Antisemitism has a long history, going back thousands of years. Prejudice against Judaism goes back to the ancient world when the Jewish people lived among polytheists who believed in many gods and early Christians who distanced themselves from Judaism.
Antisemitism may be described as prejudice, hostility, and discrimination against Jewish people. The term, antisemitism, appeared for the first time in the 19th century. At that time people were classified into different races and Europeans held the view that the white race was superior to other races. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” published in Russia in 1905 was the most widely distributed antisemitic publication of modern times and contained horrendous lies about the Jewish people.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Christians stated that the Jews pressed for the death of Christ according to John 19:6-7. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), however, stated that what happened in the passion of Christ “cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living… nor upon the Jews of today.” Vatican II notes that “the Church deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.” (See The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbott, SJ, (New York: Herder & Herder, 1966, p. 666).
Why has anti-Semitism remained in existence or persisted for over 2,000 years? Scholars point out that antisemitism continues in part because the Jewish people have been blamed irrationally for societal problems and have become scapegoats created by conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories construe social changes, harmful happenings, or daily circumstances we dislike, by pinning them on a small group of people. For example, Jews are blamed for controlling banks, the government, the media, and spreading Covid-19.
Antisemitic conspiracy theories may transcend violent assaults of individual Jewish people to larger acts of terror, such as the hostage crisis in January 2022 at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville and the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.Those who perpetrated such despicable acts of violence felt that Jewish people have influence and power over policies ranging from immigration to the criminal justice system in the US.
Today, it seems that visible Jews are attacked, such as those Jews who wear a Yarmulka or small round cap. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews are very visible in public and are discriminated against the most, since they wear distinct black clothing such as a black suit, a large black hat, and a particular hairstyle with strands of hair near both ears. A good depiction of Hasidic Jews can be seen in a novel called, The Chosen which I used in teaching the World Religions course at Auburn University.
Today, antisemitism is on the rise in Belgium, Australia, Russia, England and a multitude of countries globally, yet the Jewish people constitute only 0.2% of the global population. Surprisingly, in 2021 there were 3,028 reports of antisemitism in Germany, but in 2022 there were 2,649 reported cases of antisemitism. Also, though Jews constitute only 2.4% of the population in the US, hate crimes against Jewish communities made up more than 50% of the reported religious-based crimes in 2021.
I grew up about three miles from the Empire State Building and it saddens me greatly to know that the New York Police Department has seen a 400% increase in attacks against Jews in February of 2022 as compared to February 2021. The attacks were against adults and children who were shot, stabbed, punched, burned by fireworks, spit at and assaulted verbally, while living out their daily lives. (See https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/antifascism-its-impacts). According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents went up 36% in 2022. This was the highest level since 1979. There is a growing number of hate crimes in the US as assaults rose by 26%, harassment went up 29%, and acts of vandalism rose by 52%.
What are the root causes of antisemitism? Jonathan Greenblatt and Geoff Bennett of the Anti-Defamation League state that conspiracy theories are “the coin of the realm.” Antisemitism has been normalized and weaponized in public debates and political conversations. There has been a 50% rise in antisemitic incidents at K12 schools and a 40% increase in reported antisemitic incidents at college campuses.
There are very few Jewish students at Auburn University where I taught undergraduates from 1984-2014. Jewish students are reluctant to say in class that they are of Jewish origin. Why so? They have told me in private that if they tell their classmate that they are Jewish, evangelical students will try to convince them to become Christians.
Unfortunately, the media such as Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter often spread stereotypes and amplify hateful comments concerning people of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews. These media outlets have difficulty regulating themselves in part because millions of people are difficult to control.
It’s difficult to be a Jew today because of the various conspiracy theories that exist. I remember a colleague of mine, who taught at a college in New York, who told me that every time he goes out in public, he trembles because he is a Jew. How sad.
Finally, sadly, antisemitism is so rampant in our culture and history that I have only scratched the surface in writing about it.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus-Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.
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