The history of Jewish persecution reveals more about the war against morals, religion, and godly wisdom than many realize. What is the true, evil root of this persistent hatred against the descendants of Israel—and how does it concern you?
“We must resolutely oppose both open and covert anti-Semitism, the denial as well as the relativization of the Holocaust…. we honor the victims of the Holocaust by remembering them and learning from their plight.” So said German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a United Nations conference on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Expressing what she called “deep shame” at Germany’s anti-Semitic past, Merkel said it is Germany’s “everlasting responsibility” to remember the Holocaust and its victims (News.UN.org, January 27, 2021).
Is anti-Semitism simply a terrible relic of Europe’s past? Two years earlier, at another Holocaust Remembrance Day event, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker made a shocking statement: “On this day, I am deeply worried. I would never have thought that during my lifetime Jews would be afraid to practice their faith in Europe” (European Commission, January 24, 2019).
To the horror of many who once thought World War II marked the end of European anti-Semitism, a new wave of anti-Semitism is now surfacing. Not only are some European extremists rediscovering discredited Nazi ideology, but also small-yet-vocal anti-Semitic elements have stirred among refugees fleeing to Europe in the wake of the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war.
Should we be surprised? Perhaps not. Anti-Semitic sentiment has been around for a very long time. This old hatred has shaped the lives, actions, and movements of peoples for many centuries and given rise to periods of political and religious persecutions that now live in infamy—and yet, disturbingly, do not seem problematic to a growing number of bigoted individuals around the globe.
Many ask why some people are filled with hatred towards individuals they have never met. Sadly, others who think they are not involved ignore the issue and feel that since it doesn’t affect them personally, they need not be concerned. So, why does anti-Semitism matter if you aren’t Jewish? Read on to learn the answer!
The modern term anti-Semitism was coined in 1879 by German publicist and political agitator Wilhelm Marr, as a “sanitized” version of the earlier term “Jew-hatred.” Globally, Jews make up less than a quarter of one percent of the population. Why, then, have these people, who have contributed so much in the areas of science, medicine, philosophy, music, and religion, been vilified by so many and for so long? How can the same people be accused of being both ardent communists and scheming capitalists at the same time? How can they be despised as both too conservative and too liberal?
The story of Jew-hating goes back many centuries. In 333 BC, Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great and his Greek forces overwhelmed the Persian Empire and, in the course of the conflict, absorbed both Egypt and the Middle East into his empire. Alexander showed great favor to the Jews, many of whom, especially scholars and skilled craftsmen, chose to settle in the new city named after the emperor—Alexandria. Here they flourished for many years, yet by the early 200s BC, a wave of anti-Semitism was rearing its head in Egypt.
Renowned Cambridge scholar and author Michael Grant, in his 1984 book The History of Ancient Israel, notes that one Manetho of Heliopolis, an Egyptian priest writing in the third century BC, issued a vitriolic set of charges against the Jews, accusing them unjustly of cruelty and spreading disease. To fan Egyptian pride, Manetho falsified the list of Egyptian pharaohs to try to push his nation’s history back further than that of the Greeks and to contradict the biblical account of the Exodus.
The Jewish community saw that they needed a response to this malicious attack, which was turning public sentiment against them. Realizing that the Greeks knew very little about Jewish history or religious teachings, Alexandria’s Jews embarked on a very ambitious project—a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This translation is today known as the Septuagint, from the Latin septuaginta, meaning 70—the number of scholars said to have worked on this massive endeavor.
This was in part a help for Hellenized Jews who could not read the Bible in Hebrew, but it was also an attempt to combat ignorance and persecution. If the Greek world understood Hebrew thought and history, Alexandria’s Jews reasoned, this would serve to thwart the effect of the deliberate spread of lies and hate. Alas, the problems continued to arise from time to time, and have persisted even to our day.
Certainly, compared to what is found in some parts of our world today, the English-speaking world has been a relative refuge from virulent anti-Semitism. But this has not always been the case. There were very few, if any, Jews in England until King William I the Conqueror invited them to settle after the Norman conquest in 1066. Sadly, a century later, anti-Jewish violence erupted during the reign of King Richard I. Despite initial royal efforts to quell the violence, royal support eroded and severe anti-Jewish fervor fanned mobs that massacred whole Jewish communities. Clerics at the time would work up the mobs in the name of religion, calling the Jews “Christ-killers.” They somehow forgot Christ’s own prayer on the stake: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
In 1290, during the reign of England’s King Edward I, all Jews who refused to convert to “Christianity” were ordered expelled from his kingdom, a pattern that would be repeated by other European nations in years ahead—Hungary in 1360, France in 1394, Austria in 1421, Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1497.
In modern times, the vast majority of educated people are familiar with the Holocaust and the well-documented, systematic, and brutal slaughter of millions of Jews at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in World War II. Even so, polls consistently show that a small-but-significant percentage of the population does not know or does not believe that millions of Jews were the victims of genocide in Hitler’s Germany. Many do not recognize that anti-Semitism is not only an evil, but has been a persistent evil throughout history.
And we may rightly ask, Why? Why has such hatred been focused on a small population of highly capable people who have actually made very significant contributions to civilization? Truly, as in any population, some people are going to cause problems—but the Jews have no greater number of deviant people than any other groups. So why have they become so singled out?
Hitler confidant Hermann Rauschning attributed to his former leader this startling admission: “Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, like circumcision…. I am freeing men… from the dirty and degrading self-mortification of a chimera called conscience and morality” (Hitler Speaks, 1939). Scholars have disputed the authenticity of this quote, but it captures the malevolent spirit behind much anti-Semitic thinking—and behind anti-Semites’ desire to discredit and demean the Jews, setting them apart from the rest of society.
But what were the factors that let bigotry set the Jews apart from the society around them? Four factors stand out in particular that distinguished observant Jews from the surrounding population.
Education: Throughout the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance, the vast majority of Europeans were illiterate. By contrast, Jewish families worked to ensure that their sons were not only educated in a trade, but also able to read and write in order to understand their scriptures. As a result, skilled and literate Jewish populations accumulated wealth, which enabled some to become moneylenders. European laws during the Middle Ages generally prevented “Christians” from being involved in moneylending. Jews were not so prevented and became gradually engaged in lending and early forms of banking—giving them great influence but also making them objects of jealousy and resentment.
A culture of separation: Beyond their reverence for what many call the “Old Testament” scriptures, much of Jewish society was shaped by traditions dictated by the Talmud, an extensive body of commentary and interpretation of Jewish law and practice. The resulting social separation fostered the spread of misunderstandings about Jews. Rulers seeking scapegoats for social problems found it easy to fan distrust that would lead to violence. Interestingly, those Jews who rejected the Talmud—such as the Karaites of Eastern Europe and Russia—did not separate themselves from wider society, which may explain why they in general suffered far less from pogroms and persecutions.
Propaganda: When anti-Semites have been unable to spread hatred through fear of genuine differences, some have resorted to outright falsehoods to incite suspicion and even violence. Perhaps the most notorious example is a document published in Russia in 1905, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Recognized today as a forgery, it was widely accepted at the time of publication as a secret account of Jewish leaders’ plans to undermine society and bring it under total control of Jewish power brokers. Even today, some few continue to believe in the document’s authenticity and spread its falsehoods.
God’s laws: Simply by obeying some of God’s law, including the Ten Commandments in the Bible, observant Jews would inevitably find themselves somewhat separate from non-Jews who did not follow even the simplest biblical laws regarding health and cleanliness. During the Dark Ages, when cholera, typhoid, and bubonic plague ravaged European cities, non-Jews noticed that the Jews were almost if not totally unaffected by these afflictions. Today, we can see that it was the Jews’ observance of scriptural laws about such practical matters as quarantine of the ill, frequent washing, and the burial of human waste that kept disease to a minimum. At the time, however, the suffering mobs jumped to the conclusion that since the Jews were scarcely affected by these diseases, they must have caused them—which brought further anti-Semitic persecutions.
All the above, however, cannot explain the real source of anti-Semitism. It is worth noting that the biblical laws referenced in the last point include far more than quarantine. These biblical laws—unlike the Talmudic laws developed by rabbinical Judaism, which served in large measure to separate observant Jews from society—were also observed by the early Church of God as taught by Jesus Christ’s Apostles, a fact that history records. Yet these biblical laws are virtually absent today from most “Christian” denominations. Why? Could anti-Semitism have been a force at play centuries ago that obscured Christian belief?
The medieval mobs who raged against the Jews were mostly illiterate and knew nothing of the first-century Christian Church. They did not comprehend that Jesus Christ kept many of the same laws that were kept by the Jews they sought to persecute. Why? After more than a thousand years of distortion by a false church using the name of Christ, the average “Christian” was ignorant of the doctrines and ethical values of Jesus Christ Himself.
In the centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection, certain leaders emerged who sought to distance Christianity from Jesus Christ and the very laws that He—the God of the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:1–4)—had both given and observed. Just as the original Judaism became distorted by the Talmud and its superstructure of man-made laws obscuring God’s own laws, mainstream Christianity lost sight of Jesus’ teachings under the influence of Roman church leaders like Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, whose ideas owed more to Plato and other pagan thinkers than to the Apostle Paul.
This separation of Christ from His own teachings is also at the heart of modern anti-Semitism, as Adolf Hitler’s hatred of the Jews illustrated powerfully. Professor David Nirenberg, author of Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking, points out that anti-Semitism is in fact a rejection of Jewish values and that its core objective is to negate the ethical principles upon which Judaism is based—which are the same principles by which Jesus Christ lived.
The deeper motivation behind anti-Semitism is that it seeks to discredit the religion God gave to all Israel. This was a religion based on the understanding and laws God imparted to the Hebrews, which God Himself—incarnated as the human Jesus Christ—obeyed and fulfilled perfectly. Many professing Christians make the mistake of thinking that Jesus revoked His own laws after He fulfilled them. The truth, however, is that in setting us an example of fulfilling the law, Jesus made it more binding in its New Testament application. There is no longer a temple for sacrifices because Christ is our sacrifice instead and Christians themselves are now the temple of God.
The laws by which Christ lived are the laws by which true Christians live today. They are principles that are absolute and not open to change. They cannot be modified to adjust to the changing mood of society. The God of the Bible, who gave these directions, makes it clear that His divine laws and standards cannot be revised to meet society’s standards, “For I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6).
God commanded the Israelites to be faithful to His laws and principles and promised to bless them and care for them if they were. In fact, if they were diligent in their obedience, they would exemplify and teach His laws and way of life to the rest of humanity.
Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:6–8).
It is especially important to remember that the first century—original—Christian Church understood the principle that God’s law is absolute. They reasoned that if God is God and Creator of all, then His law must represent absolute truth—truth that must be followed and must trump any conflicting human law.
The half-brother of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Jude, stated, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
This commitment to retain as a standard of belief and behavior the way of life God had established was a strong foundational principle of Jewish society—as well as of the Church founded by Christ and the Apostles. Both groups believed that right and wrong can only be defined by God, through His Holy Scriptures. They shared a common value system that was not open to reinterpretation as society changed its values. Holding to biblical standards made both groups constant outsiders in their communities. The more the social order around them diverged from actual biblical teaching, the greater the resentment toward them.
In 66 AD, and again in 135 AD, Jewish forces raised major rebellions against Roman rule. These were some of the most difficult wars in Rome’s history, and Roman losses were very heavy, especially in the revolt of 135 AD. Romans did not care that the revolts had been spurred by Imperial oppression, and hatred against the Jews and things Jewish boiled over. This hatred spilled over to affect the fledgling Christian Church, which to outsiders looked much like a Jewish group, as both groups kept the seventh-day Sabbath, annual Holy Days, and food laws found in the Scriptures that both groups revered.
Facing Roman persecution, some fearful Christians sought to distance themselves from the Jews. Many abandoned the biblical Passover in favor of the ancient and pagan Easter observance. They moved their day of worship to the first day of the week from the seventh and adopted various new doctrines and practices to separate themselves further from the Jews. Even so, some faithfully held to their beliefs, often at the risk of martyrdom. Some even managed to escape the bounds of the Roman Empire into non-Roman-controlled Europe.
Even as late as the Spanish Inquisition, investigators antagonistic to Jewish belief included some Jews in their persecutions, but their hatred was focused primarily on those few who courageously called themselves Christians while retaining Jesus Christ’s actual teachings instead of the pagan- and Roman-inspired compromises. Today, those who persist in following Christ’s example remain a challenge to the conscience of a world that denies biblical morality and the immutable, unchanging truth of Scripture.
Our world as a whole—anciently, in the Middle Ages, and especially today—has never wanted to hear about morality as God defines it. It does not want to hear the laws and biblical moral values that absolutely define right and wrong—and that will do so for eternity. Yet neither those who preach or commit acts of hatred against the Jews, nor those who persecute the Church founded by Jesus Christ, will succeed. The morality preserved in the pages of Scripture is absolute, immutable, and true. It will endure despite all attempts to fight against God, His people, and His Way, and despite the changes brought into professing Christianity, after the deaths of the original Apostles, to suppress the Old Testament truths that Jesus taught and upheld.
Sadly, persecutions will continue until the end of this age. But no man—not even the great apostate forces prophesied to rise before Christ’s return—will be able to extinguish the Way of life outlined in your Bible.
As we see anti-Semitism raising its ignorant head, close behind will be even more forceful attempts to turn the world away from the truth and morality of the Bible. Anti-Semitism, like all other attacks on morality as defined by the law of the God of the Bible, must be seen for what it is—an attempt to destroy the conscience of humanity. We must know and reject these evils for what they are. Thankfully, God’s word assures us that they will fail, and the law of God will stand forever!