There are many theories about when and how antisemitism began. Did it start with the Assyrians or the Babylonians? Did it start with the Greeks or the Romans? Why have Jews been persecuted for so long, and why does the hatred continue today?
Rabbi Robert Haas of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah attempted to answer these questions at a Nov. 16 lecture he presented on the evolution of antisemitism. The lecture, “The Evolution of Antisemitism: What Can We Do?” was hosted by Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton and co-sponsored by Temple Oseh Shalom and the Hilton Head Island chapter of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
“Antisemitism is hate (toward Jewish people) without reason. Antisemitism is not something that makes sense,” Haas said. “It has to be unreasonable to really be antisemitism.”
For example, he said, it might not be right to hate someone who took your job, but it is reasonable. It is not reasonable, however, to hate someone simply because they are Jewish.
Often referred to as the oldest form of hatred, antisemitism is still a problem in the United States, and Haas said it’s growing exponentially in Europe.
Anyone can simply read a newspaper to see reports of antisemitic graffiti, the distribution of antisemitic propaganda, and celebrities spewing antisemitic rhetoric. Synagogues and Jewish schools are still the targets of violence.
Just a few years ago, 11 people were shot to death while praying at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. And a year prior to that, the world watched as white nationalists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, with torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
Over the centuries, Jews have been persecuted for their wealth, for their religious views and for their connection to Israel. They’ve been called racially inferior. They’ve been blamed for the death of Jesus.
In the 11th century, the idea of Jews killing Jesus became a popular excuse for hating Jewish people. Along with that came the idea of Jews using the blood of Jesus to make matzah – a baseless rumor, by the way, that Haas still hears people say in Savannah.
“Think about that,” Haas said. “A thousand years later, Jews start being persecuted for killing Jesus, much more than they were at the time of his death. This is where we see antisemitism as we know it begin, about a thousand years ago.”
Haas said the stereotypes about Jews being money hungry came into play during the Crusades because there were so many restrictions on what Jews were allowed to do for a living. The one industry they were allowed to work in was banking, which made them look like villains when they had to collect repayment on loans.
It also made Jews easy targets for thieves, who knew they often had money on hand.
Haas said religious antisemitism was popular until the 19th century, when antisemitism evolved into something much worse, physical antisemitism – also known as racism.
“In the 19th century, we start seeing the idea that there are human beings that are inferior in a variety of ways, and the Jews are on this list,” Haas said. “If you’re born inferior, there’s no way to fix it, whereas if it’s religion, I can change my religion. I can’t change my DNA.”
This racial ideology took hold with the Nazis, who took antisemitism to a new level by killing 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.
Haas said the Nazis weren’t religious people so they didn’t care that Jews killed Jesus. They hated Jews because they looked different and dressed differently. They were worried about Jews controlling the world.
We don’t hear about this type of antisemitism anymore, Haas said, because it disappeared. No one, other than extremists, wants to be connected to the Nazis.
“That antisemitism had to disappear because it doesn’t work in this age anymore,” Haas said. “For antisemitism to exist, it had to evolve, and that’s what it did. It had to figure out, ‘What way do we persecute the Jews and get away with it on mass scale?’”
Haas said most of the antisemitism seen today is anti-Israel. Some people think Israel is the worst of the worst countries, and that all Jews are bad because they are somehow connected to Israel.
“Anti-Israel is the new antisemitism,” Haas said. “People use anti-Israel as an excuse to hate Jews. It makes no sense to hate a whole country and to persecute people who don’t even live there, or to hate a whole country and want the country destroyed.”
Parents need to teach their children that it’s OK to criticize others for what they do, Haas said, but it’s not OK to dehumanize others.
“That takes hate to another level,” he said.
The solution to antisemitism, the rabbi said, is to stick up for other people when they’re being persecuted. A united front makes things a lot more difficult for those who hate.
For more information on antisemitism and how to combat it, Haas suggested people visit the Anti-Defamation League’s website at adl.org.
Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.