Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, April 2012
Historian Robert Wistrich calls anti-Semitism ‘the longest hatred.’ Indeed, anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jews, endures to this day. On March 19th 2012, a gunman opened fire on a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a 30-year-old Rabbi, his two young sons, and the daughter of the Principal of the school, whom he first dragged by her hair. Several people were wounded.
So when did anti-Semitism begin? Did it begin with the Pharaoh ‘who did not know Joseph’ persecuting the alien people, whom he saw multiplying in his midst? (Exodus 1: 8-9). But the ‘children of Israel’, the descendants of Jacob, were not ‘Jews’ strictly speaking. Nevertheless, the story narrated in the Torah, in the Book of Exodus, exposes one of the persisting dimensions of anti-Semitism to this day: the perception that Jews are an alien menace.
It makes more sense to locate the emergence of anti-Semitism at a time when Judaism was already an established religion. So, did it begin with the followers of Jesus, and the schism that developed between those followers of Jesus who asserted the primacy of Jewish practices and those who wished to abandon them? The Gospels speak of ‘the Pharisees and scribes’, and highlight Jesus’ disagreements with them. The Pharisees and scribes were rabbis, as Jesus, an itinerant Jewish teacher, may well have been himself, and they were always disagreeing with one another: the first code of rabbinic law, the Mishnah, edited around the year 200 CE, and the commentary on the Mishnah, edited later in two editions of what is known as the Talmud, around the years 400 and 500 CE , respectively, document the discussions and arguments of the rabbis, and the democratic way they reached decisions by majority vote.
Sadly, anti-Semitism was fostered by some of the narratives of the Gospel writers. In a few days’ time, Christian communities across the world, will mark Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans who occupied Judaea at that time, and then on Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus. My first experience of anti-Semitism was being told by a fellow pupil at school that the Jews had killed Christ. The truth of the matter is that there were Jews who followed Jesus and Jews who didn’t. The Christian Scriptures, which include the Gospels and the letters of Paul, are called the New Testament. New Testament means ‘new covenant’. At the same time, Christians refer to the Hebrew Bible as the ‘Old Testament’ – meaning, ‘old covenant’. Perhaps, the roots of anti-Jewish hatred lie in the belief of the early Christians, promulgated by Paul in particular, that the ‘new covenant’ had superseded the ‘old’ one; that Judaism should simply cease to exist, and the Jews should recognise the error of their ways. Peter fiercely opposed this development – some statements in the Gospels, especially Matthew also seem to support the maintenance of the practices of the ‘old covenant’ – but as Christianity spread in non-Jewish communities, the Jewish Christianity of Peter lost more and more ground until finally it faded out.
Perhaps the Christian problem with the persistence of Judaism would have remained a local issue if the Emperor Constantine had not converted to Christianity and transformed the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire around the 300 CE. As it was, for Jews exiled following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the 70 CE, who found themselves living in Christian countries, their experience of being a minority was compounded by hatred of these stubborn rejecters of Jesus, who obstinately continued to deny the truths of Christianity. The Middle Ages, in particular, saw the persecution, expulsion, and massacre of Jews across Christian Europe. On their missions to liberate the Holy Land’ from ‘the infidels’ – the Muslim occupiers – the Crusaders massacred Jews along the way, most notably, in the Rhine lands. Much closer to home, the ‘blood libel’ that eventually led to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, was an English invention. More often than not, as indeed is the case this year, Easter coincides with Passover, the Jewish festival that celebrates the liberation of the Israelites slaves from Egypt around 3300 years ago. At Passover Jews eat unleavened bread in memory of the account in the Torah, which relates that the slaves were in such haste to leave slavery, their dough had no time to rise (Exodus 12:39). The ‘blood libel’ – which continues to raise its ugly head even to this day – was the accusation that Jews baked unleavened bread using the blood of Christian children: that’s why matzah (unleavened bread) has brown spots on it! It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it – but it’s true. In Norwich (1144), Gloucester (1168), Bury St Edmunds (1181), and in Bristol (1183) these accusations were made, were believed, and incited devout Christians to attack Jews.
There is so much more one can say about anti-Semitism during the mediaeval period: about the herding of Jewish communities into gated areas, locked at night, later known as ‘ghettos’ – a word first use of the Jewish ghetto in Venice – of laws that prohibited Jews from entering skilled guilds or owning land, thus forcing them to be merchants and moneylenders (an occupation that Christians were not allowed to perform). Hence: Shakespeare’s Fagin and Shakespeare’s Shylock – fictional characters that have persisted in the public imagination, leading to an association of Jews and money that persists to this day.
Emancipation, the liberation of the Jews following the French Revolution and collapse of the ancien régime, and the dawn of Modernity, gradually brought an end to all this, as legal discrimination became overturned through the 19th century, and Jews were allowed to enter universities, the professions and become citizens of the countries where they lived. But then, a new anti-Semitism developed, fuelled by specious forms of science. Jews were no longer to be hated because they had rejected Jesus; Jews were now to be hated because of their ‘race’. It was in response to the new forms of racial anti-Semitism that political Zionism developed. Jews had always prayed facing East towards Zion, and from the first Jewish prayer books onwards, the liturgy had included prayers for the restoration of Zion. Now, religious longing was transformed into a political project. For Theodor Herzl, the Jewish architect of political Zionism, writing and speaking at a time when the empires of Europe were crumbling in response to movements for national self-determination, the only solution to European anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jewish people was for Jews to have their own nation, where there could be a free and independent people on their own terms (see, for example, Herzl’s, ‘The Jewish State’, 1895).
The first Zionist Congress was held in Basel in 1897. By that time, a great Exodus of Jews from Russia had been underway for a decade, as Jewish communities in the pale of Jewish settlement, fled pogroms and persecutions – in the direction of the United States, Palestine – ruled by the Ottoman Turks until 1917 – and Britain. The majority of the Jews living in Britain today are the descendants of the refugees who fled the empire of Czar Nicholas II between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War, and the first anti-immigration legislation, the Aliens Act of 1905, was designed to keep them out. In 1903, a pamphlet written by Russian anti-Semites, but attributed to Jewish authorship, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, conjured up a world Jewish conspiracy: a group of Jewish ‘elders’ intent on world domination. Translated into multiple languages, ‘The Protocols’ was disseminated internationally in the early part of the 20th century, including in the United States, where Henry Ford funded the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies during the 1920s. Not only has the image of the ‘Elders of Zion’ persisted to this day, but ‘The Protocols’ continues to be published – in particular, throughout the Arab world.
The Great War of 1914-1918 saw carnage on an unprecedented scale and the emergence of the technology of slaughter. But the First World War did not turn out to be ‘the war to end all wars.’ In the aftermath of the great depression and economic collapse in the 1920s, a new menace: the rise of Hitler and the new ideology fuelled by Jew hatred: Nazism. Of course, Jews were not the only target. Nazi ideology dictated that all non-Aryans, all those who were not perfect and racially pure had to be eradicated. But as Hitler’s opus, ‘Mein Kampf’, written years before he came to power, made perfectly clear, the Jews were the source of all evil – not simply subhuman and non-Aryan but a demoniac global power that must be annihilated.
Hitler succeeded in murdering six million Jews and destroying tens of thousands of Jewish communities across Europe. But he didn’t quite meet his target. On January 20th 1942, a conference of Nazi top brass was held at the Villa at the Wannsee, the lake outside Berlin. Now a Museum, one of the artefacts from that infamous gathering is a sheet of typescript, with a short list of the populations of Jews living in all the countries of Europe at that time. The addition at the foot of the page provides the total: 11 million. That was the target. It is a chilling document. The entry for ‘Britain’, states: 500,000…
The Great War may not have been the war to end all wars, but surely the Holocaust – what Jews prefer to call, the Sho’ah – the Hebrew word taken from the book of Jeremiah, meaning, ‘catastrophe’ – should have, finally, put an end to ‘the longest hatred’? As the Allies liberated the concentration camps and death camps, and the full horror of the Sho’ah became apparent, it seemed that a lesson had been learned. But where were the survivors to go? Most of the doors were closed and thousands found themselves in deportation camps. In Poland there were outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence against returning survivors. For example, in the city of Kielce on July 4th 1946, following a ‘blood libel’ accusation, a mob of local townsfolk and members of the official government forces of the People’s Republic of Poland unleashed a pogrom against the Jewish community.
It was in the context of the Sho’ah and the predicament of the survivors, that on November 29, 1947, the newly established United Nations voted to partition the land on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, into two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine. The Jewish leadership accepted partition; the Palestinian leadership did not, for obvious reasons: The influx of Jewish refugees from the 1880s onwards had led to conflicts with the local Arab population. Then, as Ottoman rule gave way to the British Mandate in 1917, the Balfour Declaration of the same year recognised the rights of the Jewish people to establish ‘a Jewish homeland in Palestine.’ On May 14th 1948, the day that the British mandate ended, the State of Israel was established, and the first war between Israel and its Arab neighbours ensued directly afterwards. And now, after years of conflict and war, and failed peace initiatives, a two-state solution is once again on the table.
But so much more is going on than a complex dispute between two peoples, two tiny nations, each of which has a right to self-determination. The problem of the stubborn survival of ‘the longest hatred’ is not simply that Nazism continues to persist in new racist ultranationalist right-wing parties across Europe and North America, in particular. Anti-Semitism has also transmuted into new forms. Some might argue that anti-Semitism in the Arab world is justified by the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government, and the continuing occupation of the West Bank, an area of land beyond the ‘Green line’ – the border agreed at the end of the 1948 war between Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt – which was captured by Israel in the Six Day War in June 1967. But Saudi Arabia, one of the main distributors of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ has not been a direct party to these conflicts. Indeed, none of the Arab nations have done anything active to support to protect and support the Palestinians. What is more, as soon as the State of Israel was established, the neighbouring Arab countries intensified persecution of their Jewish communities, and, in some cases, expelled them. Between 1948 and 1970s almost 1,000,000 Arab Jews came to Israel. It is for this reason that half the Jewish population of Israel today is made up of Jews from Arab countries.
But anti-Semitism today is no longer just peddled by the far right on the one hand, and the Arab world, on the other. In the past few decades, a new form of left-wing anti-Semitism has been developing. I first encountered it as a Marxist at LSE in the mid-1970s. Of course, it doesn’t call itself anti-Semitism, it is presented as ‘anti-Zionism’, as opposition to the existence of the State of Israel, which is seen, in Marxist terms, as a colonial enterprise – that is, as if the Jews who fled persecution and sought refuge in Israel, were like the European colonial powers that conquered Africa and India. More recently, this way of characterising ‘the Zionist enterprise’, as it is often called, has transmuted further into different and to some extent, more subtle, forms – and has also expanded beyond the ultra-left and infected centre-left/ iberal circles in general.
As it happens, I, and many other Jews like me, support the Palestinians right to their own state. I wear a badge on my lapel, which depicts two flags, the Israeli flag and the Palestinian flag, and bears the words, ‘Justice, Peace Life.’ But those who see themselves as fighting the Palestinian cause do not simply oppose the continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories, and promote the establishment of a State of Palestine, which is entirely legitimate and right. These left/liberal supporters of the Palestinians – which now include a substantial number of Christian groups – seem exclusively preoccupied with the plight of the Palestinians to the exclusion of other persecuted peoples. Where were the protestors when the news came out in 2011 that the Sri Lankan government had massacred 40,000 Tamils in the last stages of that conflict? How is it that those who decry the Israeli government do not decry the Chinese government, and the continuing Chinese occupation of Tibet?
From a Jewish point of view the exclusive preoccupation with Israel as the target of protest, is another version of ‘the longest hatred’. 1400 Palestinians were killed during the Israeli operation against Hamas in Gaza in December 2008. The Goldstone Report calls both the Israeli government and Hamas to account. The situation of the Palestinians in Gaza with the continuing Israeli blockade is terrible, but it is clear from the disproportionate attention given to Israeli policy against the Palestinians that whatever Jews do it is worse than what everyone else is doing; it is more malevolent and dangerous; and is, potentially, a threat to the whole world. Another example: While Iran is actively engaged in a project to manufacture nuclear weapons because the President of that country has publicly proclaimed that he wishes to destroy Israel, left/liberal anti-Zionists focus on the nuclear threat posed by Israel. As one Christian theologian put it recently at a meeting I attended, ‘the real threat is that Israel has 100 nuclear warheads and, with one push of a button, is capable of destroying the entire world.’
The assumption that whatever Jews do as a group it is worse whatever anyone else is doing, may have its origins in the notion promoted by the Hebrew prophets that the Jewish people should be ‘a light to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:6). So you could argue that Jews have ‘set ourselves up’ to be exemplary; that a higher standard is expected of us because we expect it of ourselves. Nevertheless, the demonization of Israel cannot be explained away by reference to these expectations. The demonization of Israel exactly mirrors the demonization of Jews throughout the centuries. Criticising Israeli government policy towards the Palestinians is one thing; the demonization of Israel is anti-Semitism. Let us not forget that Mohammad Merah, the Islamist militant, who went on a shooting spree in that Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19th targeted Jews – not even Jews in Israel, Jews living in France. For people like him ‘the Zionist entity’ is a ‘Jewish’ entity and must be eradicated; and Jews everywhere are the enemy.
Anti-Semitism is a particularly pernicious form of racism and must be opposed by all those committed to justice and peace and human rights for all peoples. I suggest that those who wish to support the Palestinians and oppose the continuing Israeli occupation might avoid getting entangled in the pernicious web of anti-Semitism by lending support to Palestinian and Israeli initiatives, which are working for justice and peace for both peoples. For more information, all you need to do is Google, ‘justice and peace projects in Israel and Palestine.’