Antisemitism: how the origins of history’s oldest hatred still hold sway today
Gervase Phillips, Manchester Metropolitan University
Antisemitism is on the march. From the far-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, with their “Blood and Soil” chants and their “Jews will not replace us” placards to attacks on synagogues in Sweden, arson attacks on kosher restaurants in France and a spike in hate crimes against Jews in the UK. Antisemitism seems to have been given a new lease of life.
The seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East have made the problem worse as they spawn divisive domestic politics in the West. But can the advance of antisemitism be attributed to the rise of right-wing populism or the influence of Islamic fundamentalism? One thing is clear. Antisemitism is here and it’s getting worse.
Antisemitism rears its ugly head in every aspect of public life, whether internal debates within political parties or accusations of conspiratorial networks or plots in politics and business. Or even in the accusations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexually predatory behaviour was somehow linked to his Jewish origins.
But by focusing narrowly on the contemporary context of modern antisemitism, we miss a central, if deeply depressing, reality. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic magazine, puts it correctly when he says that what we are seeing is an ancient and deeply embedded hostility towards Jews that is reemerging as the barbarous events of World War II recede from our collective memory.
Goldberg says that for 70 years, in the shadow of the death camps, antisemitism was culturally, politically and intellectually unacceptable. But now “we are witnessing … the denouement of an unusual epoch in European life, the age of the post-Holocaust Jewish dispensation”. Without an understanding of antisemitism’s ancient roots, the dark significance of this current trend may not be fully understood and hatred may sway popular opinion unchallenged.
Antisemitism has been called history’s oldest hatred and it has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable. It is carved from – and sustained by – powerful precedents and inherited stereotypes. But it also taking on variant forms to reflect the contingent fears and anxieties of an ever-changing world. Understood this way, it is the modern manifestation of an ancient prejudice – one which some scholars believe stretches back to antiquity and medieval times.
Ancient tradition of hatred
The word “antisemitism” was popularised by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr. His polemic, Der Sieg des Judentums über das Germentum (The Victory of Jewry over Germandom), was published in 1879. Outwardly, Marr was a thoroughly secular man of the modern world. He explicitly rejected the groundless but ancient Christian allegations long made against the Jews, such as deicide or that Jews engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children. Instead, he drew on the fashionable theories of the French academic Ernest Renan (who viewed history as a world-shaping contest between Jewish Semites and Aryan Indo-Europeans). Marr suggested that the Jewish threat to Germany was racial. He said that it was born of their immutable and destructive nature, their “tribal peculiarities” and “alien essence”.
Antisemites like Marr strove for intellectual respectability by denying any connection between their own modern, secular ideology and the irrational, superstitious bigotry of the past. It is a tactic which is employed by some contemporary antisemites who align themselves with “anti-Zionism”, an ideology whose precise definition consequently excites considerable controversy. But this continuing hostility towards Jews from pre-modern to modern times has been manifest to many.
The American historian Joshua Trachtenberg, writing during World War II, noted:
Modern so-called ‘scientific’ antisemitism is not an invention of Hitler’s … it has flourished primarily in central and eastern Europe, where medieval ideas and conditions have persisted until this day, and where the medieval conception of the Jew which underlies the prevailing emotional antipathy toward him was, and still is, deeply rooted.
In fact, up until the Holocaust, antisemitism flourished just as much in western Europe as in central or eastern Europe. Consider, for example, how French society was bitterly divided between 1894-1906, after the Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany. It saw conservatives squaring up against liberals and socialists, Catholics against Jews.
Yet Trachtenberg was undoubtedly correct in suggesting that many of those who shaped modern antisemitism were profoundly influenced by the older “medieval” tradition of religious bigotry. The Russian editor of the infamous Protocols of Zion – a crude and ugly, but tragically influential, forgery alleging a Jewish world conspiracy – was the political reactionary, ultra-Orthodox, and self-styled mystic Sergei Nilus.
Wrought by fear and hatred of the challenges to traditional religion, social hierarchies and culture posed by modernity, Nilus was convinced that the coming of the Antichrist was imminent and that those who failed to believe in the existence of “the elders of Zion” were simply the dupes of “Satan’s greatest ruse”.
So modern antisemitism cannot be easily separated from its pre-modern antecedents. As the Catholic theologian Rosemary Ruether observed:
The mythical Jew, who is the eternal conspiratorial enemy of Christian faith, spirituality and redemption, was … shaped to serve as the scapegoat for [the ills of] secular industrial society.
Antisemitism in antiquity?
Some scholars would look to the pre-Christian world and see in the attitudes of ancient Greeks and Romans the origins of an enduring hostility. Religious Studies scholar Peter Schäfer believes the exclusive nature of the monotheistic Jewish faith, the apparent haughty sense of being a chosen people, a refusal to intermarry, a Sabbath observance and the practise of circumcision were all things that marked Jews out in antiquity for a particular odium.
Finding examples of hostility towards Jews in classical sources is not difficult. The politician and lawyer Cicero, 106-43BC, once reminded a jury of “the odium of Jewish gold” and how they “[stick together]” and are “influential in informal assemblies”. The Roman historian Tacitus, c.56-120AD, was contemptuous of “base and abominable” Jewish customs and was deeply disturbed by those of his compatriots who had renounced their ancestral gods and converted to Judaism. The Roman poet and satirist Juvenal, c.55-130AD, shared his disgust at the behaviour of converts to Judaism besides denouncing Jews generally as drunken and rowdy.
These few examples may point towards the existence of antisemitism in antiquity. But there is little reason to believe that Jews were the objects of a specific prejudice beyond the generalised contempt that both Greeks and Romans exhibited towards “barbarians” – especially conquered and colonised peoples. Juvenal was every bit as rude about Greeks and other foreigners in Rome as he was about Jews. He complained bitterly: “I cannot stand … a Greek city of Rome. And yet what part of the dregs comes from Greece?” Once the full extent of Juvenal’s prejudice has been recognised, his snide remarks about Jews might be understood as being more indicative of an altogether more sweeping xenophobia.
The ‘Christ killers’
It is in the theology of early Christians that we find the clearest foundations of antisemitism. The Adversus Judaeos (arguments against the Jews) tradition was established early in the religion’s history. Sometime around 140AD the Christian apologist Justin Martyr was teaching in Rome. In his most celebrated work, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin strove to answer Trypho when he pointed to the contradictory position of Christians who claimed to accept Jewish scripture but refused to follow Torah (the Jewish law).
Justin responded that the demands of Jewish law were meant only for Jews as a punishment from God. Although still accepting the possibility of Jewish salvation, he argued that the old covenant was finished, telling Trypho: “You ought to understand that [the gifts of God’s favour] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us.” Yet Justin’s concern was not really with Jews. It was with his fellow Christians. At a time when the distinction between Judaism and Christianity was still blurred and rival sects competed for adherents, he was striving to prevent gentile converts to Christianity from observing the Torah, lest they go over wholly to Judaism.
Vilifying Jews was a central part of Justin’s rhetorical strategy. He alleged that they were guilty of persecuting Christians and had done so ever since they “had killed the Christ”. It was an ugly charge, soon levelled again in the works of other Church Fathers, such as Tertullian (c.160-225AD) who referred to the “synagogues of the Jews” as “fountains of persecution”.
The objective of using such invective was to settle internal debates within Christian congregations. The “Jews” in these writings were symbolic. The allegations did not reflect the actual behaviour or beliefs of Jews. When Tertullian attempted to refute the dualist teachings of the Christian heretic Marcion (c.144AD), he needed to demonstrate that the vengeful God of the Old Testament was indeed the same merciful and compassionate God of the Christian New Testament. He achieved this by presenting the Jews as especially wicked and especially deserving of righteous anger; it was thus, Tertullian argued, that Jewish behaviours and Jewish sins explained the contrast between the Old and the New Testament.
To demonstrate this peculiar malevolence, Tertullian portrayed Jews as denying the prophets, rejecting Jesus, persecuting Christians and as rebels against God. These stereotypes shaped Christian attitudes towards Jews from late antiquity into the medieval period, leaving Jewish communities vulnerable to periodic outbreaks of persecution. These ranged from massacres, such as York in 1190, to “ethnic cleansing”, as seen in the expulsions from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492.
Although it was real people who often suffered as a result of this ugly prejudice, antisemitism as a concept largely owes its longevity to its symbolic and rhetorical power. American historian David Nirenberg concludes that “anti-Judaism was a tool that could usefully be deployed to almost any problem, a weapon that could be deployed on almost any front”. And this weapon has been wielded to devastating effect for centuries. When Martin Luther thundered against the Papacy in 1543 he denounced the Roman Church as “the Devil’s Synagogue” and Catholic orthodoxy as “Jewish” in its greed and materialism. In 1790, the Anglo-Irish conservative Edmund Burke published his manifesto, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and condemned the revolutionaries as “Jew brokers” and “Old Jewry.”
From Marxism to Hollywood
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner not only annexing the power of money but also through him and also apart from him money has become a world power and the practical spirit of the Jew has become the practical spirit of the Christian people. The Jews have emancipated themselves in so far as the Christians have become Jews … Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may stand … The god of the Jews has been secularised and has become the god of the world.
And there remain those, from across the political spectrum, who are still ready to deploy what Nirenberg referred to as “the most powerful language of opprobrium available” in Western political discourse, commonly using the language of conspiracy, webs and networks. In 2002, the left-leaning New Statesman included articles by Dennis Sewell and John Pilger, debating the existence of a “pro-Israeli lobby” in Britain. Their articles, however, proved less controversial than the the cover illustration chosen to introduce this theme, which drew on familiar tropes of secret Jewish machinations and dominance over national interests: a gold Star of David resting on the Union Jack, with the title: “A Kosher Conspiracy?” The following year, veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell accused the then prime minister, Tony Blair, of “being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers”. It is still language that is being used now.
On the far right, white supremacists have been quick to project their own time-honoured fantasies of Jewish malfeasance and power onto contemporary events, however seemingly irrelevant. This was quickly apparent in August 2017, as the future of memorials glorifying those who had rebelled against the union and defended slavery during America’s Civil War became the focus of intense debate in the United States. At Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrators protesting against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, began chanting “Jews will not replace us”. When journalist Elspeth Reeve asked one why, he replied that the city was “run by Jewish communists”.
When accusations of serious sexual misconduct by Weinstein were published by The New York Times in October 2017, he was quickly cast by the far right as a representative of the “eternal conspiratorial enemy” of American society as a whole. David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, would write on his website that the “Harvey Weinstein story … is a case study in the corrosive nature of Jewish domination of our media and cultural industries”.
‘The hatreds of our time …’
Responding to such language, The Atlantic’s Emma Green astutely commented on how “the durability of anti-Semitic tropes and the ease with which they slide into all displays of bigotry, is a chilling reminder that the hatreds of our time rhyme with history and are easily channelled through timeless anti-Semitic canards”.
There is real danger here as the spike in antisemitic hate crimes shows. This peculiar way of thinking about the world has always retained the potential to turn hatred of symbolic Jews into the very real persecution of actual Jews. Given the marked escalation of antisemitic incidents recorded in 2017, we are now faced with the unsettling prospect that this bigotry is becoming “normalised”.
For example, the European Jewish Congress expressed “grave concerns” over an increase in antisemitic acts in Poland under the right-wing Law and Justice government which won the 2015 parliamentary election with an outright majority. The group said the government was “closing … communications with the official representatives of the Jewish community” and there was a “proliferation of ‘fascist slogans’ and unsettling remarks on social media and television, as well as the display of flags of the nationalist … group at state ceremonies”.
In response to these fears, a survey investigating antisemitism within the European Union will be undertaken in 2018, led by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The agency’s director, Michael O'Flaherty, commented, correctly, that: “Antisemitism remains a grave worry across Europe despite repeated efforts to stamp out these age-old prejudices.”
Given the phenomenon’s deep historical roots and its epoch defying capacity for reinvention, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the prospect of another effort to “stamp it out”. But an historical awareness of the nature of antisemitism may prove a powerful ally for those who would challenge prejudice. The ancient tropes and slights may cloak themselves in modern garb but even softly-spoken allegations of conspiratorial “lobbies” and “cabals” should be recognised for what they are: the mobilisation of an ancient language and ideology of hate for which there should be no place in our time.Comment on this article
Gervase Phillips does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Manchester Metropolitan provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.