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jews century jewish judaism

Anti-Semitism is most easily defined as “hatred of Judaism and the Jewish people.” It is possibly the world’s oldest hatred, having inspired aberrant behaviors ranging from simple social distancing to outright murder and mass exterminations for thousands of years.

The term anti-Semitism itself is a misnomer that originally came out of the German world of nineteenth century pseudo-scholarship. anti-Semitismus replaced the word Judenhaas (hated of the Jews), and it is usually associated with the writing of the failed journalist Wilhelm Marr (1819–1904) in his book The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism , published in 1879. Marr was attempting to coin a term with a certain “scientific” or rational quality, and he borrowed the word Semitic from the field of language study, where it refers to those languages spoken in the Middle or Near East (i.e., Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic). The term was translated into English as “anti-Semitism,” though some scholars now prefer to spell it “anti-Semitism, without the hyphen and capital “S,” to highlight that this phenomenon of hatred and prejudice has no opposite equivalent whatsoever.

Early on, in the books of the Torah, or Hebrew Bible, the enemy of the Jews is given voice on numerous occasions, echoing concerns that still exist in the twenty-first century. In the book of Exodus, for example, the Pharaoh of Egypt remarks to his courtiers, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country” (Exodus 1:9–10 [New International Version]). In the book of Esther, the prime minister of Persia, Haman, says to King Ahashuerus, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will put ten thousand talents of silver into the royal treasury for the men who carry out this business” (Esther 3:8–9). In both instances, such characterizations may be termed forms of xenophobic , or social, anti-Semitism ; that is, they reflect a collective uncomfortability of these peoples with Israelites or Jews in their midst, as well as the governmental power to do something about it (either enslavement or annihilation). Such views were the norm not only in Egypt and Persia prior to the Christian period, but in Greece and Rome as well. Indeed, this view was held in all locations where Jews resided in larger numbers outside of ancient Palestine.

With the appearance of Christianity approximately 2,000 years ago, and commensurate with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 90 CE, a shift towards religious , or theological, anti-Semitism presented itself. Here, both Jews and devotees of this new religion attempted to make sense of what, most assuredly, must have been a holocaust-like tragedy. For normative Judaism, self-reflection and introspection saw the destruction of their sacred Temple as a Judaic failure to observe the condition of the b’rith , their covenant with their God. For adherents of Christianity, who were becoming increasingly “gentilized,” this horrific destruction of God’s central sanctuary was seen as the result of Jewish perfidy, particularly in the collective failure of Jews to accept Jesus as their own messiah. This failure was highlighted by the complicity of the Jewish religious leadership and for some, Jewish manipulation of the Romans to accomplish a Judaic agenda regarding Jesus.

As Christianity became increasingly successful, it allied itself with the power of the state. By the time of Emperor Constantine (280–337) in the third century, the negative view of Jews as “the enemies of God” became normative, with Judaism perceived as an inferior and rejected path to God. The Jews were subjected to miserable living conditions, ongoing economic deprivations, unsuccessful attempts at mass conversions, and increasing ghettoizations. However, they were allowed to survive as a reminder to others of the consequences of the failure to embrace the Christ, as determined by the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church, its cardinals, its archbishops, its bishops, and its Pope. This remained the prevailing understanding of Western (Christian) civilization until the period of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

With the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, the walls of the various European ghettos were breached, and Jews began their slow, uneven, and often painful integration into Western society. While religious anti-Semitism was no longer dominant, it was still very much present in eastern Europe and places where the Roman Catholic Church held sway. Further, Jews experienced a renewed form of social anti-Semitism, despite their successes in business, government, university education, and even the military.

Building upon a historic foundation of 2,000 years of animus, the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) saw “the Jew” as a different and powerful creature (though still inferior), one that was mercilessly intent on either destroying Western civilization or subjugating it for his own exploitation. Hitler viewed the Jewish people as the cause of all of civilization’s problems and difficulties over the generations. This view was also held by those who allied themselves with him and shared his vision, as presented in his autobiographical and political testament Mein Kampf (“My Fight” or “My Struggle”). These individuals also adopted a reinterpretation of Charles Darwin’s thinking on evolution, particularly the concept of “survival of the fittest,” and injected this “social Darwinism” onto the plain of history, whereby the physical conflict between Germans and others and Jews was now understood akin to the battle amongst various species within the animal kingdom itself. Such an understanding may, therefore, be termed either biological anti-Semitism or racial anti-Semitism , the poisoned fruit of which was the Holocaust, or Shoah, of World War II (1939–1945), which saw the murders of approximately six million Jewish men, women, and children throughout Europe and Russia.

Manifestations of all of these understandings of anti-Semitism remain present in the twenty-first century, even in places where Jewish populations are notoriously small (e.g., Poland) or essentially nonexistent (e.g., Japan). In the latter half of the twentieth century, a new form of anti-Semitism made its appearance in the Middle East, both prompted and encouraged by a renewal of anti-Semitic expressions throughout several European countries (e.g., Britain, France) and associated with the State of Israel and its ongoing conflicts with other nation-states in that region.


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