How centuries of Jew-hate shaped us

Jews have suffered legal oppression for hundreds of years


The Talmud observes that the Hebrew letters for ‘truth’ (emet) are spaced far apart in the alephbet while the Hebrew letters for ‘falsehood’ (sheker) are consecutive, with the reason that ‘Falsehood is frequent, truth is rare’ (Shabbat 104a).

The shocking media proliferation of lies widely believed to be true  -  most recently, that Donald Trump won a landslide re-election as president of the United States, and that the Covid-19 pandemic is a massive hoax  -  recalls the nightmare of lies by which Jews were consistently persecuted in the past, and which, in different forms, endangers them now. 

Antisemitism has existed for most of Jewish history, but only in recent times has it been classified in some countries as a hate-crime punishable by courts of justice.  Still, it is questionable how effective legal measures can be in dealing with irrational hatreds and prejudices. Antisemitism has proven resistant to all rational solutions.

Hannah Arendt wrote of pre-Holocaust Europe that ‘all Jewish children encountered antisemitism’, and that German antisemitism was ‘a hammer blow to the head’ driving her to Zionism:  ‘When one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew’.

Yet Zionism is no solution to antisemitism:  the state of Israel has tended to ignore the routine antisemitic provocations of its neighbours, concentrating instead on trying to protect its citizens from violent attacks.  Most Israelis feel their army alone, not ideological convictions, liberal arguments or humanitarian concerns, has prevented their annihilation.   

However, throughout the history of the Jewish diaspora, antisemitism has caused immense suffering, though some communities have been more fortunate than others.  

Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, and to a large extent afterwards, it might have seemed laughable in much of Europe to make hatred of Jews a crime and bring Christians to justice for maligning, harming, libelling, robbing, raping, or murdering Jews. 

On the contrary, it was the Jews who were criminals: were they not deicides, allies of the devil, international conspirers, desecrators of the host, ritual child slaughterers, well-poisoners, and bringers of plague?

It was not always this way.

In the millennium of Jewish statehood in the biblical age, constant war among eastern Mediterranean peoples did not stir up the kind of hatred that pursued the Jews as an exiled people, particularly after the Romans destroyed the Jewish state in 70 CE.

Antisemitism as a dictionary word dates from 1879 but has ancient roots:  in the cultural struggle between Hellenism and Judaism, in the military struggle between the Jews and Rome, in the religious struggle between Christianity and Judaism.

From being a militant people with a state at war with the Roman Empire, the Jews were totally defeated, humiliated, and scattered among the nations.  

For centuries, they preserved their difference amid a hostile majority, as Isaiah Berlin put it, “in an unbroken struggle against greater odds than any other human community has ever had to contend with”. 

Many charges against Jews in ancient times survived in Christian antisemitism and re-emerged in 19th century Europe: hated as “enemies of mankind”, accused of cosmopolitanism or internationalism, of subverting the status quo, of disloyalty and of comprising a foreign and hostile body within the state. 

How did Jews cope with antisemitism in the past, when justice and courts were in the hands of their oppressors?

Antisemitism tended to diminish Jewish belief in human justice and authority and pushed its victims to greater communal autonomy, social solidarity and religious-national commitment, as well as deeper spiritual growth and intellectual freedom — a natural willingness to oppose  prejudices of the “compact majority”, as Sigmund Freud put it.

The decline or destruction of Jewish life in one country often led to creative renewal elsewhere.  

As a universal civilization, the progenitor of Christianity and Islam, reaching back over 3,000 years, Judaism in the Hebrew Bible had a vision for humanity as a whole, a higher wisdom and a better life, based on a moral education in righteousness, lovingkindness  and social justice.

Jews were shielded and consoled in their world of faith and loving observance, the passionate dialectic of halachah (law), and in the messianic hope that “Zion will be redeemed in justice” and “wickedness will vanish like smoke”.

The Jewish people were led in exile until modern times not by a ruling class or politicians or a wealthy aristocracy or generals, but largely by rabbis, for whom the Torah alone was a guide to life.

The rabbis followed the Hebrew Bible insofar as they interpreted the suffering caused by national defeat and exile as redemptive.  A nation is master of its own fate:  it can destroy itself or achieve revival, through moral integrity.  

The rabbis blamed the destruction of the Jewish state and the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE on fraternal strife, idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, much as the biblical prophets had done after the destruction of the First Temple, by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. 

After the failure of the Bar-Kokhba revolt against Rome (132-35 CE), rabbinic Judaism abandoned messianic militancy for pacifism and stoic resignation to Jewish suffering inflicted by genocidal enemies represented homiletically by Amalek or Haman. 

However, the early Christians who broke from Judaism to create a new religion with Jesus as their messiah had lethal ammunition in Holy Writ. They cited the prophets to “prove” that God had abandoned sinful Israel. National catastrophe was just punishment — for refusal to accept the divinity of Jesus.

In reaction, the rabbis stressed divine love for the people chosen as a “light unto the nations”.   

Rabbinic Judaism responds to blind hatred with a call to moral revival. A midrash on the book of Esther (3: 8-9) finds hope even at the tragic moment when King Ahasuerus removes his ring and gives it to Haman, approving Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews:  “The removal of the ring did more than forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied in Israel: none improved the people’s conduct, but the removal of the ring did” (Megillah 14a).

Judaism turned inward, to community and family, to a moral life of humility, good-heartedness and good deeds, and the consecration of Torah study, to prayer and education at all levels, to self-conquest leading to submission to the will of God.  

Jews never doubted that antisemitism is a crime. In the Midrash, Esau’s hatred for Jacob is chronic;  Esau (or Edom, the hated Roman empire) is the eternal criminal for refusing to accept the Ten Commandments, unable to obey the commandment not to kill.  

In the Seder, the festive Passover meal dating from the Roman period, Jews recall that “in every generation [our enemies] seek to exterminate us”. 

Jewish martyrdom is commemorated in the Jewish liturgy, notably the Av ha-Rachamim and the Musaf (Additional Prayer) of Yom Kippur; and gory curses dating from the Crusades, when entire Jewish communities were massacred, entered the Avinu malkenu prayer, recited on fast days and during the period of the High Holy Days.   

The ancient Tachanun (Supplication) recited on weekdays in the Hebrew siddur (prayerbook) includes the plea, “let not Israel perish”.

Yet, living as a threatened minority in many countries, Jews learned tolerance and compromise. They did not want to be like the people who hated them.

Daily hope for a better world is expressed in the Alenu prayer — that “the world will be mended through the kingdom of heaven”.    

In the face of an irrational hatred with no cure, Jews sought identity and purpose in the idealism of their rabbinic forebears and the universal vision of the Hebrew prophets: to narrow the gap between rich and poor, to seek harmony among nations, and worldwide social justice.

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