Notes on Antisemitism

Photo Source Diebold Schilling – Heritage. Civilization and the Jews by Abba Eban | CC BY 2.0

(1) Like everything, antisemitism has an origin in time. Some find it in Egyptian, Greek and Roman writings from the 3rd century BCE that critically describe Jews, their curious religious laws, their clannishness, resistance to the death should anyone attack their religious rights. But these writers wrote critically of all they considered barbarians, including Persians, Celts, Germans, etc. They were not expressing hatred for whole peoples, and it would be a stretch to call them antisemitic in the modern sense.

By the time of the emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 CE) there were millions of Judeans in the Roman Empire, most of them freemen engaging in trade. They had synagogues in many cities; did not St. Paul in the 50s visit those in Corinth, Philippi, Antioch, etc. to initially spread his message about Jesus? (Recall that the Christian movement, involving many conflicting schools, was originally viewed as a form of Judaism, and debated within synagogues.) The Jews of Rome were expelled by Claudius, according to the historian Suetonius, because they “constantly  made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus,” This seems a reference to the unsettling impact of the Christ  (Chrestus) cult among Roman Jews, and inter-community conflict annoying urban authorities. But the Jews were back by 52 and remained a strong community in the city.

(2) Real antisemitism I would argue resulted from and originated in Christianity, with the fourth century the crucial one.

But it arises out of an historical irony. In the course of the fourth  century Christianity was first legalized (313), standardized (Nicene Creed, 325) then in 380 made the official religion of the empire. Soon all other religions were banned, including the world-religion of Manichaeanism, the cult of Mithras, the cult of Cybele, various paganisms. Only Judaism was permitted, alongside Christianity, to which it of course is intimately connected. Jews were too numerous, too ardently attached to their faith, and perhaps too economically important to suppress as a religious community. So they survived in the interstices of European Christendom throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period, if often under conditions of severe discrimination, and fear of programs or expulsions depending on the whims of a new prince.

(3) Where does (western) antisemitism come from? One factor can’t be emphasized enough.  From the point of view of many Christians in the Late Roman Empire, Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. In the biblical account (Matthew 27:1-35) the priests of the Sanhedrin take the bound Jesus to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate requesting his execution. While Pilate finds no fault in Jesus, and is prepared to release him, a Jerusalem mob organized by the priests demand his death. Pilate had offered to release a criminal for the feast day, suggesting it be Jesus; but the wicked priests incite the mob to demand a criminal named Barabbas be freed instead. (The gospel of John has the mob specifically shout: “Give us Barabbas!”)

Pilate grudgingly agrees to crucify Jesus, but washes his hands of the deed. He says guilt will be on those demanding Jesus’ death.

“His blood be on us, and our children!” (Matthew 27:25) cry the crowd enthusiastically. This version of the story, which does not appear in the other gospel narratives, explains a great deal about medieval antisemitism. The Jewish leadership, threatened by Jesus and his movement, sought to kill the Son of God. The Jewish masses represented by the mob were god-killers. God sent his Son to be their long-foretold Messiah, but they did not recognize him. Instead they committed deicide. What crime could be worse than that?

Of course the passage (of highly dubious historicity) could be interpreted to mean that those acknowledging responsibility for Jesus’ death were speaking only for themselves, not for all Jews and their progeny. And there were many “Jewish Christians”—Jews who did accept Jesus as Messiah; indeed all the apostles were such. But the powerful image of Jews demanding his blood, which comes to be called the “blood curse,” produced much of the antisemitic sentiment and fury in Europe for centuries.

Personally, I do not believe in God, much less a Son of God, and I think the gospels contain much fiction. There are contradictions in the gospel accounts; in John the Romans arrest Jesus, not the Sanhedrin guards. I am highly skeptical about the biblical account of Jesus’ trial and death and note that there are reputable scholars who question whether the Jesus of the gospels (composed ca. 70-120 CE) bears much relationship to a real historical figure. That said, I respect those who are committed to a literal reading of the Bible and who believe this crowd behavior happened as described. And they must wonder how to interpret it.

“Let his blood be on our hands,” sounds a lot like: “We’re guilty and should be punished.” You can imagine how a German peasant watching the Oberammergau Passion Play in seventeenth century Bavaria, which dramatizes this episode, might be riled up into attacking Jews. And you can imagine how a contemporary U.S. Christian who believes that the Bible is God’s Word (as is probably a strong supporter of Israel) struggles to comprehend the meaning of the verse. I assume they reason: Those people in the crowd were just speaking for themselves, not all Jews. And they were probably paid to be there, not speaking from knowledge or conviction. All the apostles were Jews, after all; the Jews as a community didn’t reject Jesus, only the majority of them; God loves the Jews and would not want revenge attacks on them.

But Bible passages are famously open to varied interpretations and one can understand the potentially explosive character of this story.

(While there are Islamic versions of antisemitism, this “blood curse” does not occur in Islam. The Quran mentions Jewish “scheming” in Jesus’ death, but it says God’s scheming was greater, and that anyway the crucifixion was an illusion (Surah 3:54). In Islamic societies, Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims recognized as “peoples of the book” were taxed—as Muslims weren’t—and subjugated to discrimination, but rarely pogroms or expulsions. The Muslim Ottomans welcomed Sephardic Jews expelled from fifteenth century Spain. Jews could hold high posts if the caliphates which would have been inconceivable in Christendom.)

(4) Let us call the above “blood-curse antisemitism” based on religious mythology. The other charge against Jews central to (western) antisemitism was the charge of greed.  Denied land ownership and admission into many trades, many Jews came to prosper in such fields as commerce, money-lending, gold-smithing, silk-weaving. Most Jews were in fact poor, but the image of the grasping, exploitative Jew became a medieval and early modern caricature. Monarchs made use of them and they monopolized trade in some commodities in different principalities. But Jews became objects of Christian envy and resentment (see Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice). Thus religious animosity became combined with economic resentment. The Jew as bloodsucking capitalist was so powerful by the 19th century that Karl Marx  asked in 1844, in his On the Jewish Question:

What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities…. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange…. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.

The late British Marxist scholar Robert Fine argues that Marx’s language was “ironic” and “witty” rather than antisemitic. (Marx himself was a Jew, the descendent of rabbis on both sides.)  Marx’s questionable argument was that the Jew can only join emancipated humanity by dropping his separate cultural identity including the religion based on illusions.

In the contemporary U.S., antisemitism seems rooted less in religious reasons than in this other issue of resentment for Jewish prosperity and influence, presumed to be concentrated in Hollywood, Congress, the banks, the press, academe, Wall Street). Let’s call this “economic resentment antisemitism.”

(5) Robert Bowers, the gunman in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday, says he wants all Jews to die. He isn’t a Trump supporter, because Trump is “surrounded by Jews.” That sounds like economic resentment antisemitism.  It is true that Trump is surrounded by Jews, beginning with Jared and Ivanka but including Steven Mnuchin, David Friedman, Jason Greenblatt, Stephen Miller, Carl Icahn, and David Shulkin. He enjoys the support of Alan Dershowitz. All very wealthy, privileged Jews.  Jewish Republican Sens. Lee Zeldin and David Kustov have both sought and received Trump’s endorsements. But Trump’s also surrounded by anti-Semites, whose antisemitism he’s not able to grasp mentally and can’t recognize.

But what does this mean, posted before Bowers’ shooting spree: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered”? Jews are slaughtering his people?  This sounds more like blood-curse antisemitism. “Jews are the children of Satan (john 8:44),”  Bowers posted on the fringe right social network Gab, “the lord Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” Bowers is obviously a believing Christian and I’ll wager he knows Matthew 27:25 and supposes he’s acted righteously.

It is the worst attack on a Jewish community in U.S. history. After all the civil rights legislation. After all the perceived progress. And it reflects both the economic antisemitism and the blood-curse antisemitism of the deep Middle Ages.

Jair Bolsonaro is now Brazil’s president, yearning for the good old days of fascist military dictatorship. Far-right parties are advancing in France and Germany. Trump remains president of the U.S.  There is clearly no linear progress in history.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: