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March 29, 2019 9:54 am

The Nexus Between Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism

avatar by Harold Brackman


The Israeli flag at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Hynek Moravec via Wikimedia Commons.

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud evoked the historic architecture of Rome in order to explain the structure of the human mind. What if the long history of Jew hatred is like Freud’s mental architecture — which adds new layers on top of the old, yet the old layers do not crumble away but continue to shape the evolving mental landscape?

Leaving aside anti-Zionism, a third layer of Jew hatred, I want to explore anti-Judaism and antisemitism in terms of their intertwined evolution.

Jew hatred predates the appearance of Christianity. In the third century BCE, the Hellenized Egyptian priest Manetho rewrote the Biblical Exodus narrative as a counter-history, where the Hebrews were leprous Egyptians led by a renegade prince, Moses, and expelled for treason against the Pharaoh. Here we already see the still-popular theme of “dual loyalty” regarding the Jews.

Did the Greek and Roman libelers of Jews hate them as a religion, a race, or — more likely — both?

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With the Christian gospels, the emphasis shifted to a critique of Judaism — hence the term “anti-Judaism” — that grudgingly credited the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) for offering signs of the coming of Jesus, the messiah, but deplored Jews’ failure to see the final act in the divine plan.

This was the message of the author of the Gospel of Matthew, who has the Jewish mob call for the Crucifixion by shouting: “Let his blood be upon us and our children.” Yet Matthew seems certain that his fellow Jews would eventually be forgiven for their complicity in deicide. This clearly was also the expectation of the apostle Paul, a Pharisee himself before his conversion.

Does this mean that the problem with Jews for early Christians (initially, themselves overwhelmingly Jewish) was their religion, not their race? Unfortunately, the Gospel of John, probably the last written (c. 80 CE), paints an uglier picture. John has Jesus condemn Jewish priests: “Ye are not the seed of Abraham, but are of … [your] father the devil and just as darkness doesn’t understand light, the children of Satan do not understand the Son of Man.”

John may have meant these words about the Pharisees metaphorically, but they came to be taken literally about all Jews by racists in succeeding centuries.

By the time of the Church Father, St. John Chrysostom (fourth century CE), who helped systematize Christian doctrine, the hateful depiction of Jews reached a nadir. In his homilies Adversus Judaeos (“Against the Jews”), Chrysostom equated the synagogue with a pagan temple worse than a brothel, and as a dwelling place of demons, devils, and assassins of Christ. Worse still to him, Jews and Judaism were infecting Christians.

Here was the root of full-blown “Christian antisemitism.” This led, by a circuitous route, to the Inquisition, when an adviser to Spain’s Charles V (1500-1558) warned: “Who can deny that in the descendants of the Jews there … endures the evil inclination of their ancient ingratitude … just as in Negroes [there persists] the inseparability of their blackness.” Only “old Christian” families with a non-Jewish lineage or limpieza de sangre (“pure blood”) could be fully trusted. It took 400 years, but Europe was on its way to the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.

The interaction of anti-Judaism with genocidal antisemitism culminated during the Holocaust, when (over the objections of some Christian churches) the Nazis used St. Chrysostom’s homilies to justify the Final Solution. Thus the sins of centuries past came to live on in the horrors of yesterday.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of “From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans” (Africa World Press, 2015).

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