Feb 28th 2018

Antisemitism: how the origins of history’s oldest hatred still hold sway today

by Gervase Phillips

Principal Lecturer in History, Manchester Metropolitan University

Antisemitism is on the march. From the far-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, with their “Blood and Soil” chants and their “Jews will not replace us” placards to attacks on synagogues in Sweden, arson attacks on kosher restaurants in France and a spike in hate crimes against Jews in the UK. Antisemitism seems to have been given a new lease of life.

The seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East have made the problem worse as they spawn divisive domestic politics in the West. But can the advance of antisemitism be attributed to the rise of right-wing populism or the influence of Islamic fundamentalism? One thing is clear. Antisemitism is here and it’s getting worse.

Antisemitism rears its ugly head in every aspect of public life, whether internal debates within political parties or accusations of conspiratorial networks or plots in politics and business. Or even in the accusations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexually predatory behaviour was somehow linked to his Jewish origins.

But by focusing narrowly on the contemporary context of modern antisemitism, we miss a central, if deeply depressing, reality. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic magazine, puts it correctly when he says that what we are seeing is an ancient and deeply embedded hostility towards Jews that is reemerging as the barbarous events of World War II recede from our collective memory.

Goldberg says that for 70 years, in the shadow of the death camps, antisemitism was culturally, politically and intellectually unacceptable. But now “we are witnessing … the denouement of an unusual epoch in European life, the age of the post-Holocaust Jewish dispensation”. Without an understanding of antisemitism’s ancient roots, the dark significance of this current trend may not be fully understood and hatred may sway popular opinion unchallenged.

Antisemitism has been called history’s oldest hatred and it has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable. It is carved from – and sustained by – powerful precedents and inherited stereotypes. But it also taking on variant forms to reflect the contingent fears and anxieties of an ever-changing world. Understood this way, it is the modern manifestation of an ancient prejudice – one which some scholars believe stretches back to antiquity and medieval times.

Ancient tradition of hatred

The word “antisemitism” was popularised by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr. His polemic, Der Sieg des Judentums über das Germentum (The Victory of Jewry over Germandom), was published in 1879. Outwardly, Marr was a thoroughly secular man of the modern world. He explicitly rejected the groundless but ancient Christian allegations long made against the Jews, such as deicide or that Jews engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children. Instead, he drew on the fashionable theories of the French academic Ernest Renan (who viewed history as a world-shaping contest between Jewish Semites and Aryan Indo-Europeans). Marr suggested that the Jewish threat to Germany was racial. He said that it was born of their immutable and destructive nature, their “tribal peculiarities” and “alien essence”.

Antisemites like Marr strove for intellectual respectability by denying any connection between their own modern, secular ideology and the irrational, superstitious bigotry of the past. It is a tactic which is employed by some contemporary antisemites who align themselves with “anti-Zionism”, an ideology whose precise definition consequently excites considerable controversy. But this continuing hostility towards Jews from pre-modern to modern times has been manifest to many.

The American historian Joshua Trachtenberg, writing during World War II, noted:

Modern so-called ‘scientific’ antisemitism is not an invention of Hitler’s … it has flourished primarily in central and eastern Europe, where medieval ideas and conditions have persisted until this day, and where the medieval conception of the Jew which underlies the prevailing emotional antipathy toward him was, and still is, deeply rooted.

In fact, up until the Holocaust, antisemitism flourished just as much in western Europe as in central or eastern Europe. Consider, for example, how French society was bitterly divided between 1894-1906, after the Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused and convicted of spying for Germany. It saw conservatives squaring up against liberals and socialists, Catholics against Jews.

Yet Trachtenberg was undoubtedly correct in suggesting that many of those who shaped modern antisemitism were profoundly influenced by the older “medieval” tradition of religious bigotry. The Russian editor of the infamous Protocols of Zion – a crude and ugly, but tragically influential, forgery alleging a Jewish world conspiracy – was the political reactionary, ultra-Orthodox, and self-styled mystic Sergei Nilus.

Wrought by fear and hatred of the challenges to traditional religion, social hierarchies and culture posed by modernity, Nilus was convinced that the coming of the Antichrist was imminent and that those who failed to believe in the existence of “the elders of Zion” were simply the dupes of “Satan’s greatest ruse”.

So modern antisemitism cannot be easily separated from its pre-modern antecedents. As the Catholic theologian Rosemary Ruether observed:

The mythical Jew, who is the eternal conspiratorial enemy of Christian faith, spirituality and redemption, was … shaped to serve as the scapegoat for [the ills of] secular industrial society.

Antisemitism in antiquity?

Some scholars would look to the pre-Christian world and see in the attitudes of ancient Greeks and Romans the origins of an enduring hostility. Religious Studies scholar Peter Schäfer believes the exclusive nature of the monotheistic Jewish faith, the apparent haughty sense of being a chosen people, a refusal to intermarry, a Sabbath observance and the practise of circumcision were all things that marked Jews out in antiquity for a particular odium.

Finding examples of hostility towards Jews in classical sources is not difficult. The politician and lawyer Cicero, 106-43BC, once reminded a jury of “the odium of Jewish gold” and how they “[stick together]” and are “influential in informal assemblies”. The Roman historian Tacitus, c.56-120AD, was contemptuous of “base and abominable” Jewish customs and was deeply disturbed by those of his compatriots who had renounced their ancestral gods and converted to Judaism. The Roman poet and satirist Juvenal, c.55-130AD, shared his disgust at the behaviour of converts to Judaism besides denouncing Jews generally as drunken and rowdy.

These few examples may point towards the existence of antisemitism in antiquity. But there is little reason to believe that Jews were the objects of a specific prejudice beyond the generalised contempt that both Greeks and Romans exhibited towards “barbarians” – especially conquered and colonised peoples. Juvenal was every bit as rude about Greeks and other foreigners in Rome as he was about Jews. He complained bitterly: “I cannot stand … a Greek city of Rome. And yet what part of the dregs comes from Greece?” Once the full extent of Juvenal’s prejudice has been recognised, his snide remarks about Jews might be understood as being more indicative of an altogether more sweeping xenophobia.

The ‘Christ killers’

It is in the theology of early Christians that we find the clearest foundations of antisemitism. The Adversus Judaeos (arguments against the Jews) tradition was established early in the religion’s history. Sometime around 140AD the Christian apologist Justin Martyr was teaching in Rome. In his most celebrated work, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin strove to answer Trypho when he pointed to the contradictory position of Christians who claimed to accept Jewish scripture but refused to follow Torah (the Jewish law).

Justin responded that the demands of Jewish law were meant only for Jews as a punishment from God. Although still accepting the possibility of Jewish salvation, he argued that the old covenant was finished, telling Trypho: “You ought to understand that [the gifts of God’s favour] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us.” Yet Justin’s concern was not really with Jews. It was with his fellow Christians. At a time when the distinction between Judaism and Chritianity was still blurred and rival sects competed for adherents, he was striving to prevent gentile converts to Christianity from observing the Torah, lest they go over wholly to Judaism.

Vilifying Jews was a central part of Justin’s rhetorical strategy. He alleged that they were guilty of persecuting Christians and had done so ever since they “had killed the Christ”. It was an ugly charge, soon levelled again in the works of other Church Fathers, such as Tertullian (c.160-225AD) who referred to the “synagogues of the Jews” as “fountains of persecution”.

The objective of using such invective was to settle internal debates within Christian congregations. The “Jews” in these writings were symbolic. The allegations did not reflect the actual behaviour or beliefs of Jews. When Tertullian attempted to refute the dualist teachings of the Christian heretic Marcion (c.144AD), he needed to demonstrate that the vengeful God of the Old Testament was indeed the same merciful and compassionate God of the Christian New Testament. He achieved this by presenting the Jews as especially wicked and especially deserving of righteous anger; it was thus, Tertullian argued, that Jewish behaviours and Jewish sins explained the contrast between the Old and the New Testament.

To demonstrate this peculiar malevolence, Tertullian portrayed Jews as denying the prophets, rejecting Jesus, persecuting Christians and as rebels against God. These stereotypes shaped Christian attitudes towards Jews from late antiquity into the medieval period, leaving Jewish communities vulnerable to periodic outbreaks of persecution. These ranged from massacres, such as York in 1190, to “ethnic cleansing”, as seen in the expulsions from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492.

Although it was real people who often suffered as a result of this ugly prejudice, antisemitism as a concept largely owes its longevity to its symbolic and rhetorical power. American historian David Nirenberg concludes that “anti-Judaism was a tool that could usefully be deployed to almost any problem, a weapon that could be deployed on almost any front”. And this weapon has been wielded to devastating effect for centuries. When Martin Luther thundered against the Papacy in 1543 he denounced the Roman Church as “the Devil’s Synagogue” and Catholic orthodoxy as “Jewish” in its greed and materialism. In 1790, the Anglo-Irish conservative Edmund Burke published his manifesto, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and condemned the revolutionaries as “Jew brokers” and “Old Jewry.”

From Marxism to Hollywood

Despite Karl Marx’s Jewish ancestry, Marxism was tainted at its very birth by antisemitism. In 1843, Karl Marx identified modern capitalism as the result of the “Judiasing” of the Christian:

The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner not only annexing the power of money but also through him and also apart from him money has become a world power and the practical spirit of the Jew has become the practical spirit of the Christian people. The Jews have emancipated themselves in so far as the Christians have become Jews … Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may stand … The god of the Jews has been secularised and has become the god of the world.

And there remain those, from across the political spectrum, who are still ready to deploy what Nirenberg referred to as “the most powerful language of opprobrium available” in Western political discourse, commonly using the language of conspiracy, webs and networks. In 2002, the left-leaning New Statesman included articles by Dennis Sewell and John Pilger, debating the existence of a “pro-Israeli lobby” in Britain. Their articles, however, proved less controversial than the the cover illustration chosen to introduce this theme, which drew on familiar tropes of secret Jewish machinations and dominance over national interests: a gold Star of David resting on the Union Jack, with the title: “A Kosher Conspiracy?” The following year, veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell accused the then prime minister, Tony Blair, of “being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers”. It is still language that is being used now.

On the far right, white supremacists have been quick to project their own time-honoured fantasies of Jewish malfeasance and power onto contemporary events, however seemingly irrelevant. This was quickly apparent in August 2017, as the future of memorials glorifying those who had rebelled against the union and defended slavery during America’s Civil War became the focus of intense debate in the United States. At Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrators protesting against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, began chanting “Jews will not replace us”. When journalist Elspeth Reeve asked one why, he replied that the city was “run by Jewish communists”.

When accusations of serious sexual misconduct by Weinstein were published by The New York Times in October 2017, he was quickly cast by the far right as a representative of the “eternal conspiratorial enemy” of American society as a whole. David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, would write on his website that the “Harvey Weinstein story … is a case study in the corrosive nature of Jewish domination of our media and cultural industries”.

‘The hatreds of our time …’

Responding to such language, The Atlantic’s Emma Green astutely commented on how “the durability of anti-Semitic tropes and the ease with which they slide into all displays of bigotry, is a chilling reminder that the hatreds of our time rhyme with history and are easily channelled through timeless anti-Semitic canards”.

There is real danger here as the spike in antisemitic hate crimes shows. This peculiar way of thinking about the world has always retained the potential to turn hatred of symbolic Jews into the very real persecution of actual Jews. Given the marked escalation of antisemitic incidents recorded in 2017, we are now faced with the unsettling prospect that this bigotry is becoming “normalised”.

For example, the European Jewish Congress expressed “grave concerns” over an increase in antisemitic acts in Poland under the right-wing Law and Justice government which won the 2015 parliamentary election with an outright majority. The group said the government was “closing … communications with the official representatives of the Jewish community” and there was a “proliferation of ‘fascist slogans’ and unsettling remarks on social media and television, as well as the display of flags of the nationalist … group at state ceremonies”.

In response to these fears, a survey investigating antisemitism within the European Union will be undertaken in 2018, led by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The agency’s director, Michael O'Flaherty, commented, correctly, that: “Antisemitism remains a grave worry across Europe despite repeated efforts to stamp out these age-old prejudices.”

Given the phenomenon’s deep historical roots and its epoch defying capacity for reinvention, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the prospect of another effort to “stamp it out”. But an historical awareness of the nature of antisemitism may prove a powerful ally for those who would challenge prejudice. The ancient tropes and slights may cloak themselves in modern garb but even softly-spoken allegations of conspiratorial “lobbies” and “cabals” should be recognised for what they are: the mobilisation of an ancient language and ideology of hate for which there should be no place in our time.


Gervase Phillips, Principal Lecturer in History, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "All of which is to say that the Communist Manifesto is not a historical relic of a bygone era, an era of which many would like to think we have washed our hands. As long as workers’ rights are trampled on, and children are pressed into wretched servitude; as long as real wages stagnate, so that economic inequality continues to grow, allowing wealth to be ever more concentrated in the hands of the few – then the Communist Manifesto will continue to resonate and we will hear the clarion call of workers of the world to unite, “for they have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” "
Feb 4th 2020
EXTRACTS: "In my many visits to Michael’s studio I have had the opportunity to observe his process up close and over time.............."Armageddon Yacht (2019)". The name is derived from a term that US sailors use for an aircraft carrier. Power and violence are recurring themes in Anderson’s work – and no less here. With irony and wit he questions our contemporary assumptions and illusions about power. The central image of three models sipping martinis on a yacht presents us with an idealized vision of Western luxury and decadence, privilege and wealth."
Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"