Many explanations of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism have been advanced. One theory, widely accepted by social scientists, suggests that anti-Semitism is nurtured in periods of social instability and crisis, such as those existing in Germany in the 1880s and in the era preceding World War II (1939-1945). Passions and frustrations engendered during such periods are theoretically deflected onto scapegoats, for example, an available, isolated minority, such as the Jews.
II. Historical Roots of Anti-Semitism
Although the term anti-Semitism was coined in 1879, anti-Jewish agitation has existed for several thousand years. In the ancient Roman Empire, for example, the devotion of Jews to their religion and special forms of worship was used as a pretext for political discrimination against them, and very few Jews were admitted to Roman citizenship. Since the 4th century AD (and possibly before), Jews have been regarded as the killers of Jesus Christ. With the rise and eventual domination of Christianity throughout the Western world, discrimination against Jews on religious grounds became universal, and systematic and social anti-Judaism made its appearance. Jews were massacred in great numbers, especially during the Crusades; segregated in ghettos; required to wear identifying marks or garments; and economically crippled by the imposition of restrictions on the business activities open to them. In the 18th and 19th centuries, which saw the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, increasing separation of church and state, and the rise of modern nation-states, Jews experienced less religious and economic persecution and were gradually integrated into the economic and political order; however, acceptance was superficial and ran in cycles, depending on economic and social conditions.
In Germany, the process of Jewish emancipation was completed with the formation of the German Empire in 1871. Although legal reforms put an end to discrimination on religious grounds, hostility, falsely based on racism, grew. Racist theories that had been formulated during the preceding decades provided the basis for a new grouping of anti-Semitic political parties after the Franco-Prussian War and the economic crash of 1873. The German political scene was marked by the presence of at least one openly anti-Semitic party until 1933, when anti-Semitism became the official policy of the government under National Socialism (Nazism).
The pattern of German anti-Semitism was followed in other parts of western and central Europe. In Austria, for example, a Christian Socialist party advocated more or less anti-Semitic programs. In France, anti-Semitism became an issue in the larger problem of the separation of church and state. Clerical and royalist factions generally adopted anti-Semitic principles based on the racist theories formulated in Germany and fostered in part by the publication of numerous anti-Semitic publications, notably the newspaper La Libre Parole, started in 1892 by the French anti-Semitic journalist and author Edouard Drumont. Anti-Semitism in France culminated in the Dreyfus affair between 1894 and 1906. With the liberation of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who was imprisoned for alleged treason, anti-Semitism almost disappeared as a political issue in France.
III. Persecution in Eastern Europe: the Pogroms
Opposition to the Jews took a different course in Eastern Europe. Medieval traditions isolating the Jews as an alien economic and social class were never broken. The Jewish emancipation characteristic of Western Europe did not occur. Impediments imposed on Jews since the Middle Ages became increasingly severe. In Russia, measures were adopted to prevent Jews from owning land and to limit the number of Jews admitted to institutions of higher education to 3 to 10 percent of the total enrollment in those institutions.
The persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe was climaxed by a series of organized massacres, known as pogroms, that began in 1881. Some of the worst outbreaks occurred in 1906 as an aftermath of the unsuccessful 1905 revolution in Russia. Involving about 600 villages and cities, the pogroms resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Jews and the looting and destruction of their property. Historians agree that the pogroms were the product of a deliberate government policy aimed at diverting the discontent of Russian workers and peasants into religious bigotry. They were fomented by a new type of mass propaganda, including a notorious forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to reveal details of an international Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. First published in book form in Russia in 1905 and circulated continuously thereafter, it contained material clearly traceable to fictional accounts not even concerned with Jews. Such deliberate distortions were used during the pogrom after the 1917 revolution, which claimed hundreds of thousands of victims.
IV. Origins of Anti-Semitism in the United States
Russian anti-Semitic propaganda was also circulated in the United States, where prejudice against Jews previously had assumed such forms as covert social discrimination. In the United States, the upsurge of anti-Jewish feeling was part of a general wave of resentment of minority groups, also including Roman Catholics and African Americans, that swept the country after World War I ended in 1918. Another element in United States anti-Semitism in the 1920s was its identification of Jews with political radicalism. A notable event was the temporary embracing of anti-Semitism by the American automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, who reprinted the discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent. Condemned widely, Ford later apologized for this action. The immigration legislation enacted in the United States in 1921 and 1924 was interpreted widely as being at least partly anti-Jewish in intent because it strictly limited the immigration quotas of eastern European nations with large Jewish populations, nations from which 2.5 million Jews had immigrated to the United States by 1920.
V. Organized Anti-Semitism as a Political Tool During the period between World War I and World War II, anti-Semitic sentiments persisted and even increased throughout the United States, in discrimination against Jews in employment, in access to residential and resort areas, and in tightened quotas on Jewish enrollment and teaching positions in colleges and universities. At the same time economic, social, violent and systematic anti-Semitism was developing in central Europe. In Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, anti-Semitism exploded under the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler.
The content of Nazi propaganda was varied, consisting of racist doctrine but also including elements of religious hatred and, paradoxically, the identification of Jews with both capitalist and communist elements in Germany and elsewhere. Moreover, the virulent anti-Semitic campaign within Germany was supplemented by movements in Europe and the United States organized by Nazi agents and their sympathizers.
More important than this psychological campaign, however, was the physical persecution of the Jewish community. Shortly after the National Socialists came to power in 1933, special legislation was enacted that excluded Jews from the protection of German law. The property of Jews was legally seized, and concentration camps were set up in which Jews were summarily executed, tortured, or condemned to slave labor. Sporadic and local massacres culminated in a nationwide pogrom in 1938, officially organized by the National Socialist party. After the outbreak of World War II, the tempo of anti-Semitic activities increased appallingly. Throughout Europe, puppet, dependent, or military governments of such areas as France, Italy, Poland, and the Ukraine were forced by Germany to adopt anti-Semitic programs. Within Germany, Hitler announced a "final solution of the Jewish problem": the merciless slaughter of the Jewish community, a type of crime now recognized under international law as genocide. By the end of the war, about six million Jews, constituting two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, had been exterminated by massacre, systematic execution, and starvation.
After the war the strong reaction against the revealed horrors of the Nazi death camps resulted in the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. At the international war crimes trials, which opened in Nürnberg, Germany, in 1945, many Nazi officials were prosecuted for administering the racial laws of the party and implementing the extermination of Jews and other persons in the concentration camps. The government of West Germany (now part of the united Federal Republic of Germany) continued such prosecutions through the 1950s and 1960s and made some restitutions for property, pensions, and estates taken from Jews. Although the official position of the united Germany is strongly against anti-Semitism, outbreaks of violence and hostility have occurred sporadically against Jews in postwar Germany. In the other Western democracies, the example of Nazi extremism brought anti-Semitism to a low ebb in postwar years. Nonetheless, violent prejudice has manifested itself in small but militant reactionary and racist parties in the United Kingdom, France, and other countries of Europe and the Americas.
VI. Anti-Semitism After World War II
Outbreaks of acts of vandalism such as defacing or setting fire to synagogues occur periodically. Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing into the 1990s, a new phase of anti-Semitism, involving the antagonism of some African Americans toward Jews, emerged in a series of urban encounters. Small groups of neo-Nazis and white supremacists have also been responsible for anti-Semitic propaganda and violence against individual Jews. In general, Christian religious policy has reflected a reaction against the Nazi experience and a desire to eliminate the religious bases of prejudice. During the postwar period, cooperation between Christian and Jewish organizations increased, and at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Roman Catholic church formally repudiated the charge that all Jews are responsible for the death of Christ and condemned genocide and racism as un-Christian.
In Latin America, the chosen refuge of many members of the Nazi party after World War II, occasional anti-Semitic incidents have occurred. Some of the most serious demonstrations were triggered by the Israeli seizure of a Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina in 1960. Eichmann subsequently was tried in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jews and was hanged.
In the Middle East, a region populated by Semitic peoples, a new form of anti-Semitism was generated as a result of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. This homeland for Jews encroached on land also claimed by Arabs and aroused fierce opposition from members of the Arab League. Numerous border clashes occurred between Israel and its Arab neighbors during the following years, escalating into full-scale hostilities in 1948-1949, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. The Palestine Liberation Organization, established in May 1964, conducted guerrilla activities against Israel both within its borders and in other nations. The economic sanctions that were imposed by Arab League nations against various governments and businesses cooperative with Israel became a significant issue after the 1973 war.
In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the imperial Russian legacy of anti-Semitism apparently survived into the postwar period. As a religion, Judaism was unacceptable to orthodox Soviet communism, and so was Zionism, whether religious or secular. In the years after World War II, unofficial reports indicated that Soviet Jews were being subjected to social and professional discrimination. According to one report, more than 400,000 White Russian and Ukrainian Jews were forcibly deported to labor camps in Siberia in 1949. In 1953 fifteen doctors, most of them Jewish, were arrested and charged with murdering important Soviet officials on orders from the American Joint Distribution Committee, a Zionist organization. The charges were soon withdrawn, but the Soviet campaign against Jewish culture was intensified, resulting in the suppression of the Jewish press, the silencing of leading Yiddish writers, and the curtailment of educational opportunities for Jewish youths. Emigration of Jews was made almost impossible; those applying for permission met with severe discrimination. Although somewhat alleviated by the end of the 1970s, these policies led to formation in the United States of organizations to protest the plight of Jews in communist countries. The political upheavals in the USSR and Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s made it much easier for Jews to emigrate, but the upsurge of nationalism that accompanied the breakup of the USSR and the decline of communism was linked to a rise in anti-Semitic agitation in the early 1990s.