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The term antisemitism refers to prejudice against or hatred of Jews. While the Holocaust, the state-sponsored persecution and murder of European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945, is the most extreme example of Antisemitism, the last two millennia have seen numerous incidents of discriminatory measures against Jews and violent attacks against Jews and Jewish property, including expulsions, pogroms and mass murder.
The term Antisemitism itself is a modern term. It misleadingly refers to opposition to Semites: speakers of Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew or Amharic have never been the targets of antisemitism. It may be easier to understand the term is a euphemism, a word that in an oblique way calls for the opposition to Jews as a major factor in modern society. It is also important to note that while the term is modern, expressions of hate and opposition to Jews are time-honored. They have certainly preceded the coming of the term Antisemitism in the early 1870s. As a matter of fact, both in words and actions, Jews have faced persecution and discrimination since the Hellenistic era that intensified in the early fourth century CE, as soon as Christianity became the dominant religion of Western Civilization.
To distinguish the millennia long hatred to Jews from modern anti-Semitism, historians commonly refer to this early form of hatred as Anti-Judaism, as we shall do in this unit. And while Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism, the former focusing on theology and the latter on race, cannot be the only explanation for one of the most heinous crimes in the history of humankind, it is still doubtful that Adolf Hitler and his associates could rely on the active support or silent approval of millions of European citizens, had it not been for the persistence over millennia of the phenomenon that we will discuss in this unit.
Early Anti-JudaismRelated Lessons
Judaism, a religious faith that has existed for more than 3,000 years, is the oldest monotheistic religion. Throughout much of the faith’s history, Jews lived in territories ruled by other groups. They were often treated as “the Other” and made scapegoats for calamities and misfortunes suffered by societies in which they lived.
Historians have traced anti-Jewish myths, hatred, and violence back more than 2,000 years to the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans did either not like or understand such Jewish principles and practices like monotheism (in the Roman Empire the emperors were considered divine figures), the Sabbath or circumcision.
But the Romans did not perceive the Jews as a particularly dangerous enemy. Even after two Jewish revolts against the Romans in Palestine or the Land of Israel, Jews still became respected Roman citizens and populated many different walks of life.
Source: Anti-Defamation League
Medieval Anti-JudaismRelated Lessons
In the first millennium of the Christian era, leaders in the European Christian (Catholic) hierarchy 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.
Seeking to retain their beliefs and culture, Jews became bearers of the only minority religion on a now Christian continent of Europe. In some countries, Jews were welcomed from time to time, but, at a time in which faith was perceived as the principal form of self-identity and intensely influenced both public and private life, Jews found themselves increasingly isolated as outsiders. Jews do not share the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and many Christians considered this refusal to accept Jesus’ divinity as arrogant. For centuries the Church taught that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death, not recognizing, as most historians do today, that Jesus was executed by the Roman government because officials viewed him as a political threat to their rule. As outsiders, Jews were objects of violent stereotyping and subject to violence against their persons and property.
Among the myths about Jews that took hold in this period was the “blood libel,” a myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes. Other myths included the idea that Jewish failure to convert to Christianity was a sign both of service to the anti-Christ as well as of innate disloyalty to European (read Christian) civilization. Conversely, the conversion of individual Jews was perceived as insincere and as having materialistic motives.
This teaching provided the grounds upon which a superstructure of hatred could be built. Theological antisemitism reached its height in the Middle Ages. Among the most common manifestations of antisemitism throughout the ages were what we now call pogroms (riots launched against Jews by local residents, and frequently encouraged by the authorities). Pogroms were often incited by rumors of blood libel. In desperate times, Jews often became scapegoats for many natural catastrophes. For example, some clerics preached and some parishioners believed that Jews brought on the “Black Death,” the plague that killed millions of people in Europe in the 14th Century, as divine retribution for their allegedly blasphemous and satanic practices.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial and Museum
In the 18th century, as the influence of Christianity began to lessen during the Enlightenment — which celebrated the rights and possibilities of men and women to a far greater extent than ever before — religiously based hatred of Jewishness gave way to non-religious criticism: Judaism was attacked as an outdated belief that blocked human progress. Jewish separatism was again targeted. As European countries began to take modern shape in the 19th century and national pride grew, Jews, who were still usually deprived of civil rights and lived throughout Europe as outsiders, were subjected to further hostility. This hostility resulted at times in deadly persecution, as in the late-19th century Russian pogroms — violent attacks on Jewish communities with the aid or indifference of the government.
At the same time, in response to the decline of Christian belief and the growing number of Jews beginning to join the mainstream of European society (a trend known as “assimilation”), antisemites turned to the new “racial science,” an attempt, since discredited, by various scientists and writers to “prove” the supremacy of non-Jewish whites. The opponents of Jews argued that Jewishness was not a religion but a racial category, and that the Jewish “race” was biologically inferior.
The belief in a Jewish race would later become Germany’s justification for seeking to kill every Jewish person in lands Germany occupied during World War II, whether the person practiced Judaism or not. In fact, even the children or grandchildren of those who had converted to Christianity were murdered as members of the Jewish race.
Source: Anti-Defamation League
Antisemitism and the persecution of Jews were central tenets of Nazi ideology. In their 25-point party program published in 1920, Nazi Party members publicly declared their intention to segregate Jews from “Aryan” society and to abrogate their political, legal, and civil rights.
Nazi leaders began to make good on their pledge to persecute German Jews soon after their assumption of power. During the first six years of Hitler’s dictatorship, from 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939, Jews felt the effects of more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives. Many of these were national laws that had been issued by the German administration and affected all Jews. But state, regional, and municipal officials, acting on their own initiatives, also issued many exclusionary decrees in their own communities. Thus, hundreds of individuals in all levels of government throughout the country were involved in the persecution of Jews as they conceived, discussed, drafted, adopted, enforced, and supported anti-Jewish legislation. No corner of Germany was left untouched.
The first major law to curtail the rights of Jewish citizens was the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service of April 7, 1933, which excluded Jews and the “politically unreliable” from civil service. The new law was the German authorities’ first formulation of the so-called Aryan Paragraph, a regulation used to exclude Jews (and often, by extension, other “non-Aryans”) from organizations, professions, and other aspects of public life. This would become the foundation of the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, which defined Jews not by religious belief but by ancestral lineage and which formalized their segregation from the so-called Aryan population.
The Nuremberg Race Laws formed the cornerstone of Nazi racial policy. Their introduction in September 1935 heralded a new wave of antisemitic legislation that brought about immediate and concrete segregation. German court judges could not cite legal commentaries or opinions written by Jewish authors, Jewish officers were expelled from the army, and Jewish university students were not allowed to sit for doctoral exams.
At the national level, the Nazi government revoked the licenses of Jewish tax consultants, imposed a 1.5 percent quota on the admission of “non-Aryans” to public schools and universities, fired Jewish civilian workers from the army, and in early 1934, forbade Jewish actors to perform on the stage or screen. Local governments also issued regulations that affected other spheres of Jewish life: in Saxony, Jews could no longer slaughter animals according to ritual purity requirements, effectively preventing them from obeying Jewish dietary laws.
Government agencies at all levels aimed to exclude Jews from the economic sphere of Germany by preventing them from earning a living. Jews were required to register their domestic and foreign property and assets, a prelude to the gradual expropriation of their material wealth by the state. Likewise, German authorities intended to “Aryanize” all Jewish-owned businesses, a process involving the dismissal of Jewish workers and managers as well as the transfer of companies and enterprises to non-Jewish Germans, who bought them at prices officially fixed well below market value. By the spring of 1939, such efforts had succeeded in transferring most Jewish-owned businesses in Germany into “Aryan” hands.
Source: US Holocaust Memorial and Museum