An Outline History of Anti-Semitism

[This paper should be read with “An outline history of and background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “An outline of anti-Arabism and Arab problems with the Western World” in order to gain a balanced picture of both the Jewish and Arab aspects of the story]

In order to understand the outlook and reactions of Jewish people, including Israelis, one must take seriously the long, tragic history of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is prejudice, discrimination, hostility or hatred against Jewish people. This has created deep sensitivities and insecurities, and these influence how Israelis approach their situation in the Middle East. Criticism of Israel – even if justified – can easily be seen as anti-Semitism. True, this view can be used by Israelis as an attempt to fend off criticism, but much of it is genuine concern. In the light of anti-Semitism Israelis also have a deep concern to ensure that nothing will come anywhere near threatening their continuing possession of their safe homeland. Their reactions may sometimes appear hypersensitive, extreme and somewhat paranoid at times and it is important that those rightly seeking justice for the Palestinians understand and are sensitive to these feelings, especially when criticism of Israel is warranted.

Anti-Semitism is first described in the Book of Esther in the 5th century BC, and then began to develop in the third century BC in Egypt. Sadly, it has also characterized a good deal of the history of the Christian church.

Early tensions between the church and the Jewish community

The early church was almost completely Jewish. It centered around the Temple and the synagogue. Soon, however, many Gentiles came to faith. The Jewish community regarded Jewish Christians as traitors. We know from John 9:22 that “the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.” Christians began to worship on the first day of the week (David Stern holds that this was our Saturday evening rather than Sunday – in Jewish reckoning the first day of the week begins on what we call Saturday evening. But the point is that it was not on the Sabbath). They were also deemed to be negative to the Torah (Law).

A serious division between the Christian and Jewish communities developed when Simon Bar Kochba (132-135) revolted against the Romans. “Bar Kochba” means “son of a star” and the great Rabbi Akiva hailed Simon as the Messiah because of Num 24:17 “… A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.” Obviously Christians could not accept this and the rift between them and the Jewish community widened.

Anti-Jewish polemic by the church

By this time the church was calling itself the new Israel replacing the Jewish community. Justin Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho (who was Jewish) in 160: “For the true spiritual Israel, …. are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ, as shall be demonstrated while we proceed.” (Ch 12) “We … are the true Israelite race.” (Ch 135) “For you have slain the Just One, and his prophets before him; and now you reject those who hope in him.” (Ch 16) “You are become twofold more the children of Hell, as [Jesus] said himself.” Irenaeus (130-200) and Tertullian (160-220) wrote in similar ways.

It is debatable whether these writings should be termed anti-Semitic. They used strong language, as did Jesus and the NT writers, but this was in the heat of debate. Jewish criticism of Christianity could likewise be very negative and insulting, even blasphemous against Jesus.

However it is true that, as the years went by, this sadly developed into very negative attitudes towards the Jewish community. The increasingly Gentile church began to distance itself from its Jewish roots which led on to anti-Judaism.

Early Christian Anti-Semitism

Hippolytus (170-236) laid the blame for the death of Jesus solely on the Jewish community and claimed they boasted about it. Origen (185-254) wrote: “And these calamities they have suffered, because they were a most wicked nation, which, though guilty of many other sins, yet has been punished so severely for none, as for those that were committed against our Jesus.” (Against Celsus 2.8).

John Chrysostom (347-407) wrote of the Jewish people in “Adversus Judaeos”: But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts. …. when God forsakes a people, what hope of salvation is left? When God forsakes a place, that place becomes the dwelling of demons.” (I III 1). “They live for their bellies, they gape for the things of this world, their condition is not better than that of pigs or goats because of their wanton ways and excessive gluttony. They know but one thing: to fill their bellies and be drunk, to get all cut and bruised, to be hurt and wounded while fighting for their favorite charioteers.” (I IV 1).

Bishop Ambrose of Milan (380) sought to dissuade the Emperor Thodosius from ordering a bishop accused of inciting a mob to burn down synagogues to rebuild the synagogues. His reason was that Jewish people had caused churches to be burnt down in the reign of Julian.

In the 4th century AD the Emperor Constantine favoured the church’s decision to separate the date of Easter from that of the Passover. In his argument he referred to the Jewish community as “detestable … adversaries … murderers of our Lord.”

In 1218 the Pope ordered that Jewish people must wear distinguishing clothing;

In1239 the Pope ordered the seizure and destruction of the Talmud and other Jewish literature.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) agreed that the Jewish community deserved “perpetual servitude” and that “the lords of the lands in which they dwell may take things from them as though they were their own.” (However he added that “the necessary subsidies of life in no way be taken from them.”). This sort of teaching led to Jewish people facing special taxes, being obliged to wear special clothes and suffering religious limitations.

In 1482 the Pope empowered kings to ban Jewish practices.

In 1569 the Jewish people were accused of magic and expelled them from papal territories;

In 1577 and 1584 the Pope ordered that ordered that Jewish people must attend church and listen to evangelistic sermons.

Christian leaders who were not anti-Semitic

However, some Christian leaders were not anti-Semitic. Pope Gregory I (590-604), wrote: “For it is necessary to gather those who are at odds with the Christian religion the unity of faith by meekness, by kindness, by admonishing, by persuading, lest these…should be repelled by threats and terrors.” He censured a bishop for baptizing Jewish people by force and urged another not to disturb Jewish people in the celebration of their religious festivals.

Pope Alexander III (1159-1181)wrote: “[The Jews] ought to suffer no prejudice. … We grant them the buckler of Our protection. For We make the law that no Christian compel them, unwilling or refusing, by violence to come to baptism … Too, no Christian ought to presume…to injure their persons, or with violence to take their property, or to change the good customs which they have had until now …” This statement was reaffirmed by many popes down to the 15th century.

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in 1146: “Is it not a far better triumph for the Church to convince and convert the Jews than to put them all to the sword? Has that prayer which the Church offers for the Jews…been instituted in vain?”

Pope Gregory X (1271-76) condemned what became known as the “Blood Libel” against the Jewish people: “And most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away these children and killed them, and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children, since their law in this matter precisely and expressly forbids Jews to sacrifice, eat, or drink the blood, or to eat the flesh of animals having claws.”

Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the great German Christian Reformer, who did so much good for the church in restoring belief in justification by grace through faith, sadly became very anti-Semitic in later life. Here are some quotations from his essay “On the Jews and Their Lies” written in 1543, three years before his death.

Warning: this is offensive anti-Semitic material of which we thoroughly disapprove, but Christians need to be aware of it, as it had widespread influence and prepared the way for the much more extreme Nazi approach in 20th century Germany.

Luther wrote of the Jewish people: “They are a “miserable and accursed people … much viler than the heathen …. stiff-necked, disobedient, prophet-murderers, arrogant, usurers, and filled with every vice … dreary dregs, … stinking scum, … dried-up froth, … mouldy leaven and boggy morass of Jewry … rotten, stinking, rejected dregs of their fathers’ lineage … dust and ashes … damned by birth … real liars and bloodhounds … filthy, blind, hardened liars … an idle and lazy people, such a useless, evil pernicious people, such blasphemous enemies of God”

They have an “embittered, venomous, blind heart … a bloodthirsty, vengeful, murderous yearning and hope. Their activities are “poisonous.” Their interpretation of scripture is “vile … They … continually perverted and falsified all of Scripture.”

“The sun has never shone on a more bloodthirsty and vengeful people.” “There was never a viler people than they, who with their lying, blaspheming, cursing, maligning, their idolatry, their robbery, usury, and all vices accuse us Christians.”

“Alas, it cannot be anything but the terrible wrath of God which permits anyone to sink into such abysmal, devilish, hellish, insane baseness, and arrogance.”

“Therefore, dear Christian, be on your guard against such damnable people whom God has permitted to sink into such profound abominations and lies, for all they do and say must be sheer lying, blasphemy, and malice, however fine it may look.”

“Their synagogues are “a den of devils in-which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously”

As if this were not enough, Luther referred to the common anti-Semitic allegations of Jewish people murdering Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals (the Blood Libel), and poisoning of wells owned by Gentiles. He did so in a way which implied he believed them.

“The history books often accuse them of contaminating wells, of kidnapping and piercing children, … They, of course, deny this. Whether it is true or not, I do know that they do not lack the complete, full, and ready will to do such things either secretly or openly where possible.”

“They have been blood thirsty bloodhounds and murderers of all Christendom for more than fourteen hundred years in their intentions, and would undoubtedly prefer to be such with their deeds. Thus they have been accused of poisoning water and wells, of kidnaping children, of piercing them through with an awl, of hacking them in pieces, and in that way secretly cooling their wrath with the blood of Christians, for all of which they have often been condemned to death by fire.”

I have read and heard many stories about the Jews which agree with this judgment of Christ, namely, how they have poisoned wells, made assassinations, kidnaped children, as related before. I have heard that one Jew sent another Jew, and this by means of a Christian, a pot of blood, together with a barrel of wine, in which when drunk empty, a dead Jew was found. There are many other similar stories. For their kidnapping of children they have often been burned at the stake or banished (as we already heard). I am well aware that they deny all of this. However, it all coincides with the judgment of Christ which declares that they are venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil who sting and work harm stealthily wherever they cannot do it openly.

“We do not curse them but wish them well, physically and spiritually. We lodge them, we let them eat and drink with us. We do not kidnap their children and pierce them through; we do not poison their wells; we do not thirst for their blood.”

He then advised Christians:

“First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.”

“Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”

“Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”

“Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.”

“Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.”

“Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.”

He added “ that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country … that they be forbidden to utter the name of God within our hearing.”

However “They should not curse them or harm their persons.”

It should be borne in mind that:

1. Luther used strong language about the Pope and his supporters. Even in this essay he wrote: “the pope comes along and the devil with him” I am no longer amazed by either the Turks’ or the Jews’ blindness, obduracy, and malice, since I have to witness the same thing in the most holy fathers of the church, in pope, cardinals, and bishops.” He also referred to “the papists’ Beelzebub”.

2. He was opposing Jewish people some of whom he believed spoke in a very blasphemous way about Jesus.

“In the first place, they defame our Lord Jesus Christ, calling him a sorcerer and tool of the devil. This they do because they cannot deny his miracles …. Then they also call Jesus a whore’s son, saying that his mother Mary was a whore, who conceived him in adultery with a blacksmith … They further lie and slander him and his mother by saying that she conceived him at an unnatural time [during her menstrual period when it was believed that]. … whatever is conceived at such a time results in imperfect and infirm fruit, that is, in insane children, mental deficients, demon’s offspring, changelings, and the like — people who have unbalanced minds all their lives. In this way the Jews would defame us Christians, by saying that we honour as the Messiah a person who was mentally deficient from birth, or some sort of demon.

3. He was probably angrily frustrated that the Jewish community had not responded positively to the Lutheran message, as he had expected

However, none of this justifies his vitriolic anti-Semitism. His statements that Jews’ homes should be destroyed, their synagogues burned, money confiscated, and liberty curtailed, were revived and given widespread publicity by the Nazis in Germany in 1933–45. However modern anti-Semitism is based more on racial myths rather than because they do not accept Jesus as their Messiah. On the 14th February 1546 – four days before he died – Luther preached his last sermon demanding that Jewish people be driven from all German lands.

Anti-Semitism in England, Europe, Russia and North Africa

In March 1144 a non-Jewish boy, William, was found murdered outside Norwich. He was anapprentice tanner who regularly came into contact with local Jewish community and visited their homes as part of his trade. In actual fact he may have died either from poisonous fungi or a fit.

A few days after his death, the diocesan synod met under the presidency of Bishop Eborard and William’s uncle, the priest Godwin Stuart, accused the Jewish community of torturing and murdering him. It was only the intervention of the local sheriff, representing the king, that saved the Jews from the (Christian) mob. This was the first medieval example of blood libel against the Jewish community.

Immediately after his death William was popularly venerated as a martyr and was soon regarded as a local saint in Norwich after miracles were attributed to him.

Anti-Jewish feeling developed in various parts of the country and other attacks took place. What happened in Norwich was repeated when children were killed in Gloucester (1168), Bury St Edmunds (1181) and Bristol (1183). In 1189 Jewish people attending Richard the Lionheart’s coronation were killed. Then in 1190 all the Jewish people found in their own homes were killed.

Also in 1190 The worst Jewish massacre took place in York. Local barons doubtless wanted to cancel their debts to Jewish creditors and many ordinary people joined in the attack. Some Jewish people were killed in their homes but many took refuge in the Castle. Because they wouldn’t allow the castle warden to enter, he called for military help. Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny urged the Jewish people to martyr themselves, which most did. A few emerged from the castle the next morning only to be killed.

In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council orders Jewish people to wear a badge.

In 1255 the Blood Libel arose in Lincoln.

On July 18th 1290 Edward I expelled all the Jewish people (about 16,000) from England and Wales and ban on the Jews was not lifted until 1655, when Oliver Cromwell responded to an appeal by Dutch Jews led by Rabbi, Manasseh ben Israel. It was not until 1789 that a small Jewish settlement was re-established in England.

In Europe, the Black Death (1348-9) was blamed on Jews poisoning water supplies. Some “confessed” under torture. 350 Jewish communities were wiped out and tens of thousands of Jewish people. This led to a massive emigration to Polish provinces. Between 1290-1496 Jews were expelled 18 times from European countries.

1473 Marranos, Jewish people who privately observed Judaism but publicly Christianity, were massacred in Spain.

In 1492 Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the rulers of Spain demanded that all Jewish people in their territories should either convert to Catholicism or leave the country.

Massacres of Jewish people took place in Portugal (1506) and Tunisia (1535).

The first Jewish ghetto was created in Venice in 1553 and Jewish people were massacred in Ancona (1556).

On the 14th February 1546 – four days before he died – Luther preached his last sermon demanding that Jewish people be driven from all German lands.

1648-9 Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki, initiated the massacre of 100,000 Jewish people and the destruction of 300 Jewish communities in the uprising against Polish rule in the Ukraine.

There were also massacres of Jewish people in Poland’s war with Russia and Sweden (1655-6), Poland (1768, 1788) and the destruction of Jewish communities in Morocco (1790-92).

In 1791 Russia established the Pale of Settlements, 25 provinces where Jewish people were allowed to settle.

There were further massacres of Jewish people in Algeria (1805) and in the Russian pogroms (1881-84).

In October 1894, Albert Dreyfus, a Jewish colonel in the French army, was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. There was an outcry about Jewish people not being loyal to the state. Dreyfus was quickly convicted and exiled to Devil’s Island Two years later it was discovered that Dreyfus was innocent, but documents were forged to confirm his guilt. This led to very public debate about military corruption and anti-Semitism. France was split for and against Dreyfus. In 1899 Dreyfus was granted a presidential pardon and was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1906.

Further Jewish massacres took place in Russia (1903, 1904, 1906), Morocco (1912), Ukraine and Poland (1917-21), Hungary (1919).

On November 9-10, 1938 in what became known as Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany and Austria were attacked and many Jewish people were sent to concentration camps.

World War II began and many massacres of Jewish people took place, including in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. It is estimated that 5,820,960 Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust.

Pogroms continued in Poland (1946) and Libya (1948).

Various anti-Semitic myths still survive, e.g.:

  • The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a forged work purporting to be a Jewish plan to conquer the world.
  • Holocaust Denial: claims that the Holocaust didn’t happen or was exaggerated.

Sadly, anti-Semitism is still alive and well in our modern world. In 2006, the Global Forum against Anti-Semitism reported a significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Austria, Germany and Scandinavia. There were violent attacks as well as Holocaust denial.

© Tony Higton