Temple Isaiah classes for adults exploring Jewish life, history, and practice.

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Klaipėda, Lit...

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This past Sunday we had an excellent discussion about a topic that’s easily my least favorite:  Anti-Semitism.  It’s very important, an absolute necessity in any survey of Judaism, and I would never think of skipping it, but I never enjoy it, either.

In case you couldn’t be with us, here are some essentials:

1.  The word “anti-Semitism” was coined in the 19th century in Germany by journalist William Marr, as a scientific sounding substitution for Judenhass [“Jew-hatred”].  It’s a pity that it stuck, because it’s a misnomer.  “Semite” means “person who speaks a Semitic language” which would also include all Arabic or Aramaic speaking people.  However, the term anti-Semitism applies to the hatred of Jews only.

2.  In classical times, Jews were regarded as odd, difficult, and sometimes as lazy, since we insisted on keeping the Sabbath, but there does not appear to have been anything like modern Jew hatred.

3.  After Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, and after the rise of Islam, Christians and Muslims looked upon Jews as people who had rejected revelation in the form of Jesus or Mohammed.  This gave rise to many problems, laws against Jewish practice, laws against conversion, etc.

4.  In 1480 in Spain, the Inquisition was established to deal with heretics against Christianity, including Jews and “Judaizers,” converts to Christianity who were suspected of returning to their Jewish loyalties.  In Spain, we got the first sign of more than a purely religious objection to Jews, because converts to Christianity from Judaism were regarded as suspect, and their descendants were suspect forevermore.  This is the first we hear of “Jewish blood” or DNA being the problem.

5.  Speaking of blood, you need to know about the “blood libel,” the horrible belief that Jews use the blood of Gentiles, especially Gentile children, for ritual purposes.  Often the rumor includes a description of making matzah from Gentile blood.  (Clearly no one who says this has ever seen or tasted matzah.)  The blood libel first appeared in 1144 in England, but it has surfaced again and again, most recently in the Saudi Arabian press in 2002.

The blood libel is heinous since it has no base in fact whatsoever, and yet it has been used as a justification for the murder of countless Jews.  Traditional Jewish law forbids the consumption of blood in any form, and has rejected human sacrifice since the earliest times.

6.  Another lie that persists is a document titled “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  It was published in Russia in the early 20th century, and claimed that there was an international conspiracy of Jews planning world domination.  The document is fantasy, but it continues to circulate on the Internet and in print even today.  (For more info on the Protocols, click on the link above.)

7.  True anti-Semitism arose in modern times, combining the original religious objections to Judaism with the racist thought of William Marr and others in Europe and the United States.  The article on Marr in the Jewish Virtual Library puts it well:

Over the centuries, antisemitism has taken on different but related forms: religious, political, economic, social, and racial. Jews have been discriminated against, hated, and killed because prejudiced non-Jews believed they belonged to the wrong religion, lacked citizenship qualifications, practiced business improperly, behaved inappropriately, or possessed inferior racial characteristics. These forms of antisemitism, but especially the racial one, all played key parts in the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitism was not limited to Germany. No country in the world, including our own United States, would accept the Jews that desperately tried to leave Germany in the 1930’s.  Leading voices for anti-Semitism in the United States were Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.

8.  Since the 1980’s we have seen the rise of what is sometimes called the “new” anti-Semitism which cloaks the same old anti-Semitism in the language of criticism of the modern State of Israel and Zionism.  It is perfectly legitimate to criticize any government, including that of Israel, but not when the assumption underlying that criticism is a prejudice against Jews and the denial of the right of Israel, the Jewish state, to exist.

9.  Organizations to know:

 OK, enough already!  In two weeks we will meet again to talk about a much more pleasant subject, the foundation of the modern State of Israel.  We’ll also have a quick vote to see where you want to send your Tzedakah Fund this term.

See you then!

— Rabbi Adar


Comments on: "My Least Favorite Subject" (2)

  1. Michael Kay said:

    Thanks for this interesting post; the Saudi Arabia link was new (although unfortunately not surprising) to me. It’s a pretty shocking example. How much do you think anti Jewish sentiment has in the past been stoked by our claim to be a ‘chosen people’? I find this comes up a fair bit in discussions, with Muslims more than with Christians.

    • rabbiadar said:

      I know that the phrase “Chosen People” has attracted negative attention. However, many branches of Christianity make a claim for being “the one true church” and many forms of Christianity and Islam make the claim that theirs is the only true path to heaven.

      Jews are not the only group of people making a claim to a unique relationship with the Divine. Nor do we exclude the possibility that other groups of people may also be “chosen” by the Almighty for other destinies; we only claim that we have a particular relationship with God via the covenants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the covenant at Sinai.

      The tendency of some people to seize upon the phrase “asher bachar banu” [who chose us] as a justification for seeing us and treating us as evil strikes me as more a symptom of anti-Semitism than a cause. I can understand them thinking we are crazy, but I don’t see how it makes us evil.

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