If you pore over history and histories searching for the root cause of antisemitism, you won’t find it. That’s a curious thing considering the answer’s so obvious. From their first entrance on the world stage, Jews have been outsiders to whatever cultures they lived beside. Take the Romans. They considered the Hebrews “outsiders”. What, from their perspective, did Hebrews/Jews sit “outside of”? Answer: their religion. Jews denied all of the Roman gods and practiced strange, “foreign” rituals. Worse, by believing what they believed, Jews were atheists, rejecting all aspects of Rome’s religious faith. The Romans hated them for it. In time, so would Christians and then, in turn, Muslims.
Judaism’s innovation – monotheism – immediately set Jews apart from all their neighbors. Yahweh – that’s the actual name of the deity to whom Jews pray; “god” is Yahweh’s job description – wasn’t like any of the polytheistic gods. For one thing, he was made of divine stuff. And, while most polytheistic gods had little concern with or use for their believers, Yahweh was all about his believers. And all anyone had to do was deny all the other gods except Yahweh.
In fact, Yahweh’s deal with Abraham is unlike any deal any deity ever made with a human before that. Yahweh tells him “take your whole extended family and Go West to Canaan”. If he does that, Yahweh promises, Abraham will be the progenitor of a great nation. Yahweh didn’t make that deal with all mankind. He made it with Abraham and his family. And you really can’t convert into “family”.
To make conversion even less palatable, the Jews instituted a way to mark their males distinctively: circumcision. Sure, you could take up the Hebrew faith and have no gods before you except Yahweh.
But, you won’t really be in the tribe until you take a knife to your penis. I hope this isn’t a revelation: that’s a deal breaker for most (if not all) men. It’s why Jews don’t proselytize. How on earth do you sell that? You can’t. I believe it was always meant to dissuade.
Circumcision actually was a big part of the split between the Jews who followed Jesus and the Gentiles who followed him. It became one more evidence of Jewish religious stubbornness. A refusal to adapt to something new – a Christian faith born out of Judaism but entirely separate from Judaism.
That happened because of the Apostle Paul. Jesus was born, lived his whole life and died a Jew. He only ever preached Jewish ideas to other Jews. He taught and commented upon Jewish mythology using reference points only other Jews recognized and understood. No non-Jews cared or were interested.
Paul never met Jesus. His first encounter with Jesus occurs both on the road to Damascus and entirely inside Paul’s head. Paul takes his version of Jesus to Jerusalem – and bumps into people who knew Jesus and heard him speak. They reject Paul’s version because it’s not real.
Instead, Paul takes his version of Jesus out to the Gentiles. The Gentiles – some (the Romans) already antisemitic – know nothing about Jewish customs, mythology or culture. Paul can change whatever he likes and no one can contradict him. Paul can present his version of Jesus – versus the real one – and no one can contradict him on that either.
Now, also keep in mind what Paul is selling to these growing communities of Christians. Whereas up until then the Jews had kept their god Yahweh to themselves, Paul made Yahweh – and his human-oriented outlook – available to everyone. Even those outside the original promise.
One of the big early squabbles between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers? Circumcision. Jesus’s Jewish followers never made circumcision optional – ditto the dietary laws. Paul, on the other hand, deep sixed all that problematic stuff. He went on from there.
Whereas polytheistic gods offered humans nothing, Paul’s Jesus-and-Yahweh-monotheistic-tag-team offered human beings something remarkable. Impossible. Intriguing.
Eternal Life. As it evolved, the Christian faith offered its followers a very simple deal: believe in Jesus exactly the way they told you to (follow the dogma!) and, just like Jesus, they, too would conquer death and live forever surrounded by the people they’d loved! In an unsophisticated, antisemitic, “Demon Haunted World”, that was an amazing offer.
But, here’s the problem. It rests squarely on the proposition that the new has replaced the old. If, indeed, the Jews’ god Yahweh had changed things – made a son – and tasked that son with dying for mankind’s sins – then that is the new reality and anyone denying it poses a problem: denial of the new truth.
For most of Christianity’s first 200 years or so, Jewish Christians and Christian Christians co-existed. But, resentments grew. And while Judaism remained an entirely Jewish religion, Christianity proselytized its way, eventually, into being Rome’s religion. But, before then, as Christianity gained steam – and Gentile followers – increasingly those Gentile followers saw Jews as denialists – clinging to the old in the face of the wonderful and new.
Paul himself did a fair amount of damage. In his first epistle to the Thessalonians, he refers to “the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men.” Then, in AD 167, in a tract bearing the title Peri Pascha, its Christian author writes “…the Sovereign has been insulted; the God has been murdered; the King of Israel has been put to death by an Israelite right hand.”
In the late 4th century, John Chrysostom, an early church father and later Archbishop of Constantinople, made Jewish deicide the cornerstone of his theology. He insisted that there was no expiation, pardon or indulgence possible for the god-killing Jews. To him, Jews deserved antisemitism.
Eastern Christianity also picked up the Jew-hating ball and ran with it. The Thursday Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church spoke of “the murderers of God, the lawless nation of the Jews”.
Christianity hijacked Jewish mythology and then punished Jews for not going along with it.
Islam, alas, did the same thing after having started – same as the Jews – with Abraham. If the Jews have any saving graces whatsoever from the Muslim POV? From a Shia perspective, it’s that Jews aren’t Sunni. From a Sunni perspective, it’s that they aren’t Shia.
Up until 1948 and the first Israeli-Arab war, Palestinians and Jews had few problems with each other. They really had nothing to do with each other. Ashkenazi Jews had been in Europe for 1800 years. The Sephardic Jews had been in North Africa and the East. What the Romans had started – kicking the Jews out of their homeland – the WWII Allies finished. In the shadow of the Holocaust, they sent Europe’s Jews back to Israel.
Alas, in the interim, among others, the Palestinians had moved in and – understandably – set down roots. Not knowing how history was going to play out, they assumed the land was now theirs. Then war forced them to flee. The nakba really was catastrophic for the Palestinians. Circumstances forced them from their land – formerly the Jews’ land (and the Jews, don’t forget, also had been forced away by war).
Islam sees itself as the final stop of the Abrahamic journey. Mohammad is the final prophet. The last word on what the God-character wants. Even Christians are supposed to acknowledge that Jesus was an intermediate stop on the way to Mohammad. While the Koran agrees that the Jews didn’t kill Jesus, it has little use for Jews.
It calls us “pigs” and “apes”.
And what are Jews guilty of to earn such name-calling? Refusal to convert to Islam – to accept that Mohammad is indeed the final prophet.
Every time a Jew says “no, he isn’t”, that triggers something in devout Muslims. They’re taught what to do with people who deny the truth about Mohammad’s mission. Convert them.
And, what if they don’t convert?
After 1948, that religious hatred for Jews took on a political bent. Now, there was blood on everyone’s hands. Not only were the Jews infidels and non-believers, now they were land thieves, too.
If the Jews had simply converted instead, they wouldn’t have been dogs or pigs. They’d have been faithful Muslims.
Or faithful Christians.
But then, we’d have been right back into the fire.