Antisemitism: From the Ancient World to Today
In the United States in 2019, there were 2,107 acts of anti-Jewish hate crimes, including harassment, vandalism, and assault. This, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), is an all-time high, since the ADL began tracking these crimes in 1979. Antisemitism is a major problem in modern society, in the United States and elsewhere, but it is anything but new. Antisemitic propaganda, exile, violence, and prejudice are ancient, and have their roots throughout the ancient world.
Though the exact date is debated, circa 586 BCE is generally agreed to be the starting date of the Babylonian Captivity, when the Mesopotamian city-state of Babylonia conquered Palestine and forced the Jewish people out of their homeland and into captivity in Babylonia for about 50 years, though citing Jeremiah 29:10 would put the exile closer to 70 years long. The Jews called themselves “gola” or “bene gola,” which mean “exiles” or “children of exiles” respectively. The Jews were deported to communities together, so they lived alongside one another, wholly submerged in despair (Jewish Virtual Library). Eventually, Cyrus the Great, the king of the Persian Empire, would conquer Babylonia and release the Jewish people, which earned him a shining mention in the Torah as a servant to God (“Babylonian Captivity”). Some Jews would never return to their homeland, choosing to stay in Babylonia, forming the first communities of the Jewish Diaspora. The Diaspora is the displacement and exile of the Jewish people from their homeland, which continues to this day, some 2500 years later (“Diaspora”).
After Cyrus freed the Jewish people and allowed them to return to their homeland, Palestine was again taken over multiple more times. By 38 CE, the region came to be known as the province of Roman Judea, and eventually fell entirely to the Roman Empire in 70 CE. This period of Roman rule includes the First Jewish-Roman war and the destruction of the Second Temple, leaving only the Western Wall, which still stands today (Mark). By this time, Christianity had emerged, and Jews came to be blamed for the Crucifixion of Christ. John 8:44 says "You are of your father, the devil,” which would contribute to Christians associating Jews with the devil. In another verse, Matthew 27:25, there is a description of a group of Jews who stand before Pontious Pilate and say "His blood be upon us and upon our children," implicating both those Jews and generations after in the murder of Christ. Christian literature in these Greco-Roman times continues to blame Christ’s death on the Jews, even though this has been disproven by historians, as crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not Jewish. Christian civilization would come to itself in opposition to Judaism as an institution (Facing History and Ourselves).
Throughout the Hellenistic Period of ancient Rome, but also further back, in ancient Greece, Jews who lived among the empire were ridiculed and ostracized. Greek and Roman writers detailed at length their hatred of the Jewish people. One writer, Tactius, argues that the Jews were expelled from Egypt due to hatred of the gods, and arrived in Palestine, seizing the land and taking it from its inhabitants (Daniel, 50). Especially when viewed in conjunction with the history of the Jewish people up to that point, this notion is not entirely dissimilar to the modern link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. The ADL defines Anti-Zionism as such:
“Anti-Zionism is a prejudice against the… right of the Jewish people to a homeland in the State of Israel. It may be motivated by or result in anti-Semitism, or it may create a climate in which anti-Semitism becomes more acceptable.”
Though the discussion over the land of modern-day Israel is a controversial one, and opinions range widely, it can easily teeter into something much more sinister. The ADL writes that
“Anti-Israel activity crosses the line to anti-Semitism when:
All Jews are held responsible for the actions of Israel.
Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state and equal member of the global community.
Traditional anti-Semitic symbols, images or theories are used.”
There is a very delicate line to walk between political critique and hatred, as the ADL goes on to explain: “There is… a gray area between legitimate criticism and transparent anti-Semitism, where anti-Israeli expression and campaigns help create an environment that makes anti-Semitism more acceptable and more probable.” This is all to say that while mixed opinions on the state of Israel are not inherently antisemitic, there is an undeinable link between the two. In ancient Rome, the idea that the Jewish people stole the land of then-Palestine from people who were already living there is used to villainize the Jewish people by a writer known to do so often. It is undeniable that the Jewish people are native to that land; The Harvard Crimson writes that “Sociological and genetic research has long shown that a recognizable Jewish nation first emerged in the Levantine region some 4,000 years ago,” (Brooks) citing a 2010 study which proved a direct link between Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrachi Jewish genetic markers and Middle Eastern heritage (Atzmon, et al.), a study which itself cites multiple others that back up this finding. Arguing that the Jewish people have stolen the land of Palestine in an effort to villianze them as a group, is antisemitism, and was present in ancient Rome and is present today.
Similarly to the Christian people, who blamed Jews for the death of Christ, ancient Egyptians also blamed a tragedy on the Jews. In the 14th century BCE, an epidemic swept through the Middle East. It is believed to have been tularemia, or rabbit fever, which caused “skin ulcers, deformities, high fever and, in some cases, deadly pneumonia,” (Ilany). Due to the epidemic’s northern origins, the Egyptians called this sickness the “Canaanite disease.” To combat the spread, the Egyptians closed their borders and halted trade with the north, thought the disease still reached them. The trade routes were closed for over two decades, and the epidemic left a lasting trauma in ancient Egyptian culture. The period and its causes became legendary, developing into a way to bend history and plant blame for the tragic era on the Jewish Egyptians. The story of the Exodus, in which the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, became the cause of the epidemic. A third century Egyptian priest by the name of Manetho wrote one version of this story. Pharaoh Amenhotep, he writes, was advised by a prophet to rid Egypt of “lepers and individuals with deformities” (Ilany). Amenhotep enslaved these people, the Jewish people, in the stone quarries, who then rose up under their lears, Osarsiph. Osarsiph created laws that required the Jewish people to refrain from idol worship, to burn down Eguptian temples, and to slaughter sacred animals. Osarsiph, Manetho wrote, would change his name when he became leader, and would go by Moses (Ilany). This is an extreme divergence from the Biblical story, and was used to blame the plague on the Jewish people. This created a strong narrative of the connection between Jews, monotheism, and disease (Ilany).
This is far from the only example throughout world history of Jewish people being blamed for a disease or epidemic. In the Middle Ages, Jews were blamed for the start and spread of the Bubonic Plague, or commonly known as the Black Death, which devastated the European population from 1348 to 1351. Jews were accused of poisoning wells, and were apprehended and tortured throughout Europe, destroying about 300 Jewish communities. In 1401, 50 years after the fact, Jews were even accused of poisoning the air (Abraham).
This, of course, comes all the way back to modern times, and the global COVID-19 pandemic. In a political environment when antisemitism has already been on the rise, the outbreak and seemingly endless continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect environment for antisemitism to flourish. The president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), Moshe Kantor reported that “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it” in April of 2020. The ADL reported that conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes intensified online. False allegations of Jewish profiteering off of the pandemic have been widespread, and show a clear picture of the antisemitism that continues in the modern day (Debusmann).
“The unsolvable puzzle is that the world has changed in the last 2,000 years and only antisemitism has remained. The only disease that has not found its cure is antisemitism,” wrote Eli Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor (Debusmann). Antisemitism has flourished throughout the world since the emergence of monotheism and the distinct group of Jewihs people in what is now Israel. In ancient Mesopotamian Babylonia, in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, the European Middle ages, the modern day, and everywhere else in between, Jewish people have been targeted, harassed, exiled, blamed, hated, and feared. They have been forced out of their homeland time and time again, blamed for the death of Christ, said to have caused deadly epidemics, and today, Jews people face unprecedented levels of violence. On October 27, 2018, 11 Jewish people were killed inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in an attack that was the single deadliest targeted murder of Jewish people in the history of the United States (Robertson). With the Holocaust now some eighty years in the past, and a world history littered with anti-Judaism throughout, it is easy to feel that anti-Jewish hate and violence in in the past. The data and the daily news, however, must continue to remind us all that this is anywhere from the truth, and the fight against antisemitism is as vital as it is continuing.
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Atzmon, Gil et al. “Abraham's children in the genome era: major Jewish diaspora populations comprise distinct genetic clusters with shared Middle Eastern Ancestry.” American journal of human genetics vol. 86,6 (2010): 850-9. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2010.04.015
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