The existence of anti-Semitism still remains widely questioned and debated, for it strikes some as not differing from other forms of discrimination, while others see it as something unique and particular to the Jewish people. Both sides of the argument have points of merit and perhaps through their discrepancies a clearer view of anti-Semitism can be found. In either case, a phenomenon which cannot be denied is the widespread and long-lasting hatred of Jews, the being of which persists continually through history, almost since the birth of Judaism and continuing to the present day. The fact that anti-Semitism has cropped up with such great frequency throughout the world gives reason to seek out likeness amongst the occurrences – likenesses concerning the conditions that give rise to and patterns which precede anti-Semitism. Another aspect worth consideration is the notable change in anti-Semitism after the advent of Christianity. Through a brief examination of some facets of Jew-hatred, an understanding can be formed that could later shed light on anti-Semitism’s evolution over several thousand years.
The term anti-Semitism seems clear and precise at first glance because of some oft-inborn human assumption that equates it with any aspect of Jew-hatred. Now it seems there are two terms (anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred) which both make perfect sense, yet both still contain something vague about them. Taking the idea of Jew-hatred, it seems clear enough: just as a person who hates something possesses hatred, a person who hates Jews possesses Jew-hatred. Is this always an accurate assumption? Inarguably, a person who possesses Jew-hatred hates Jews, but a person who hates Jews doesn’t necessarily have to possess Jew-hatred; possession of Jew-hatred implies the hatred of all Jews for no reason other than their Jewish-ness. Someone who hates Jews doesn’t necessarily hate all Jews, nor do they necessarily hate Jews for their Jewish-ness but possibly for other non-religious reasons. That such a term as Jew-hatred has the possibility of being so misleading can only mean that a term much more perplexing, as anti-Semitism, can only be that much more difficult to understand. A concise definition of anti-Semitism can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, stating it as a “theory, action, or practice directed against the Jews.” By the inclusion of the word “the,” anti-Semitism is intrinsically directed against the Jewish people as a whole, not individuals; however, anti-Semitism still exists in the modern world and attacking the entire Jewish people is virtually impossible, if not simply slanderous. By this definition it would seem as if anti-Semitism disappeared thousands of years ago. Taking it one step further, and arguing the opposite, it could be said that any act of discrimination against a Jew for his or her Jewish-ness makes a single step against the entire Jewish people which, if continued, could potentially (however unrealistically) wipe out the entire Jewish population. Another way the definition could be looked at presents the idea that there are three degrees of anti-Semitism, still categorized under the same main title. There is theory, of which thought qualifies; theory could also include any plans that have not been tested for results yet. Action and practice create the second and third higher degrees. Placing the two in comparison, action would signify any action taken, whether once or repeatedly. The difference between action and practice is difficult to define clearly. Practice creates an image of continuous action as a sort of profession or habit. Of course, most of the previous descriptions, with small changes, could be applied to the discrimination of any group of people. What difference makes prejudice against the Jewish people worthy of such close inspection and such a title as anti-Semitism? The difference lies in its ability to survive as a worldwide, intergenerational trend; anti-Semitism can boast a history millennia older than any other categorized discrimination against a group of people.
Believers and their religion come first, persecution of those believers comes second, and studies on what leads to the persecution comes third. So too went the history of Judaism, and those three events came in quick succession, still not having ended. The birth of anti-Semitism comes from the Jews’ inability to blend in as a people. The impossible-to-win situation occurs like this: if the Jews are beneath yokes, then there is a reason they are being punished and further oppression won’t be considered inhuman. If the Jews are rising above the majority politically, economically, or even socially, then they must be oppressing others to reach those positions and something needs doing to knock down their status. History proves that the Jews are excellent at fluctuating between the two extremes, rarely settling in the middle, with, statistically, the majority; however, even these ideas jump far ahead of the basics.
At the foundation of religious differences are moral beliefs. Laws of Judaism were often based on different beliefs of ethical living, examples ranging from dietary and sexual restrictions to the belief in a single, abstract god. This new monotheism inherently did not tolerate polytheism and its practices; as long as its laws forbade the customs and rituals of other religions, Judaism’s followers decidedly became outsiders in the polytheistic world. From the view of a gentile, Jewish communities looked strongly antisocial, hateful towards paganism, and conceited about themselves and their religion (Marcus 4). The actions of the Jews were, if seen through their eyes, more defensive methods of survival than anything else. Stereotyping could be done easily against the Jewish minorities and once highly respected authors “confirmed” the stereotypes in their writings, the stereotypes could be passed down through generations as truth. The historian Tacitus took it upon himself to relay a new history of Judaism to the world. He describes it as a colorless religion, built on hatred by the gods, plagues, and finally its birth a mere result of the prophet Moses’ greed for power (Tacitus 46-7). This story provides an explanation for the differences between Jews and pagans of the time; however, though he describes a few facts about the religion, even Tacitus cannot conceive of the single or abstract god as he continually makes references to supposed images, planets, and animals that the Jews honor. The words that sum of his view of the religion are extremely harsh. He claims that the Jews “profane all we hold sacred,” and later calls them the “worst rascals among people,” their practices “base and abominable” (47). Accusations such as these, as well as ones of self-mutilation and comparisons to other non-respected peoples more than fueled the fire against Judaism.
The fire might have never been lit had the Jews appeared homogenous with the general population, but they didn’t often, and attempts to do so sometimes resulted in unpredictable results. In the case of the Jews in Elephantine, ruled by Persia during fifth century BCE, their partial assimilation was a cause of the violent action taken against them. The violence was not merely the result of religious differences, but also because the Jews represented agents of foreign rule and oppression, and were favored by Persia as well. Situations similar to this, in which the Jews find favor in the sight of the ruler but not the general population, appear many more times in the course of history (Marcus 4-5). It has been proven that many rulers in the past granted the Jews privileges of things such as a separate court system and exemption from military service. Naturally, natives to those countries felt resentment towards the Jews, not for religious reasons but simply for the special treatment the Jews received. Rulers of empires often viewed the Jews as loyal citizens and economically beneficial to the empire, hence the reason for their special privileges and treatment. The opposite of anti-Semitism driven popularly is that of political anti-Semitism. In these situations, the rulers are against the Jews for their own reasons. Even in the case of Ptolemy VII Physcon, whose hostility towards the Jews has led him to be described as “the first representative of political anti-Semitism” (Marcus 8), the hostility was entirely politically motivated, because many Jews sided with an opponent of his.
Clearly, not one single element caused anti-Semitism during these times. Rather, it was a combination of many factors. Jews, driven from their homeland , move onto the land. The banishment from a homeland indicates defeat and perhaps a sign that they have been forsaken by the gods. Already then, the natives feel distrust in the new minority. Adding to the problems, the Jews appear to be terribly antisocial, only interested in themselves, and they are known to perform strange rites and customs. In some cases, the Jews begin to mix with the natives, attempting to become less recognized as Jews and partake in the joys of the natives, intermarrying in the meanwhile. Perhaps the natives feel flattered by these attempts, but the argument has been made that the Jews are only embarrassed by their own history and heritage and have become traitors to themselves. For this the Jews are harassed or chased away from the native community. And as the final straw, the government adores the Jews, for apparently they have become successful and reliable, and the Jews are now granted a degree of autonomy. With such a large amount of resentment built up, there’s no doubt why the Jews were discriminated against.
A change in the trend of anti-Semitism from mostly social/political to mostly religious came about because of Christianity’s rise. The creation of a religion, of course, requires its creators and followers to reject other religions or else they haven’t a convincing religion to sell (Simon). Christianity at one point was no different. Thus, early discrimination against Jews by Christians came as a result of a struggle for converts and a decision for whose religion possessed the truth. In time, Christianity, something of an evolved sect of Judaism, became an entirely gentile group. The religious writings written and chosen for their bible often had anti-Semitic slants, acting as Christian propaganda (Grayzel 32.) Christians were seen as more of a threat than Jews to the Roman empire, and so the Jews were treated with more sympathy by the Romans because of the common bond. Finally, to the pagans Judaism appeared more appealing than Christianity, and the accusations Christianity made about replacing Judaism were not quickly accepted.
Once Christianity was accepted as the dominant faith of the Roman Empire, those same accusations were taken more seriously and the gentiles listened closer. It appeared as if their leaders and their bible preached against the Jews. From this point on, the Jews were tolerated to different degrees. At times, there was a full-scale war against them, with death or conversion the consequences to a Jew. At other times, the Jews were recognized as economically beneficial and were treated with more respect. The church maintained its religious views against the Jews, but the governments’ feelings varied from ruler to ruler. When Jews were beneficial to the country they resided in, the amount of toleration was great as the state paid less attention to the church on these matters. When they were not beneficial, the state sided with the church against the Jews, for in their eyes the Jews had no use further (Grayzel 42-3). Throughout time this same scenario was played out, the variables only slightly different from event to event. Religion remained a prominent reason behind anti-Semitism, but political motivations can certainly not be disregarded as causes either. In the year 830 CE, King Louis the Pious protected the Jews for political reasons, just as in Nazi Germany Hitler attempted to eliminate the Jews for political reasons. And long before either of these occurrences, Caesar gave special care to the Jews after almost being defeated by them in Egypt.
The evolution of anti-Semitism can only be seen as natural under the circumstances. Just as a vine grows according to stimuli, so did anti-Semitism, wrapping around historical events as necessary. In the negative examples described here, some form of the definition of anti-Semitism is played out simply because the Jews are marked as a distinct group of people and treated a certain way because of their Jewish-ness. Even amidst support from the rulers before the Common Era, some aspect of Judaism turned the populations to revolt time and again. Antisemitism definitely existed as a continuous stream from its inception to the present. The reasons behind Jew-hatred have changed, as has Judaism itself, and the world around it – and all the while the anti-Semitic legacy swiftly travels to keep up with another generation.