In December 2018, Inside Higher Ed, a news service that monitors events at colleges and universities, reported seven recent anti-Semitic incidents on campuses from New York to California. Unlike the murder of eleven Jewish men and women at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, no one was injured in these acts of vandalism, but they remind us that anti-Semitism has an extraordinary capacity to survive. “The Longest Hatred,” part of the title of a Public Television series and a companion volume by Robert S. Wistrich, accurately describes both the deep historical roots and remarkable longevity of animosity toward Jews.
This animosity appeared in the ancient world and was institutionalized in medieval Europe when Jews were an isolated minority, physically separated from their neighbors by ghetto walls and restrained by a web of laws and customs that barred them from many occupations and activities. For centuries, Jews lived with the possibility that they would be blamed for some misfortune—an outbreak of plague, a missing child, a dry well—which might trigger one of those violent attacks on their persons and property that punctuated the long, unhappy history of Christian-Jewish relations. In extreme situations, entire Jewish communities could be expelled, as happened in Spain in 1492. Such major catastrophes may have been rare, but they left a sense of vulnerability that shadowed Jewish life throughout the old regime and beyond.
In the eighteenth century, some Europeans believed that hatred of Jews, like other irrational prejudices, would gradually give way to the forces of progress and enlightenment. Jews, like serfs, slaves, and women, were supposed to be among the beneficiaries of emancipation, the great modern project that promised to liberate oppressed groups from the burdens of the past. In fact, many European states did dismantle the physical and legal barriers that had inhibited Jews from living where they wished and participating in social and economic life. There were good reasons to view the nineteenth century as a great success story for Jews, who began to play a prominent role in cultural and political life, as well as in many professions, especially banking, law, and medicine. Despite—or perhaps because of—these accomplishments, hostility to Jews, like some highly opportunistic virus, adapted to fit the modern world. Anti-Semites now regarded race rather than religion as a source of Jewish identity. They organized political parties to limit Jewish influence, and began to associate Jews with everything they feared and hated about modernity: big cities, international finance, progressive politics. To their enemies, emancipation made Jews all the more dangerous; now they could pursue their sinister goals with clandestine manipulations and underground conspiracies. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated in Russia in 1903, became a central text for such conspiratorial fantasies. Once required reading in Nazi Germany, actively promoted by anti-Semites like Henry Ford, The Protocols describes a Jewish plot to take over the world. It was translated into many languages and is still in print.
As with so many other aspects of European life, the First World War marked a watershed in the complex history of European Jews. Throughout the continent, from the Atlantic to the Urals, ethnic and religious conflicts were ignited by the war and its devastating impact on society. Among these conflicts, anti-Semitism played an increasingly important part, particularly in Eastern Europe where hundreds of thousands of Jews were displaced and tens of thousands were killed by a lethal mix of state-sponsored and communal violence. The Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and its violent aftermath engendered a new and toxic version of anti-Semitism in which Jews were regarded as the vanguard of Bolshevism’s assault on property, religion, and political order.
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