In light of events in Israel and Palestine, we are doing a two-part series. This week looks at antisemitism while our next blog will consider Islamophobia and Western perceptions of Muslims. To be clear: the current conflict centres on land, security and freedom rather than simple antisemitism or Islamophobia (we talked about the conflict’s historical context here). But these events are causing surges of hate crimes against these two communities in North America and elsewhere, so this seems like a good time to explore these issues. I have often been asked, “why do people hate the Jews?” Here’s some background on what is called the Longest Hatred.
Anti-Jewishness in the Ancient World
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, Jews were sometimes treated poorly, ranging from denigration to suffering violence. This often happens to minorities and Jews stood out. Their god had no idol, they refused certain foods, circumcised their males (noticeable in the Greek baths), and they refused to pay homage at temples dedicated to emperors or Greek gods. This last action seemed uncivil and impolite, not to mention disloyal to the emperor.
But this garden-variety stereotyping is common in human history where “we” denigrate “others.” Antisemitism goes beyond this and to understand it, we will need to look a bit deeper.
Issue 1: Conflict Between Early Christians and Jews
If you’re Christian, some of this may be hard to read. Your tradition has real beauty but today we have to look into the shadows.
Early Christians and Jews did not get along. Jews denied Jesus was the Messiah and thought calling him God was blasphemous. Jewish leaders even executed some Christians for blasphemy. Some early Christians, in turn, were not so fond of the Jews. Since these folks all died long ago this should not matter today but, as we shall see, some things got written down.
Issue 2: Christians Have a Rome Problem
Being a Christian in the first-century Roman empire was risky. You worship a guy the Romans had executed as a traitor. This made your loyalty questionable and, hence, you were not safe. When a fire burned Rome, Nero just blamed the Christians and killed them. Christians needed to show they were not disloyal. One way would be to argue that the Romans never really killed Jesus. There was only one other party to blame: the Jews.
Here’s the big key: Christians were writing their scriptures. As a result, fears and hatreds of the moment got written in texts. Very sacred texts.
The Gospels make Jews the primary culprits for Jesus’ death. To many eyes, the texts seem to go overboard to exonerate Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, of Jesus’ execution. In Matthew’s gospel, Pilate literally washes his hands of the execution, telling the Jewish crowd that he is innocent of Jesus’ blood and that it is on them. It’s almost too perfect, exactly the scene early vulnerable Christians need to respond to Roman accusations of disloyalty. The depiction also shows Pilate as a beacon of decency. It’s a lot to swallow and most scholars are suspicious.
John’s gospel is the most troubling. The last to be written, by this time, relations with Jews had degraded further. So, whereas in earlier gospels, Jesus’ opponents are the Pharisees, the Sadducees, etc., in John’s rendition, Jesus’ enemies are “the Jews.” The term is used negatively dozens of times. It’s an odd label as everyone is a Jew: Jesus; his disciples; other followers; curious onlookers; his opponents; and uninterested bystanders selling fish or olives. It would be like having a disagreement in Ohio where you call your opponents “the Americans.” But read centuries later, it lays guilt not on some priest or specific leaders but on a whole people. And there’s worse.
The Blood Libel
The most notorious statement is in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is nearing execution and, as mentioned above, Matthew has Pilate – the Roman – very much on Jesus’s side. Pilate seems to admire him, wants to free him, even Pilate’s wife wants to free him. But the Jews won’t have it. So Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ death and tells them his blood is on their heads. To this, Matthew has the Jewish crowd respond:
“…his blood be on us and on our children.” (27:25)
Forgive me if you cherish scripture, but I think this passage is hard to imagine. If you think someone is guilty of a crime (as the crowd supposedly does), then you don’t feel the punishment is on your head. It’s on them for committing the offense. But if your friend is unjustly punished, you will say or yell, “this is on your head.”
Matthew here would be in the second situation. But rather than say the death is on their heads, he has the Jews call the guilt down on themselves (apparently in unison). And worst of all…on their children.
This line will damn millions. A thousand years later, Christians will quote it, saying Jews cursed themselves and their children. This accusation, the blood libel, haunts Jews to this day.
Centuries of Suffering
Christians came to dominate Europe. Jews became not only a minority, but a people guilty of deicide (killing God). The scriptures say it. With this, normal discrimination morphed into something new. Beyond mere dislike of a people, antisemitism says Jews oppose God and are agents of Satan. Jews are cosmic enemies. The hatred becomes sacred.
Jews were put in ghettos, forced to wear yellow badges, ritually mocked in annual festivals, and sometimes simply murdered. They are accused of poisoning wells, spreading the plague and killing Christian children to use their blood to make Passover bread.
From Religion to Race
Moving closer to our day, Darwin’s theory of evolution led some to see human subgroups as genetically distinct. Differences stemmed not from culture but from genetics or race. Jews became seen as a “race” and of course a malevolent one. Before, a Jew might convert and enter the Christian mainstream but now it does not matter. Your blood makes you Jewish. Hence, the Nazis hunted down people of Jewish ancestry regardless of religion.
The Final Ingredient: Conspiracy
One final component makes antisemitism unique. Christians were forbidden from charging interest so Jews became the moneylenders. A few European Jews became wealthy and wealthy minorities are easily despised and scapegoated. They were the international bankers behind our problems. Then someone wrote a masterpiece of hatred.
Around 1900, in Russia, someone crafted a document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The document claims to be minutes of powerful Jews meeting in secret and discussing how they control the world from behind the scenes. A scheming cabal that manipulates everything.
The document is a forgery of earlier works, but it sold like hotcakes. Henry Ford was a big fan and published excerpts. Jews now could be made responsible for stock market crashes, for Bolshevism, for anything really.
A Western Export
Antisemitism is a European Christian invention but, in the last century, the West has exported it abroad. The Muslim Middle Eastern countries discovered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion after WWII, and rulers and other key voices amplified it. It was even made into a television series. Today antisemitism exists far beyond Europe.
The Goebbels Gap
Jews today get blamed for everything. They’ve been blamed for capitalism and communism. They are behind everything someone doesn’t like. Jewish writer Yair Rosenberg calls the time delay between when a bad event happens and when someone blames the Jews, the Goebbels Gap (Goebbels was the Nazi minister of propaganda). Indeed, it happens every time. 9/11? It was the Jews of course. Covid? A Jewish conspiracy, according to a tech founder, Robert F Kennedy Jr., and many others.
Will it ever die? Having survived for so long, it is hard to believe it will.
Finally, none of this means one cannot oppose Israeli state policies, but it helps explain why many Jews feel strongly that they need their own state. And, of course, one can accuse a particular Jewish politician or other famous person of bad motives. But when you say the person hates humanity, you may be recycling an ancient hatred. And demonizing a people has no place.
Antisemitism is a millennia-long plague, a poisonous cocktail of religion, race and conspiracy. It is even a theory of how the world works. Fighting it takes vigilance and will require the voices of many. It is a struggle we cannot afford to quit.