"Why was the Torah given on a mountain called Sinai? Because the great sinah (‘hate’) – the tremendous hatred aimed at the Jew – emanates from Sinai." (The Talmud)
"There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king's laws, so that is not to the king's advantage to tolerate them." (Esther 3:8)
Anti-Semitism is a phenomena that can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. It can be found almost anywhere in the world, even in places where there are no Jews. There is little agreement on why people hate or fear the Jews. Various theories have been put forward (e.g. anti-Semitism can be explained on economic, political, theological, racial, cultural, social or ideological grounds) but none of them can explain why anti-Semitism is so persistent and so mutable. However, it is possible to identify seven stages in the development of anti-Semitism:
· Anti-Judaism and ethnic prejudice in ancient Greece and Rome.
· Christian anti-Judaism (i.e. the belief that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity) and theological (the belief that the Jews had committed an act of deicide). This was the foundation of medieval anti-Semitism and the demonization of Jews.
· Muslim anti-Semitism, originating in the Quran and hadith literature.
· Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment anti-Semitism, which was political, cultural, social and economic in nature. Jews were caught in a net of competing discourses – anti-communism, anti-capitalism and pro-nationalism.
· The compounding of nationalist anti-Semitism by eugenics, resulting in full-blown racial anti-Semitism and Hitler’s Final Solution.
· Nazi-influenced Arab and Islamist anti-Semitism, directed at Israelis and Jews in general.
· New Antisemitism or Israelophobia, which is the hatred of the State of Israel and the demonization of Israelis.
The development of anti-Semitism did not happen in discrete steps. Each stage bled into the next stage or borrowed elements from an earlier stage. Some examples:
· Racial anti-Semitism played a part in the Spanish Inquisition. Purity of blood laws in medieval Spain meant that even Jews who had converted to Catholicism were nevertheless "tainted" by their blood.
· Nazi anti-Semitism leaned heavily on the rantings of Germany’s most famous 16th century protestant, Martin Luther.
· Economic anti-Semitism was present in the centuries preceding the Enlightenment. During the Middle Ages, one of the few occupations available to Jews was money-lending. This led to accusations that Jews were obsessed with money.
· From antiquity, anti-Semites have derided the concept of “the chosen people,” despite the fact that it simply means Jews are chosen by God to fulfil the 613 commandments. Many other religions, cults and nations have also claimed to be chosen e.g. Christians, Muslims, the Japanese.
· Conspiracy theories have been circulating for centuries. Rumours that Jews poisoned wells and consumed the blood of Christians began in the Middle Ages. In the second half of the 19th century, anti-Semites claimed that Jews were planning to take over the world or were influencing politics and economics at the highest level. This is still a widely-held belief on the Left and the Right, and in the Muslim world. Other conspiracy theorists claim that Jews control Hollywood and the media. A worrying trend is the growing belief that the Jews invented the Holocaust in order to provoke global sympathy. Once confined to the Far Right, it is now a popular belief in the Middle East. There are innumerable conspiracy theories about the policies and history of the State of Israel. Examples include: Israel uses animals and birds to carry out espionage activities; Israel ethnically cleansed Palestine in 1948; Israel was responsible for 9/11; Israel spreads aids among Palestinians; Israel is responsible for bird flu and swine flu; Israel is planning to take over the Middle East; Israel poisons well and kills babies; Israel harvests the organs of Palestinians and Haitians.
The changing nature of anti-Semitism and its persistence across cultures and throughout generations defies simple explanation. In 1882, Judah Leib Pinsker, an early Zionist, wrote that anti-Semitism is an incurable and hereditary “psychic aberration.” More recently, historian Paul Johnson described anti-Semitism as “a disease of the mind, extremely infectious and massively destructive. It is a disease to which both human individuals and entire human societies are prone.”
Anti-Semitism is perhaps the best example of a meme, which is an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme self-replicates, mutates and responds to environmental factors. In fact, anti-Semitism could be described as a grand meme. That is to say, it is an overarching idea that encompasses several sub-memes. One of these sub-memes is Israelophobia.
Perhaps anti-Semites and Israel-haters are “simply” projecting their own negative features, characteristics and beliefs onto the Jews. Whatever the reason(s) for anti-Semitism, there is no excuse for it. Anti-Semitism is not a coherent response to some perceived Jewish demeanour, but is a social pathology characterised by hysterical conspiracies and paradoxical beliefs. No other group of people is hated for being lazy and power-hungry. No one else is held responsible for communism and capitalism. No other people is criticised for assimilating and maintaining separateness. Only the Jews could be blamed for killing Jesus and inventing Christianity. And only the Jews could be told to “go back to Palestine” and then told to “get out of Palestine.”