An Abridged History of Anti-Semitism

Reference: Anti-Defamation League


Anti-Semitism is the hatred of the Jewish people and/or Judaism, the Jewish religion. It has been called anti-Judaism when it targets Jewish beliefs and practices, and anti-Semitism when it targets the Jewish people as a perceived race. Sometimes referred to as “the oldest hatred,” it began as a conflict over religious beliefs, but in certain places and times, it evolved into a governmental policy of political, economic and social isolation, exclusion, degradation, and attempted annihilation. It did not begin in the Nazi era, nor did it end with the close of World War II. Its continuance over the millennia speaks to the power of scapegoating a group that is defined as “the other.”

Biblical Times

Abraham, who is believed to be the father of the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), led his family to Canaan almost 2,000 years before the Common Era (B.C.E.). It was there that a new nation–the people of Israel–came into being. During those centuries before Christ, the Hebrews (the early Jewish people) experienced occasional persecution because they refused to worship the idols of the kingdoms in the Middle East. This was seen as stubborn and was resented by surrounding nations since the usual custom of the times was to adopt the religion of the locale or ruler.


After the beginning of Christianity, a new anti-Judaism evolved. Initially, Christianity was seen as simply another Jewish sect since Jesus and his Disciples were Jewish and were preaching a form of Judaism. In the year 70 C.E. (Common Era), the Romans destroyed the Jewish State and most Jews were scattered throughout the ancient world.

During the first few hundred years after the crucifixion of Jesus, by the Romans, followers of both Judaism and Christianity, lived together throughout the Mediterranean sometimes peacefully, sometimes with hostility, as both groups tried to spread their religious beliefs in the same lands.

When the Roman Emperors converted to Christianity, it became the sole established religion of the Roman Empire. Since both religions followed the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), early Christian church leaders sought to establish their religion as a successor to Judaism by asserting that Jesus was the Messiah to those who refused to become Christians.

The unwillingness to accept Jesus as the Messiah was viewed as a threat to the Roman rulers and the Christian faith. By not recognizing Jesus, Jews were seen as abandoning their role in the divine plan and were thus seen as unnecessary. A destructive charge was now imposed upon the Jews; they were portrayed as “Christ Killers.”

The Middle Ages: The Early Modern Period

During the next three centuries (300-600 C.E.) new patterns of institutionalized discrimination against Jews occurred: Jews were forbidden to intermarry with Christians (399 C.E.), prohibited from holding high positions in government (439 C.E.), and prevented from appearing as witnesses against Christians in court (531 C.E.). As Jews were officially being excluded, certain bizarre fantasies about Jews arose in Northern Europe that foreshadowed the anti-Semitism of the 20th Century. Some people came to believe that Jews had horns and tails or engaged in ritual murder of Christians. The latter allegation, referred to as “blood libel,” was created by Thomas of Monmouth, an Englishman, in 1150 to explain the mysterious death of a Christian boy. The belief appears again in English and German myths. In addition, Jews were accused of poisoning wells in various communities.

In 1095, Pope Urban II made a general appeal to the Christians of Europe to take up the cross and sword and liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, beginning what was to be known as the Crusades. The religious fervor that drove men, and later even children, on the Crusades was to have direct consequences for Jews. The Crusader army on the way to attacking Muslims in the Holy Land swept through Jewish communities looting, raping and massacring Jews. This was the beginning of the pogrom, or the organized massacre of helpless people, who held unpopular religious beliefs.

During the middle of the 14th century the Bubonic Plague spread throughout Europe, killing an estimated one-third of the population. Fear, superstition and ignorance prompted the need to find someone to blame and the Jews were a convenient scapegoat because of the myths and stereotypes that already existed about them. Though Jews were also dying from the plague, they were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the disease.

Martin Luther, the founder of the 16th Century Reformation and Protestantism, wrote a pamphlet in 1545 entitled The Jews and Their Lies. Luther claimed that Jews thirsted for Christian blood and urged that the Jews be killed. The Nazis reprinted this pamphlet in 1935. Some scholars feel that these outrageous attacks mark the transition from anti-Judaism (attacks motivated because of the Jews’ refusal to accept Christianity) to anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews as a so-called “race” who would contaminate the purity of another race.)

Increasingly Jews were subjected to political, economic and social discrimination, resulting in the loss of their legal and civil rights. In some European countries, they were segregated by laws which forced them to live in certain sections of the towns called ghettos. Beginning in the 13th Century, in many parts of Europe, Jews were required to wear a distinctive emblem (a badge and/or a pointed hat) so that they could be immediately recognized.

Jews were forbidden to own land, and in agricultural societies there were few other means of supporting their families. Since the Church did not allow Christians to loan money for profit, money lending became one of the few ways in which Jews could earn money legally. Once they became associated with the forbidden trade of usury (loaning money for interest) a new set of stereotypes evolved in which Jews were accused of being money hungry. [JSource Editor note: read about The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare]

As moneylenders, Jews were frequently useful to rulers who used their capital to build cathedrals and outfit armies. As long as Jews benefited the ruler, either through finance or by serving as a convenient scapegoat, they were tolerated. When they were no longer of use to the ruler, Jews were expelled–from England in 1290, France in 1394, and Spain in 1492.

The Enlightenment

During the 18th Century, Europe was influenced by the increase in knowledge of the scientific world and a new perception of the human condition. The idea of universal human progress led to a belief in the basic equality of all individuals. Following the spread of Enlightenment ideas throughout Europe during Napoleon’s conquests, many countries in Europe granted Jews citizenship rights.

In Germany, Jews were granted full civil rights in 1871 after the German states unified into a single nation called the Second Reich. With their new status as full citizens, Jews were able to take up many occupations previously denied to them. Many Jews improved their social and economic positions by becoming storekeepers, lawyers, doctors, and teachers. However, full professorships in the universities and high military ranks were rarely available to them. Many left the ghettos and became part of German’s growing middle class. With citizenship, many Jews came to believe that their first loyalty was to their nation. They fought as German soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War and in World War I.

Jews made important contributions in many aspects of German culture. They participated actively in the visual arts, theater, film, the scientific community, literature, philosophy, medicine, law, etc. German Jews such as Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Kurt Weill, Walter Rathenau, Heinrich Heine, Hannah Arendt and Ernest Lubitsch and many others made significant contributions in their respective fields.


The term anti-Semitism was first used in 1873 by Wilhelm Marr, a German politician. It coincided with the development across Northern Europe and the United States of a new so-called pseudo-science based on theories of racial superiority and inferiority. These ideas were also used to justify European colonialism during the 19th century.

It has sometimes been stated that the term “anti-Semitism” should or does include all Semitic people and not just Jews. As the term was created specifically to refer to hatred of Jews, this is historically and linguistically false and in some cases, it is an attempt to co-op the terminology to use against Jews today.

Many have asked why anti-Semitism turned to genocide in Germany, rather than in France or England, which had the same medieval heritage. Following World War I, Germany was a deeply troubled country. Having lost the war, its citizens felt humiliated by the defeat. The victorious countries, including the United States, France and England authored the Treaty of Versailles, a peace treaty which compelled Germany to give up territory, and to pay large sums of money to the countries whose territories it had damaged during the war. Germany also suffered severe economic problems of inflation and unemployment during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The government of the Weimer Republic which was established after World War I was unable to solve these problems. Increasingly, there were strikes and riots that the government could not control.

In 1933 when the Nazi Party, under the leadership of Adolph Hitler seized control over Germany, Hitler could call upon remembered myths of the “blood libel” to evoke fear that the Jews would contaminate what he referred to as the superior “Aryan race.” A significant number of the German people had “bought into” the extremely effective use of Nazi propaganda and were willing to place blame for Germany’s problems on the Jews. Therefore, according to Hitler’s doctrine, all Jews, and their genetic pool had to be eliminated.

The Holocaust

There may be no more succinct description of the Holocaust than the statement issued by the Vatican on March 12, 1998:

    This century has witnessed an unspeakable tragedy, which can never be forgotten: the attempt by the Nazi regime to exterminate the Jewish people, with the consequent killing of millions of Jews. Women and men, old and young, children and infants, for the sole reason of their Jewish origin, were persecuted and deported. Some were killed immediately, while others were degraded, ill-treated, tortured and utterly robbed of their human dignity, and then murdered. Very few of those who entered the [Concentration] Camps survived, and those who did remained scarred for life. This was the Shoah.*

As Pope John Paul II recognized, “erroneous (mistaken) and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability (guilt) have circulated for too long….” and may have created anti-Jewish sentiment in some Christian minds and hearts. The progressive dehumanization that Jews endured-the image of the Jews’ demonic “otherness”-made the Holocaust possible.

Contemporary Anti-Semitism

Contemporary anti-Semitism draws upon all the old forms and images. In various part of the world, there exists a disturbing coexistence of anti-Judaism (the theological hatred of Jews and Judaism), anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews as a race or group), state sponsored anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism (opposition to the establishment or development of the State of Israel) and various forms of these strains.

While anti-Zionism is not always anti-Semitic, often it is. When one country is singled out for criticism and reproach when other countries are engaged in similar or more problematic acts and are not criticized, it is reflective of a double standard and prejudicial attitudes. The line is crossed when it passes from criticism of the actions or policies of the government (which is legitimate) to questioning the very existence of the Jewish state (which is a form of bigotry and anti-Semitism.)

A defining characteristic of anti-Semitism today is the concept of “Jewish power.” This is unique as most groups who are the subject of such intense hatred are hated for their perceived inferiority while hatred for Jews seems to target their perceived power and the control (often invisible) that such power gives Jews over others.

The stereotype of Jewish power is derived from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document, supposedly the writings of a secret group of rabbis plotting to take over the world, was later found to be forged by the secret police of Czar Nicholas II in an attempt to blame the Jews for problems Russia was experiencing. The “Protocols” were to serve as one of the bulwarks of Nazi propaganda and were introduced into the curriculum of many of Germany’s schools.

While the “Protocols” have been delegitimized throughout most of the West, they have recently taken on a new currency in the Middle East. In Fall 2002, the Egyptian state-owned media released a 41-part television series, “Horseman Without a Horse,” based on the “Protocols.” Indeed, there appears to be a recent and widespread adoption of medieval European libels of Jews throughout parts of the Islamic world. Most chilling has been the credence in many parts of Europe to the attempt by many in the Muslim world to blame Jews or Israel for responsibility for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

A recent ADL survey of five European countries finds that one in five people hold strong anti-Semitic sentiments (September 2002). In Germany today, governmental safeguards against fascist anti-Semitism have been instituted and yet young neo-Nazi Skinheads, frustrated at rising unemployment, look for scapegoats. When they cannot find living Jews, they desecrate Jewish cemeteries and look for other vulnerable targets such as immigrant workers. In Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought with it a rise in nationalist groups that use anti-Semitism to meet their political ends. There is even anti-Semitism in countries where there are virtually no Jews, like Japan.

The United States has been unique in its constitutional separation of church and state, full provision for citizenship for Jews and its institutional support of Jewish life from President Washington to the present. Despite these institutional protections, Jews who still experience enjoying the full benefits of citizenship, according to the 2001 FBI Hate Crimes Statistics Act Report, 75 percent of hate crime incidents motivated by religious bias targeted Jews. In addition, extremist groups and Skinhead youth promote racist and anti-Semitic worldviews and are actively recruiting young people through various means including on the Internet. Anti-Semitism has a history and, like all forms of hate, it has a legacy as well.

*Shoah is Hebrew for “catastrophe” and is used for the Holocaust.

© 2003 Anti-Defamation League