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Authors: Alan Davies and Robert Chazan
Editor: Lindsay Jones
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of Religion
From: Encyclopedia of Religion(Vol. 1. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 397


ANTI-SEMITISM. The term anti-Semitism is relatively recent, coined only at the end of the nineteenth century, when it became the identifying symbol of an innovative anti-Jewish political platform that projected the Jews as an alien element in European society. The term was intended to encompass the entire spectrum of contemporary and historic anti-Jewish thinking and behavior and to convey a sense of the monolithic quality of all anti-Jewish thinking and behavior. Use of the innovative term spread quickly among adherents of the new political program and among their opponents as well. Subsequently, the term has been widely utilized as a synonym for all or at least most anti-Jewish attitudes and actions.

The present survey will accept popular usage of the term anti-Semitism as synonymous with historic and early twenty-first-century anti-Jewish attitudes and actions. It will, however, dissent from any sense of the monolithic quality of anti-Jewish thinking. This survey will insist instead that evolving anti-Jewish themes must be seen in context, that is, against the backdrop of their particular time and place. At the same time, this survey will acknowledge common and recurrent motifs in anti-Jewish thinking over the ages. It will suggest that the recurrence of these motifs can be traced in part to the tendency of the Jews over the ages to emerge as discordant elements in a variety of societies; it will further suggest that, once anti-Jewish motifs have been generated, they have often become staples of popular wisdom and folklore, thus resurfacing in later and often radically altered contexts.


Our evidence for Jewish life and also for anti-Jewish attitudes and actions in early antiquity comes largely from the biblical corpus, with its attendant problems, and—to a limited extent—from the ever-increasing body of ancient Near Eastern artifacts and texts uncovered by archaeologists. From this fragmentary data, it would seem that the frictions between Israelites and Judeans and their neighbors involved relatively normal tensions between rival polities. Wars were common in Canaan, with the Israelites and Judeans sometimes the aggressors and sometimes on the defensive.Page 398  |  Top of Article Anti-Israelite and anti-Judean sentiment seems to have been associated with the shifting political constellations of the ancient Near East.

The biblical corpus and the texts from the ancient Near East both note that the Israelites and Judeans—especially the latter—made their way beyond the confines of their kingdoms and settled in other lands, sometimes on their own initiative and sometimes forcibly. These sources suggest that the migrating Judeans brought into their new habitations innovative problems flowing from the incongruities between Judean religion and the larger polytheistic environment, as the Judeans insisted on one deity only and rejected alternative divinities. Two of the later books of the Hebrew Bible—the books of Daniel (Dn. 1-6) and Esther—portray both admiration and animosity on the part of Persians in the face of Judean unwillingness to worship the gods of their empire. While the tone of both books is folkloric, Judean monotheism might well have touched off hostility as a result of its innovative religious norms, perceived as threatening to the established religio-political order. These biblical stories have created a subsequent sense—among Jews and non-Jews alike—of animosity aroused by Jewish distinctiveness, in this case devotion to monotheistic ideals.


During the fourth pre-Christian century, the Near East was invaded from the west by the Greek forces of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), which profoundly disrupted Near Eastern civilization. All segments of that ancient civilization, Jews included, had to come to grips with a new political order and a new culture. Anti-Jewish sentiment eventually emerged, resulting from the intersection of Jewish religious commitments and non-Jewish political concerns. The harsh decrees of the Seleucid king Antiochus III (242–187 BCE) have been interpreted as an effort on his part to suppress what he perceived as dangerous Jewish rebelliousness rooted in commitment to the Jerusalem Temple and the religious dictates of Jewish tradition. The Seleucid ruler seems to have been convinced that only by attacking the Jewish religious system itself could he successfully repress Jewish rebelliousness.

This same combination manifested itself under Roman rule in Palestine as well. For the Romans, Palestine—perched at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea—was of utmost strategic significance and had to be maintained under Roman control. While portions of the Jewish population were quite amenable to Roman overlordship, other Jews were deeply opposed to Roman rule. Twice, the Jews erupted in revolt, and twice the revolts were crushed. Roman hostility seems to have been rooted in simple political considerations, although these eventuated in attacks on the Jewish faith. At the close of the first revolt in the year 70 CE, the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed; at the close of the second revolt in 135, key elements of Jewish tradition were banned by the Roman authorities. Once again, anti-Jewish actions seem to have been fueled by political considerations.

All through late antiquity, significant numbers of Jews lived outside Palestine, in an eastern diaspora centered in Mesopotamia and in a western diaspora spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin. The same Roman authorities that attacked Jewish religion in the aftermath of the rebellions in Palestine were quite generous in recognizing the special religious needs flowing from the demands of monotheism, and Jews were regularly exempted from problematic imperial obligations. In the Roman diaspora, a different kind of tension emerged, the tension between ethnic and religious minorities jockeying for position with their Roman rulers. Competition and contention seems to have developed, for example, between the large Jewish community of Roman Alexandria and the Greek population of that same great city. This contention escalated recurrently into violence.

Judaism seems to have both attracted and repelled the diverse populations that made up the Roman Empire. The attraction and the repulsion were stimulated by the special beliefs of the Jews and their zealous commitment to this belief system and its moral demands. Especially distressing to many Roman observers was the attraction of Judaism to some of their contemporaries and the implications of that attraction for loyalty to the traditional pillars of Roman civilization. Sharp expression of this distaste for Jews and Judaism can be found in Tacitus (c. 55–120), who bemoans the fact that Romans attracted to Judaism thereby sunder all the normal ties of Roman society—their loyalty to state, cult, and family.


Most students of anti-Semitism agree that, with the birth and development of Christianity, new, more intense, and more persistent anti-Jewish thinking and behavior emerged. While earlier anti-Jewish sentiment involved relatively normal political, ethnic, and religious strife and dissipated quickly, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment has proven far more intense and enduring. Scholars have struggled to explain the intensity and longevity of this Christian anti-Jewish sentiment, especially in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust.

Paul, whose writings form the earliest stratum of the New Testament, was intensely concerned with and highly ambivalent toward Judaism and the Jewish matrix out of which Jesus had emerged. For Paul (d. between 62 and 68), the Jews were God's first chosen people and would someday be fully reunited with their deity. However, the magnitude of Jewish sinfulness was overwhelming and necessitated divine rejection of the Jewish people and their replacement with new bearers of the divine-human covenant. The Pauline portrait of sinful Jews had enormous impact on the early crystallization of Christian thought.

While the complex development of early Christianity can no longer be reconstructed, the end product of this complex development—the post-Pauline four gospels—set the course for subsequent Christian thinking, including its views of the Jews. Although these alternative accounts of the birth, activities, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus differ in somePage 399  |  Top of Article details, they are unanimous in identifying the Jews as Jesus' sole and implacable adversaries and by imputing to the Jews full responsibility for his death. To be sure, the Romans ruled Palestine; crucifixion was a Roman punishment; and the crucifixion of Jesus is depicted by the gospels as administered by the Romans. Nonetheless, the gospels impute ultimate responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus to the Jews, who purportedly demanded it and would accept no alternative proposed by the Roman governor.

In the frictions that preceded the birth of Christianity, anti-Jewish thinking was localized, rooted in political and practical circumstances, and generally evanescent. Christian views of the Jews, as crystallized in Christian Scripture and in the authoritative writings of the Church Fathers, lost any semblance of temporality; they were projected as timeless, meaningful for Christians—indeed all of humanity—over the ages. Portrayed as oppositional, blind to the truth, malevolent to the point of murderousness, and rejected by God, Jews took on a central role in the Christian myth and in the Christian sense of cosmic reality.

As Christianity ascended to power in the Roman Empire, its leaders had to assess their stance toward non-Christians, Jews included, from a new vantage point, that of power. Jews were recognized as a legitimate religious community, with rights to security and exercise of their religious tradition. Once again, the Jews were thrust into a position of uniqueness. Now, they were the sole legitimate non-Christian grouping in what was intended to become eventually a thoroughly Christianized society. The theological underpinnings of Jewish legitimacy were fully formulated by Augustine (354–430), whose doctrine of toleration of the Jews remained authoritative over the ages. Yet, upon close inspection, this Augustinian doctrine, intended to safeguard Judaism and the Jews, reflects many of the negative themes bequeathed from earlier Christian history.

While Augustine identified a number of grounds for toleration of the Jews, two predominate, with both pointing to the utility of the Jews in the Christian scheme of things. The first argument asserts that Jews bear witness to Christian truth by proclaiming the validity of the Hebrew Bible—in Christian terms the Old Testament—as divine revelation. Thus, in advancing their case, Christians can comfortably cite the testimony of their Jewish opponents. To be sure, the Jews do not comprehend the revelation to which they attest. Thus, while insisting on Jewish rights, Augustine powerfully reinforced the earlier imagery of the Jews as failing to grasp the truth vouchsafed to them by God.

The second Augustinian argument for toleration of the Jews is likewise simultaneously protective and demeaning. According to this second argument, Jews offer Christianity—and indeed the world—incontrovertible evidence for the working of human sin and divine punishment. In the Christian view, Jesus' Jewish contemporaries sinned by rejecting him and occasioning his death. This sin immediately set in motion God's rejection of the Jews, his destruction of their sanctuary and sacred city at the hands of the Romans, and his decree of exile and degradation for their heirs. Christians are precluded from harming Jews, for God himself has already imposed their punishment. The sequence of Jewish sin and divinely ordained punishment is illuminating, useful for Christians and indeed all of humanity to contemplate.


During the first half of the Middle Ages (seventh through eleventh and twelfth centuries), the Jewish population in Christendom was relatively sparse. The overwhelming majority of Jews lived in the realm of Islam. With the arousal of western Christendom in the eleventh century and its rapid growth and expansion, increasing numbers of Jews were absorbed into Christian territories, either through conquest of formerly Muslim lands or through immigration. With this growth in the number of Jews with whom medieval Christians had genuine contact, ecclesiastical policies concerning the Jews had to expand, and Christian imagery of Jews took a number of new and negative turns.

Ecclesiastical policies were aimed by and large at obviating any kind of harm that the Jews might cause to the Christian host majority. Concerns included the possibilities of Jews blaspheming Christianity, influencing Christian neighbors religiously, and—from the twelfth century on—inflicting damage through business and banking activity. The policy focus on potential Jewish harmfulness served to heighten perceptions of the Jews as hostile. These perceptions were much exacerbated by the emergence of crusading as a church-sponsored initiative in the eleventh century. Exhilarated animosity toward the external enemies of Christendom tended to draw negative attention to the Jews, perceived as the unique internal enemy.

The combination of traditional Gospel imagery, ecclesiastical policies, and crusading fervor served to occasion a series of negative turns in the imagery of the Jews. The first of these involved transformation of the alleged Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus into perceptions of medieval Jews as murderously hostile to Jesus' followers. This notion of murderous Jewish malevolence first surfaced in the middle decades of the twelfth century. In 1144 the mutilated body of a young tanner named William was found outside the English town of Norwich. According to a slightly later account, the townspeople of Norwich were divided in their reactions. Some were immediately convinced that the Jews of Norwich had surely done the bloody deed; others rejected the allegation. Likewise, in 1147 in Würzburg, discovery of a dismembered body led to the conviction among some burghers that their town's Jews had committed the murder. In both instances, the killings were allegedly motivated by historic Jewish hatred of Christ and Christianity. In Würzburg, those convinced of Jewish guilt transformed the dead Christian into a martyr and venerated his remains until the local bishop intervened. In Norwich, many of the town's Christians viewed William as a martyr and transformed his grave into a shrine, at which miracles were quickly reported.

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In the Norwich case, an important new motif of purported Jewish hatred for Christianity emerged. In the face of ongoing dispute among the Christians of Norwich as to the sanctity of the lad, a late-arriving cleric undertook to make the case for William's sainthood. This case involved three critical elements: a blessed and pure childhood; a martyr's death; and the production of miracles at the gravesite. Of these three elements, the second was decisive, and the chronicler Thomas of Monmouth made an elaborate case for the martyrdom of William, depicting in graphic detail alleged Jewish torture of the young tanner and eventual murder via crucifixion. Thomas portrayed the Jews of Norwich as imitating precisely their Jerusalem ancestors, thus eliminating any doubt as to William's status as martyr.

Over the remaining decades of the twelfth century and on into the thirteenth, further imaginative embellishments grounded in the basic image of the Jews as murderously hostile proliferated. These included the claims that Jews were committed to reconstituting their ancient sacrificial system through the murder of Christians, that Jews killed Christians in order to utilize their blood for Jewish ritual, and that Jews sought to gain possession of host wafers in order to subject them to torture and suffering. During the devastating mid-fourteenth-century bubonic plague, the imagery of murderous Jewish animosity eventuated in the popular conviction that Jews had poisoned the wells of Europe and thus brought about the plague. Thousands of Jews lost their lives in the resultant violence.

A second negative turn in Christian imagery of Jews resulted from the combination of the sense of Jewish hostility and malevolence and a new Jewish economic specialization that developed during the twelfth century. As the vitalization of western Christendom accelerated, European society keenly felt the need for enhanced flow of capital. Both Christian and Jewish understandings of Deuteronomy 23:20–21 forbade their adherents from taking interest from or giving interest to fellow Christians or fellow Jews. However, traditional readings of these verses allowed the taking and giving of interest across denominational lines. As the need for capital became more pressing, Jews found it increasingly advantageous to use their special circumstances to enter the banking business. To be sure, bankers have never been popular, and Jewish involvement in such business combined with traditional imagery of Jewish hostility toward Christ, Christianity, and Christians to create the perception that moneylending became another vehicle through which Jews sought to inflict harm on Christian society.

Yet a third negative turn in Christian imagery of the Jews involved the conviction that Jewish acts of malevolence were hardly individual and local. Rather, it was claimed that Jews, scattered throughout the world as part of their divinely imposed punishment, utilized their wide-ranging Jewish network for inflicting harm throughout Christendom. Thomas of Monmouth, for example, indicated that a convert from Judaism to Christianity had reliably informed him that the murder in Norwich in 1144 was by no means an isolated deed undertaken by a small band of local Jews. Rather, an international Jewish conspiracy lay behind the Norwich event, with that particular town selected for that particular year. Regularly, it was asserted, the international Jewish conspirators met and selected the site for the annual anti-Christian crime.

A final turn in anti-Jewish perception emerged in the wake of large-scale conversion of Jews during the violence that swept across the Iberian Peninsula in 1391. In much traditional ecclesiastical thinking, baptism thoroughly altered the nature of the convert, meaning that Jews lost their inherently negative characteristics through acceptance of Christianity. However, traditional thinking was complex, with some voices suggesting that in fact inherited Jewish characteristics could not be totally effaced by baptism. Prior to the fourteenth century, this uncertainty remained unresolved and an interesting theoretical issue only. With the conversion of tens of thousands of Iberian Jews, this theoretical issue quickly assumed practical significance. What emerged was a form of racist thinking, with many Old Christians convinced that their New Christian neighbors had lost none of their prior Jewish infirmities. Clarification of genealogical lines and proof of blood purity became preoccupations of Spanish society, with numerous groups, both ecclesiastical and lay, denying membership to applicants whose lineage was tainted by Jewish ancestry.

By the end of the Middle Ages, as western Christendom stood on the threshold of major change, anti-Jewish imagery had proliferated and hardened into widely shared beliefs regarding Jewish otherness, Jewish hostility toward Christianity and Christians, and Jewish harmfulness. The central organs of the Roman Catholic Church regularly repudiated many of the radical anti-Jewish canards, while at the same time continuing to purvey the more traditional themes of Jewish otherness and enmity. The entire spectrum of anti-Jewish motifs, including the most radical, became staples of European folk thinking.


Much of the Reformation's energy was directed at dismantling the authoritarian centralization of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the tendency toward fragmentation is pronounced, and scholars regularly speak of a number of reformations. Once more, however, our interest lies with the broad stratum of folk conviction common to many of the diverse strands of Reformation thinking.

Since so much of Reformation thinking is oriented toward change, it is reasonable to anticipate that some of this change might have involved improved treatment and imagery of the Jews. During the Reformation, there were indeed signs of more positive imagery of the Jews, which flowed largely from two directions. Some of the reformers, Martin Luther (1483–1546) for example, used the issue of the Jews as a cudgel with which to beat the Roman Catholic Church, arguing that its harsh policies and the anti-Jewish imagery it projected turned the Jews into enemies. More sympatheticPage 401  |  Top of Article perception and treatment of Jews would surely win them over to Christianity. Additionally, the suffering of some of the reform groups transformed the meaning of persecution from divine punishment to divine testing. Persecuted Protestants viewed Jewish suffering and Jewish perseverance in a positive light.

However, the Reformation did not improve overall perceptions of the Jews. Martin Luther himself, disappointed in the Jewish failure to respond to his earlier ameliorative statements, expressed bitterness toward Jews in his later writings and supported extreme anti-Jewish measures. Urging the need to "prayerfully and reverentially practice a merciful severity," Luther proposed the following steps:

  1. total destruction of synagogues;
  2. parallel destruction of Jewish homes;
  3. prohibition of Jewish literature;
  4. prohibition of rabbinic teaching;
  5. revocation of all travel rights;
  6. prohibition of Jewish usury; and
  7. forcible labor for the Jews.

Lurking beyond all these specific measures lay the possibility of expulsion of the Jews from all German lands. Luther couched his extreme recommendations in the most vituperative and demeaning terms. However, in neither the program nor the rhetoric does Luther break new ground. The imagery upon which he built his program and which he reinforced with his harsh language is identifiably a legacy of the later Middle Ages. What makes the Luther program and imagery especially striking was the potential that the Reformation had for change; instead, a number of its leading figures reinforced the most negative elements in medieval perceptions of Judaism and the Jews.


The Enlightenment as well was grounded in a profound desire for innovation, with the attendant promise of significant alterations in policy and thinking vis-à-vis the Jews. Once again, there were changes, in this case more far-reaching policy changes than had emerged from the Reformation. At the same time, the new order entailed its own dangers. Moreover, folkloric stereotypes survived into the new environment and continued to affect the European majority in both overt and subtle ways.

One of the major stimuli to Enlightenment change was accelerating despair over the toll taken by post-Reformation religious warfare. Thinkers like John Locke (1632–1704) began to ask whether there might not be a reasonable alternative to the ceaseless struggle for religio-political domination. Might it not be possible to fashion a society within which men and women would be free to practice a variety of religious confessions while belonging to a nondenominational civil society? A second major stimulus in the move toward the Enlightenment was the rapid advance of Western science, suggesting new paradigms for knowledge and raising serious doubts with respect to traditional religious scholarship and theology. This new knowledge further diminished the standing of the various Christian churches and further encouraged creation of a secular sphere of societal life, grounded in reason, in which all might participate.

Once again, the new thinking had complex implications for the Jews. On the one hand, criticism of prior ecclesiastical legacies—whether rooted in moral or intellectual considerations—often highlighted maltreatment of the Jews and called for changes. At the same time, Judaism was seen as the precursor to and the source of the ills and cruelties of Christianity. The turn away from Christian sources and the revival of Greco-Roman classics reintroduced non-Christian anti-Jewish themes appropriate to the new anticlerical mood of Enlightenment thinking. Most important, the popular stereotypes created during the Middle Ages continued to affect imagery of the Jews, who were perceived as separatist, malevolent, and harmful. Many of the leading Enlightenment thinkers, especially Voltaire (1694–1778)—perhaps the most influential of all—expressed intense anti-Jewish sentiments.

The social ideals of the Enlightenment reached their realization in the two revolutions of the later eighteenth century. In the earlier of the two, the American Revolution, Jewish presence in the fledgling United States was too small to occasion a serious debate about Jewish rights. These rights simply emerged as part of a broad commitment to human liberty. In the French Revolution, the situation was quite different, with pockets of Jewish population stirring considerable controversy as to the appropriateness of the Jews for citizenship in the new society. What quickly came to the fore were arguments for and against granting rights to Jews. For proponents of Jewish rights, Jewish infirmities—fully acknowledged—were simply the result of prior circumstances. Elimination of the restrictive circumstances would quickly eventuate in the emergence of healthy Jewish citizens of France. For opponents, the infirmities of Jewish life included political loyalty to the Jewish world and a concomitant lack of political loyalty to France, cultural depravity and an inability to comprehend French civilization, and economic predispositions damaging to French society. It is not difficult to see in these negative views remnants of the realities of pre-modern Jewish life in Europe and prior anti-Jewish imageries.

Ultimately, the proponents of Jewish citizenship in France won out, but the victory was predicated on an assumption of change in Jewish behavior and mentality. This made the Jews in France—and eventually elsewhere in Europe where the battle for Jewish rights was fought and won—subject to incessant scrutiny and judgment. Jews were criticized from a number of directions. On the one hand, adherents of their emancipation found fault with them for failure to integrate sufficiently into the new order; at the same time, opponents of the new order saw the Jews as the instigators, beneficiaries, and exploiters of radical and deleterious change.

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As the new Europe and its recently enfranchised Jews made their way into the nineteenth and then twentieth century, the accelerating nationalisms of the period resulted in a renewed sense of the Jews as different and hostile. Once again, Jews were thrust into a situation of uniqueness, this time as a unique foreign element in coalescing national states. This perception of Jewish distinctiveness resulted in part from the real residue of premodern European life, and in other part it involved the reactivation of earlier anti-Jewish perceptions. In this new setting, many of the older images of Jewish hostility and harmfulness resurfaced.

In 1879 Wilhelm Marr entitled his most important anti-Jewish work The Victory of Jewry over Christendom. Marr was hardly a religious traditionalist; rather, he wrote of the victory of the Jewish people over the German folk. Marr's work reflects a strong sense of the Jews as a different people; a conviction that this different people was committed to struggle against the German-Christian world; and that one of the major tools in this struggle was economic. It is not difficult to see in these assumptions many of the major motifs in medieval anti-Jewish thinking.

In the subsequent and influential Protocols of the Elders of Zion, these three convictions are reasserted in striking ways. To them is added the sense of an international Jewish conspiracy aimed at subverting the Christian world, in part through manipulation of finance, in part through the techniques of democracy, and in part through the mass media. Here again, earlier anti-Jewish motifs resurface in terms appropriate to radically altered circumstances.

Some late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century anti-Semites pushed the new term in a more focused direction, influenced by anthropological thinking of the period. For such anti-Semites, the key to understanding the Jews lay in clarifying the racial dimensions of the issue. Framing the issue of the Jews in racial terms was useful in the altered circumstances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which many Jews had successfully amalgamated into European society and were no longer readily distinguishable from their neighbors in social and religious terms. Racial categorization was intended to remove all doubt and to permit identification of Jews on allegedly scientific grounds. Moreover, racial thinking was also meant to highlight the innovativeness of the new movement and to efface any sense of age-old religiously inspired anti-Jewish thinking. To be sure, such racial conceptualization—as we have seen—had roots in the later centuries of the Middle Ages.

Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was deeply affected by the anti-Semitic thinking of the nineteenth century and became its most effective twentieth-century proponent and propagandist. In Mein Kampf (2 vols., 1925–1927), he claims to have been initially opposed to the teachings of the nineteenth-century anti-Semites, portraying himself as only slowly awakening to the realities of Jewish distinctiveness and malevolence. Subsequent to this awakening—he claims—he saw the Jewish danger in its true proportions. Hitler made this insight a cornerstone of his political program, utilizing anti-Semitism as an effective tool in mobilizing German society toward achievement of his overall vision. He took anti-Semitic thinking to new extremes in the program of genocidal destruction of the entire Jewish people that he eventually espoused. The zeal with which destruction of European Jewry was pursued even during the closing days of World War II, when German defeat was inevitable, reflects the radical nature of the anti-Semitic element within Nazi thinking.


As the horror of the Holocaust became clear, Western societies and thinkers were appalled and undertook serious examination of the roots of anti-Semitic thinking. This effort involved Jews, on the one hand, and diverse Christian communities, on the other. Especially noteworthy was the effort on the part of numerous Christian denominations to examine the Christian roots of anti-Semitism and to eliminate—to the extent possible—the religious foundations of anti-Jewish thinking. Anti-Semitism was widely condemned and became a term of opprobrium. "Anti-Semite," a designation once embraced publicly by many, became a label to be avoided at all costs.

However, post–World War II realities created new conflicts into which Judaism and the Jews were absorbed. The creation of the State of Israel in a thoroughly Islamic sphere, the wide-ranging rejection of prior Western colonialism, and accelerating liberal espousal of postcolonial thinking have combined to create new anti-Jewish sentiment, diversely perceived in different quarters. For some, anti-Israel sentiment involves rational and moral recoiling from the injustices imposed on Palestinians. Other observers see in this recoiling the activation of traditional anti-Jewish motifs, earlier absent in the Islamic sphere.

The premodern world of Islam was quite different from premodern Christendom. The most obvious difference is the variety of populations encompassed within the world of premodern Islam, which was a rich mélange of racial, ethnic, and religious communities. Within this complex human tapestry, the Jews were by no means obvious as lone dissenters, as they had been earlier in the world of polytheism or subsequently in most of medieval Christendom. While occasionally invoking the ire of the prophet Muḥammad (c. 570–632) and his later followers, the Jews played no special role in the essential Muslim myth as the Jews did in the Christian myth. The dhimmi peoples, defined as those with a revealed religious faith, were accorded basic rights to security and religious identity in Islamic society and included Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Lack of uniqueness ameliorated considerably the circumstances of Jews in the medieval world of Islam.

In the post–World War II period, however, the Jewish-Zionist enterprise did take on elements of uniqueness: it was projected as the sole Western effort at recolonization within the Islamic sphere. This perception has triggered intense antipathyPage 403  |  Top of Article for Zionism and its Jewish supporters, often viewed as indistinguishable, and has resulted in the revival of harshly negative imagery spawned in the altogether different sphere of medieval Christendom. Popular Muslim writing and journalism now regularly introduce themes such as ritual murder, Jewish manipulation of finance, and worldwide Jewish conspiracy, themes taken over with little difficulty from an entirely different ambience. Once again, these themes have proven flexible, readily transferable from milieu to milieu.


Despite the sense in early and medieval Christian circles and in modern racial circles that Jewish nature—and hence anti-Jewish sentiment as well—is fixed and immutable, in fact anti-Jewish perceptions over the ages were very much set in specific contexts of time and place. Changing contexts conditioned the emergence and intensity of anti-Jewish motifs and affected the content of these motifs as well. To be sure, review of the history of anti-Semitism suggests considerable repetition of themes, attributable to two factors. First, it was the fate of the Jews to become a unique minority in a number of settings—initially as monotheists in a polytheistic world, then as the only legitimate non-Christian group in Christianized society, and later as the unique foreign element in nationalistic societies and the Western element in an Islamic postcolonial milieu. The sense of Jewish uniqueness was not always negative; Jewish distinctiveness evoked complex reactions of admiration, anxiety, and distaste. The negative responses, however, played a considerable role in historic anti-Jewish sentiment. Moreover, as Christianity evolved, it created a powerful myth that placed the Jews in a central position of opposition, animosity, and harmfulness. During the Middle Ages, these core Christian notions were transformed into potent popular perceptions of Jewish malevolence and harmfulness. These popular motifs survived as a key element in the folklore of European societies, resurfacing recurrently during the modern period in a variety of new settings, including the Enlightenment, nineteenth- and twentieth-century European nationalisms, and the postcolonialist developing nations.


The fullest survey of anti-Semitism is Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism, translated by Richard Howard et al., 4 vols. (New York, 1965–1985). The best one-volume survey is Robert S. Wistrich, Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (London, 1991). For anti-Jewish sentiment in Greco-Roman civilization, see Louis Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton, N.J., 1993), and Peter Schafer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass., 1997). For overviews of Christian anti-Jewish thinking, see Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt, translated by Helen Weaver (New York, 1964); Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York, 1974); William Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism: A History of Hate (Northvale, N.J., 1993); and James Carroll, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston, 2001). Much effort has been extended to identifying anti-Jewish motifs in early Christianity. See John Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York, 1983); Craig A. Evans and Donald A. Hagner, eds., Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity: Issues of Polemic and Faith (Minneapolis, Minn., 1993); and William R. Farmer, ed., Anti-Judaism and the Gospels (Harrisburg, Pa., 1999).

Considerable attention has focused on anti-Jewish thinking in twelfth-century western Christendom. See Gavin I. Langmuir, History, Religion, and Antisemitism (Berkeley, Calif., 1991); Anna Sapir Abulafia, Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (London, 1995); Robert Chazan, Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Antisemitism (Berkeley, Calif., 1996); and Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law (Berkeley, Calif., 2000). For anti-Jewish motifs in the Reformation, see Heiko A. Oberman, The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, translated by James I. Porter (Philadelphia, 1981), and Frank E. Manuel, The Broken Staff: Judaism through Christian Eyes (Cambridge, Mass., 1992). For the Enlightenment, see Arthur Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews: The Origins of Modern Anti-Semitism (New York, 1968); Manuel, The Broken Staff (cited above); and Adam Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment (New York, 2003). Useful surveys of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism include Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction: 1700–1933 (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), and Albert S. Lindeman, Esau's Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews (Cambridge, Mass., 1997). For the New Anti-Semitism, see Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York, 1986).



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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424500169