Antisemitism has been called “history’s oldest hatred”. That’d be quite an honor if it wasn’t so deadly and (worse) so wrong-headed. From the moment Jews first appeared in the historical record, they set themselves apart from the other tribes with whom they lived. Antisemitism predates Christianity and Islam. The Greek and Roman worlds both viewed Jews with suspicion, derision and uncertainty. And acceptance, too. Occasionally.
The Roman World
The Hellenistic and Roman worlds were both polytheistic. Jews were monotheistic. Their god – Yahweh (that’s his actual name; “god” is his job description) wasn’t part of any Greek or Roman pantheon. From their perspective, Jews were atheists. Christians faced the same pushback when they first started organizing communities. From the Roman, polytheistic perspective, Christians also were atheists who didn’t believe in any of the Roman gods.
Muhammed faced the same problem after he began preaching Islam around Mecca – where, at the time, polytheism prevailed.
Though the Romans would eventually banish the Jews from Rome and then Jerusalem (after they destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD), for the most part, Jews enjoyed a kind of acceptance from Rome. Their saving grace where Rome was concerned was that Jews didn’t proselytize. For the most part they still don’t and never have.
Missionary v Non-Missionary Religions
Judaism isn’t a missionary religion. While Chassids do reach out in a missionary way, they do so only to other Jews – Orthodox Jews, usually, who they want to draw into a deeper Jewish experience. You really have to be born into Judaism to appreciate its hold.
Another impediment to Jews getting others to convert: circumcision. It’s not the most attractive sales pitch. Believe how we believe, but, first, cut off the end of your penis. Want to know why we say “it’s hard to be a Jew”? That’s one reason.
IMHO, Christian antisemitism originated with Paul and his mission to the Gentiles.
A member of the priestly caste, the former Saul of Tarsus never met Jesus (though he persecuted Jesus’s followers; he was on the road to Damascus looking for them). In Galatians 1:16, Paul writes that God “was pleased to reveal his son to me”. That must have been an amazing emotional experience. But that’s all that it was. Even after the event? Paul still had never met Jesus. Never talked to the man, never heard him teach or preach. The Jesus that Paul experienced was entirely fictitious. A product of his own imagination.
When Paul eventually returned to Jerusalem, he told everyone there about his vision (and his version) of Jesus. But, everyone there had actually met Jesus or heard him speak. Paul’s Jesus was inauthentic to them; that’s why so few of them took up Paul’s Jesus as theirs. There were Jewish followers of Jesus. But, all of them were Jews who remained Jews.
Jesus was born a Jew, lived his whole life a Jew, taught Jewish lessons to other Jews who understood all his references from a Jewish perspective, and then died a Jew. His Jewish followers appreciated even his status as a possible messiah from a Jewish POV.
Not making any headway with the people who actually knew Jesus, Paul took his act on the road – out to the Gentiles. It was a brilliant move.
Remember – Jews don’t proselytize. They don’t because, in essence, it’s pointless. You can’t convert someone into something either they must be born into or – if they do want to convert – they’re going to have to really, really want to convert in order to do it.
Let’s wander back in time a little…
Abraham & Yahweh Take It On the Road
The Jewish patriarch Abraham (not guaranteed to be an actual real human being) starts life in modern day Iraq. Like everyone else, he’s a polytheist. But then, one day, so the story ultimately goes, he hears the voice of Yahweh – promising him that if he relocates his family to the coast – to Canaan – things will work out for him and his family forever and ever.
So, Abraham relocates and, in theory, becomes the first monotheist. The switch from polytheism to monotheism wasn’t quite a straight line. And plenty of polytheistic tendencies survived into Christianity. Though the Jews brought Yahweh with them from the East, they apparently liked something about the Canaanite god El.
They seem to have merged El into Yahweh. El’s importance remains in place names like “Isra-EL” and Beth EL”. The last one means literally “The House Of El”. House of El? Where’d poor Yahweh disappear off to?
Not only did the pre-Christian Jews stand apart religiously from the Greek and Roman worlds, they stood apart from them culturally. As Paul The Apostle headed off into the Gentile world, he did so with a product that was truly like nothing that preceded it.
Monotheism Beats Polytheism
The polytheistic gods weren’t all powerful or all-knowing like Yahweh. They weren’t all that different from humans. They really didn’t need humans and humans really didn’t need them. But Yahweh, the Jewish god, was all powerful. He was made of different stuff than humans (though humans were made in his image). Most importantly, Yahweh literally invented humans – as a part of the larger creative effort. He had a higher purpose in mind for humans. A whole story, in fact, where humans ultimately would get to sit with him. There was even a “son” character (problematic as that character is from a monotheistic POV).
The Jews’ god had given them a homeland, the law and his approval (so long as they remained faithful to him). That last point is kinda weird if you think about it. If Yahweh’s the only actual deity then what would be the point of believing in other deities since they don’t, in fact, exist? Paul’s version of Yahweh took that personal relationship way farther.
Paul’s Version Of Jesus
Keep in mind: even in real time, Paul had no connection to real Jesus. In fact, real Jesus (whoever he was) poses problems for Paul because his reality can always contradict Paul’s un-real version. The one version of Jesus over which Paul can claim dominion is Dead Jesus.
A Jesus who rises from the dead – at a time when magic is more easily believed – is a very compelling character and idea. That’s the Jesus Paul sells to the Gentiles. And, if Jesus can defeat death, so, too can believers in Jesus – through their faith in him.
That is a GENIUS sales pitch. A deity who not only sees you as an individual, but wants to help you live forever surrounded by all the people you love. That’s a lovely vision. And Paul sold this vision to communities who not only bought the vision but bought the idea that they were compelled to also sell the vision themselves.
While Jews didn’t proselytize their faith – because it never occurred to them, Christians saw proselytization as part of their purpose. The thing is, once you begin selling the “good news”, you begin to resent those who won’t listen to it. Or accept it. Or convert into it.
The people demanding conversion aren’t the originals – Jewish, like Jesus. Rather, they’re the result of a profound alteration to the original idea – that they had no idea was a profound alteration of the original idea.
Paul And The Gentiles
Paul failed selling this alteration in Jerusalem because everyone there knew the old stories and mythology as well as he knew it. But, the Gentiles? They knew nothing about Jewish customs and mythology other than that it was all strange, weird, barbaric and monotheistic. Paul could tell them literally anything about Judaism – about its mythology and how Jesus (his version) fit into that mythology like a hand into a glove.
No one in all the far-flung Christian communities across Asia Minor – the ones to which Paul wrote all those epistles – was going to contradict Paul. Rather, they were going to add to what Paul invented.
The Diaspora Begins
In 70 AD, everything changed for the Jews. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple and expelled most of the Jews from Jerusalem – and from Judea and Samaria. Judaism went through a fundamental alteration. It stopped being a temple-based faith and, instead, became a written law-based faith. The rabbinic age of Judaism was the Judaism of the Diaspora. It’s how Jews first kept their religion alive without a temple and without a capitol city inside a homeland.
As they made their way across Europe and North Africa, Jews saw few welcome mats set out for them. Their money was always welcome. Christians frowned on money-lending. Usury was sinful. One more reason to hate Jews – who didn’t frown on money-lending. How many Christian rulers borrowed Jewish money then kicked out the Jews instead of paying back the loan?
Jews spent almost two thousand years getting punted from one European country to another (after having been brutalized first). Living in shtetls and ghettos. The word “ghetto” is Italian in origin. It was first used to describe the Jewish part of Venice, Italy starting in 1516.
The Jewish faith was always about more than a religion. The Yahweh character promised the Abraham character that he would be fruitful and multiply himself into a great nation. But, it was always a nation based upon a family – his. If you weren’t born this thing or born into it, you really had no way in.
Well… you could always undergo circumcision – to make yourself part of the group. Not surprising, is it, that there weren’t a whole lot of takers? Paul thought a lot about circumcision. In his letters to the Galatians, he tells them not to worry – circumcision wasn’t mandatory for salvation. And since salvation was the way to get the cookie, anyone could get saved so long as they believed.
Jewish Christians & Christian Christians
For the first century or so, Jewish Christians and Christian Christians got along. In fact, Jewish Christians advanced their faith just as Christian Christians did. The difference: Jewish Christians never stopped being Jewish in their own minds. Two of Jesus’s apostles – Peter and James – never stop being Jewish. Jewish Christians – Jews who followed Jesus’s teachings (all of them Jewish) lived on into about the 5th century AD.
The problem the Jewish Christians presented the Gentile Christian Christians was real. The Jewish Christians ultimately were Jewish. The Gentile Christians ultimately were this new-fangled thing: full out Christians. And the old faith’s existence contradicted their new faith.
If God (the name “Yahweh” now retired) had a son whose purpose was to save mankind from Eve’s original sin and give them a chance to live forever, then the Jews had better get onboard. Think how we think or die.
Ah, but there’s the problem. The Jews had watched this new fangled thing emerge from itself. They knew the actual mythology the offshoot had used as a launching pad. And the new mythology was super complicated compared to the old. Then there were just ten commandments – a simple “do this, not that” list that anyone could do. Now, there was a complicated, dogmatic dance filled with contrition and confession. The Jesus Christians believed in would have been utterly unrecognizable to the Jesus Jewish Christians followed.
Among the first antisemitic Christians was Christian heretic MARCION (circa 144 AD). By this time, Christians had begun assembling their core texts into an agreed-upon narrative. They needed to demonstrate that their NEW Testament – though based on the OLD – superseded the old in its totality. Whatever the New Testament did to the Old Testament’s stories – those were the new standards.
It didn’t matter if the Jewish version of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with “original sin” (no such thing exists in Judaism), now Adam and Eve had everything to do with original sin. Because the New Testament said so. And, as the whole point of Jesus was the salvation of mankind, anyone interfering with such a task was an infidel. And we all know what happens to infidels.
The overwhelming majority of Jews would never – could never – convert because we have no idea how to. Oh, sure, we could think God decided to have a son born of a virgin whose purpose was to save mankind from eternal damnation, but we’d never stop being Jewish. Or a people born from a long line of Jews. And, to the religiously inclined Jews, their deal with God beats any Christian’s Rube Goldberg arrangement with the afterlife.
Dogma And Inquisitions
Interestingly, the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t looking to punish Jews. It was looking to punish “converso’s” – Jews who’d converted but who the Christians didn’t trust to have really converted.
I recommend everyone interested in this topic spend an hour reading about the origins of Christian dogma. The first three centuries of Christianity saw an awful lot of intellectual wrestling as the early church fathers slowly invented Christianity. Part of the invention involved surrendering to the Marcion’s of the Christian world.
Can we be real? If Jesus’s purpose is to die for humanity’s sins – as a prelude to giving every human a shot at eternal life then what would have happened if Judas never betrayed Jesus?
What if Judas gets drunk, passes out and the moment passes? Let’s suppose for a second that the Romans never capture Jesus and Pontius Pilate never condemns him to crucifixion. What if Jesus lives a long life and dies a happy, old man in his bed surrounded by his loving family? Would the story work the same?
Of course not! The story – and the payoff – only work if Jesus, first dies. So, how is Judas a villain in this context? No Judas, no salvation. You can’t have it both ways.
And, really, how in reality, does one person in a particular context, stand in for an entire group of people? That’s horse shit – and I’m being kind in the extreme.
I was eight years old the first time a Christian – a 12 year old girl – told me to my face that “all the Jews deserve to die because they killed Jesus”. In her defense, she didn’t say it to be mean. She said it to be factual.
Even at eight, I knew it was the stupidest thing I’d ever hear. Impossible to argue against – and so fucking stupid!
But, that’s the bit of sand that irritated the Christian oyster into manufacturing a perverted pearl made entirely of bullshit.
The Jews killed Jesus. It wasn’t ever a true statement and it wasn’t even good storytelling. And yet…
It makes being told you deserve to die just that much more galling.
But, blood libels appeal to small, fearful minds. That first nonsensical blood libel fueled a kajillion others. Think of all the Christians who honestly believed that Jews killed Christian children to make matzoh. Or that Jews poisoned wells and brought on plague?
Meanwhile, again and again, Christians tried to force Jews to convert and punished them for refusing. Even if they did convert – as in Spain – it wasn’t good enough.
This, really, is Islam’s problem with Jews, too. We refused and still refuse to convert. That’s it. The whole basis for Islamic antisemitism.
The Koran isn’t especially kind to Jews (it calls us apes and pigs). But, it doesn’t say “kill us all” either. That’s a more recent innovation.
Same Old Same Old
Recent politics have played a part. Before Israel’s creation, Jews lived inside the Arab world the same way they did inside the Christian world: carefully. Perversely, just as Europeans (Romans) threw the Jews out of Israel, it was Europeans (the WWII Allies) who returned us to Israel.
Unfortunately, during the interim, the Palestinians moved in and began thinking of it as their homeland. Some Palestinians – Hamas, Hezbollah – deny Israel’s right to exist. They won’t stop fighting until Israel isn’t. Their hatred of Israelis as a political entity flows from their hatred of Jews as skeptics of Islam.
But, as with Christianity, why would we convert from something that still satisfies us to something that will never trust us? From Islam’s perspective, we’re infidels denying the truth of their faith.
I’ve always been grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today. Atheists aren’t all peaceful of course, but we never go after each other because our versions of the God character don’t conform.
Same goes for all the rest of the ooga-booga.