HISTORY OF ANTI-SEMITISM
"The Nazis did not discard the past,
they built on it. They did not begin a development. They completed it."
- Raul Hilberg , Holocaust historian
In ancient times,
the Jewish people established themselves as a distinct and separate people
by their belief in one God (monotheism) and by their refusal to accept
the dominant religion. Jews often became the scapegoat, a people to blame
for the hardships of mankind, real and imagined. The history of anti-Semitism,
or hatred of the Jews, is part and parcel of western civilization.
In 63 B. C., the
Romans conquered Jerusalem, center of the Jewish homeland. The first religious
groups persecuted by the Romans were the Christians, charged with being
heretics (or believers in a false religion). Initially, the Romans allowed
the Jews to practice their religion freely, but this did not last. The
Jews were ordered to worship Roman gods. Jews resisted, but division among
Jews followed, one side insisting on orthodoxy, the other side (including
Jesus) arguing that Jews must be willing to adapt. After the death of Christ,
his followers renounced Judaism and established Christianity.
In 72 A. D., the
Romans expelled the Jews from Palestine. The Jews settled in North Africa,
Spain, and eastern and western Europe. For the Jewish people, life outside
of Palestine was called the Diaspora. At the start of each Jewish New Year,
Jews in the Diaspora would toast one another and promise, "Next year in
Jerusalem." It appeared a forlorn hope.
In the early fourth
century, Constantine the Great made Christianity the state religion of
the Roman Empire. Anti-Semitism became a threat to Jewish existence.
The Romans demanded
that the Jews convert to Christianity. If not, they were denied citizenship
rights and protection under law. At the end of the fourth century, as the
struggle between Christianity and Judaism intensified, Jews were stamped
with the pernicious label of "Christ killers," meaning that Jews as a people
were responsible for the death of Christ.
basis for anti-Semitism, the account of Christ's crucifixion, is found
in the New Testament, St. Matthew 27.
"And the governor [Pilate] said,
'Why, what evil hath he [Christ] done?' But they [the Jews] cried out the
more, saying, 'Let him be crucified.'
St. Augustine, one
of Christianity's influential leaders, compared the Jewish people to Cain,
who murdered his brother and became the first criminal in biblical history.
The Jews, St. Augustine wrote, were "a wicked sect" and should be banished
because of their evil.
When Pilate saw that he could prevail
nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his
hands before the multitude, saying, 'I am innocent of the blood of this
just person: see ye to it.'
Then answered all the people, and
said, 'His blood be on us, and on our children.'"
In 1965, the Second
Vatican Council established that the Jewish people were not to be held
responsible for the death of Christ.
"blood libel" against the Jewish people originated in Norwich, England,
in about 1140. A superstitious priest and an insane monk charged a local
Jewish man with killing a Christian child in order to procure Christian
blood for the preparation of matzo bread for a Jewish holiday.
it appeared, the "blood libel" found a wide audience among the well-educated
as well as among the ignorant and superstitious masses who needed only
a slight pretext to attack the Jews, a people declared "alien" long before.
Christian mothers instructed their children about the dangers of straying
too far from home, "Be good, or the Jews will get you."
In the middle
of the sixth century, a group of scholars working for the Roman Emperor
Justinian issued a series of anti-Jewish rulings, known as the Justinian
Code. The rulings excluded Jews from all public places, prohibited Jews
from giving evidence in lawsuits in which Christians took part, and forbade
Jews from reading the bible in Hebrew. In 533, marriage between a Jew and
a Christian was outlawed, as was the possibility of a Jew converting to
Christianity. Laws forbade Jews from holding public office, employing Christian
servants, or even appearing on the streets during Holy Week, the week between
Jesus' "Last Supper" and his crucifixion. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council
issued a decree whereby Jews were ordered to wear special clothes and markings
to distinguish themselves from Christians. In addition, Jews were not permitted
to attend universities. Between 1431-43, the Council of Basel decreed that
Jews in cities must live in ghettos, physically separate from Christians.
The Jews could not leave the ghettos except to pursue business interests
In most of Europe,
Jews were denied the right to own land, and, consequently, Jews did not
have the opportunity to become farmers. Similarly, commerce guilds were
closed to Jews and the difficulties of pursuing a profession were compounded.
Jews were left with few ways to make a living.
Jews became peddlers,
buying and selling ordinary goods far and wide. They became craftsmen (cobblers,
tin smithies, scribes) and developed a reputation for their "golden hands"
which produced expert work.
Jews were engaged
in money-lending. The Christian religions forbade their brethren from partaking
of usury, or money-lending at interest. Jews also emerged as managers of
the large estates owned by non-Jewish nobles. They became tax collectors
for the nobles. Inevitably, Jews were viewed as oppressors by the peasant
class with whom the Jews, representing the noble man, came into contact.
These hard feelings ripened over centuries. It did not matter that the
overwhelming majority of Jews were as bitterly impoverished as their Gentile
Christian soldiers left Europe on
the first crusade to win control of the Holy Land in 1096. The purpose
of the crusade was to expel the Muslims from the birthplace of Christ.
They were the "infidels," those who did not believe in God. Before leaving
Europe, the slaughter got off to an early start against the "infidels"
at home: the Jews. During an intense reign of blood-letting, from January
to July 1096, twelve thousand Jews, between one third and one fourth of
the Jewish population in Germany and France, were massacred by the crusaders.
Entire communities were forced to choose between baptism or death.
Jews fled to Central
and Eastern Europe, where they suffered pogroms (or outbursts of violence)
at the hands of Cossacks in 1648 and '49 and where they were ultimately
annihilated by the Nazis beginning in 1939.
THE BLACK DEATH
In 1348, the Black
Death (or bubonic plague) spread across Europe and killed one third of
the population. Predictably, the Jews were charged with poisoning wells
and initiating the epidemic. It mattered little that great numbers of Jewish
people also died as a result of the plague. It mattered only that an explanation
was found and someone blamed. During two years of massacre, superstitious
and hate-filled mobs slaughtered thousands of Jews, believing firmly that
killing Jews was not only justified but in accordance with the Lord's will.
The massacres resulting from the Black Death were eclipsed only centuries
later when Hitler and his henchmen launched their "final solution."
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
In the sixteenth
century, the Protestant Reformation split Christianity into different branches.
The violent clashes between Protestant and Catholic armies reduced much
of Central Europe to ashes. The Jews, living in ghettos behind walls often
guarded by Christian sentries, eluded much of the destruction. However,
as in every period of tumult, the Jews, a distinct and visible minority,
became the object of hatred. In 1546, Martin Luther, the leader of the
Protestant Reformation who initially wanted to convert the Jews to Protestantism,
issued a booklet that stands as a treatise on anti-Semitism. It was titled,
"Of Jews and Their Lies."
"First, their synagogues or churches
should be set on fire...Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken
down and destroyed...They ought be put under one roof or in a stable, like
gypsies...Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books. Fourthly,
their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach anymore."
It should come as
no surprise that the Nazis, when they seized power in Germany, gave wide
publicity to Martin Luther's rabid anti-Semitic views.
As Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg
has written, "The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect, 'You
have no right to live among us as Jews.' The secular rulers who followed
had proclaimed, 'You have no right to live among us.' The German Nazis
at last decreed, 'You have no right to live.'"
In the age of
nationalism, when the people of Europe began to view themselves as belonging
to separate nations, the identification of Jews as "aliens" entered a new
chapter. The litmus test for loyalty to the state was loyalty to Christianity.
Hence, the Jews were disqualified from citizenship. They were expelled
from England in 1290, France in 1306 and again in 1394, and parts of Germany
in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Jews were not allowed to live
legally in England until the sixteenth century. In Russia, the tsar (emperor)
banished all Jews to the so-called Pale of Settlement, the area comprising
Ukraine, Byelorussia, and eastern Poland. Jews were not allowed to live
legally in France until the French Revolution. The Emancipation Decree
issued by Napoleon in 1791 gave full citizenship rights to the Jews of
France. Where Napoleon's armies traveled in Europe, the Jews were liberated
from the confines of the ghetto. By royal decrees, the Jews of Prussia
and Bavaria, two provinces in the German lands, became full citizens in
the early 1800's.
The 19th century
was a time of vast economic change. Economic life became fiercely competitive.
In the words of historian William Jenks, "The modern state was overcast
with storm clouds, and it was easiest to blame the unpredictable weather
upon the Jew." The Jews now came to be seen as the ones who controlled
big business, the banks, the shop on the corner, the economy in general.
Indeed, the Jews were at the forefront of change. Feudalism had collapsed,
the inherent restrictions placed on economic activity were no more, merit
alone sufficed. Change was unpleasant for many. The old way of life had
its comforts, namely, predictability and a measure of security. The estate
owner now had to compete with foreign products in his once closed market.
Free trade was bemoaned as a "Jewish invention." The merchant had to accustom
himself to the challenges of the new times.
In the late 19th
century, the debate on the Jewish question entered a new chapter. Hitherto,
the Jews had been viewed as different and unacceptable because of their
religion. In 1873, with the publication of the book The Victory of Judaism
over Germanism by Wilhelm Marr, the Jewish question became one of race.
The Jews, it was argued, were different because of who they were, not what
they thought. They were different because of birth. They were different
because of blood. An "alien" people, the Jews could never be Germans. It
was in this book that the term anti-Semitism first appeared. This so-called
scientific basis of anti-Semitism excluded any possibility of Jews being
assimilated into German culture. Once defined as such in the popular mind,
a major obstacle to Jewish destruction, the common bond in humanity, was
took root. This was the belief that people of different races were in competition
with one another, and only the strongest of the races would ultimately
Treitschke, the German philosopher,
noted, "The Jews are our misfortune." The expression captured the spirit
of the age.
One of the most
rabid hot-beds of anti-Semitic agitation at the turn of the 20th century
was Vienna, the imperial capital of the Habsburg dynasty that comprised
much of the lands of Central and Eastern Europe, lands heavily populated
with Jews, many of whom sought to immigrate to the capital. In 1885, students
at the University of Vienna formed a union based on anti-Semitism, bewailing
the increasing percentage of Jewish students at the University and, in
general, the number of Jewish lawyers, journalists, artists, doctors, and
professors. Prior to the First World War, the percentage of Jewish students
at the University of Vienna reached 28%. Jewish students in medical school
comprised almost 29%; in law and politics, 20%. In 1887, the Austro-Hungarian
government passed a law prohibiting the migration or settlement of foreign
Jews in Austria. It was based on the Chinese Exclusion Act of the United
States, with the word "Jew" substituted for "Chinese."
The young Adolf
Hitler, born in the Austrian town of Braunau in 1889, spent six bitter
years in Vienna living on failed dreams in a succession of rented rooms,
flop houses, and one modern and comfortable mens' hostel (built, incidentally,
by the Jewish philanthropist Epstein). Though he lived comfortably on an
orphan's pension for some time, Hitler wrote in his autobiography, "For
me this was the time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever had
to go through. I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and became
The years Hitler
spent in Vienna, between 1907 and 1913, represented a time of political
radicalism, economic pressure, and intense anti-Semitism in the imperial
capital. The mayor of Vienna, Karl Luegar, unashamedly used anti-Semitism
to win votes, blaming life's problems on the Jews. Of course, Luegar had
a Jewish secretary, which he explained by saying, "I decide who is a Jew."
Jewish people constituted 10% of the Viennese population. Part of the Jewish
population of the city was unusually successful by European standards.
They spoke German perfectly, dressed in the fashion of the day, and viewed
the splendor of Vienna with the pride and arrogance of the native born.
They were doctors, lawyers, journalists, writers, and store owners. It
was said that three of the four major bankers in Vienna were Jews, the
fourth a Greek.
Poor Jews also
lived in Vienna. They were mostly Orthodox Jews from the empire's rural
provinces. Dressed in black coats and black hats and with their earlocks
and long beards, the so-called "ost-Juden" (or eastern Jew) became the
object of intense loathing by the Christian population of Vienna (as well
as by some Viennese Jews, themselves poor immigrants from the provinces
but one generation before). In the popular mind, the eastern Jew was dirty
in appearance, unscrupulous in business, aggressive in the market, spoke
bad German, reeked of onion and garlic, and worshiped a foreign God. He
was also probably a socialist or a communist, a "red" in any event, though
this was a thought not quickly reconciled with the image of the observant
Jew rushing to synagogue.
A Viennese Jew
named Theodor Herzl began a movement among Europe's Jews to establish a
Jewish state (based on the commune) in Palestine. It was called Zionism,
and offered hope to the impoverished, scorned Jewish masses that they might
one day live in peace in their own land.
In sum, the gentile
population of Vienna very much feared being physically overwhelmed by a
populace they viewed as foreign and repulsive: namely, the poor Jews from
the provinces who came to the city in the effort to find work and survive.
It was precisely this fear that so heightened the virulent anti-Semitism
that was a Viennese speciality, and that would erupt on the streets of
the former imperial capital when the Nazis took over in March 1938.
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