#1 It's a form of racism
The word 'antisemitism' might never have entered the world’s vocabulary. It might have remained a piece of pseudo-scientific jargon, exclusive to the thought of eugenicists and other writers on race in the second half of the 19th century, whose central theories have long since been refuted and abandoned. During the same period, the situation of European Jews seemed to be improving. The Age of Enlightenment had generated universalistic ideas about human beings, which led to the expectation that institutions treat people equally, regardless of religion or social status. In the spirit of social integration and the Enlightenment values of rationalism, humanism and universalism, successive European states emancipated their Jews. Britain opened membership of Parliament to Jews in 1858. In the 1860s and 1870s, swaths of Europe granted various forms of emancipation to their Jewish minorities. By 1919, Spain was the only European country in which Jews did not formally have full civil equality. Thus it has been pointed out1 that at the time, it was reasonable to expect these modernising processes to continue, since the parochial, theological basis of antisemitism had fallen out of favour, especially in northern Europe.
|An antisemitic drawing on a 13th-century English tax roll|
But the trend did not continue, and a second generation of eugenicists made this word famous. Yet even Nazi racism did not treat Jews the same way as any other inferior race. It was only the Jews, not Gypsies, not Slavs, who were blamed for the loss of the First World War, for the economic crises, for Britain's opposition to German expansionism. The intensity of the Nazi obsession with Jews, and their invoking traditional antisemitic canards, cannot be explained by their racism.
And for most of the history of antisemitism, it was not a question of race at all. Until the 19th century, the low status of the Jews was chiefly justified by their social separation and adherence to a degraded religion. Today this is still widely described, with the originally racial term, as antisemitic. And indeed, a Christian antisemite in the Middle Ages commits the same basic immorality as a modern, racist antisemite; medieval accusations of ritual slaughter carried out by Jews are no different from blood libel in the 21st century. Pagan blood libel from the Hellenistic period, too, is described as antisemitic, although its equivalence to Christian and modern era antisemitism is more controversial – which brings us to the second popular myth.
#2 It's Christianity’s fault
The historian Jacob Katz argued that modern antisemitism (beginning in the 19th century) is a continuation of the historical rejection of Judaism by Christianity, dating from Late Antiquity.2 Modern antisemites used the same arguments, stereotypes and generalising attacks on the Jewish character that Christians once used. Their socioeconomic separation was rooted in the Christian era. And even in the modern era, people considered Christianity the 'superior' religion in 'historical perspective'. Jews gained more prominent positions in society after emancipation, and were seen by antisemites as former 'pariahs', now encroaching on the Gentile population.3 Indeed, what many modern antisemites wanted was simply to reinstate the position of Jews in pre-emancipatory times.4
Accordingly, Katz argues that modern antisemitism does not resemble its ancient equivalents closely enough for it to be the same thing. Christianity added new, specifically Christian accusations to ancient Jew-hating ideas. The old charges were combined with deicide and religious guilt. Katz thinks this means that antisemitism is a legacy of the theological conflict with Christians, rather than of earlier times.5 There was something exceptional in the linking of antisemitism with the tenets of a new religion – and as this religion spread throughout the world, so did hostility towards Jews.
As an argument for why antisemitism became so widespread, Katz's account is plausible – although it could equally be the case that Christianity was a successful religion precisely because it seemed to contain ideas that already appealed to people, such as antisemitism. In any case, none of this shows that Christianity is the cause of antisemitism. In particular, it doesn't account for antisemitism being included in the Gospels (e.g. John 8:44, Matthew 27:24-5). If we want to explain why an idea is present in one generation, it’s not enough just to say that it was passed on from the previous generation. Not all ideas are retained over time. Some are kept and some are discarded. To explain the cause of antisemitism, one needs to explain the enduring appeal of the antisemitic mindset.
#3 It's multi-causal
Many people have tried to explain its appeal in terms of discrete historical episodes, so that there is no one explanation for the existence of antisemitism, and instead the Jewish people have just been profoundly unlucky. Pogroms in Russia were spurred on by economic hardship; the propagation of the Christian faith brought with it a tradition of enmity toward Jews; Jews in medieval Europe were forced into the moneylending and tax collecting professions, prompting resentment from borrowers and scorn from Catholics. Explanations like these are often cited for particular cases of persecution or discrimination. It is of course true that each of these phenomena came about in the way it did by virtue of a particular set of circumstances. But as a general explanation, it raises the question: Why the Jews?
More importantly, these explanations in terms of direct, local causes fail to explain the long-term persistence of distinctive patterns of persecution and antisemitic canards used to justify them. One of these is blood libel: false accusations of atrocities committed by Jews, almost always involving blood. The most prominent examples come from the Middle Ages, when Jews were widely accused of poisoning wells, spreading the plagues, desecrating the Host, killing defenceless Christians in order to use their blood to cure ailments or for Jewish rituals, or out of spite.6 But the first known instances of blood libel predated this by over a thousand years. Apion, a writer from the time of the Roman Empire, claimed that Jews had an annual tradition of kidnapping a Greek foreigner, fattening him up, and offering him as a sacrifice. The Greek historian Damocritus is also thought to have claimed that Jews practiced ritual slaughter of foreigners.7 Blood accusation was successfully revived by the Nazis, and today it still persists in the Arab world and closer to home.
Another example is the dual loyalty accusation. It was not only made during the Dreyfus Affair in France, and not only in the Stalin-era Soviet Union. In the second century C.E., the poet Juvenal claimed that the Jews were "accustomed to despise Roman laws.8 Similarly, Apion accused the Jews of hating Greeks. Further back, in the Bible itself, Haman advised king Ahasuerus:
There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws: therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them. (Esther 3:8)
Note that despite its distance in time, this accusation follows with uncanny accuracy the same pattern as those made during the Dreyfus Affair and through to the Nazi movement: Claim that Jews are disloyal, and thereby legitimise their degradation, abuse or murder.
More recently, anti-Zionists (many of whom are themselves Jews) have used it against Jews in the Zionist movement. It also cropped up during the Iraq War, when its supporters in the US government were said to be acting only for Israel's interests – a claim which was of course nonsense. Another prominent example is the book The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in which it is claimed that there is a coalition of people and organisations, most of whom Jewish and all of whom Zionists, who are actively working to influence U.S. foreign policy so that it serves the interests of Israel, rather than those of the United States.
Blood libel and the dual loyalty accusation are quintessentially antisemitic, in the following respect. Consumption of blood is strictly forbidden under kashrut (kosher laws). This makes the accusation that (for instance) Jews killed Christians in order to use their blood to make matzah for Passover wildly unrealistic. The idea is utterly repugnant to any Jew. Used as an accusation to justify their persecution, it is designed to hurt. Similarly, the dual loyalty canard arose, along with the growth of political antisemitism, at a time when Jews were making every effort to assimilate. So this accusation was not just wildly untrue, it negated the very essence of contemporary Jewish culture and spurned the Jews’ effort to participate in mainstream society (which itself was partly an attempt to cure antisemitism).
#4 It's 'hatred of the other'
Antisemitism has been explained as just one example of tension between In and Out groups. Since diasporic Jews have always lived as minorities, they have always been the victims of this pattern of social psychology, being a convenient scapegoat for the society’s problems. Criticising this view, Samuel Ettinger pointed out that this sort of explanation wrongly emphasises the “existence of a real difference between Jews and their surroundings.”9 If Jews were hated because they were different, it follows that antisemitism should have decreased when most Jews in 19th-century western Europe abandoned strict religious observance and began not only to assimilate and identify nationally with the countries in which they found themselves, but to devote their lives to excelling in the local culture – Heinrich Heine and Felix Mendelssohn are obvious examples. This week, a story came out about Hessy Taft, a German Jew who was chosen, possibly by Goebbels himself, as the ideal Aryan baby for the cover of a Nazi magazine. The spectre of the Jewish stereotype existed entirely in their minds. But that did not matter. And so antisemitism did not decrease in the 20th century – it massively increased. Hitler feared Jews all the more because of their ability to ‘camouflage’ themselves in the host society; it simply wasn’t important, from a social perspective, whether they fitted in or not.
It is also not accurate to describe antisemitism as a form of ‘hatred’. Hatred is an emotional reaction. But one can believe conspiracy theories or other accusations which justify hurting Jews without personally hating them. Richard Wagner had no problem with befriending or working with Jews, yet he still believed that that Jews were by nature incapable of producing good art, and he was fixated with this theory to the point of writing a book about it. It was clearly an antisemitic theory, since it justified excluding Jews from the art profession, and denigrated the already prominent contribution of Jews to German art and culture.
If none of these four things is the unifying cause of antisemitism, what is? To begin with, antisemitism is an ancient psychological disorder, a kind of wrong thinking about morality, which compels people to legitimise the hurting of Jews for being Jews. I do not know the underlying explanation.
1. E.g. Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction: Antisemitism, 1700-1933: p7.
2. Ibid., 319.
3. Ibid., 320.
4. Ibid., 321.
5. Ibid., 323.
6. Efron et al (2009), The Jews: A History, p152.
7. Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, p530.
8. Jacob R Marcus (1946), "Antisemitism in the Hellenistic-Roman World," in Koppel S. Pinson, Essays on Antisemitism, p.76.
9. Samuel Ettinger (1976), “The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism,” in Yisrael Gutman and Livia Rothkirchen, eds., The Catastrophe of European Jewry, p18.