Looking back over 2,000 years, it is possible to isolate a number of causes of antisemitism. Jews have been detested because they were different, despised on account of their financial success, and feared for their connections with Jewry in other lands. In addition to the various social, economic and psychological explanations for humanity’s longest hatred, the Christian roots of antipathy run very deep.
With the emergence of Christianity, the followers of Christ believed themselves to be the true heirs of the covenant. For these Christians, Jesus’ messiaship was understood as bringing about a new age in which the true Israel would become a light unto the nations. Given this vision, the Jewish people were regarded with animosity. The writers of the Gospels depicted Jesus attacking the leaders of the nation, and the Church taught that “circumcision of the heart” — rather than obedience to the Law — was what God required.
In the light of this teaching, the Fathers of the Church developed an Adversos Judaeos tradition which vilified the Jews. According to them, Jews were guilty of indecent actions, and they continued to be seen as a contemptible people. By rejecting Christ, Jews were rejected themselves and were doomed for eternity.
The tradition of Christian antisemitism as created by the Church Fathers continued through the centuries. During the time of the Crusades, Jewish communities were decimated throughout Western Europe. Such hostility toward Jewry was intensified by various charges levelled against the Jewish population. Frequently, Jews were accused of killing Christian children to use their blood in preparation for the Passover. Jews were also charged with blaspheming the Christian faith in the Talmud. Further, Jews were blamed for causing the Black Plague by poisoning wells.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Jew was represented as a dark, demonic figure. Repeatedly, Jews were accused of possessing the attributes of both the Devil and witches. As the personification of evil, they were regarded as sub-human. In addition, Jews were viewed as sorcerers, able to work magic against neighbouring Christians. On this basis, the Jewish population was accused of desecrating the Host for magical purposes and of committing acts of ritual murder.
In the early modern period, centuries-old Christian prejudice, combined with commercial interests, provoked antipathy toward Jewish populations in western lands. In Germany, merchants protested against Jewish heretics, complaining that Jewish trade would destroy the economy and corrupt the Christian population. Similar antipathy was expressed in France, where the bourgeoisie resisted Jewish settlement. Jews were also subject to considerable hostility in Great Britain, where attempts to allow Jewish naturalisation were met with great resistance.
The Enlightenment bought about a dramatic alteration in the conditions of Jews. Nonetheless, a number of Christian writers continued to attack Jewry on rationalist grounds. In France, Protestants influenced by the Enlightenment sought to ameliorate the condition of Jewry, yet even they were unable to free themselves from Christian assumptions about Jewish guilt for killing Christ. During this period, a number of major thinkers sought to encourage Judeophobia.
By the end of the 18th century, the spirit of the Enlightenment encouraged Christian Europe to improve the condition of Jewish existence. Yet, paradoxially, the emancipation of Jewry provoked a hostile response from various Christian critics who denigrated Jews in terms reminiscent of previous centuries. In France, an 1840 blood libel known as the Damascus Affair stimulated anti-Jewish feelings and revived the medieval Christian charge of ritual murder, giving rise to widespread anti-Jewish sentiment. The Christian legend of the Wandering Jew, who was destined to roam the earth for having rejected Christ, became a major theme of French literature.
During the second half of the 19th century, the Jewish community suffered further outbreaks of hostility. In Germany, racist publications attacked Jews, and the researches of Christian biblical scholars undermined the traditional belief that the Torah was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Similar attitudes were expressed in France by a variety of Christian writers who denounced Judaism and the Jewish nation.
At the end of the century, the Dreyfus Affair raised fundamental questions about the viability of Jewish life in the diaspora. Russian Jewry also suffered persecution and many Jews emigrated to distant lands.
In the years leading up to World War I, Jews were viewed as scapegoats for the problems that beset German society. Such a situation led to the rise of the Nazism. In Russia, antisemites accused the Jewish community of betraying national interests. With the Revolution, Jews were charged with international conspiracy, and attacks on Jews occurred through the country. The US also saw the growth of antisemitism.
Such a climate of racial hatred crystallised in Hitler’s view of the Jewish people as an evil nation that sought world domination. Once the Nazis gained power, they instituted a series of anti-Jewish policies. During Kristallnacht in 1938, Jewish property and buildings were destroyed. The next stage in the Nazis’ plan of Jewish extermination occurred with the invasion of Russia, where mobile killing battalions were used to destroy the Jewish populace. This method of slaughter was supplemented by the death camps at Auschwitz, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek and Treblinka.
After World War II, Germany did not express great remorse for its deeds. Instead, most Germans continued to harbour anti-Jewish feelings. In Austria, similar attitudes prevailed. Similar Judeophobia was also expressed in Britain, where neo-Nazis and the ultra Right advanced the theory of a world-wide conspiracy. Likewise, in America, antisemitism intensified, largely because of the conflict between the black and white communities. French hostility toward the Jews after the war led to the condemnation of Zionism, attacks on Jewish property, and the emergence of a national party. Poland, too, witnessed the rise of antisemitism. In addition, throughout the Arab world, Jew-hatred emerged as the result of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
For 20 centuries, Jews have suffered at the hands of antisemites. The injustices and pogroms inflicted on the Jewish community have been, to a large degree, the result of Christian contempt. Anti-Jewish attitudes in the history of the Church were not accidental — they were the direct consequence of Christian teaching about Judaism and the Jewish nation. In modern times, secular antisemitism was not always fulled by such religious convictions, yet the previous Christian denigration of Judaism and the inheritance of negative stereotypes of the Jew provided the basis for hatred.
Through this long history of suffering, Christian antisemitism has served either directly or indirectly as a fundamental cause of Judeophobia. In the ancient medieval and early modern period, hostility toward Jews was explicitly Christian in origin. In modern times, this legacy of Christian antisemitism provided the background and language of Jew hatred, even when it lacked an overt religious content. Yet in recent decades, the Church has become increasingly aware of this bloody history, and has sought to overcome Christian antipathy toward Judaism and the Jewish nation.
Church bodies have formulated numerous decrees denouncing antisemitism, and scholars have reformulated Christological doctrine and modified the traditional understanding of God’s conveant. In addition, many Christians today have modified the idea of a Christian mission. These are positive signs of hope despite the heritage of two millennia of Christian hatred of Judaism and Jews.
An updated version of Antisemitism by Dan Cohn-Sherbok is published this month by The History Press