, such as the claim that the Jews killed Jesus, or that Jews engaged in depraved rituals such as eating babies. The combination of such accusations (which, though false, were widely believed) and the Jews’ status as a minority resulted in many pogroms and other acts of oppression directed against Jews in medieval and early modern Christian Europe.
This old tradition of Jew-hatred was exacerbated in Europe by the rise of notions of ethnic nationalism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This concept now made it possible to understand the Jews as a “racial” group, linked to one another in racialist theory not by shared religious commitment, but by ineradicable physiological ties (“blood,” etc.). Racialist theorizing also associated with each supposed “race” of people particular intellectual and moral characteristics that no one from that group could escape or transcend because they were deemed “innate”; in racialist theory of the early twentieth century, Jews were depicted as grasping and covetous, devious, cowardly, and of inferior morality. The adoption of nationalist-racialist thought throughout Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to a definite quickening of oppression directed against Jews, from France and Spain to Russia, culminating in the slaughter of six million Jews in Germany by Hitler’s National Socialists during World War II. Since that event, consciousness of the problem of anti-Semitism has become widespread in the West, but the phenomenon remains stubbornly persistent.
Outside Europe, the main regions of the world where Jewish communities were found in large numbers were the Middle East and North Africa (including al-Andalus or the Islamic portions of Spain). As minorities, Jews were subjected to occasional outbreaks of abuse and oppression in these areas, notably in times of civil unrest when all minorities were likely to suffer; but, in general, the Jews’ situation in the Islamic world was more satisfactory than it was in Christian Europe. This was in part due to the fact that Islamic law recognized Jews (and Christians) as protected minorities having an acknowledged place in the societies of the Islamic world. It may also have been due to the relatively large size of many Middle Eastern Jewish communities and their long presence in many cities of the region; Jews were simply familiar neighbors for many urban Muslims. The virulent anti-Semitism of medieval and early modern Europe found no real parallel in most medieval and early modern Islamic societies. This situation of relative tolerance has changed for the worse in recent years; however, this is partly due to the acquisition by the peoples of the Middle East of the concepts of ethnic nationalism and racialist foundations which took place in the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the conflict between Zionism (Jewish nationalism) and the indigenous Palestinian population, both Christian and Muslim, has generated not only expressions of political opposition to Israel’s policies among many Arabs and Muslims, but also a considerable amount of anti-Semitism, in particular the charge that a broad range of events are “controlled” by a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy.”
“Antisemitism.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
Avnery, Uri. “Anti-Semitism Vs. Anti-Zionism: A Practical Manual.” Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
Fred M. Donner
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
1. Donner identifies the lack of proselytizing by the Jews and their subsequent population size as being, in part, responsible for some anti-Semitism, especially when they are a minority group within society. Explain why this may be true in the context of a Christian society (such as medieval Europe). In your answer account for as many possible explanations as you can, from religious to social-political.
2. In what ways has ethnic nationalism and its racialist foundation politicized religious faith? Identify several examples from this passage and also identify the Jewish response to this reality.