A Brief History of Antisemitism
In the year 70 B.C.E. Pompey the Great, a powerful Roman military leader, conquered Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine. Pompey defiled the Jewish temple, killed the priests, and ordered the Jews to begin worshipping the Roman gods. Most Jews resisted, but pressure to worship the Roman gods only mounted, and as the pressure increased, so did conflict within the Jewish community. Many Jews called for open rebellion against Rome, while others argued that Jews must be willing to adapt.
A hundred years later the Romans still occupied Jerusalem and the situation was not much improved when, Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth, began his ministry and travels in Palestine. The debate between the rival Jewish factions grew increasingly heated, and the climax of the conflict was triggered by the death of Jesus. Immediately afterwards, the followers of Jesus renounced Judaism, and Christianity was born as a distinctively separate religion.
Although Jesus' death had been ordered and carried out by non-Jews, most Christians believed that the Jews and their priests were responsible. St. Paul later proclaimed that the Jews "killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God's will and enemies of their fellow men..." (I Thessalonians 2:15-16)
As Christianity spread, the differences between Christianity and Judaism became more and more pronounced. But it was not until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that anti-Judaism became a serious threat to Jewish existence.
By the fourth century, Jews were generally despised by Christians everywhere. St. Augustine, one of Christianity's most influential leaders, likened the Jewish people to Cain, who had murdered his own brother and thus became the first criminal in biblical history. St. Augustine wrote that Jews were a "wicked sect" and should be subjected to permanent exile because of their evil ways. John the author of the book of Revelations even called Jews the children of the devil. (John.8:44)
Laws were passed throughout the Christian world to "protect" the "faithful" from Jewish "contamination" by forbidding them to eat with, do business with, or have sex with Jews, and by the sixth century, Jews were not allowed to hold public office, employ Christian servants, or even show themselves in the streets during Holy Week (the week commemorating the time between Jesus' "Last Supper" and his crucifixion).
Beginning in 1096, Christian leaders launched a series of crusades against the Muslims to win control of Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus. On their way to the Middle East, the crusader armies attacked Jewish communities along the route. The First Crusade was especially bloody. Entire communities of Jews were forced to choose between baptism or death, and since few Jews would renounce their faith, the First Crusade resulted in nearly 10,000 Jews being slaughtered during the first six months alone.
Godfrey Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, vowed "to leave no single member of the Jewish race alive," and ordered the synagogue in Jerusalem burned to the ground with its entire Jewish congregation trapped inside.
The Second Crusade, in 1146, was more sparing of Jewish lives; but, nevertheless, intensified the religious persecution of Jews.
Thousands of Jews fled to Eastern Europe, but they were unable to escape the relentless oppression, and by the thirteenth century, church leaders in what is now Germany required all Jews to wear cone-shaped hats so that no one would mistake them from ordinary Germans. In Latin countries, Jews were forced to sew yellow badges on their clothing as a means of instant identification. The persecutions, large and small, went on and on.
Peter Abler, a twelfth century philosopher and priest wrote of the Jews:
Jews were allowed to become moneylenders largely because the Catholic Church considered it a sin for Christians to charge interest for lending money. And because Jews had few other ways of earning a living, large numbers of them eventually became bankers and financiers, which resulted in a stereotyping of Jews as money-hungry exploiters and usurers. It was a stereotype that was to linger even after Jews were driven from the banking industry years later, and still continues in many places up until the present day.
By the end of the fifteenth century, except for a few business encounters, Jews were totally isolated from their Christian neighbors. In some countries, Jews were forcibly confined in ghettos, sections of cities that were enclosed by high, prison-like walls. With forced segregation came new myths and stereotypes. Increasingly Jews were portrayed as agents of the devil, responsible for every catastrophe from random crime to plague and drought. Artists portrayed Jews as having horns, tails, and evil satanic faces. Christian priests and scholars often elaborated on the idea that Jews were evil creatures who were somehow less than human.
In 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest in Germany, complained of corruption in the Church of Rome and called on Church leaders to reform. Instead, the Church branded him a heretic and excommunicated him. The result was the Protestant Reformation, which ultimately led to the founding of New Christian churches in Western Europe and a series of devastating wars.
Luther had hoped of converting Jews to Christianity. In 1523, he told his followers, "...we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly fashion in order that we convert some of them ... we are but Gentiles, while Jews are of the lineage of Christ."
But when Jews refused to convert, an angry Luther wrote, in part:
Other Protestant leaders were more tolerant of Jews, but even among the most tolerant, the old stereotypes of Jews lingered on. As Malcolm Hay, a Catholic historian, explains:
Over time, most Jews were driven from central Europe. Many of them settled in Poland and Russia. But there the persecution continued. In 1648 and 1649, thousands of Polish Jews were slaughtered. During the late 1800's, in both Poland and Russia, Jews were murdered in organized mass killings called pogroms.
Meanwhile, in France, many Christians were calling for the emancipation of Jews. This push for Jewish civil rights was an outgrowth of the French Revolution (1789-1799) with its emphasis on liberty and equality. The movement grew, and by the mid 1800's, most Western and Central European Jews were fully emancipated.
Yet, during the late 1800's, "Jew-hatred" resurfaced as a formidable force throughout Europe, and in 1879 the word "Anti-Semitism" was coined by the German journalist and pre-Fascist Wilhelm Mahr who felt he needed a more scientific, more benign, term than "Juden-hass" (German for "hatred of Jews") to define a political movement centered upon hatred of Jews.
About this same time a new Jewish movement called Zionism emerged, and many Jews began working toward an independent Jewish state in Palestine, viewing this as the only sure way to avoid the resurgent persecution. Zionists in large numbers bought land and settled in Palestine.
In 1918, during the course of World War I, Britain captured Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. Fearing the hostility of the local Palestinians and neighboring Arab nations, Britain soon limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, even though many Jews had aided in the British takeover.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and set out on a concentrated program to intensify his nations hatred of the Jews. Hitler once said that if the Jews hadn't existed he would have had to invent them. In many respects that is exactly what he did. Hitler mounted a powerful propaganda campaign designed and implemented by Joseph Goebbels, which blamed the Jews for Germany's many economic problems, as well as Bolshevism and the worldwide threat of Communism.
Germany's nationalistic hatred of the Jews ultimately lead to what was known as the "Final Solution:" the physical annihilation of almost six million Jews -- in addition to almost five million other non-Jewish "racial enemies" of the German people during World War II.
Jews the world over, vowing "Never Again" in reaction to the Holocaust, rallied to the Zionist cause. Though faced with often violent opposition from Palestinian Arabs and others, Jews persisted in their quest for freedom and autonomy.
Finally in 1947, the United Nations partitioned Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. The Jewish state, Israel, declared its independence on May 14, 1948.