Antisemitism might strictly be used to refer to hatred of or hostility towards any member of the racial group "Semites," but in practice it is only used to refer to hatred of or hostility towards Jews and Judaism. The term was first seen in 1879 in Germany as part of a description of anti-Jewish political campaigns in central Europe. Many attribute the origin of the word to Wilhlem Marr, but it is not clear that he used the word in print before 1880.
News: Jews, Judaism, and Antisemitism
Wondering about what has been going on in the world when it comes to Jews, Judaism, and Antisemitism? There is regular news about the conflict between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, about Antisemitism in the world (including in the context of Mel Gibson's film The Passion), and the state of Jews in American and European soceities.
Although antisemitism has received a lot of attention in recent decades due to the results it helped produce in the Holocaust, it is not actually a new phenomenon. Evidence of antisemitism can be found in many places in the ancient world.
Among the ancient Greeks, antisemitism developed because the Jews were simply seen as "different" and "alien." Greeks often thought little of non-Greeks, but Jewish traditions were regarded as particularly difficult to understand. Liberal Greek polytheism, with its celebration of life was treated as vastly superior to the strict Jewish monotheism, with its dietary laws and sexual restrictions. Jews were, in effect, the Puritans of the ancient world.
Roman Emperor Claudius is recorded has having described the Jews as a people who spread "a great plague throughout the world." Apion, one of the most famous of the ancient anti-Semites, believed that the Jews drank the blood of gentile children - a charge which would be repeated by Christians during the Middle Ages. One might wonder if there is something especially taboo about the drinking of blood, such that it is a handy accusation to make against any hated group.
Regardless of the nature of the charges or how widespread suspicion and distrust of the Jews was, at no point did Greek or Roman rulers attempt to eradicate the Jews or Judaism.
Christian antisemitism has been quite strong through the last two thousand years, finding a justification in the gospel descriptions of how the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Matthew 27:25, for example, depicts the Jews as saying "His blood be upon us and on our children." John 8:14 depicts Jesus as saying to Jews "You are of your father, the devil."
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, the situation for Jews deterioriated. In this new situation, Christians viewed their favored political status as evidence of their favor with God. At the same time, the Jewish diaspora and lack of political status was evidence of their lack of favor with God. Thus, it was concluded that the new covenant with Christians was correct while the old covenant with Jews was voided - and as a result, there was no particular reason to show the Jews any respect.
Under Constantine, Christians were forbidden by law from converting to Judaism. On the other hand, Jews were encouraged to convert to Christianity - indeed, at times they were forced to do so. The Theodosian and Justinian Codes which were instituted in the fifth and sixth centuries prevented Jews from holding any governmental office and marriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden. The building of new synagogues was prevented and numerous acts of violence by anti-Jewish mobs were recorded.
Over time, Christians found a number of things to accuse Jews of and thereby justify further persecution of them. Aside from the obvious accusation of Christ-killer, Jews faced charges of desecrating the Christian host, of poisoning wells, and of killing Christian children for the purpose of Jewish religious rituals. Such accusations allowed authorities to marginalize Jews in terms of political power, social connection and economic relationships.
Antisemitism found both official and unofficial expression. Unofficial expression consisted of the daily sorts of discrimination which has afflicted members of despised minorities all over the world. At times, it even reached the point where mobs would begin killing local Jews - actions which became so bad in Russia that they received a special name for it, pogroms.
Official expression of antisemitism came from both religious and political authorities. Secular rulers denied Jews most of the basic benefits of citizenship, from serving in the government or the military, from becoming members of the various guilds, etc. Just about the only public profession open to Jews was banking - something which, sadly, helped to develop the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing and materialistic. At times, antisemitism reached such heights that Jews were simply expelled from the country completely: England in 1290, France in 1394, Germany in the 1350s, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1496, Provence in 1512, and even from the Papal States in 1569.
Religious authorities were just as eager to establish their power over the Jews. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews should wear special clothing, helping to increase their social, political and economic isolation because wherever they went, they would first and foremost be identified as Jews rather than simply other human beings. It also decreed that Jews were not allowed to leave their homes during Easter, could not employ Christian servants, and could not hold any public office.
Antisemitism was not simply a function of the power and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Even under Protestant governments during the Reformation, Jews suffered persection. Martin Luther himself wrote a piece entitled Against the Jews and their Lies, in which he advocated driving Jews out of Germany and burning their synagogues:
What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? ...Let me give you my honest advice. First, their synagogues or churches should be set on fire. ...Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. ...Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books. ...Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more. ...Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden. ...Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury. ...Seventhly, let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses. [If there is any danger of Jews doing harm to their gentile overlords] ...let us drive them out of the country for all time ...away with them.
An important change in Christian antisemitism occurred after Spain expelled all Jews in 1492. At the time, Jews who converted to Christianity were allowed to remain and many took advantage of the opportunity. Laws which once restricted their movement and ability to engage in commerce were lifted and they eagarly pursued their new opportunities, with many entering some of the highest reaches of Spanish society.
Of course, this produced no small measure of resentment and envy among other Spanish Christians and in order to restore the status quo, the government passed laws restricting the actions of these converts - laws which defined people based upon whether or not they had "pure blood." Thus, for the first time, Jews were defined not by their religion but rather as a biological group whose "blood" rendered them impure and inelligible for the same rights and privileges as other members of society. These concepts would later become key ingredients in the racial and biological antisemitism of modern Europe, culminating in the Holocaust at the hands of Nazis in Germany.
Traditional antisemitism began to disappear only with the advent of the Enlightenment. Secular ideas about the nature of political authority and social relationships allowed for people of any religion to play an equal role. On September 28, 1791, the French National Assembly which came out of the French Revolution declared that all Jews would have full and equal citizenship. Wherever Napoleon's armies went, local authorities were either urged or forced to follow the French example.
Because of this, Jews were often among those who worked hardest for the promotion of Enlightenment and the secularization of society. Predictably, then, Jews also became the favorite target of those who were opposed to the growing secularization and liberalizing of society. However, the Enlightenment had already had a profound impact upon them as well, and the traditional charges against the Jews did not work as well as they once did. So, in addition to those new, "scientific" complaints were added - they included the allegation that Jews were working to take over the world and that the Jews, as a race, are biologically inferior to Europeans.
Ironically, it was actually true that many Jews were involved in revolutionary movements which existed for the purpose of completely overthrowing old political, social and religious structures in favor of radical new forms. It was not true, however, that any of these movements were specifically Jewish or that Jews organized as Jews to form or join these groups. Indeed, Jews didn't even all agree as to how the effort to revolutionize society should proceed. Some approached the issue from the perspective of universalism - they sough the emancipation of all humans, regadless of religion or nationality.
Others, however, approached the issue from the perspective of nationalism - they bought into the European ideas that distinct "races" believed that the Jews existed as one such race. According to this racial thinking, people belong to an organic community united by common blood and common land - this community is called a race and examples of such races included the French, German, and English races. Some Jews, seeing themselves as a race, developed the political and social movement known as Zionism, hoping to create the national Jewish homeland which was thought necessary for any "real" race.
This scientific form of antisemitism found fertile ground in many European nations, but it achieved its most violent expression in Nazi Germany, where it became a fundamental part of the political and social goals of eradicating Jews from the entire continent. Early efforts seem to have been aimed at simply deporting them, but it did not take long for authorities to simply begin killing as many Jews as they could. Antisemitic attitudes among the people were reinforced by the government portrayal of them as "parasites" on society, infecting Germany with evil ideas for the purpose of enslaving everyone.
These long traditions of antisemitism were driving force behind the political ideology of Zionism and the eventual establishment of the state of Israel. Defense of Israel is equated with defense of the very existence of Judaism and the safety of Jews because many regard Israel as the one country on Earth were Jews can be assured that the government will not engage in antisemitic persecution and extermination.
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