What Is Anti-Semitism? Definition and History

Gravestone of Jewish Soldier Painted with Nazi Swastika
Gravestone of Jewish Soldier Painted with Nazi Swastika.

Howard Davies / Corbis /Getty Images

Anti-semitism is defined as the prejudice and discrimination against people who are ethnically or religiously Jewish. This hostility can take a number of different forms; among them are cultural, economic, and racial anti-semitism. Anti-semitism may be explicit and violent in nature, or more subtle, such as the numerous, insidious conspiracy theories that have blamed Jews for everything from poisoning wells and killing Jesus, to exerting control of the news media and banking industries.

Today, anti-semitism is on the rise globally, with the European Jewish Congress noting that the normalizing of anti-semitism is at its highest levels since World War II. According to a 2018 report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), hate crimes against Jews in the United States "increased by 17 percent in 2017... with 7,175 hate crimes reported, up from 6,121 in 2016." Crimes against Jews in America account for 58 percent of religion-based hate crimes in the country today.

Key Terms

  • Anti-semitism: discrimination, hatred, or prejudice against people of Jewish background
  • Pogrom: organized attacks on Russian Jewish neighborhoods in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
  • Hate Crime: a crime, often violent, motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice and discrimination

Origins of Anti-Semitism

Anti-semitism has been referred to as "the longest hatred," and much of it can be traced back to the first century of Christianity, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which states:

"Leaders in the European Christian... developed or solidified as doctrine ideas that: all Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ; the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the scattering of the Jewish people was punishment both for past transgressions and for continued failure to abandon their faith and accept Christianity."

However, even earlier than that, around the third century BCE, there was a large Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. Here, anti-Jewish laws were passed, violent uprisings took place, and community leaders spoke out against the refusal of Jewish residents to adopt the cultural traditions of their neighbors.

Types of Anti-Semitism

Religious

Scene of anti-Semitism in Russia, 1903, Achille Beltrame (1871-1945)
Scene of anti-Semitism in Russia, 1903, Achille Beltrame (1871-1945). DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / DeAgostini Picture Library / Getty

Religious anti-semitism, which is prejudice against those who follow the Jewish faith, did not originate with Adolf Hitler, although the Holocaust is perhaps the most extreme example. In fact, this type of anti-semitism dates back to ancient times; the Romans and Greeks often persecuted Jews for their attempt to remain culturally separate from their neighbors.

During the Middle Ages, European Jews were excluded from obtaining citizenship, and were limited to living in specifically designated neighborhoods, or ghettos. Some countries required Jews to wear a yellow badge, or a special hat called a Judenhut to distinguish themselves from Christian residents.

Throughout much of the medieval period, Jews were denied basic civil liberties, including the freedom to practice their religion. One exception to this was Poland; Jews in Poland were allowed political and religious freedom thanks to a decree by Prince Bolesław the Pious in 1264.

Many Christians still held that that Jews were responsible for Jesus' death, and Jews were often subjected to violence, both physical and against their property. This was a time period in which the myth of the "blood libel" took hold—the rumor that Jews used the blood of Christian infants in rituals. There were also tales that Jews were in service to the Devil, and that they were secretly planning to destroy European Christian society. Some believed Jews were responsible for the plagues that swept through Europe.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, violent riots called pogroms swept through the Russian Empire and much of Eastern Europe. These were typically perpetrated by non-Jewish residents who feared and distrusted their Jewish neighbors; often, local law enforcement and government officials turned a blind eye to the violence, and sometimes even encouraged it.

In Germany, Hitler and the Nazi Party used anti-semitism as a rationale to perpetuate violence against Jews. During a period of "Aryanization" in Germany during the 1930s, Jewish-owned businesses were liquidated, Jewish civil service employees were dismissed from their posts, and doctors and lawyers were forced to stop seeing their clients. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 declared that Jews were no longer legal citizens of Germany, and thus had no right to vote.

In the past few years, there has been an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and North America. According to a 2018 report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), hate crimes against Jews in the United States "increased by 17 percent in 2017... with 7,175 hate crimes reported, up from 6,121 in 2016." Crimes against Jews in America account for 58 percent of religion-based hate crimes in the country today.

Racial and Ethnic Anti-Semitism

This form of anti-semitism focuses upon the theory, which is rooted in racist doctrines, that ethnic Jews are inferior to non-Jews.

As scientific knowledge evolved in the latter part of the nineteenth centuries, particularly in the fields of genetics and evolution, many politicians, scientists, and intellectuals embraced a racist philosophy rooted in pseudoscience. Specifically, scientific justification for the superiority of whites over other races took hold; this was due in part to the twisting of Darwin's theories. The idea of "social Darwinism" posited that:

"...human beings were not one species, but divided into several different "races" that were biologically driven to struggle against one another for living space to ensure their survival. Only those "races" with superior qualities could win this eternal struggle which was carried out by force and warfare."

During the Industrial Revolution, as Jews became economically and socially mobile, this racial and ethnic anti-semitism replaced religious anti-semitism; in other words, instead of hostility towards the Jewish religion, a hostility towards the Jewish people as a whole appeared.

At the same time, while many of the earlier anti-Jewish edicts were being rescinded, there was a growing Nationalist movement which perpetuated, through most of Europe, the superiority of the "Aryan" people over those who were ethnically Jewish.

Economic Anti-Semitism

Anti-Jewish propaganda poster, World War II, France, 20th century
Anti-Jewish propaganda poster, World War II, France, 20th century.  De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

A good deal of prejudice against the Jewish people has its roots in economic matters. Early Christianity forbade moneylending for interest; Jews, not bound by the tenets of the Christian Bible, became prominent in the practice of moneylending and banking. As Jews prospered financially, the resulting economic resentment led to their expulsion from several European countries in the Middle Ages.

In addition, although there are theories that Jews were forbidden to practice certain skilled trades, there is evidence that instead, they were prohibited from joining craft and merchant guilds. Because the Jewish religion required every man "to read and to study the Torah in Hebrew ... [and] to send his sons ... to primary school or synagogue to learn to do the same," there was an upsurge in literacy, during a time in which few people could read or write. This in turn drove many Jews to leave agricultural occupations and move into cities where they could practice business that traditionally paid more than the average farmer earned. Jewish families became a population of shopkeepers, scholars, physicians, and bankers. 

The stereotype of the money-hungry Jew led to a collection of economic rumors about the Jewish people—for instance, the allegations that they are all wealthy, stingy, and deceptive. Still today, myths persist that powerful Jews (George Soros is a prime example) control the business world. Abraham Foxman says in Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype, that another canard found in economic anti-semitism is the idea that Jews regularly cheat non-Jews in order to gain control of banks and the money supply.

Many scholars say that economic anti-semitism is a by-product of religious anti-semitism; without the latter, the former would not exist.

Conspiracy Theories About Jews

Over the centuries, conspiracy theories with anti-semitic themes have proven resilient. In addition to the early rumors that Jews were in league with the Devil and were directly to blame for the death of Christ, during the Middle Ages there were allegations that Jews poisoned wells, killed Christian infants, and regularly stole communion wafers from churches in order to desecrate them.

One of the most damaging conspiracy theories today is that the Jews made up the Holocaust. Those who perpetuate Holocaust denial theories claim that the Third Reich simply removed Jews from Germany via deportation, that gas chambers and concentration camps never existed, or that the number of Jews exterminated was far lower than the millions which primary source documents have accounted for.

"The primary motivation for most deniers is anti-Semitism, and for them the Holocaust is an infuriatingly inconvenient fact of history... What better way... to make the world safe again for anti-Semitism than by denying the Holocaust?"

There is a conspiracy theory found among white supremacist organizations known as the "Kosher Tax." This concept holds that food manufacturers are required to pay high fees to display a symbol indicating that their goods meet Kosher standards, and that these exorbitant amounts are passed on to non-Jewish consumers.

Another conspiracy theory, which originates with Martin Luther, claims that Jews are actively trying to destroy Christianity. In On the Jews and Their Lies, which Luther wrote in the sixteenth century, he encourages Protestants to burn down synagogues and Jewish homes, and to forbid rabbis the right to preach in temples.

Other anti-semitic conspiracy theories include that Jews were responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks, as part of a Jewish plot for world domination, and that Jewish doctors from Israel illegally harvested organs from victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has repeatedly fought against these and other claims.

Anti-Semitism Today

Berlin Jewish Community Gathering To Protest Against Anti-Semitism
Berlin Jewish Community Gathering To Protest Against Anti-Semitism. Carsten Koall / Getty Images

Violent, anti-semitic actions have increased globally in recent years. Susanne Urban writes in Anti-Semitism In Germany Today: Its Roots And Tendencies:

"The new millennium has witnessed a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the world, especially in Europe. Anti-Semitism certainly did not disappear in Germany after WW II. What is new is the blunt expression of anti-Semitism and the fraternization between left-wing and right-wing, liberal and conservative streams."

Many scholars believe that anti-semitism has moved towards the mainstream, in part due to social media. Anti-semitic messages and symbols are rampant on social media platforms, as are hate groups, and critics feel that social media companies have been less than responsive in blocking and disabling accounts that perpetuate anti-Jewish sentiments. Neo-Nazi and alt-right groups have targeted college campuses in particular, in hopes of recruiting new members to their ideologies.

Increasingly, pressure comes from the right and the left, as right-wing nationalists consider Jews to be foreign invaders bent upon the destruction of democracy, while radical members of anti-Zionist left groups see an advantage in destroying the ideal of a Jewish state. In the United States, hard-right fringe groups perceive Jews as un-American, because they believe true Americans are white and Christian; this "blood and soil" nationalism automatically excludes Jews by its very definition. All of these factors have led to a resurgence in anti-semitic crimes and activities.

Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times says that New York City, once considered a safe place to live as a Jew, is no longer that way. Bellafante says that according to the NYPD, anti-semitic attacks constituted more than half of the hate crimes in New York in 2018. She adds that as anti-Semitism becomes mainstream, it will be viewed as a less than serious issue in New York.

In response to escalating anti-semitic incidents, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) released an 89-page report addressing hate crimes and the safety concerns and needs of the global Jewish community. This analysis of crimes against Jews was written as a way of bringing awareness to governments in regards to how and why anti-semitism is damaging not only to Jews, but to the community as a whole, pointing out that, "Every anti-Semitic incident sends a message of hate and exclusion to Jewish people and communities..."

Martin Niemöller

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

As the OSCE notes, it is not only Jews who have to worry about anti-Semitic hate crimes, but all of us who strive to live together in a contemporary, peaceful, and tolerant society.

Sources

  • Editors, History.com. “Anti-Semitism.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 1 Mar. 2018, www.history.com/topics/holocaust/anti-semitism.
  • Reich, Walter. “Erasing the Holocaust.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 July 1993, www.nytimes.com/1993/07/11/books/erasing-the-holocaust.html.
  • “Understanding Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes and Addressing the Security Needs of Jewish Communities: A Practical Guide.” History | OSCE, www.osce.org/odihr/317166.
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Anti-Semitism in History," encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/antisemitism-in-history-from-the-early-church-to-1400.