Questions and answers about antisemitism
Antisemitism can be described as a prejudice and hostility against Jews because they are Jews. This is partly due to stereotypes and myths, and partly due to negative attitudes about Jews as a group. Antisemitism can manifest itself in different forms and varies in strength; being anything from fairly mild bias to furious hatred. It can appear as attitudes and patterns of thought as well as theology and ideology. It can surface in verbal assertions, social and legal discrimination and violence. As history has shown, antisemitism can also result in expulsion and genocide.
Why is it called antisemitism?
1870s Germany witnessed the emergence of political agitators and organizations using political, nationalist and racist arguments to attack Jews, describing their stance as antisemitism. The purpose of this was to distance themselves from the older Christian hostility against Jews by dressing their modern, secular Jew-hatred in neutral and scientific-sounding terminology.
The term antisemitism is a product of the 19th century’s confusion of language groups (Semitic languages) with racial and ethnic classifications. The theory of a “Semitic race” was launched by race research of that time which drew heavily on linguistic classifications. Racist anti-Jewish movements established ties to this and claimed to fight an imagined “Semitism” covering the alleged Jewish “race” and its alleged biologically, culturally, politically and economically destructive elements and conspiratorial plans for dominion over the professed “Aryan race”.
Antisemitism as a word quickly won acceptance in wider circles, even among those said to oppose anti-Jewish propaganda. The term is still used today, both in research and in everyday speech, as the designation of hostility against Jews. Attempts to use alternative designations have not met with success. When one uses the word antisemitism, it is important to be aware that it is misleading: antisemitism is a nonsense term in the sense that there is not and never has been any “semitism” with respect to which one can be “anti”. Antisemitism means and has only ever meant prejudice and hostility against Jews. It does not have and has never had anything to do with hostility against individuals and groups who speak Semitic languages. Thus it is also quite feasible for individuals who speak Semitic languages to harbour antisemitic views.
How can antisemitism be explained?
Antisemitism is a multifaceted phenomenon with complex roots and causes. There is no single cause that can explain its existence, survival and expression through history. Manifestations during different periods of time and in different places have partially differing reasons. But there is also much that unites different historical expressions of hostility against Jews. This applies above all to the stereotypes and accusations levelled against Jews.
Probably the most important reason for the emergence of antisemitism, its longevity and its deep roots in European culture, is the anti-Jewish intellectual tradition that developed within Christianity. From its origins as a religious branch of Judaism, Christianity established itself as a separate religion in competition with Judaism. It is in the context of this tension that anti-Jewish theology and preaching was born that, with the Christianization of Europe, had far-reaching consequences for the Jewish minority.
The fact that Judaism continued to exist alongside Christianity and that Jews generally did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah gave rise to resentment within the Christian Church. According to Christian doctrine, Judaism ought to have ceased to exist after Christ. The Church claimed to have replaced Judaism, arguing that it represented the “new Israel”. In order to undermine the legitimacy of Judaism, an anti-Jewish theology had already been born in the first centuries AD, primarily based on the accusation that the Jews had crucified Jesus. Jews were denounced as Christ-killers or God’s murderers.
A discriminatory legislation was introduced that limited Jewish religious and economic rights during much of the European Middle Ages. During the High Middle Ages, ghettos were established and Jews were forced to wear special features or clothing that distinguished them from Christians. Restricting ways in which Jews could make a living to areas such as money-lending even allowed the animosity to be supported by economic and social motives. Over time, hostility against Jews developed a folksy quality as new allegations and myths developed. Jews were depicted as the Devil’s underlings, allegedly committing ritual murder of Christian children, and were accused of poisoning wells, thus causing the Plague. The development led to the increasing perception of Jews as dangerous, sinister and alien beings – and thereby increasingly less human.
The arrival of the Enlightenment improved the situation of Jewish minorities in Europe in many places, yet important parts of Medieval Christian anti-Jewish thought lived on. Hostility against Jews was now given secular justification and new prejudices and accusations were added to earlier ideas. The modern antisemitism that with varying strength and hues appeared in Western and Central Europe towards the end of the 19th century – partly as a reaction against the Jews’ emancipation (political equality) – attacked the Jews mainly from political, economic, social, nationalist and eventually racist reasons. Many of the stereotypes used had been taken over from the Christian Middle Ages. Furthermore, centuries of demonization and estrangement of Jews had in many created a negative emotional attitude to the Jewish minorities.
Modern antisemitism was in the early 20th century fed by political conflicts, economic crises and social antagonisms. Industrialization’s radical transformation of social relations, militant nationalism, the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, the First World War, the Great Depression, mass unemployment, weak democracies and other factors created a breeding ground for political extremism and the exploitation of anti-Jewish sentiment and conspiracy theories.
Nazism incorporated both medieval and modern anti-Jewish beliefs but converted and radicalized these into a murderous, racist ideology. Nazi Germany’s genocide of European Jews during World War II cannot be explained simply by reference to antisemitism, but hatred of Jews constitutes the main cause of this crime.
The Holocaust prompted a strong renunciation of antisemitism in many countries. After 1945, open hostility against Jews was no longer socially acceptable in democratic states. Much also points to a decline in the prevalence of prejudice against Jews in the decades after the war. However, this does not mean that anti-Jewish intellectual tradition had been dissolved. Owing to its lingering and profound impact on European culture and history, its prejudices and myths have survived.
An open and ideologically entrenched anti-Jewish hostility also occurred after 1945 within Nazi and radical right-wing groups. Furthermore, in the Soviet Union and several communist states in postwar Eastern Europe, political campaigns with clear anti-Jewish aspects were conducted.
The taboo surrounding antisemitism weakened with time and stereotypes and hostility again made their mark on the broader political culture of the West. This development began in the late 1960s. However, it has become clearer and more dramatic in the early 2000s. The fundamental prerequisite for this revival were dormant patterns of thought, but antisemitism in our time has also been fueled by historical and political circumstances and events.
A contributing factor is the impact of the Holocaust. The genocide of Europe’s Jews has to some extent resulted in complex feelings of guilt and frustration which in turn has given birth to a renewed hostility against Jews. This reveals itself in, amongst other things, a trivialization of the genocide and in attempts to portray Jews or Israelis as Nazis guilty of crimes of the same degree as the Holocaust. Even the persistent high interest in the Holocaust triggers in some circles irritation and in a number of cases triggers antisemitic notions of Jewish power and conspiracies.
Another factor that provokes or is used to exploit prejudices against Jews are the conflicts in the Middle East. This applies above all to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but in recent years even the war in Iraq and global terrorism. Criticism of Israeli politics or the actions of the US in the Middle East is for obvious reasons not antisemitism. But the conflicts in the Middle East trigger in some cases reactions and interpretations that stem from or are clouded by prejudice against Jews.
In recent decades, a strengthened antisemitism has even been noted in Arab and Muslim countries. This trend has many causes. Even if Jews in the Middle Ages met with much greater tolerance in the Muslim world when compared to Christian Europe, a contempt and discrimination against Jews also featured in the Muslim world. During the late 19th century, European antisemitism was introduced by above all Christian communities in the Middle East. After the First World War and with the rise of Jewish immigration to Palestine, political antisemitism became more widespread, alongside resistance to the Zionist project (the quest to establish a Jewish state). Furthermore, European colonialism, the emergence of Arab nationalism and Nazi Germany’s propaganda towards the Arab world contributed to this development, but it was above all Israel’s establishment in 1948 that reinforced this trend. The thenceforth ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fueled antisemitism and been exploited in order to spread hatred and prejudice against Jews. The legitimacy and prevalence that antisemitism has received in Arab and other Muslim states should be understood in light of the lack of democracy and freedom of expression, and the presence of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, in this part of the world.
With the emergence of political Islamism, hostility against Jews in the Arab and Muslim world has been given increasingly religious connotations. In radical Islamist ideology and propaganda, antisemitism constitutes a central feature. Even some Muslim communities in Europe and other parts of the world are affected by this development. However, susceptibility to antisemitism and other forms of political and religious extremism should in this instant also be contextualised with social, political and economic exclusion.
Jew-hatred is a central aspect of many contemporary far-right and ultra-nationalist movements and parties in Sweden and Europe. Within the Nazi so-called white power movement, antisemitism still makes up the core of its ideology and propaganda. There are also a number of far-right and ultra-nationalist parties for which hostility towards immigrants and in particular Muslims (Islamophobia) are central. There are thus two main streams within the contemporary European far-right: for one, Islamophobia is central; for the other, antisemitism.
Antisemitic attitudes and beliefs occur in various political opinions. In 2011, researchers at the University of Bielefeld in Germany published a survey of group prejudices in eight EU Member States (Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 2011). According to the results, among the countries included in the study, antisemitic opinions were most widespread in Hungary, Poland and Portugal. Lower levels were measured in countries such as the Netherlands and the UK. The notion that hostility toward Jews was understandable in light of Israel’s politics was relatively widespread in most of the countries surveyed.
What are the main antisemitic stereotypes and myths?
The anti-Jewish intellectual tradition contains a large number of beliefs, myths and accusations. These have in many cases changed over time, been given new justifications and been adapted to suit new circumstances. Some images and accusations have nonetheless remained remarkably similar throughout history. Some of the most important and still prevalent antisemitic themes are as follows:
The alleged murder of Christ or God. This accusation was developed in early Christianity and has been central to Christian antisemitism up to modern times. According to a long-dominant theology, all Jews throughout all ages were collectively responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. This idea has played an important role in the persecution and discrimination of Jews in Europe.
Judaism as the antithesis of Christianity (known as antithetical theology). There is a tradition in Christian theology of setting Judaism in opposition to Christianity; Christianity is described in such contexts as spiritual, loving and forgiving whereas Judaism is portrayed as materialistic, legalistic and unforgiving.
The notion of Judaism or Jews as characterized by vengefulness is rooted in the theological tradition that portrays Judaism as the opposite of Christianity. However, this depiction has over a long period of time even occurred free from any specific religious context. Examples of this are when Israeli politics is described as an expression of the “vengeance of the Old Testament” or as an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth mentality”.
This legend arose in 12th century Europe yet has survived into modern times. The myth is based on the claim that Jews would kidnap and kill Christian children and use their blood in the baking of unleavened bread in conjunction with the celebration of Passover. Nowadays, similar accusations of Jewish ritual murder, although with somewhat different features, occur in above all the Arab and Islamic world.
Well poisoning and the spread of the Plague
The bubonic plague epidemic that broke out in the 14th century resulted in the death of about a third of Europe’s population. What caused the disease was unknown. Some blamed the Jews, claiming that they had poisoned the wells, and these allegations led to the massacre of thousands of Jews. Allegations of a similar nature can be found even in our time in antisemitic propaganda in the Middle East.
Money-worship, greed and exploitation
The idea of Jews as obsessed with money, as ‘tight-fisted’ or as exploitative can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. The fact that Jews were forbidden to work in a variety of popular occupations – but were allowed and encouraged by the Church or those in power to engage in trade, money lending and tax collection – reinforced stereotypes that linked Jews with money, greed and usury. Even Christians were active in these areas, but were not affected by the same hostile prejudices. The economic stereotypes – beliefs about Jews as tight, dishonest, rich etc. – are among the most resilient within the antisemitic tradition of ideas.
Notions of an immense and often dangerous Jewish power have been and still are central to antisemitic thought. This depiction has its roots in the European High Middle Ages. It was reinforced during the 1800s, after the emancipation of Jews in some countries torn down barriers to Jewish participation in society. The economic and social advancement of some Jews was perceived by some circles, influenced by existing negative stereotypes and estrangement, as a threat to existing power structures and privileges. In antisemitic propaganda, individual successful or influential Jews were transformed into representatives of a threatening and powerful Jewish collective – an image often cloaked in conspiratorial terms.
Fantasies about Jewish omnipotence played an important role in Nazi German propaganda. The German Jews – defined by the Nazis as “racially alien” non-Germans – were alleged to “control” politics, economics, culture and the media in Germany. Jews around the world – termed “international Jewry” by the Nazis – were said to “control” the world economy and “steer” all superpowers.
Even today, beliefs about Jewish power and influence represent a core idea within antisemitic propaganda and mindsets. They may be observed in insinuations or allegations of “the Jews’ power over the media” or in some interpretations of American foreign policy which is implied or stated to be “controlled” by the Jews or the supposedly all-powerful “Jewish lobby”. This type of imagery is also based on stereotypes of Jews as a homogenous collective acting on supposedly “Jewish” interests as well as the historically rooted prejudices about Jews as alien, nationally untrustworthy, treacherous and manipulative.
Conspiracies and the Jewish world conspiracy. Notions of Jewish conspiracies are closely linked to the myth of Jewish power. They first arose in the Middle Ages, especially as fantasies of a Jewish conspiracy bent on enslaving or destroying all Christians. Similar legends reappeared later in which Jews together with Freemasons allegedly conspired against Christianity.
New versions were developed in the second half of the 19th century; far-right, nationalist and racist writers in France, Germany and other countries published a series of books that warned of a Jewish conspiracy against the Christian world, against individual nations or against the alleged “Aryan race”. No writing, however, came to be as influential as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery produced by the Russian secret police and first published in 1903. The book, which purports to be the minutes recorded at a secret meeting of Jewish leaders (“the Elders of Zion”) describes a Jewish world conspiracy aimed at undermining Christian civilization in order to establish Jewish world domination.
That The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a falsification was revealed early on, including by the British newspaper The Times in 1921, but the script was to have a huge proliferation, especially after the First World War. The text was translated into several different languages, including Swedish, and played a central role in Nazi German antisemitism. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has after World War II continued to be distributed in mass circulation, especially within the Arab world.
Racial stereotypes. Through the influence of racial biology, antisemitism during late 19th and early 20th centuries came to be given a biological foundation. The negative characteristics that were alleged to characterize Jews were also given a biological justification, being said to be rooted in the alleged Jewish “race”. Jews were depicted not only as carriers of a strange and dangerous mentality but also as physically different: the exterior was said to reflect the interior. Antisemitic propaganda depicted Jews in ways that would highlight their alleged differentness, inferiority and dangerousness. Hooked noses, fat lips, claw-like hands, flat feet, etc. became recurring attributes in anti-Jewish caricatures. Racist stereotypes of this kind played a major role in the construction of national identities in Europe: by depicting Jews (or other categories) in this way, a line was drawn from what was deemed to constitute “German”, “French” or “Swedish” national identity.
The racially-branded antisemitism, which played an important role in Nazi ideology, was based on the notion that the Jews’ supposedly negative traits were biologically rooted, unchangeable and eternal. If the Jews had to some extent earlier been able to escape persecution through conversion to Christianity, legitimising Jew-hate as a part of biology completely sealed off this this escape route.
Where is the boundary between antisemitism and criticism of Israeli politics?
Criticism of Israeli politics is for obvious reasons not antisemitism. Israel is a state whose policies and actions can and should be scrutinized and criticized in the same way as other states’ policies and actions. This is also something that occurs continuously. At the same time it can be stated that antisemitism today is often expressed in contexts relating to Israel and the conflict in the Middle East. This relationship, as highlighted in a number of Swedish and international studies, in no way implies that the debate about Israel in general terms is stained or motivated by prejudice.
The line between criticism and prejudice is crossed when anti-Jewish motifs are woven into political debate. Examples of antisemitic depictions that occasionally occur in debates about Israel include, among other things, the charge of Christ’s murder, conceptions of Judaism or Jews as vengeful and bloodthirsty, myths about Jewish power and conspiracies, and equating Israel with Nazi Germany and Israel’s politics with the Holocaust. Even in political drawings commenting Israel and Zionism, stereotypical and racist portrayals of Jews occur in some cases.
However, anti-Jewish attitudes also matter in a number of other ways of viewing Israel and reactions to its politics. Such influence can be observed in an anti-Zionism which denies Jews the right to political self-determination yet recognizes this right to other people, and which requires the abolition or obliteration of the State of Israel. One effect of antisemitic patterns of thought of both religious and secular natures can also be seen in an approach that points out Israel as the leading cause of most of today’s world problems and conflicts.
Even the use of double standards in the criticism against Israel, i.e. when Israel is criticized harder or with other standards than other states or parties involved in conflicts, can in some cases be motivated by prejudice and hostility against Jews.
Finally, the boundary between antisemitism and political criticism is overstepped when Jews are collectively held responsible for Israel’s politics.