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by Henry L Lazarus
A few decades ago in May I was at a Bat Mitzva where the reading was Bechukotai, the final chapters of Leviticus where the Israelites are told the consequences of not following the laws of Moses. I was struck by paragraphs 32 and 33. “And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” I was struck at the time at how much that curse resembled the antisemitism that has bedeviled Jewish lives for thousands of years.
In 38 ad, the first historically recorded pogrom occurred in Alexandria Egypt. Philo writing in Ad Flaccum tells a horrifying tale of Jews suddenly attacked by mobs encouraged by the Governor of Egypt Flaccus. Flaccus had been appointed by Tiberius, but with his death and reports from Rome that his successor Caligula was having his enemies murdered, Flaccus thought he was next and blamed the Jews. First he had statues of the gods installed in Alexandria's synagogues according to Philo. Jews lived in two of the five sections of the city. One was emptied and Jews were driven from their homes, many murdered. The council of elders was put on trial and executed. As Philo said. "while the populace, overrunning their desolate houses, turned to plunder, and divided the booty among themselves as if they had obtained it in war." And "for wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him, or beat him with sticks, not at once delivering their blows upon mortal parts, lest they should die speedily, and so speedily escape from the sufferings which it was their design to inflict upon them."
Antisemitism in Egypt apparently existed for centuries. While most of these texts have been lost there are references to a 3rd century BC priest Manetho of Sebennytus who taught that Jews were thrown out of Egypt because they were lepers. The temple in Jerusalem was supposed to have a statue of a man on an Ass.
The most famous antisemite from that time of Philo is referenced by Josephus in his book Against Apion which tries to refute Apion’s theories about the Jews. Apion viewed Jews as foreigners and acted as a rabble-rouser in the riots. He was on the opposing side of the delegation sent to Caligua in Rome for help against the damage done to the Jewish community in Alexandria.
The destruction of the Jewish community in Alexandria is a common theme echoing through the centuries. Jews were living quietly, mostly in a major city. They were prosperous and may have been envied for their wealth. After a trigger, in this case the quiet arrival of the grandson of Herod, Herod Agrippa, who was on his way to his kingship of Judea, the mob is set upon the Jews with disastrous consequences. There are always reasons given for such attacks, but the reasons never make sense.
Over the next few centuries the early Christian church preached replacement theology. The chosen people of God were no longer Jews, but followers of Jesus. This meant that Tanach was included in Christian worship, and eventually part of the Christian Bible. At the same time, the decision was made that Jews should be treated as examples of a people who God has forgotten. At the same time the view of Jesus went from a man resurrected, to a form of God. The Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council of Nicaea at the behest of the Emperor Constantine in 325, affirmed the trilogy. Christians who didn’t follow this Creed were wiped out. Jews had a unique situation of becoming second class citizens in the growing lands of Christianity. The Church taught that “all Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ; the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the scattering of the Jewish people was punishment both for past transgressions and for continued failure to abandon their faith and accept Christianity.” (Holocaust Encyclopedia)
The rise of Islam in the 7th century could easily have led to the destruction of Jews still living in Northern Africa and Spain. However in the 8th century that became part of the People of the Book with special status under Moslem law. “The religious communities recognized by Muslims as People of the Book were subject to the legal status known as dhimma ('protection'), meaning that they were allowed to practice their faith and to govern their community according to the rules and norms of their own religion, in return for paying a special head tax called the jizya.” (Wikipedia)
n both Christian and Moslem communities of the time, Jews lived peacefully, but were occasionally attacked by mobs, usually at the instigation of local authorities. In 1095 Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos asked Pope Urban II for help against the Turks attacking Constantinople. The first crusade was formed. As they traveled along the Rhine and the Danube they decided to attack non-christians. Local Bishops helped defend the Jews. When the Crusade reached Jerusalem, all its inhabitants were murdered, Jews and Muslims alike.
Things had calmed down by the time of Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki) who lived in Troyes France from 1040 to 1105, Jews could own land and were far more accepted. Then came the blood libel.
In 1255 in Lincoln a boy named Hugh was found at the bottom of a well belonging to a Jew named Copin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “A large number of Jews were gathered together, and they are said to have tortured the child, to have scourged and crowned him with thorns, and crucified him in mockery of Christ's death.” The boy is still venerated as a Saint. Accusations againsy\t Jews grew to include blood needed for matza and recently Hamentashen for Purim. The net result was Jewish expulsion from various lands starting with England. After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some settled in Italy where fifty years later the Italiand invented the Ghetto. Until Napoleon liberated the Ghetto’s, Jews could not leave the Ghetto at night and only those with business interests could leave at all. Once a year the Jews were paraded in front of the city to show their evil.
Expulsions, ghettos and Shtetls followed. Jews were released from the Ghettos under Napoleon Bonaparte after the French revolution gave Jews full citizenship. Jews were not released from the lands controlled by the Pope until Italian unification in 1871. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. One of his Assassins, Hesya Helfman, was Jewish. Tsar Alexander III blamed the Jews and what followed has been detailed well in Fiddler on the Roof.
The wave of antisemitism that led to the holocaust, came from three elements. The term anti-Semitism was first coined in 1860 and came from labeling Jews as members of a race as opposed to the strong European race of Aryans. Jewish According to German journalist Wilhelm Marr, Jewish spirit was infiltrating German culture . In 1903 a Russian newspaper, Znamya published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which rewrote tracts about the Templars to show a Jewish plan for global domination. Then starting in 1920 Henry Ford’s newspaper The Dearborn Independent published a series of articles that were collected into a four volume set called The International Jew. This expanded on the Protocols and heavily influenced Mein Kamp.
The horrors of the holocaust stifled antisemitism through much of my life. In 2001 it rose from its hidden depths at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa.It was focused specifically on Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Israel and the US withdrew, but the stage was set for anti-Israel antisemitism.
Today in America, Antisemitism is coming from three venues of hatred. We tent to think of antisemitism as coming from White nationalism. While the Nazi party and the KKK still exist, they have very few members. The Southern Poverty Law Center was very effective in using legal means to sue many of the larger organizations out of existence in the 90’s. I lump them together with the larger group of conspiracy theorists. This is where you will find ideas like the Rothschild family controls the world, and that Jews are shipping in immigrants to cause instability in the US.
Far more disturbing is growing antisemitism in the Black community. This is coming from two elements. The black slaves were given bibles when they arrived and quickly identified with the tale of the ‘Exodus. That morphed into identification with Jews and a version of replacement theology Groups like Black Hebrews believe that Blacks are the real Jews and we Jews are frauds. This movement is growing fast.
Louis Farrakhan’s organization, The Nation of Islam, has a three volume book series called The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews which uses historical quotes to “prove” Jews disproportionate role in the Atlantic slave trade. Volume 2, How Jews Gained Control of the Black American Economy continues the canard. The final volume published in 2016 blames the KKK on Jews. All three books have been gaining popularity in the Black community.
Progressivism has a strong element in growing antisemitism. Intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The concept was that various groups working against oppression in feminist, LGBTQ+, and racism would combine their efforts to improve the lives of oppressed peoples everywhere. Unfortunately one of those groups was the Palestinians. In the progressive movement. Zionism is the most evil movement in the world. On college campuses groups that espouse Boycott, Divest , and Sanctions (BDS). Lately that movement has grown so that various human rights groups won’t let Jewish versions participate. There have been several marches for Woman’ rights that excluded Jewish women, or in one case actually canceled the march to avoid having potential Zionists attend. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committees are now making it much harder for Jewish, Chinese, and even white males from getting into elite universities. Tenured Professors at those institutions, frequently Jewish ones, are losing their jobs.
Antisemitism is only at moderate levels right now. During the 1930’s Jews were locked out of many institutions and developed Jewish Hospitals, law firms, and universities. However it is becoming noticeable.
There is a ray of hope in Bechukotai there is another quote “Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, iI will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God. But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Lord.”