Prior to the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism focused primarily on Jews as a distinct religious group worthy of enmity because of their spiritual beliefs, and was expressed by sporadic persecutions and expulsions, as well as severe economic and personal restrictions. Some European countries went so far as to issue edicts requiring Jews to live in quartered-off ghettos, separate from all other people; the earliest European ghettos date back to fourteenth-century Spain and Portugal. Jews were prime targets for European and Arab persecution because they were generally the largest minority religion in Christian Europe and much of the Islamic world, thus serving as convenient scapegoats for a host of social and economic ills.
During the Crusades, the rising religious fervor of Christians inspired angry mobs to massacre Jewish “unbelievers” by the thousands. Throughout Medieval Europe, Jews were repeatedly victimized by confiscatory taxation, mass expulsions, mob violence, and property destruction. They were often blamed for calamities that could not otherwise be explained. For example, during the Black Death that killed perhaps half the European population during the mid-1300s, many claimed that Jews had created the plague by poisoning the drinking water in Europe’s wells. In retribution for this alleged treachery, legions of Jews were slaughtered in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Spain.
For centuries in the Muslim world, Jews were subjected to open humiliation and were forced to convert under pain of execution. According to the scholar Bat Ye'or, “The fate of Jews in Arabia foreshadowed that of all the peoples subsequently conquered by the Arabs. The primary guiding principle was to summon the non-Muslims to convert or accept Muslim supremacy, and, if faced with refusal, to attack them until they submitted to Muslim domination.”
The roots of Islamic anti-Semitism dated all the way back to the infancy of the Islamic faith. Indeed the Koran itself, along with Islam's most vital and revered interpretive literature, calls on Muslims to universally shun, despise, oppress, and even kill the Jewish people. Islam's founder, the Prophet Muhammad, was the living embodiment of this injunction.
Thousands of Jews fell prey to the recurring riots and massacres of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Spain. Seventeenth-century eastern Europe was marked by almost untinterrupted masacres of Jews, at least 100,000 of whom were slaughtered in Poland alone between 1648 and 1658. The Greek Orthodox Cossacks of that period ravaged Jews with startling savagery, sawing them to pieces, flaying them alive, roasting them to death over slow fires – even slitting infants in half with their swords.
After the Enlightenment, religious resentments gradually morphed into animosity stemming from the notion of Jews as a distinct race. This was partly due to the rising nationalism of nineteenth-century Europe, where there were widespread resentments over Jewish (particularly Orthodox) attempts to preserve cultural and religious customs that were alien to outsiders. Racial anti-Semitism gave rise to racial demagoguery and conspiracy theories, most notably the infamous nineteenth-century forgery Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a fiction created by the Russian Czar’s secret police purporting to outline a Jewish plan for world domination. This document is still cited as a justification for anti-Semitic hatred throughout much of the Muslim world today.
It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that anti-Semitism arose as a formal, intellectual movement. During this period, race-based Jew-hatred spawned pseudo-scientific racial theories of so-called Aryan superiority which emerged in the writings of individuals like Joseph Arthur Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Alfred Rosenberg. (These theories would later be incorporated in the official doctrine of German National Socialism by Adolf Hitler, in whose death camps some 6 million European Jews were exterminated between 1939 and 1945.)
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Germany became the first country to develop systematic anti-Semitic political and intellectual movements. In Germany, Adolf Stöcker's Christian Social Party (1878-1885) combined anti-Semitism with left-wing, reformist legislation. The party attacked laissez-faire economics and the Jews as part of the same liberal plague. Stöcker's movement synthesized medieval anti-Semitism, based in religion, and modern anti-Semitism, based in racism and socialist economics. He once wrote: "I see in unrestrained capitalism the evil of our epoch and am naturally also an opponent of modern Judaism on account of my socio-political views."
Georg Ritter von Schönerer led the leftwing anti-Semitic movement in Austria. His German Liberal Party developed a lower-middle-class, anti-Semitic, anti-capitalistic platform in the 1880s. Directing his anti-Semitism at the economic activity of the Rothschilds (a European dynasty of German Jewish origin), Schönerer advocated the nationalization of their railroad assets. Later, he broadened his charges to attack Jewish merchants more generally. Hitler was an avid admirer of Schönerer, and as a young man even hung Schönerer's slogans over his bed.
The growing nineteenth-century socialist movements often explicitly promoted anti-Semitism. Although himself a Jew, Karl Marx continued these anti-Jewish polemics. The historical association between Jews, private property, and commerce led to his infamous anti-Semitic diatribes. Marx, who sought to reconstruct society according to his master plan, detested the particularistic nature of Jewish religion and custom. Some of Marx's followers, such as Dühring and Lassalle, believed that if the public could be convinced to hate Jewish capitalists, the public would eventually come to hate non-Jewish capitalists as well.
The word “antisemitic” (antisemitisch in German) was probably first used in 1860 by the Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider, who coined the phrase “antisemitic prejudices” to characterize Ernest Renan’s notion that “Semitic races” were inferior to “Aryan races.” The related German word antisemitismus – meaning “Jew-hatred” or Judenhass -- was introduced by the German journalist and political agitator Wilhelm Marr who tried characterize the hatred of Jews as a rational, reasonable phenomenon. He also founded a publication called the Anti-Semitic Journal and established the League of Anti-Semites, which advocated the forced removal of Jews from Germany. The new anti-Semites who followed Marr expanded the medieval attacks on Jewish traders and usurers and developed them into a full-scale economic critique. The Jews who provoked the most anger were those who embraced cosmopolitan, Enlightenment values, and who achieved economic success.
The Soviet government adopted consistently anti-Semitic policies. Jew-hatred in the USSR flourished after the Second World War, as the Communist leaders were unable to resist the target that had proven so successful for Hitler. In 1953 Stalin alleged the existence of a "Doctors' Plot," masterminded by Jews, to poison the top Soviet leadership. Stalin died before a trial was called, but he had been planning to use it as an excuse to forcibly deport two million Jews to Siberia.
The nerve center of anti-Semitism today is the Arab and Muslim world, where anti-Semitic themes are transmitted and disseminated there by means of school textbooks, the mass media, and the fiery sermons of clerics who openly call for genocide against the Jews.
Islam's historical enmity toward Jews was exacerbated by the creation of Israel in 1948 -- an event that became widely known in the Arab world as Al Nakba, "The Catastrophe." The presence, in the midst of Muslim lands, of a sovereign state founded and governed by a people who, according to Islamic scripture, ranked among the vilest and most detestable of all living creatures, was intolerable to most Muslims. Thus, from that point forward, traditional Islamic anti-Semitism tended to blend with related campaigns aimed more specifically at dismantling the State of Israel as a political and geographical entity.
In recent decades, anti-Semitism has experienced a rebirth in pockets of Western society, particularly as Western elites stigmatize Israel and become partisans of the Palestinians. But for the most part, it is no longer the brutish anti-Semitism of the beer hall, as it was in Nazi Germany. Rather, it is a genteel anti-Semitism that finds its most common expression among the well-educated on university campuses in the U.S. and Europe. Its standard-bearers are professors who, in some cases, have gained fame by traveling from one university to another supporting Arab terrorism and Jew-hatred. Some of these professors themselves are Jews who seek to use their birthright to give authenticity to the campaign of delegitimizing and demonizing Israel. A number of them are leaders of the contemporary “divestment” and boycott campaigns aimed against Israel. In a few extreme cases, notably those of Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, their detestation of Israel is combined with a tolerance of Islamic terrorists, American and European Neo-Nazis, and even Holocaust deniers.
Campus anti-Semitism is also promoted by student groups such as the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada (and its hundreds of campus chapters), the Muslim Student Union, the Muslim Student Organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Palestine Solidarity Movement, and the Union of Arab Student Associations.
Adapted largely from "The Socialist Roots of Anti-Semitism," by Tyler Cowen (October 9, 2003).