The existence of anti-Semitism and its persistence in the West for over two thousand years is one of history’s greatest puzzles. With the tenacity of a brush fire, anti-Semitic feeling has burned its way through history, sometimes just flickering near the surface, at other times bursting out into the open. At times the destruction is minor. But occasionally prejudice against the Jews flares up with an intensity that destroys millions of people and engulfs entire nations.

Anti-Semitism is neither new nor limited to the West. The Book of Esther speaks of anti-Jewish acts during the fifth century B.C. by Haman, a high official in the Persian empire. Under the Romans the Jews enjoyed considerable privileges and even a certain measure of protection, thanks to their timely support of Julius Caesar in Alexandria in 49 B.C. But persecutions occurred sporadically nonetheless, and many were very intense, particularly at the time of the Jewish-Roman war (A.D. 66–70). In the Middle Ages anti-Semitism was fed by superstition. Jews were accused of many atrocities, including the ritual murder of Christian children, as Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” shows. Modern times are hardly better. Napoleon’s “Infamous Decree” against the Jews in 1808 sparked more than a century of anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating in the Dreyfus Affair in France and later in the era of National Socialism in Germany. Unfortunately, many of the old attitudes linger today, despite a general repudiation of the Nazi war crimes by Western governments and the declaration against anti-Jewish prejudice promulgated by Vatican II and received favorably by most Protestant denominations.

What causes anti-Semitism? Many answers have been given: a general dislike for the different, ...

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