Antisemitism is hatred of the Jewish people. It is an ancient phenomenon traditionally associated with expressions of religious intolerance and xenophobia that has used various motifs throughout history and taken various different forms. After the Enlightenment antisemitism shifted from its theological first phase to a secular, racial phase, which was promoted by extreme nationalistic groups who understood the political benefits of perpetuating the ancient hatred of Jews and using them as scapegoats.
The Evolution of Antisemitism
Antisemitism began shortly after the death of Jesus, when early Christians intent of distancing themselves from Jews and Judaism began a systematic campaign of vilification of Jews and Judaism. Even though other peoples in antiquity had also hated Jews, they did so like they hated any other enemy (as they understood it). Only with early Christianity we see a gradual process of disparagement of Jews and Judaism, reflected in the writings of the New Testament, the Patristic writings and those of subsequent theologians like Martin Luther, as well as often in antisemitic sermons and common speech by the uneducated masses in the Christian world.
“Medieval Christians made a concerted effort to convert Jews to Christianity, an effort which largely failed. This in turn fueled antisemitism even more, as Christians increasing saw Jews as blind to Christian revelation, perfidious and generally evil.”
Antisemitism in its early stage, particularly after the Jewish War and the Roman sacking and destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE served the political purpose of creating a wedge between Jews and early Christians who felt they had to appear different and separate from the then belligerent Jews. Also, after Paul began an active proselytizing campaign to the Gentiles outside Judea, he and his followers realized that in order for the Gentiles to accept his new religion he had to relax some of the rules in Judaism. Thus, over time, a new religion was born which increasingly defined itself as everything Judaism was not. Since Christianity was more inclusive, was easier to practice than Judaism and it offered a simple path to salvation, it spread quickly throughout the Roman Empire. The teaching of contempt toward Jews snowballed rapidly from this point onwards.
Toward the Middle Ages Christian antisemitism was so entrenched and strong that it became genocidal. As the crusading Christian mob marched across Europe to liberate the Holy Land from the Saracens, they massacred Jews everywhere on their path. Medieval Christians made a concerted effort to convert Jews to Christianity, an effort which largely failed. This in turn fueled antisemitism even more, as Christians increasing saw Jews as blind to Christian revelation, perfidious and generally evil. Indeed, it’s from this period that the conception of Jews as being associated with the Devil became widespread.
After the Enlightenment Christian antisemitism began a different phase. As religion gradually began losing its grip on the various peoples of Europe, the thinkers of the Enlightenment began finding secular channels for the ancient and already fully ingrained antisemitism. As the nineteenth century developed, perversions of the Darwinian theory of evolution led to racial theories, which the Nazis fully embraced in the twentieth century. On the eve of the Second World War antisemitism was fully secular and racial, yet it stood solidly on a foundation of contempt and hatred laid down by almost two millennia of Christian antisemitism.
When Hitler came to power he realized he had no difficulty whatsoever in spreading his antisemitic message among a population already deeply antisemitic. Hitler used language and imagery borrowed from Christianity, and updated it to adapt it for his time. But his message resonated on the population, who had been hearing a similar antisemitic message from their parents, their teachers, the press, and their priests who, even as the Holocaust raged, still spread the old theological antisemitism that made the Holocaust possible on the first place.
Modern antisemitism in Europe, after being repressed for decades, has erupted with renewed fury in recent years in a new form: “anti-Zionism,” or hatred of the State of Israel as a proxy for “The Jew”.
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