Antisemitism: From its Origins to Today


Anyone keeping up with news lately has likely seen various reports on the antisemitic remarks being made  by many high-profile figures, such as Kanye West and Kyrie Irving. Antisemitism is defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish and/or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The uptick in antisemitism recently isn’t just limited to high-profile figures, though; the Anti-Defamation League has reported that 2021 had the highest reported harassment, vandalism, and violence against Jews since they began collecting data over 30 years ago. When thinking of antisemitism, the most glaring example is the Holocaust: the genocide of Jews carried out by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis that killed 6 million Jews between 1939 and 1945. Prior to this, however, there is a very long and complex history of antisemitism that dates back to the death of Jesus. 

Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, and under Pontius Pilate in Judea, Roman authorities ordered him to death. Despite the Romans being the ones who crucified Jesus, many Christians believed that it was the Jews who killed him. Shortly after the death of Jesus, the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and Jews were exiled from their homeland, which is now known as Israel. They were forced to live as a dispersed minority. By the 6th century, Christianity was the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, and the early Christian church depicted Jews as agents of the devil and murderers of God. The state and church laws heavily discriminated against Jews, restricting them from owning land, holding public office, and banning them from certain jobs. Because of this, many Jews became involved in money lending, trade, and commerce. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were persecuted, as they were blamed for poisoning the wells of Europe to cause the Black Plague and depicted using the blood of Christian children in ritual sacrifices. They were also forced to live apart from the rest of society in segregated districts known as “ghettos”. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther hoped a position of religious tolerance would convince Jews to convert, but when they didn’t, he called for the burning of all of their houses, synagogues, and prayer books. During the Enlightenment, restrictions on Jews began to be lifted, and they were able to integrate more into society.

This was not the end, though, as religious discrimination expanded into secular, political, and racial antisemitism. Now that many Jews were thriving economically, conspiracy theories that Jews planned on using their money and intelligence to achieve world domination began to spread like wildfire. Antisemitism served primarily to divert attention away from political and economic disasters. In Russia, Jews were blamed for the assassination of Czar Alexander II, and Russian authorities encouraged murderous rampages against Jews to distract from the poor living conditions within the country. Following World War I and the economic devastation that Germany faced, Hitler and the Nazis used Jews as a scapegoat to blame for their problems, thus resulting in World War II and the Holocaust.

But how does all of this history relate to the antisemitism we see today? Many of the harmful antisemitic conspiracy theories and stereotypes that are circulated today can be traced back to lies that were used in order to justify the persecution of Jews in the past. According to an Anti-Defamation League survey, 15% of Americans believe that Jews have too much power in the business world. This aligns with the stereotype of Jewish people being greedy or that they are “elites” that control the majority of the wealth. Rather than formulating conspiratorial ideas and reinforcing negative stereotypes, we can simply look to history and see that Jews have thrived in the banking sector because it was a very common job for them to hold as a result of being discriminated against and being denied most other jobs. Another common conspiracy about the Jewish “elite” is that they are reptilian humanoids who drink blood. Again, this can be traced back to the myth used to justify the persecution of Jews, that they used the blood of Christian children to perform sacrifice rituals. It’s critical to be aware of the history of antisemitism because it can help people recognize when these same ideas are being recycled into new ways to perpetuate hate and violence against Jews.