Origins and Causes of Antisemitism

Origins and Causes of Antisemitism

The term anti-Semitism or antisemitism was first introduced and used in Germany during the 1870s to describe the discrimination and aggression toward Jews living in Europe. It is now considered a form of prejudice and racism that views the Jewish people or individuals of Jewish descent as an inferior group of people. Some radical conservative groups have adapted it as a political ideology aimed at mobilizing political parties and other organizations to advocate for policies or systems against Jews and, in some instances, the religion of Judaism. This article provides a concise discussion of the origins and causes of antisemitism.

Explaining and Understanding the Origins and Causes of Antisemitism

1. Anti-Judaism During the Ancient Times

Antisemitism was an inexistent concept before the advent of the 19th century. Theologian Jan Nicolaas Sevenster suggested that “anti-Judaism” might be a more suitable term to describe the persecution of the Jewish people during the ancient times. He mentioned in his 1975 book that the destruction of a Jewish temple in the Egyptian colony of Elephantine in 410 B.C.E. might be the first recorded incident of Jewish persecution. However, in considering context, he also noted that this incident might be a product of religious-political tension.

Third-century B.C.E. writings from Greek historian Theophrast and Egyptian priest Manetho also provided indicators of early sentiments against the Jewish people. The negative perception about the Jews might have stemmed from conflicting religious views because Judaism competed with the belief system in Ancient Greece. The writings of Manetho included themes that spelled out resentments against the Jews and were repeated in the works of other Greek writers. This is indicative of anti-Jewish sentiments in Ancient Greece.

2. Christian Theology During the Middle Ages

It is also possible to trace the origin of antisemitism to the influence of Christianity in Europe. Christian theology during the Middle Ages promulgated the idea that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Catholic and Lutheran priests were instrumental in promoting theology-based persecution of the Jews and criticisms of Judaism. The First Crusade of Pope Urban II marked the peak of this persecution in which hundreds to thousands of Jews died as a consequence. This continued the subsequent crusades.

Take note that the inseparable association between the churches and states led to the creation of laws aimed at refraining the influence of Judaism in Europe while promoting the influence of Christianity. These included mandates such as the expulsion of Jews from their homes in Europe and even their native lands in Jerusalem, normalization of fabricated crimes such as blood libel or the accusation that Jews murder Christians to use their blood in the performance of religious rituals, forced conversion to Catholicism, and systematic murder.

3. The Jewish Emancipation in Europe

Jews in Europe were not considered citizens and had no civil rights. This changed following the Age of Enlightenment. Several European nations started the process of Jewish emancipation. France and Holland provided their Jewish populations with equal opportunities during the the 1800s. England welcomed the first Jew in its parliament in 1858. Northern Germany granted its Jewish population with full citizenship in 1869 and the further unification of Germany in 1871 extended the principle of equal citizenship across the country.

The legal assimilation of Jews in European societies and the removal of restrictions that were once ascribed to the Jewish population in Europe did not sit well with several political factions and some conservative individuals. These specifically included adherents of ring-wing politics who wanted to maintain exclusivity, had a religious penchant, and were concerned over the implications of immigration. This resulted in the rise of antisemitism as a political ideology designed to oppose the liberal view about Jewish emancipation.

4. Pseudoscientific Views Against the Jews

American historian George L. Mosse highlighted in his 1978 book “Toward The Final Solution: A History of European Racism” the role of unfounded ideas masquerading as science in fueling the biases against the Jewish people. He specifically explained that the pseudoscientific beliefs that pervaded during the latter part of the 19th century were one of the causes of antisemitism in Europe. These viewpoints also provided the foundation for the antisemitic disposition of Adolf Hitler and the antisemitic political ideology of the German Nazis.

French historian and philosopher Joseph Ernest Renan argued that the Semitic races were lesser beings or inferior to the Aryan races. Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke popularized the phrase “the Jews are our misfortune.” Central to the pseudoscientific views against the Jewish people was an argument that the Jewish physique was considered physically unattractive and inferior when compared to the Aryan physique. This critique of their physical appearance was regarded as a confirmation of their moral subservience and weakness.

5. Anti-Semitic Ideology in Nazi Germany

Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany hated the Jewish people. This particular disdain stemmed from the völkisch movement that was characterized by the celebration of the supposed uniqueness and superiority of the German language, history and culture, spirituality, and the perceived origin of the supposed German race called the Aryan race. Furthermore, in considering the context of antisemitism in Germany, the völkisch movement further developed to include a view that the Jews were competing against the Aryan race for world domination.

The creation of the Nazi Party in 1920 marked the emergence of the most popular and successful völkisch movement organization in history. Adolf Hitler explained in his infamous 1925 “Mein Kamp” autobiographical manifesto that racial struggle centers on competition for living spaces. He argued that they were a weaker race and that their elimination would be more humane than their protection. He also believed that these people were responsible for what was wrong in German life and that their existence had sullied the German culture.

6. Discrimination and Persecution by the Muslims

Islam was initially tolerant toward the Jews during its initial expansion outside the Arabian Peninsula and into the Near East and Europe. Judaism was free to practice under the Islamic rule of the Iberian Peninsula and Spain during the 9th century. This changed with the introduction of new policies and religious teachings aimed at strengthening the Muslim rule. Jews in the Iberian Peninsula were forced to convert or face death. There were decrees ordering the destruction of synagogues in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen in the 11th century.

Sentiments toward Jews in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, in the 21st century have remained unfavorable. Several studies reported few positive opinions toward Jews in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. However, due to the long-standing Israel-Palestine conflict, radical Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Hamas and Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood that originated in Egypt have made violent calls against the Jewish people inhabiting Israel and several parts of Palestine.

7. Prevailing Modern Jewish Stereotypes

The causes of antisemitism or the prevalence of modern antisemitism can also be traced back to the prevalence of stereotypes against the Jewish people. Some have perceived the Jews as greedy due to their previous involvement in money lending and banking activities in Medieval Europe and their modern participation in various business activities. There are also those who have viewed them as less sociable due to the strict cultural traditions of keeping Jewish communities exclusive from outsiders and the conservative teachings of Judaism.

It is also worth noting that several antisemitic political factions in history, which include the Nazi Party of Germany, developed and disseminated propaganda that pinned down Jewish people as aligned to international communism, conspiracies, and other self-serving motives. These were based on the fact that there were several groups of Jews who aligned themselves with communist parties and radical left politics that criticized nationalism and refused to assimilate into European societies in exchange for toning down cultures and traditions.

Important Note on the Origins and Causes of Antisemitism

Understanding the basis of historical and prevailing discrimination and resentment toward the Jews requires understanding the different origins and causes of antisemitism. However, because antisemitism is a complex phenomenon, it is important to underscore the fact that some of these origins or causes are not related to one another and some antisemitic stances only adhere to a limited scope. This means that different groups across different points in history have different reasons for rationalizing their antisemitic stance.


  • Hitler, A. 192. Mein Kampf. Germany: Eher Verlag. ISBN: 978-1495333347
  • Levy, R. S. ed. 2005. Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN: 1-85109-439-3
  • Mosse, G. L. 1978. Toward The Final Solution: A History of European Racism. New York: Howard Fertig. ISBN: 978-0865274280
  • Sevenster, N. 1975. The Roots of Pagan Anti-Semitism in the Ancient World. Belgium: E. J. Brill. ISBN: 90-04-04193-1