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Antisemitism · Jewish history

Racial antisemitism is prejudice against Jews as a racial/ethnic group, rather than Judaism as a religion.[1]

According to William Nichols, religious antisemitism may be distinguished from modern antisemitism based on racial or ethnic grounds. "The dividing line was the possibility of effective conversion . . . a Jew ceased to be a Jew upon baptism." However, with racial antisemitism, "Now the assimilated Jew was still a Jew, even after baptism ... . From the Enlightenment onward, it is no longer possible to draw clear lines of distinction between religious and racial forms of hostility towards Jews... Once Jews have been emancipated and secular thinking makes its appearance, without leaving behind the old Christian hostility towards Jews, the new term antisemitism becomes almost unavoidable, even before explicitly racist doctrines appear."[2]

In the context of the Industrial Revolution, following the emancipation of the Jews and the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), Jews rapidly urbanized and experienced a period of greater social mobility. With the decreasing role of religion in public life tempering religious antisemitism, a combination of growing nationalism, the rise of eugenics, and resentment at the socio-economic success of the Jews soon led to the newer, and often more virulent, racist antisemitism.

Pre-19th century

Racial antisemitism existed alongside religious antisemitism since the Middle Ages, if not earlier.

In Spain even before the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, Spanish Jews who converted to Catholicism (conversos in Spanish), and their descendants, were called New Christians. They were frequently accused of lapsing to their former religious practices ("Crypto-Jews"). To isolate conversos, the Spanish nobility developed an ideology of "cleanliness of blood". The conversos were called "New Christians" to indicate their inferior status in society. That ideology was a form of racism, as in the past there were no grades of Christianity and a convert had equal standing. Cleanliness of blood was an issue of ancestry, not of personal religion. The first statute of purity of blood appeared in Toledo in 1449[3], where an anti-converso riot lead to conversos being banned from most official positions. Initially these statutes were condemned by the monarchy and the Church. However, the New Christians came to be hounded and persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition after 1478 and the Portuguese Inquisition after 1536.

It has been said that much of the discrimination against the New Christians in Spain and Portugal was because they were the only educated class outside of the nobility at the time. Laws against them were meant to preserve aristocratic monopoly over lucrative Crown positions and contracts. Large portions, maybe majorities, of the embryonic middle classes such as merchants and professionals, were composed of "New Christians", which supported the power of the king against the high nobility. It is claimed that the antagonism between the educated and merchant "New Christians" and the aristocratic and landed "Old Christians" was a class struggle. Marriages between nobles and ("Old Christian") peasants were considered even more demeaning to an aristocratic lineage than marriages with "New Christians", and were consequently much rarer.

In Portugal, the legal distinction between "New" and "Old" Christians continued until the issue of a legal decree by the Marquis of Pombal in 1772.

Nationalism and antisemitism

Racial antisemitism was preceded, especially in Germany, by antisemitism arising from Romantic nationalism. As racial theories developed, especially from the mid nineteenth-century onwards, these nationalist ideas were subsumed within them. But their origins were quite distinct from racialism. On the one hand they derived from an exclusivist interpretation of the 'Volk' ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder. This led to antisemitic writing and journalism in the second quarter of the 19th century of which Richard Wagner's Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewry in Music) is perhaps the most notorious example. On the other hand, radical socialists such as Karl Marx (himself of Jewish descent) identified Jews as being both victims and enforced perpetrators of the Capitalist system – e.g. in his article On the Jewish Question. From sources such as these, and encouraged by the broad acceptance of racial theories as the century continued, antisemitism entered the vocabularies and policies of both the right and the left in political thought.

The rise of racial antisemitism

1873 Austrian caricature based on racial stereotypes.

Modern European antisemitism has its origin in 19th century theories—now mostly considered as pseudo-scientific—that said that the Semitic peoples, including the Jews, are entirely different from the Aryan, or Indo-European, populations, and that they can never be amalgamated with them. In this view, Jews are not opposed on account of their religion, but on account of their supposed hereditary or genetic racial characteristics: greed, a special aptitude for money-making, aversion to hard work, clannishness and obtrusiveness, lack of social tact, low cunning, and especially lack of patriotism. Later, Nazi propaganda also dwelt on supposed physical differences, such as the shape of the "Jewish nose." [4][5][6][7]

While enlightened European intellectual society of that period viewed prejudice against people on account of their religion to be declassé and a sign of ignorance, because of this supposed 'scientific' connection to genetics they felt fully justified in prejudice based on nationality or 'race'. In order to differentiate between the two practices, the term antisemitism was developed to refer to this 'acceptable' bias against Jews as a nationality, as distinct from the 'undesirable' prejudice against Judaism as a religion. Concurrently with this usage, some authors in Germany began to use the term 'Palestinians' when referring to Jews as a people, rather than as a religious group. Similar custom is still displayed in the use in academic circles of the term "Hebrew" in preference to the term "Jewish".

Actually, it is questionable whether Jews looked significantly different from the general population in which they lived. This was especially true in places like Germany, France and Austria where the Jewish population tended to be more secular (or at least less Orthodox) than that of Eastern Europe, and did not wear clothing (such as a yarmulke) that would particularly distinguish their appearance from the non-Jewish population. Many anthropologists of the time such as Franz Boas tried to use complex physical measurements like the cephalic index and visual surveys of hair/eye color and skin tone of Jewish vs. non-Jewish European populations to prove that the notion of separate "Jewish" and "Aryan" races was a myth. The 19th and early 20th century view of race should be distinguished from the efforts of modern population genetics to trace the ancestry of various Jewish groups, see Y-chromosomal Aaron.

The advent of racial antisemitism was also linked to the growing sense of nationalism in many countries. The nationalist context viewed Jews as a separate and often "alien" nation within the countries in which Jews resided, a prejudice exploited by the elites of many governments.

Elites and the use of antisemitism

1889 Paris, France elections poster for self-described "candidat antisémite" Adolphe Willette: "The Jews are a different race, hostile to our own... Judaism, there is the enemy!"

Many analysts of modern antisemitism have pointed out that its essence is scapegoating: features of modernity felt by some group to be undesirable (e.g. materialism, the power of money, economic fluctuations, war, secularism, socialism, Communism, movements for racial equality, social welfare policies, etc.) are believed to be caused by the machinations of a conspiratorial people whose full loyalties are not to the national group. Traditionalists anguished at the supposedly decadent or defective nature of the modern world have sometimes been inclined to embrace such views. Some are of the opinion that many of the conservative members of the WASP establishment of the United States as well as other comparable Western elites (e.g. the British Foreign Office) have harbored such attitudes, and in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, some antisemites have imagined world Communism to be a Jewish conspiracy.[8] (see Judeo-Bolshevism)

The modern form of antisemitism is identified in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica as a conspiracy theory serving the self-understanding of the European aristocracy, whose social power waned with the rise of bourgeois society. The Jews of Europe, then recently emancipated, were relatively literate, entrepreneurial and unentangled in aristocratic patronage systems, and were therefore disproportionately represented in the ascendant bourgeois class. As the aristocracy (and its hangers-on) lost out to this new center of power in society, they found their scapegoat – exemplified in the work of Arthur de Gobineau. That the Jews were singled out to embody the 'problem' was, by this theory, no more than a symptom of the nobility's own prejudices concerning the importance of breeding (on which its own legitimacy was founded).

Dreyfus affair

The treason conviction of Alfred Dreyfus demonstrated French antisemitism.

The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal which divided France for many years during the late 19th century. It centered on the 1894 treason conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army. Dreyfus was, in fact, innocent: the conviction rested on false documents, and when high-ranking officers realized this they attempted to cover up the mistakes. The writer Émile Zola exposed the affair to the general public in the literary newspaper L'Aurore (The Dawn) in a famous open letter to the Président de la République Félix Faure, titled J'accuse! (I Accuse!) on January 13, 1898.

The Dreyfus Affair split France between the Dreyfusards (those supporting Alfred Dreyfus) and the Antidreyfusards (those against him). The quarrel was especially violent since it involved many issues then highly controversial in a heated political climate.

Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899, readmitted into the army, and made a knight in the Legion of Honour.


The victims, mostly Jewish children, of a 1905 pogrom in Ekaterinoslav.

Pogroms were a form of race riots, most commonly in Russia and Eastern Europe, aimed specifically at Jews and often government sponsored. Pogroms became endemic during a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots that swept southern Russia in 1881, after Jews were wrongly blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. In the 1881 outbreak, thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, many families reduced to extremes of poverty; women sexually assaulted, and large numbers of men, women, and children killed or injured in 166 Russian towns. The new tzar, Alexander III, blamed the Jews for the riots and issued a series of harsh restrictions on Jews. Large numbers of pogroms continued until 1884, with at least tacit inactivity by the authorities. An even bloodier wave of pogroms broke out in 1903–1906, leaving an estimated 2,000 Jews dead, and many more wounded. A wave of 887 pogroms in Russia and Ukraine occurred during the Russian Civil War, in which between 70,000 to 250,000 civilian Jews were killed by riots led by various sides.

During the early to mid-1900s, pogroms also occurred in Poland, Argentina, and throughout the Arab world. Extremely deadly pogroms also occurred during World War II, including the Romanian Iaşi pogrom in which 14,000 Jews were killed, and the Jedwabne massacre in Poland which killed between 380 and 1,600 Jews. The last mass pogrom in Europe was the post-war Kielce pogrom of 1946.

Antisemitic legislation

The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 used a pseudo-scientific basis for racial discrimination against Jews. People with four German grandparents (white circles) were of "German blood," while people were classified as Jews if they descended from three or more Jewish grandparents (black circles in top row right). One or two Jewish grandparents made someone "mixed blood." Since the racial differences between Jews and Germans are small, the Nazis used the religious observance of a person's grandparents to determine their "race." (1935 Chart from Nazi Germany used to explain the Nuremberg Laws)

Anti-semitism was officially adopted by the German Conservative Party at the Tivoli Congress in 1892, on the instigation of Dr. Klasing but in the teeth of opposition led by the moderate Werner von Blumenthal.

Official antisemitic legislation was enacted in various countries, especially in Imperial Russia in the 19th century, Poland and in Nazi Germany and its Central European allies in the 1930s. These laws were passed against Jews as a group, regardless of their religious affiliation – in some cases, such as Nazi Germany, having a Jewish grandparent was enough to qualify someone as Jewish.

In Germany, for example, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 prevented marriage between any Jew and non-Jew, and made it that all Jews, even quarter- and half-Jews, were no longer citizens of their own country (their official title became "subject of the state"). This meant that they had no basic citizens' rights, e.g., to vote. In 1936, Jews were banned from all professional jobs, effectively preventing them having any influence in education, politics, higher education and industry. On 15 November of 1938, Jewish children were banned from going to normal schools. By April 1939, nearly all Jewish companies had either collapsed under financial pressure and declining profits, or had been persuaded to sell out to the Nazi government. This further reduced their rights as human beings; they were in many ways officially separated from the German populace. Similar laws existed in Bulgaria- The Law for protection of the nation , Hungary, Romania, and Austria.

Even when antisemitism was not an official state policy, governments in the early to middle parts of the 20th century often adopted more subtle measures aimed at Jews. For example, the Evian Conference of 1938 delegates from thirty-two countries neither condemned Hitler's treatment of the Jews nor allowed more Jewish refugees to flee to the West.

The Holocaust and Holocaust denial

Racial antisemitism reached its most horrific manifestation in the Holocaust during World War II, in which about 6 million European Jews, 1.5 million of them children, were systematically murdered.

Holocaust deniers often claim that Jews or a Zionist conspiracy are responsible for the exaggeration or wholesale fabrication of the events of the Holocaust. Critics of such revisionism point to an overwhelming amount of physical and historical evidence that supports the mainstream historical view of the Holocaust. Almost all academics agree that there is no evidence for any such conspiracy.

Antisemitic conspiracy theories

The rise of views of the Jews as a malevolent "race" generated antisemitic conspiracy theories that the Jews, as a group, were plotting to control or otherwise influence the world. From the early infamous Russian literary hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published by the Tsar's secret police, a key element of anti-Semitic thought has been that Jews influence or control the world.

The Jewish community of East End London has often been accused of the notorious Jack The Ripper crimes, with many of the contemparary and current suspects being of jewish background. These accusations were furthered by chalked graffiti upon a wall at one of the murder scenes, reading "The Juwes [sic] are the men that will not be blamed for nothing".

In a recent incarnation, extremist groups, such as Neo-Nazi parties and Islamist groups, claim that the aim of Zionism is global domination; they call this the Zionist conspiracy and use it to support antisemitism. This position is associated with fascism and Nazism, though it is becoming a tendency within parts of the left as well, and termed New antisemitism.

See also



  • Jewish enciclopedia, Anti-Semitism
  • Bodansky, Yossef. Islamic Anti-Semitism as a Political Instrument. Freeman Center For Strategic Studies, 1999.
  • Carr, Steven Alan. Hollywood and anti-Semitism: A cultural history up to World War II. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Chanes, Jerome A. Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 2004.
  • Cohn, Norman. Warrant for Genocide. Eyre & Spottiswoode 1967; Serif, 1996.
  • Ehrenreich, Eric. The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, Racial Science, and the Final Solution. Indiana University Press, 2007.
  • Freudmann, Lillian C. Antisemitism in the New Testament. University Press of America, 1994.
  • Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. Holmes & Meier, 1985. 3 volumes.
  • Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Penguin, 1994.
  • McKain, Mark. Anti-Semitism: At Issue. Greenhaven Press, 2005.
  • Prager, Dennis, Telushkin, Joseph. Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. Touchstone (reprint), 1985.
  • Selzer, Michael (ed). "Kike!": A Documentary History of Anti-Semitism in America. New York, 1972.
  • Steinweis, Alan E. Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany. Harvard University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-674-02205-X.

Further reading

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