A Brief History and Update on Antisemitism

Antisemitism holds a central and essential place in the world view of contemporary American white nationalists. By contrast, antisemitism that surfaces on the left is not essential, and can and should be addressed.

Jew-hatred or antisemitism[fn]The unhyphenated spelling is favored by many scholars and institutions in order to dispel the idea that there is an entity “Semitism,” which “anti-Semitism” opposes. Antisemitism should be read as a unified term so that the meaning of the generic term for modern Jew-hatred is clear. At a time of increased violence and rhetoric aimed at Jews, it is urgent that there is clarity when dealing with antisemitism.[/fn] has been resurrected once again, in keeping with its cyclical nature of remerging in times of political instability when it is useful in protecting or attaining power. A very brief history of its evolution in the West is helpful in understanding it.[fn]Modern antisemitism that developed in the West is now the pervasive form of antisemitism in the world due in large part to its spread by European colonialism. Discrimination against Jews developed differently in non-Western countries. While Jews in Muslim countries were second-class citizens, they were not scapegoated or considered instruments of the devil. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fundamental modern antisemitic text that originated in Czarist Russia, has been translated into many languages and is widely distributed in many Muslim countries. The Israel-Palestine conflict has provided fertile ground for the growth of its influence.[/fn]

The origins of Jew hatred lie in the responsibility placed on Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus (deicide) that is found in the gospels of the Christian Bible and the attitude towards Jews in the letters of Paul. The early Church Fathers further developed this into what has been termed “The Teachings of Contempt.” These teachings develop three themes: a) Jews were responsible for deicide—that is, the murder of the “Son of God,” Jesus; b) the Judaism that existed at the time of Jesus was degenerate; and c) the punishment for the crime of deicide was dispersion.[fn]The Jews were exonerated by the Roman Catholic Church at the Vatican II Council in 1962.[/fn] Furthermore, the Book of Revelation in Christian Scriptures, describes the “Synagogue of Satan” (2:10, 3:9), making explicit a linked identity between the Devil and the Jews that would continue for centuries.

The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in the fourth century made antisemitism state policy. New legal codes severely curtailed the rights of Jews in the legal system, forbade the reading of the Bible in Hebrew, forbade the marriage of Christians to Jews and outlawed conversion to Judaism.

After the fall of the Roman Empire and with the rise of feudalism, the Catholic Church dominated a united Christian Europe.  Jews had no place in the economic or feudal hierarchy. Church law restricted Jewish roles socially, economically and physically.  They could not bear arms and in many places could not own land. They were pushed to the margins of society.  

Church law forbade Christians from lending money to other Christians for interest, just as Jewish law forbade Jews from lending money to Jews at interest.  Jewish law found ways to allow Jews to invest with each other that were in effect loans, but the Church found it expedient to have Jews in the role of lenders.  That way, they could point to Jews as usurers—as extracting money from the rest of the population. The chief borrowers, in fact, were the nobility, who amassed large debts. Fortunately for them, they had the power at times to expel the Jews and thereby nullify all of their debts to Jews. As a result, European Jews were expelled from one country after another. On many occasions, they would be expelled from a country (with all debts canceled) and then allowed to return to that country.  

The beginning of the Crusades in 1096 marked the breakdown of feudalism and the rise of an urban merchant class that competed with Jews.  The Franciscan and Dominican orders emerged out of the merchant class, and were the leaders and theologians of the Office of the Inquisition that sought to eliminate Judaism by converting all Jews. After large numbers of Jews converted to Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula 1391-1414, however, succeeding generations of “New Christians” were attacked because their blood was not pure (limpieza de sangre) to mix with “Old Christians,” and the Inquisition targeted them as Judaizers, torturing and burning them. This may be the earliest occurrence of modern pseudo-biological basis for racism.

This took place at the same time that the Church promulgated the Doctrine of Discovery—a series of Papal Bulls that were the “legal” basis of European colonization—edicts by the pope that gave the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal permission to “capture, vanquish and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery” and “to take all their possessions and property.”[fn]See Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Fulcrum Press, 2008.[/fn] That was Columbus’s mandate, the basis for Europeans to steal land, justify the African slave trade and make Christianity the dominant worldview. Thus, it is no coincidence that the systematic oppression of non-Christians and non-whites manifested simultaneously. They both emerged out of the same theological and economic motives.

In 16th-century Central and Eastern Europe, the nobility began to employ Jews as tax farmers and as innkeepers in return for giving them the freedom to practice Judaism. The Jew could be the one to actually take the money from the peasantry and then pass it on to the nobility; the Jews were in the position of the visible agents of oppression. The vast majority of Jews were poor, but because a small group of Jews acted in this visible role, the Jews became scapegoats when the oppressed peasantry became angry. Nobility could encourage attacks on Jews or orchestrate a pogrom, thus deflecting anger from themselves. Jews were required to pay for security in form of special services and special taxation.

Sadly, while the Enlightenment challenged many of the Church’s teachings, it reinforced antisemitism. Voltaire described Jews as a people “who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched,” and he concluded that for this they needed to be punished.[fn]Voltaire, Philosophic Dictionary, 1764. Chapter on Jews.[/fn] The Enlightenment severed the link between antisemitism and Christianity. Antisemitism could now stand on its own as a force of hatred and oppression.

The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion now replaced the Bible as the primary textual source for antisemitism. According to the Protocols, Jewish “learned men decided by peaceful means to conquer the world for Zion with the slyness of the symbolic serpent,” that is, by secret conspiracy.[fn]Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, tr. Victor E. Marsden, RiverCrest Publishing, 2011. (Preface by Henry Ford)<[/fn] This forgery is still in print, disseminated globally in many languages and taught as factual truth in many Muslim countries. Antisemitism was also facilitated by the development of Social Darwinism and pseudo-scientific notions based on theories of racial superiority and inferiority.

This is the legacy of antisemitism that was brought to America from Europe and spread around the world through colonialism.[fn]Reena Friedman’s article in Evolve contains a more complete history of antisemitism in the U.S. http://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/anti-semitism-europe-history[/fn] Some of the features of this antisemitism are:

  • Antisemitism is cyclical. It arises when there is increased social unrest due to economic conditions, such as increased income inequality. The threat of persecution leads to insecurity in Jewish lives.
  • For antisemitism to be effective, Jews have to be in visible positions of power or wealth; therefore, in the interim periods between outbreaks of antisemitism, white Jews are allowed to rise in wealth and status.
  • Antisemitism is used as a safety valve to allow angry, exploited people to vent their rage at Jews while ignoring the system of exploitation and those who benefit the most from it.
  • Antisemitism can be used by either the right or left—for example, Hitler and Stalin.
  • Antisemitism no longer needs to be connected to religious belief.
  • Jews serve as a buffer between the more powerful and the exploited. They therefore do not form long-term alliances with other groups, leading to isolation.
  • Antisemitism frequently falsely asserts that there is an international Jewish conspiracy that controls banks, the media and/or the governments of certain countries. Misinformation about Jewish power, abilities and intentions is intentionally spread and justifies oppression.
  • Antisemitism is used as a wedge issue to divide progressive groups, and the unity of all liberation efforts is weakened.

According to the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent report, there has been a serious rise of antisemitic incidents in the United States. It is predictable that at a time when the wealth gap in America is at record levels and real wages have been stagnant for decades, there would be a rise in antisemitism.

The Jewish press is replete with articles expressing concern about the use of antisemitism by both the left and the right. It is important to acknowledge, however, that while antisemitism in the United States exists on both the right and the left, there are important differences.  

Eric Ward, a widely acknowledged expert on right-wing movements in the United States, wrote in a ground-breaking article “Skin In The Game”[fn]Summer 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine. Eric K. Ward a longtime civil-rights strategist and newly appointed executive director of Western States Center (WSC). The organization works with leaders in the West to reduce inequality and advance opportunity. From 2014–17, Ward worked as a Ford Foundation Program Officer, where he supported efforts to combat inequality.[/fn] in 2017:

Antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism. Let me explain.

To recognize that antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within White nationalist thought is important for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to identify the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia—as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear. … What is this arch-nemesis of the White race, whose machinations have prevented the natural and inevitable imposition of White supremacy? It is, of course, the Jews. Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for antisemites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils…

The White nationalist movement that evolved from it in the 1970s was a revolutionary movement that saw itself as the vanguard of a new, Whites-only state. This latter movement, then and now, positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of White dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism.

This brings me to the second reason that White nationalist antisemitism must not be dismissed: at the bedrock of the movement is an explicit claim that Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played.

Contemporary antisemitism, then, does not just enable racism, it also is racism, for in the White nationalist imaginary Jews are a race—the race—that presents an existential threat to Whiteness. … Antisemitism fuels White nationalism, a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power, and fighting antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

I was in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, and I heard the chants of “Jews will not replace us.” The perpetrator of the massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue used the same rationale. When President Donald Trump and the highest leaders of the Republican Party blame George Soros for illegal immigration or buying an election, they are invoking the antisemitic memes of an international Jewish conspiracy put forth in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

A note on white privilege: Jews who present as white have the privileges of other white people in a country built on white supremacy. However, this privilege is provisional. It can be revoked when antisemitism arises. For white nationalists, Jews are a race. Jews have provisional white privilege in America.

The right wing is in the ascendancy. Antisemitism constitutes a core belief of this group, which seeks to create a white Christian country. Its spokespeople point to Israel as a model of an ethno-nationalist country. Christian Zionists ultimately want all Jews to move to Israel because that would fulfill their desire for a Jew-free (Judenrein) country, and the apocalyptic destruction of the Jews in Israel is a necessary step for the Rapture: the Second Coming.

Left-wing antisemitism in the United States is generally more manifest around the support of the Palestinian people to establish their own nation. It is far removed from the halls of power, is far less often violent and, most important, is not central to a left-wing analysis of the problems of and cures for contemporary American society. This needs to be underscored: for the right wing, antisemitism is core, essential to their analysis of what needs to be changed in America today; for the left, it is largely related to issues surrounding Israel and Palestine, and not fundamental to their program of what needs to change to bring about justice in the United States.

That being said, it is still important to confront antisemitism on the left. We need to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. Rabbi Jill Jacobs in a Washington Post column writes:

Despite what some pro-Israel organizations would have us believe, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Like all countries, Israel has a duty to uphold international human rights laws and to protect the rights of those living under its control. One may protest the use of live fire on unarmed protesters, the closure of the Gaza border and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, the military occupation of the Palestinian territories, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attacks on democracy and incitement against human rights leaders without invoking anti-Semitic tropes. Such policies would be wrong in any country, whether carried out by Jews or other people.[fn]Jill Jacobs, “How to Tell When Criticism of Israel is Antisemitic,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2018.[/fn]

She then lays out some markers for identifying antisemitism:

  • Seeing Jews as insidious influencers behind the scenes of world events.
  • Using the word “Zionist” as code for “Jew” or “Israeli.”
  • Disregard for Jewish history (for example, denying Jewish ties to Israel or the Holocaust).
  • Dismissing the humanity of Israelis (for example, justifying terrorist acts against Jewish Israelis while condemning those against Palestinians).

Cherie Brown, a longtime activist working on antisemitism, adds these:

  • Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews.
  • On college campuses, using one’s position on Israel as a litmus test for entry into progressive group.
  • When a policy being proposed increases the isolation of Jews from other oppressed groups.

In some Jewish circles, support for a boycott of Israel is seen as ipso facto antisemitism. To quite Rabbi Jacobs again, “One may even boycott Israel without stepping into anti-Semitism if it’s clear that the tactic aims to pressure Israel to change its policies, just as many Americans recently boycotted North Carolina over now-overturned laws discriminatiing against transgender people.[fn]May 18, 2018[/fn]

Others have claimed that support for a one-state solution is antisemitic. The New York Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote,

…Israel has foreclosed the possibility of two states, relentlessly expanding into the West Bank and signaling to the world that the Palestinians will never have a capital in East Jerusalem. As long as the de facto policy of the Israeli government is that there should be only one state in historic Palestine, it’s unreasonable to regard Palestinian demands for equal rights in that state as anti-Semitic. If the Israeli government is going to treat a Palestinian state as a ridiculous pipe dream, the rest of us can’t act as if such a state is the only legitimate goal of Palestinian activism.[fn]New York Times, Dec. 9, 2018[/fn]

Given that the Netanyahu government has systematically undermined a two-state solution with the support of the Israeli public, how can we claim that Palestinians or their supporters who call for one state with equal rights are antisemitic? Yes, there certainly is antisemitism in parts of Palestinian solidarity movement that we have to challenge. We just need to be very clear about the line between antisemitism and legitimate support of Palestinians.

In conclusion, antisemitism is on the rise in the United States on both the left and right. While the country has a history of antisemitism, it’s not the very deep and broad institutional, interpersonal, ideological and cultural antisemitism of European countries. During centuries of European antisemitism, the Jews in almost all cases looked to the ruling powers for protection. That was the right survival strategy because there were no other groups to align with.  

We are in a different historical moment. There are many other groups that we can be in solidarity with today. For some of them, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a barrier, and we need to have the persistence to work that through. The racism of our society makes this harder. White Jews need to understand and acknowledge how we have benefited from white supremacy when we have conversations with people of color about Israel. Demographers now agree that 10 percent to 20 percent of American Jews are Jews of  Color. They are important members of our community as we build bridges to other groups. (Addressing the racism within the Jewish community is a necessary condition.)  

We cannot work through the ideological racist antisemitism of the right to bring about equality and justice. The long-term safety and flourishing of our people requires that we work with other oppressed groups, challenging their antisemitism while acknowledging our complicity in the oppression of people of color, to bring forth a socially just, environmentally sustainable and spiritually fulfilling future.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. My one disagreement is with Cherie Brown’s defining antisemitism as including: “On college campuses, using one’s position on Israel as a litmus test for entry into progressive group.”

    To the extent that any political position is used as a litmus test, I don’t know why this one would be exempt, especially if the person’s “position on Israel” is in conflict with the progressive group’s work, e.g., if the group is dedicated to working on humanitarian assistance and/or recognized statehood for the Palestinian people.

    1. Tina,
      I appreciate your observation but respectfully disagree. My experience is that since about 2003, openly and repeatedly declaring oneself an anti zionist Jew is pretty much expected in young lefty circles and that it is widely experienced as a litmus test to which young Jewish left activists are subjected. I find it poses a significant barrier to young Jews exploring left movements and organizations and undermines the real work of solidarity and attaining justice.

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