The history of anti-Semitism

In the course of reading Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, I have learned more about the history of anti-Semitism than from any other source I can recall. I wasn’t exposed to it in literature until recently and I don’t remember hearing anything much about it before high school. There, I recall it being treated as basically an exclusively Nazi phenomenon that arose in the interwar years and was basically crushed after the Nuremburg Trials (though there are worrisome re-emergences in the European far right).

As such, it was surprising to read a history going back to the 6th century. Rhodes describes the experience of Jews in the Roman Empire; a protection deal some made with the son of Charlemagne; massacres when Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague; the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and France in 1392; their harsh treatment by Catherine the Great and the Pale of Settlement in imperial Russia; the forcing of Jewish children into 31 years of military service by Czar Nicholas I in 1825; and various other outrages extending into the 20th century. Reading Rhodes’ book was also the first time I had been exposed to the actual contents of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion – an anti-Semetic text that describes a Jewish conspiracy to control the world, and which apparently had a large effect on the thinking of Adolf Hitler.

The longest passage included, which was plagiarized from a novel called Biarritz, reads a lot like J.K. Rowling:

At eleven o’clock, the gates of the cemetery creak softly and the rustling of velvety coats is heard. A vague, white figure passes like a shadow through the cemetery until it reaches a certain tombstone; here it kneels down, touches the tombstone three times with its forehead and whispers a prayer. Another figure approaches; it is that of an old man, bent and limping. It coughs and sighs as it moves. The figure takes its place next to its predecessor and it too kneels down and whispers a prayer. A third figure appears, and then a fourth and so on until thirteen figures have finally appeared, each one having repeated the aforementioned procedure.

When the thirteenth and final figure has at last taken its place, a clock strikes midnight. From out of the grave there comes a sharp, metallic sound. Suddenly, a blue flame appears and lights up the thirteen figures. A hollow voice says, “I greet you heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.” And the figures dutifully reply, “We greet you, Son of the Accursed.”

It is easy to imagine Harry Potter and his wand-wielding friends being added to the scene.

In a sense, it is laughable that this sort of text influenced how politically influential people thought about members of an ethnic group. At the same time, that is frightening. The whole text is a bunch of cobbled-together plagiarized nonsense, and yet it was apparently one of only three books owned by the last Czarina of Russia. I think that shows just how poor quality evidence people are willing to accept, when it confirms something they already believe, as well as just how quick human beings are to demonize one another.

It also suggests that Jewish people have plenty of historical reason to worry about what the governments of both their own states and those of their neighbours might do to them, if the present climate of relative tolerance that exists in most of the world is disrupted. Several contemporary Middle Eastern leaders have apparently expressed their view that the Protocols are a legitimate document, including Presidents Nasser and Saddat in Egypt, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. Similarly, textbooks in Saudi Arabia apparently describe the Protocols as factual.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “The history of anti-Semitism”

  1. The Jews in medieval England arrived with William the Conqueror and had a monopoly over moneylending in Europe owing to the religious climate of the time, together with the freedom granted the merchant class – Jews of the time formed not just a separate religious and ethnic group but a unique class with a distinctive economic and social position likely to attract both success and very strong resentment. Throughout Europe debtors resented them and other merchants chafing against their limited opportunities (or at least the limited results they produced) resented them and non-merchants resented their merchantile freedoms. After the 1290 expulsion, Jews weren’t allowed to return to England until 1656 – for Britons staying within British shores in the intervening period inheriting the untempered propaganda of earlier generations (and exposed to like or more extreme views from continental Christian nationals), they could easily have acquired the status of semi-mythical bogeymen.

    Though it was easier for the Jews to be identified and persecuted, the treatment they received from monarchs could initially be seen as part and parcel of the delicate relationship between state, religion and the banking sector which the Templars and the Italian free enterprise bankers also fell foul of later in the medieval period.

    Some portray medieval seizures of Jewish assets and persecution as entirely attributable to the the demonisation of Jews by Christian society, other analyses portray the group as constituting (through their distinctive status) some sort of special political gaming piece, callously wielded through a set of cunning gambits by christian monarchies playing internal and external power games, each move renewing or further expanding prejudices which allowed their exploitation without (owing to the religious intolerance and social resentments) loss of the rulers’ political capital.

    The combination of the inflammatory money and political aspects with highly recognisable ethnic and religious difference is arguably what made anti-semitic prejudices fostered in the medieval world so deeply entrenched and persistent over European history.

    Once embedded to that degree, conspiracy theorists had centuries to perfect and expand their pet manias. Given what the political and ideological theorists can knock together and spread over very short periods of time in response to recent real and manufactured controversies (e.g. varied 9/11 ‘explanations’ to USA Republican birthers), it is sad but not surprising that the literature of longstanding prejudices gained currency and lingers even among contemporary rulers.

    While various groups have reason to fear the intolerances around them, and the Jews have more historical reason than most, decisions borne of fear aren’t always those that best undermine the sources of those fears, or those best suited to guarantee survival.

  2. Apologies for ‘borne of fear’ typo (though fear does of course continue to carry people along knee-jerk decision-making paths).

  3. Anti-Semitism in the middle of the 20th century certainly wasn’t confined to Germany. Many countries turned away Jewish refugees.

    It is an open question when exactly the Allies learned about the Holocaust, and why they didn’t devote more resources to stopping it before the end of the war.

  4. “[On December 2, 1942] the State Department had announced that two million Jews had perished in Europe and five million more were in danger.”

    Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. p.437 (paperback)

  5. “At The Times, the reluctance to highlight the systematic slaughter of Jews was also undoubtedly influenced by the views of the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. He believed strongly and publicly that Judaism was a religion, not a race or nationality — that Jews should be separate only in the way they worshiped. He thought they needed no state or political and social institutions of their own. He went to great lengths to avoid having The Times branded a ”Jewish newspaper.” He resented other publications for emphasizing the Jewishness of people in the news.

    And it was his policy, on most questions, to steer The Times toward the centrist values of America’s governmental and intellectual elites. Because his editorial page, like the American government and other leading media, refused to dwell on the Jews’ singular victimization, it was cool to all measures that might have singled them out for rescue or even special attention.

    Only once did The Times devote its lead editorial to the subject. That was on Dec. 2, 1942, after the State Department had unofficially confirmed to leading rabbis that two million Jews had already been slain and that five million more were indeed ”in danger of extermination.” Even that editorial, however, retreated quickly from any show of special concern. Insisting in its title that Jews were merely ”The First to Suffer,” it said the same fate awaited ”people of other faiths and of many races,” including ”our own ‘mongrel’ nation” and even Hitler’s allies in Japan if he were to win the war.”

  6. Still, the image lingered, inside and outside the ministry, that Hitler’s diplomats were a cut above other servants of his vile regime. They came from Germany’s upper crust, not the downmarket fanatics that supported the Nazis. They were seen as reluctant accomplices, often acting as “sand in the machine” of a murderous dictatorship, as one diplomat puts it.

    “Das Amt” will shatter that idea. It shows the diplomats to have been inventive and energetic agents of Nazism. Upset that Jewish émigrés in southern Manchuria were being taken for Germans, the consul there proposed stamping the covers of their passports with a red J, a suggestion that Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, took up. The historians unearthed a letter written in 1936 by Ernst von Weizsäcker, later among a half-dozen diplomats convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg, that called for stripping the novelist Thomas Mann of his citizenship. Diplomats arranged for the deportation of Jews from countries ruled by the Nazis or by allied regimes.

    After the war Hitler’s diplomats regrouped to serve a democratic government willing to overlook their pasts. They protected each other. In the 1950s and 1960s the ministry’s legal team helped Germans wanted for war crimes to avoid arrest in neighbouring countries. Even Willy Brandt, a Nazi-resister who became the first Social Democratic foreign minister and is a hero to his party, worked with a diplomat who had helped deport Jews from France.

    “Das Amt” came about because Joschka Fischer, the first foreign minister from the Green party, could not abide the whitewashing. In 2003 he banned an employee newsletter from publishing eulogising obituaries of former Nazis. Two years later 128 former diplomats rebelled by honouring a deceased colleague with a showy newspaper notice. Mr Fischer’s response was to summon the historians’ commission. The results, he says, are “deeply depressing.”

  7. Prague revamp reveals Jewish gravestones used to pave streets

    Dozens of paving stones made from Jewish headstones have been found during redevelopment work in Prague’s tourist district, confirming speculation that the former communist regime raided synagogues and graveyards for building materials.

    Tuesday’s discovery came in the opening phase of a £10.6m facelift project in the city’s landmark Wenceslas Square, scene of the some of the Czech Republic’s most dramatic historic events and a frequent site of political protest.

    Rabbi Chaim Kočí, a senior official with the Prague rabbinate, witnessed workers unearthing cobblestones whose undersides revealed Hebrew lettering, the star of David and deceased dates. Other stones were blank but had polished surfaces that indicated they had also been taken from cemeteries.

    Jewish leaders hailed the unearthing as proof of long-held suspicions that the communist authorities – who ruled the former Czechoslovakia for more than four decades during the cold war – had taken stonework from Jewish burial sites for a much-vaunted pedestrianisation of Wenceslas Square during the 1980s.

    The flagship project was showcased during a walkabout tour by the-then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

    Suspicions that some of its stonework may have been from a cemetery were first raised by the director of Prague’s Jewish museum, Leo Pavlat, who recalled finding two paving stones with headstone markings when work on the original scheme was taking place. His comments prompted Prague city council to agree to allow the Jewish community to inspect the site once the latest redevelopment started.

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