Why has anti-Semitism persisted throughout history?

Why has anti-Semitism persisted throughout history? May 28, 2018


How did anti-Semitism originate and why has this prejudice been so persistent throughout history?


It’s often said that history’s longest-running prejudice is anti-Semitism, hostility toward Jews as individuals or as a group. (The term was coined in 1879 by an anti-Semitic German journalist!)  This is no bygone social affliction but an ever-present problem made pertinent by numerous recent events.

Though the U.S. champions religious freedom, not so long ago its prestige universities limited Jewish enrollment while realtors and elite country cluhs drew lines against Jews. More recently, in a 2014 Trinity College survey, 54 percent of U.S. Jewish college students nationwide said they’d personally “experienced” or “witnessed” anti-Semitism. Since only 23 percent identified as religious, this was largely socio-ethnic prejudice. In a similar 2011 survey in Britain, 51 percent of collegians said they observed anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Defamation League reported 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. during 2017, a 57 percent increase over 2016. There’ve been verbal attacks from figures in the Women’s March and the Nation of Islam, and President Trump’s odd response to an infamous neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va. Bizarrely, a Washington, D.C., Council member even blamed a legendary Jewish clan, the Rothschilds, for “controlling the climate.”

Overseas, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated in April that modern Israel was a colonial plot that “has nothing to do with Jews,” as though they lacked any presence in the Holy Land the past 4,000 years. He blamed the Holocaust not on Nazi anti-Semitism but the Jews’ own “social behavior, [charging of] interest, and financial matters.”

At a March “global forum for combating antisemitism” in Jerusalem, speakers cited growing concern over developments among right-wing parties and Muslim immigrants in Europe, within Britain’s Labour Party, and Iran, ISIS, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Many Jews consider hostility toward Israel, the only Jewish state founded 70 years ago, to be anti-Semitic, whether from United Nations entities, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign, or liberal Protestants. Others insist political enmity should be distinguished from racism. Yet one Jerusalem speaker cited linkage in a poll of 10,000 Europeans where those critical of Israel were 13 times more likely than others to be anti-Semitic.

So, what explains these and many other phenomena? A useful attempt at an answer came in a May 11 Wall Street Journal column by a Canadian, McGill University Professor Reuven Brenner, who has analyzed anti-Semitism for decades.

He thinks that “for accidental reasons, Jews have constantly found themselves opposing dominant ideologies of the times.” The pattern originated in ancient culture when most peoples were illiterate while the Israelites, with their sacred Book, stubbornly embraced the one God it depicts and spurned (despite frequent temptation) worship of localized deities and idols.

Beginning in the late centuries B.C.E. (“Before the Common Era”), the Jews likewise refused to bend to pagan cultural pressure from Greek civilization, followed by the Roman Empire. Then came what Alan Davies of the University of Toronto termed the new “religious anti-Judaism” with the rise of Christianity, worsened with the gain of political power centuries later.

The long and lamentable saga of Christian anti-Semitism requires a book, not a sketch like this. However, note that most of the New Testament was written by Jews, who were Jesus Christ’s original followers. Jesus was an observant Jew who disputed with the Pharisees and scribes of his day. The Jewish populace was divided over Jesus. Note especially the crowds who bewailed his crucifixion in Luke 23:27 and 48, not to mention Jesus’ own teaching of tolerance in verse 34. Jewish officials, yes, were complicit in his execution, enacted by callous Roman occupiers. The 2nd Century church rejected as heresy an effort to spurn the Jewish Scriptures (i.e. Old Testament).

Medieval persecution and pogroms were succeeded, paradoxically, by both Martin Luther’s repellent tract against Jews and toleration in Protestant Holland. The secularizing “Enlightenment” period countered social prejudice, yet a figure like Voltaire was anti-Jewish because he was anti-religion. Communist founder Karl Marx was an ethnic Jew who epitomized anti-Semitism.

Nazi Germany’s unspeakable genocide awakened humanity’s collective conscience and favored the 1948 establishment of Israel as a refuge. A Christian landmark was the 1965 declaration by the world’s Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council, which deplored all anti-Semitism and stated that Jesus’ death “cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.”

The dangerous  demonization of Jews by Muslims, according to Davies, largely became prominent only in modern times, combining political, ethnic, and religious hostility.

Brenner observes that the wide geographic dispersal of Jews across centuries, despite which they maintained their identity, had advantages and disadvantages. It made them vulnerable, inward-looking, isolated, and self-reliant. Job discrimination, combined with Christians’ shunning of charging interest (Mr. Abbas take note) made Jews into the money-lenders of medieval Europe. Jews lacked any political or military power and thus compensated with commercial, intellectual, and scientific success.

In his view, “the ideology of blaming others for one’s lack of achievement” also underlies resentment toward Israel, which has survived war and terrorism, managed to absorb millions of immigrants, and thrives economically. As throughout history, “the Jews stand against faddish currents, and are resented for it.”

The Religion Guy apologizes for this mere sketch of a vast situation and invites comments and personal reflection on a prejudice across thousands of years.



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