Why is antisemitism called the most ancient hatred?

Anti-Jewish sentiment was present in the ancient world, including Greco-Roman persecutions, but evolved and gained steam with the deicide charge that Jews killed Jesus. Antisemitism evolved to fit historical circumstances. In the medieval era, Jews were blamed for the kidnapping and murder of Christian children and for spreading disease. As Jews began to assimilate in Europe, conspiracies about Jewish power began to proliferate. And since the creation of the State of Israel, antisemitism has come to target the modern Jewish collective, or the Jewish state.

These expressions of antisemitism have been recycled or appropriated for modern times: in societies with and without Jews, online and in textbooks across the Arab world, in both the fringes of society and in mainstream discourse. Here’s a look back at the historical progression of the world’s most ancient hatred. 

Christian Roots

Antisemitism finds its most sustained roots in Christianity.

The claim that Jews will forever be held responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, a charge known as deicide, comes from a verse in the New Testament, Matthew 27: 25: “His blood be on us, and on our children,” also known as the blood curse. Interpretations of the Gospel of John contributed to the demonization. In several places, it associates the Jews with darkness and the devil. 

In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. But when he failed to convert many Jews, his agitation morphed into hatred, and he turned against them.  “Their synagogues… should be set on fire, and what does not burn must be covered over with earth so that no man will ever see stone or cinder of them again,” he said. “Their houses also should be razed and destroyed…. All their prayer books… should be taken from them.”

The deicide source of antisemitism among Christians was only renounced by the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in 1965, with Nostra Aetate, the landmark document that rejected collective Jewish responsibility for Jesus’s death. Protestant churches have also repudiated the deicide charge, though there is still work to be done to rid the world of the notion, as it continues to be revived.

For example, the accusation of Jews as Christ killers has been recycled by anti-Zionists who compare the murder of Jesus to Palestinians who they falsely claim are “crucified” by the Israel Defense Forces or the Israeli government.

From Medieval Times to the Enlightenment

Throughout the Medieval Era, Christians continued to persecute Jews.

When Pope Urban II called for the liberation of Jerusalem in 1095, the biblical tropes of Jews as Christ killers and devils inspired Christian crusaders to slaughter thousands of Jews.

In the centuries that followed, Jews were denied citizenship, barred from holding posts in government and the military, and excluded from most occupations, forcing them into pursuits like money lending, trade, and commerce.

Artwork depicted Jews with horns and cloven feet and showed them using the blood of Christian children in ritual sacrifices, a charge known as blood libel.

In many parts of Europe, Jews were forced to wear yellow badges. France, Spain, Portugal, and many German states expelled scores of Jews, and many secular and religious states forced Jews into segregated districts called ghettos.

The high Jewish survival rate during Europe’s Bubonic Plague spawned the conspiracy theory that Jews had poisoned the wells of Europe.  In fact, their relative isolation in the ghettos and their rituals of cleanliness such as removing grains from their homes that would have drawn flea-infested rats, have been posited as shielding many Jews from the Black Death.

Roman Jewry was not liberated from the ghetto and its Catholic restrictions until the fall of the papal states in 1870. But for most Jews after the 18th century Enlightenment, the church no longer dictated the rights of many Jews. Still, at a time when emphasis was placed on evidence-based, rational thought, some condemned Judaism’s belief in God as the source of irrational religious faith, including Christianity.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

As Jews began to assimilate into European society, conspiracies about Jewish power began to spread, including through the falsified document Protocols of the Elders of Zion, parts of which originally appeared in 1903 as a serial in a Russian newspaper.

The two dozen “protocols,” claiming to be minutes from a secret conclave of Jewish leaders, outline a sinister plot for Jews to rule the world by controlling the media, rigging the economy, and stirring religious discord. Translated into dozens of languages, the Protocols made their way across Europe, the U.S., South America, Japan, and the Middle East.

In 1920, Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, published a series based on the Protocols, which later became a book titled The International Jew.

The following year, the London Times exposed the Protocols as not only a work of fiction, but brazen plagiarism. The Protocols had been lifted, the Times reported, from Maurice Joly’s 1864 French political satire, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.

But the revelation did not dilute its influence. Protocols became a playbook for Adolf Hitler, who cited it in many of his early speeches and Nazi propaganda.

Nazis Rise to Power

As eugenics became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Jewish sentiment was expressed more through a racial lens.  An ideology that purported the superiority of the white, Aryan race over other races inspired a new, racial antisemitism that viewed Jews as an inferior race.

Rooted in the evolutionary theory of Social Darwinism that classified human beings by different races, this ideology took it one step further, preaching that only the superior race would win the battle to survive, and that allowing Jews to socialize and intermarry enabled them to pollute pure Aryan blood, weaken European societies, and eventually position them to achieve world domination. Referring to Jews as a race, not a religion, made conversions to Christianity moot. In the eyes of the Nazi, once a Jew, always a Jew.

Geneticists, doctors, and other scientists helped the Nazis seize on Germans’ post-World War I vulnerability and sell this ideology. Racial “health policies” sold as legitimate remedies for the nation’s ills sought to cleanse Germany of such biological threats, leading to the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

Antisemitism promoted by the USSR

While the Nazis referred to Jews as a race, the USSR reduced Jews to one of many Soviet nationalities. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, religious Jewish identity was suppressed by the atheist state. Instead, Jews were recognized as a nationality with a distinctly secular Soviet Yiddish culture that had nothing in common with the rest of world Jewry, which Soviets generally disparaged as “religious, Zionist, bourgeois Jews in capitalist countries.”

After World War II and the creation of Israel, Josef Stalin took it one step further and ordered all Jewish cultural institutions destroyed. He launched a campaign against Jews, vilifying them as “rootless Jewish cosmopolitans,” and promulgated the “Doctor’s Plot,” a conspiracy theory that Jews had tried to poison Kremlin leadership.

After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, anti-Western ideals and a bid for Arab support led Soviet media to further target Jews and "Zionists.” The USSR severed ties with Israel, denied Jews entry into universities and certain professions, and blocked them from emigrating. Jews who were refused exit visas were referred to as “Refuseniks.”

A decades-long international human rights movement based largely in the U.S. and the Fall of Communism led to the emigration of nearly 2 million Soviet Jews. Though the party line in modern-day Russia is that antisemitism is not tolerated, anti-Western ideals still fuel Jew-hatred there.


White Nationalism and Anti-Zionism

Today, Jews remain a primary target of the far-right white supremacist movement. In fact, antisemitism is the most enduring component of the white supremacist worldview. In the eyes of a white supremacist, a deadly attack like the one at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018 serves a dual purpose: it seeks to kill Jews and serves as a call to arms for the inevitable race war that Social Darwinism predicted.

As humanitarian crises increase and shift populations around the world, a fear of being outnumbered and governed by nonwhites has spawned a rise of white supremacist and white nationalist movements around the world. In Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere, white supremacists are organizing and recruiting across borders and appropriating the symbols and tropes of the Nazis, such as those seen during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic was fertile ground for a climate of hate. As people spent more time online during lockdowns, white supremacists used social media platforms to exploit people’s anxiety, disseminate propaganda, and spread fear. Holocaust denial and distortion experienced a resurgence. In some countries, neo-Nazi ideology, much of it rooted in conspiracy theories and misinformation, has emerged in debates between mainstream political parties. In other places, neo-Nazis have infiltrated the police and armed forces.

Not coincidentally, hate crimes against refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and Jews have increased in recent years. Of the hate crimes motivated by religious bias in the U.S., annual reports year after year show well over half are anti-Jewish. 

And since the creation of the State of Israel, the Jewish state and Jews collectively have become targets of anti-Zionist extremists on the far-left and in parts of the Muslim world, which in some places has led to a mainstreaming of antisemitism.

For example, in the United Kingdom, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s contempt for Israel had a clear trickle-down effect. In a matter of just five years—his tenure at the party’s helm—Zionist became a code word for Jew and antisemitism permeated the party. A number of British Jews renounced their longtime Labour Party allegiance. In 2021, Corbyn was suspended from the party when an independent government report corroborated widespread allegations of antisemitism within its ranks.

Corbyn’s “friends,” which is what he once called Hamas and Hezbollah in 2009, echo his anti-Zionism, and use it to justify their militant religious extremism.

Bringing an end to the Jewish state and creating an Islamic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea are the primary goals of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah whose views are rooted in Islamist ideology.

Some have warned that America’s Democratic Party is headed down the same trajectory as the Labour Party. Here in the U.S., regardless of the issue—gay rights, climate change, foreign policy with another nation—far-left activists often find a way to incriminate Israel. Anti-Israel activists even blamed Israel for American police brutality, by claiming that Israeli police train American police to promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing practices, including racial profiling. This antisemitic and false claim, known as Deadly Exchange, argues Israeli and U.S. law enforcement exchange security practices and ideologies to purposely target people of color.

In actuality, the exchanges hosted by the Israel National Police focus on effective counterterrorism techniques. There is no field training involved, no training on chokeholds, and no instruction on racial profiling.

For Jews to participate in progressive causes today, many are first asked to renounce their Zionism, completely disregarding the fact that the majority of Jews in the U.S. and around the world have historical, religious, or cultural connections to Israel.  Asking only Jews – and no other group—to renounce part of their identity and/or take a position on a foreign conflict is a double standard and a form of anti-Jewish discrimination.

Similarly, during a conflict between Israel and Gaza in May 2021, American Jews were attacked on the streets under the presumption that they were on Israel’s side. To make the conflict more relatable to Americans engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement, some activists have racialized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, viewing it through a neo-Marxist binary lens of oppressor vs. oppressed. In reality, it is a political conflict between two peoples with competing national goals—and should be addressed as such.

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