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Anti-Semitism - Overview - Modern Anti-semitism

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The major shift in the definition of anti-Semitism occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Christianity was largely pushed aside among educated Europeans by the doctrines of the Enlightenment. The dominant cliché since the eighteenth century has been that the Enlightenment ushered in the age of equality of all religions and ethnic identities. This is largely true, but the most ideological wing of the Enlightenment asserted its own version of Limpieza de Sangre. The dominant figure in European letters in the second half of the eighteenth century was Voltaire (1694–1778). He paid some lip service to the notion that all people could be perfected including perhaps even the hardest case of all, some Jews, but his basic position was that the Jews were born with fanaticism in their hearts as Bretons were born with blond hair. It was not strange for Voltaire to assert such a view because he had Le Petit Journal illustration of Alfred Dreyfus being stripped of his rank (1895). Dreyfus, a French army captain of Jewish descent, was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. He was not exonerated and released from incarceration until 1906. © LEONARD DE SELVA/CORBIS himself defined negroes as not human beings; they were an intermediate stage between humans and monkeys. Voltaire and those who followed after him, such as Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach (1723–1789) and, to some degree, Denis Diderot (1713–1784), thus solved the problem of what to do about the Jews by declaring it to be a question of how to defend the bulk of humanity against a dangerous infection that was carried by people who looked human but really were alien.

This notion appeared during the debates of the era of the French Revolution in the writings and decisions of the most radical Jacobins who asserted, both in Paris and in eastern France, that giving the Jews equality was simply to make it more possible for them to realize their nefarious plots under more respectable cover. In the next half century or so, after the revolutionary era, some of the greatest figures of the European left (such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, and even Karl Marx) argued, often quoting Voltaire, that the Jews were a danger and that the Jews themselves had to be saved from their Jewish identity for their own sake and for the sake of humankind.

Jewish man forced by Nazis to ride in open cart, c. 1935. Under Hitler, Jews were legally classified as a separate race and forced to endure many types of public humiliation, such as wearing a yellow Star of David for identification purposes. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS

This doctrine of many of the radical Enlightenment thinkers was appropriated by the nationalists who took over European literature and political thought in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Their image of a nation was that it represented the purity of an older culture, and therefore, aliens who had not shared in that history had no role. Jews were certainly viewed as aliens from Asia who did not belong within any of the European nations. With variations, this doctrine became part of the thinking of the pan-Germans and the pan-Slavs, and of other European nationalists.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century at least three versions of anti-Semitism were very virulent in Europe. In tsarist Russia where some six million Jews, at least half of those in the world at the time, lived, the dominant form of anti-Semitism was based on many centuries of Christian hatred. In the last fifty years of its existence, the absolute rule of the tsars found it useful to deflect the angers of the poor by blaming the Jews as the source of all the troubles in Russia. In 1881–1882, pogroms swept through the realm and a mass migration of Jews fled the kingdom. Most of these refugees went west to America, but some were the first founders of the new Zionist settlement in Palestine. But even in tsarist Russia, where the ruling class and especially the tsars themselves were believing Christians of the old school, other, more modern forms of anti-Semitism contributed to the persecution of the Jews. Many of the archenemies of the tsarist regime nonetheless blamed the Jews. The new revolutionaries saw the uprising of the poor against the Jews as a movement to be supported because the Jews—so the revolutionaries argued—were the capitalist oppressors of the poor of Russia. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, pan-Slavism was also gaining strength and importance in eastern Europe and especially in Russia. The essential doctrine of this movement was that the Slavs had been chosen by history, and probably by God himself, to be the superior people of all of humankind. Obviously, the ancient Jewish claim to closeness had long been nullified, and those who would maintain this claim were troublemakers, or worse.

These various assaults on the Jews were given prominence, and special bitterness, in the last years of the century by the appearance of the book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This book was, of course, a forgery that was concocted by agents of the tsarist secret police probably working in Paris, which was then the intellectual capital of Europe. In the Protocols all the forms of anti-Semitism were combined: Jewish capitalists and Jewish revolutionaries were actually engaged—so the authors of the Protocols maintained—in a joint endeavor to undermine the civilization and culture of the European majority. The capitalist, Lord Rothschild, and the socialist Jews, who were trying to assassinate the tsar, pretended to hate each other, but this was not the truth. They were really partners in the immemorial Jewish enterprise, to undermine society in order to control it. The ultimate battle in the world was between those who would defend the majority culture and their immemorial enemies, the Jews. The Protocols have been repeatedly discredited as a fantasy, but this book has been reprinted in a variety of languages and continues to be read and believed by anti-Semites all over the world, including the newest recruits to the "great hatred" in the Muslim world and in Japan.

The essence of post-Christian anti-Semitism was a restatement of pre-Christian Hellenistic Jew hatred. In the middle of the eighteenth century, a second-level scholar and leader of the Enlightenment in France, the Count Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, had published a book of citations from Greek and Latin authors (Opinion des anciens sur les Juifs, 1769) in which the Jews were denounced as alien to European society and a danger to its future. This theme was carried forward in the next century and the one thereafter, to naturalize anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of both pre-Christian and post-Christian times. To be sure these attacks also derived some nourishment from Christian theology but this was not the essence of modern anti-Semitism. It was not necessary to denounce the Jews as Christ-killers; the charge of leprosy in various permutations was more than enough.

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