Dr. Ron Schleifer

The Western, largely Christian world today has long been synonymous with tolerance: in general, Antisemitism is mainly a fringe phenomenon, neither popular nor respectable.

Nevertheless, the specter has reappeared and an understanding of its sources is essential. The origins of antisemitic prejudice and persecution over the cen-turies in many countries can be traced to myths and doctrine spread by the Church, sometimes for political, financial gain or other purposes.

Deicide, Satan and the Blood Libel

The most infamous of the anti-Jewish libels is that of god-slaying: it can be found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew 27:25, 'We have killed (Christ)," the Jews supposedly admit to this act. The outcome was naturally a Christian belief that Jews should suffer and be punished; in fact, it became the theological justification for persecution. Jews were to be treated as inferior; denied their basic rights, because they denied the "true religion".

Furthermore, Christianity claimed the status of the "Chosen People", together with its prerogatives. It would have suited the Church if Jews and Judaism had conveniently disappeared as a culture, religion and civilization, because this would have proven the status more convincingly.

Jewry, however, did not disappear or assimilate and it came to serve the Church's purpose that at least a remnant should survive conversion or killing. St. Augustine, in his writings, chose to interpret Psalm 59:12, "Don't kill, lest they forget" to mean that Jews should be allowed to live in order to bear witness, so that Christians would be ever conscious of the origins of their religion. From this thesis, it was but a short step to making the degradation of the Jews a symbol of Christianity's triumph. Indeed, by the fifth century, Jews were severely limited in rights, and legislation existed to enforce this process.

It was also the Church, which developed the satanic image of the Jew, in the spirit of John (8:44), always the most antisemitic of the gospels. The Jew grew to be the incarnation of all the dark forces, the personification of total evil, rather than simply a person with evil inclinations as originally portrayed. Artists, commissioned by the Church to spread the word in an age of illiteracy, portrayed Jews with hooves or horns, suckling from pigs, etc.

The libel that came second to deicide over the centuries in its power to arouse a mob, was the blood libel, which appeared in the late Middle Ages, crystallizing into its final form in Norwich, England.

It alleged that Jews slew Christian children to use their blood - for making unleavened bread, particularly - and the libel was given new life with every Passover.. The Jewish festival was the basis for calculating the date of the Christian Easter, a time when the Church wished to encourage religious fervour: the accusations of crucifixion were a highly successful method.

The next development in Antisemitism was a letter to Pope Gregory denouncing the Talmud: from then on, the Talmud was depicted in Christianity as evil; the word itself acquired sinister connotations in the West. This process, however, took time. Initially, it was a matter of the Church deciding to censure the Talmud or burning it publicly, i. e.; physical destruction preceded the creation of another antisemitic image. This was followed by more attacks on Jewish thought and Jews themselves.


Theory apart, the Jews had managed to settle in most of Christian Europe by the 10th century, but were subject to missionarism, degradation and church campaigns of revilement. It was only with the first Crusade in 1099 that dramatic changes started taking place in the scale of persecution: the sole real "success" of this crusade was the wholesale slaughter of Jewish communities in the Rhineland...

At a more pragmatic level in their day-to-day life, Jews found themselves limited to certain occupations and professions, one of which was money lending.

This gave rise not only to envy and fear of their potential power, but also to horrific dimensions of persecution and slaughter. If someone wanted to avoid payment of debt, it was sufficient to initiate a blood libel, or use some other pretext, to arouse the mob and punishment would be meted out to the Jews.


Jewish communities lived at their peril - loss of life was frequent, and the communities risked total destruction. In York (1190), where the Jewish community huddled in the citadel as the mob approached to kill them, the members decided to kill themselves rather than face a massacre. Good care was taken to seize and destroy documentary evidence of the State and Church debts to Jewish moneylenders, after the Martyrs' suicide and the massacre of the few who remained alive.

The Church not only supported persecution and massacres - it even initiated them in some areas of Europe. Spain is a prime example, reconquered from the Moors and wishing to rival Rome as the seat of the Papacy. The immediate benefits, however, were more financial than spiritual - all confiscated property reverted to the instigator of the claim, i.e., the state or the Church.

Under the Inquisition, the Church only had power against Christians, so it concentrated on the "New Christians", or conversos converts from Judaism, commonly known by the abusive term, "Marranos" (lit: pigs). The State, however, held power over all its citizens: the Jews, too, from whom it had borrowed extensively to pay for the campaign to win Grenada. The Jews were also serious business competition in a commercializing Europe. Both the religious - political and financial problems could be solved by the one act of expulsion.

Throughout Europe the pattern was repeated. The Papacy was enormously wealthy; it also saw these measures as a means to control the secular world: the organised expulsions of Jews from this century onwards (Germany, England, Spain), were synonymous with mass expropriation of Jewish property and finance in these countries.

Power and Prejudice

No era passed without a new antisemitic myth making its appearance: the most hated Jewish occupation of money lending gave rise to the idea that Jews controlled all money and - with it - power. The bridge to the Industrial Revolution was, of course, the Reformation, which gave Jews grounds to hope for greater tolerance. There was, however, no respite here for Jews and Judaism: Luther had hoped that his movement would engulf Jewry as well as Christianity and when this did not happen he had no hesitation in giving rein to overt Antisemitism.

The power-seeking and hegemony motifs became more widespread with the expansion of European economies from the Middle Ages onwards, but most especially, from the time of the late Industrial Revolution.

Official Antisemitism and persecution go hand-in-hand with social processes. Because the Jews were denied material necessities and basic rights, such as living and working together with Gentiles, even eating with them and entering the streets with them on certain holidays, they were seen by the Gentiles as less than human. In fact, the outcome - and possibly even the goal - of Antisemitism was and is to deny the Jews their humanity, a campaign that was reinforced by the various libels. Jews were marked out as different - by their clothes, their place of abode (e.g., the ghetto], both as individuals and as a collective.

Surprising though it may sound, prejudice against Jews as aliens in society, capable of all the evils attributed to them, persisted long after their expulsion from many countries, lingering to the national folklore to reemerge after their readmission. Thus we find that the great liberal thinkers - Rousseau, Voltaire and others - give rein to antisemitic opinions in their work.


Classical Christian Antisemitism was based on Jews being classed as a religion; the individual was semi-human for as long as he refused to convert, so that - strictly speaking - it was not really a collective phenomenon. Nor was it a racial one - with the exception of Spain, where descendants of converts were spied on and restricted for many generations - although the main motive was to limit those New Christians financially and socially. It is nevertheless easy to draw the parallels with images created in racial and Nazi doctrine, for which we refer the reader to the article on racial Antisemitism.

Lewis, Bernard - op. cit.
Haye, Malcolm - Thy Brother's Blood, Jerusalem, 1980.
Bakhrakh, D. - Antishemiyut (Antisemitism), University of the Air.









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13 Aug 2007 / 29 Av 5767 0