Origins and causes of anti-Semitism

Origins and Causes of Anti-Semitism

The term anti-Semitism was first introduced in Germany during the 1870s to describe the discrimination and hatred toward Jews living in Europe. It is currently a form of prejudice and racism that regards the Jews or individuals from Jewish descent as an inferior “race” or more appropriately, ethnicity. Furthermore, it is important to consider anti-Semitism as a political ideology embraced by some radical conservatives to mobilize political parties or organizations aimed at advocating against the Jewish people and in some instance, the religion of Judaism. Nonetheless, this article lists and discusses the factors or the origins and causes of anti-Semitism.

The origins and causes of anti-Semitism

1. Anti-Judaism During the Ancient Times

The concept of anti-Semitism was inexistent during the ancient times. Dutch 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 time. In his 1975 book, he mentioned that the destruction of a Jewish temple in the Egyptian colony of Elephantine in 410 B.C.E. might possibly be the first recorded incident of Jewish persecution. However, this incident might also be a product of religious-political tension. Third-century B.C.E. writings from Greek historian Theophrast and Egyptian priest Manetho might also serve as indicators of early sentiments against the Jews due to religious conflicts, especially considering that Judaism competed with pagan beliefs. The writings of Manetho included themes center on harsh opinions against the Jews, which were repeated in the works of other Greek writers, thus bringing such anti-Jewish sentiments to Ancient Greece.

2. Christian Theology During the Middle Ages

Possibly, the influence of Christianity in Europe was the predecessor of modern anti-Semitism. 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 primarily instrumental in promoting theology-based persecution of the Jews and criticisms of Judaism. The First Crusade marked the peak of this persecution in which hundreds to thousands of Jews died. This continued during the Second Crusade and the subsequent ones. Take note that the inseparable association between the churches and states led to the creation of laws aimed at retraining the influence of Judaism in Europe while promoting the influence of Christianity, especially through the expulsion of Jews, allegations of fabricated crimes such as blood libel, their forced conversion, and systematic murder.

3. The Jewish Emancipation in Europe

Jews in Europe did not enjoy full citizenship and other civil rights. However, following the Age of Enlightenment, several European nations started the process of Jewish emancipation. France and Holland had provided the Jews with equal opportunities during the early parts of the 1800s. England welcomed the first Jew in its parliament in 1858. Northern Germany granted its Jewish inhabitants citizenship in 1869, and the unification of entire Germany in 1871 extended the principle of equal citizenship across the country. The legal and equal assimilation of Jews in European societies did not sit well with some political factions and some individuals, particularly those adherents of ring-wing politics because of concerns over exclusivity and immigration, as well as religious penchants. This led to the development of anti-Semitism as a political ideology designed to opposed the left0wing or liberal view about Jewish emancipation.

4. Pseudoscientific Views Against the Jews

The 1978 book “Toward The Final Solution: A History of European Racism” by historian George L. Mosse mentioned that pseudoscientific beliefs that pervaded during the latter part of the 19th century served as one of the causes of anti-Semitism in Europe, including the anti-Semitic ideology of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi. French historian and philosopher Joseph Ernest Renan argued that the “Semitic races” were inferior to the “Aryan race” while Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke coined the phrase, “The Jews are our misfortune.” Central to the pseudoscientific views against the Jews was a critique of their physical appearance. Accordingly, the Jewish body was considered physically unattractive and inferior when compared to the Aryan body. This alleged undesirable appearance was evidence of the moral inferiority of the Jews.

5. Anti-Semitic Ideology in Nazi Germany

Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany hated the Jews. Note that their disdain stemmed from the völkisch movement. It 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 German race or more specifically, the “Aryan race.” Within the context of anti-Semitism in Germany, the völkisch movement further developed to include a view that the Jews were perpetually competing against the Aryan race for world dominion. The creation of the Nazi Party marked the emergence of the most popular and successful völkisch movement organization. Note that in his autobiography “Mein Kamp,” Adolf Hitler mentioned that racial struggle centers on competition for living spaces. He argued that the Jews were a weaker race and their elimination would be more human than their protection. He also believed that these people were responsible for “badness” that existed in German life and that they were the source of “filth” in German culture.

6. Discrimination and Persecutions by the Muslims

Islam was initially tolerant toward the Jews, particularly during the early rise and expansion of the religion 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 ninth century. This eventually changed with new policies and religious teachings aimed at promoting further 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 beginning 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. Islamic fundamentalist organizations such as the Hamas and Islamic Jihad Movement of Palestine, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood that originated in Egypt have violent calls against the Jewish population, especially those inhabiting Israel and parts of Palestine.

7. Prevailing Jewish Stereotypes

Stereotypes are also part of the reasons or causes of anti-Semitism, especially in modern societies. Some have perceived the Jewish people as greedy due to their involvement in money lending in Medieval Europe. There were also those who viewed Jews as less sociable due to the strict cultural traditions of keeping Jewish communities exclusive from outsiders. It is also worth mentioning that anti-Semitic political factions, including the Nazi Party of Germany, used and propagated propaganda that pinned down Jews as naturally aligned to international communism, conspiracies, and other self-serving motives. These allegations were based on the fact that there were Jews who aligned themselves with communist parties and radical left politics that criticized nationalism or refused to assimilate fully in European societies by watering down their cultures and traditions.

A Note on the Origins and Causes of Anti-Semitism

Understanding the basis of discrimination and hatred toward the Jews requires understanding the different origins and causes of anti-Semitism. However, it is important to take note that some of these origins or causes are not related with one another and some anti-Semitic stance only adheres to a limited number of origins or causes. In addition, some of the causes have historical origins or underpinnings while others have political and religious bases. FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
  • 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