Jewish History Blog

Religious vs. Racial Anti-Semitism

"The Jew's Sow," a 600-year-old sculpture on Regensburg Cathedral. The sculpture faces the old Jewish quarter of Regensburg.

In Europe in the Middle Ages, anti-Semitism was religious, not racial. The Church did not hate the Jews because they had genetic qualities that made them evil. They hated the Jews because they were not Christians. The “perfidious” Jews denied the divinity of the Christian savior, so they were to be hated and persecuted.

Since this anti-Semitism was religious, the cure for it was also religious. The Jews could convert to Christianity. And in fact, many of the Jews who converted found it to be an easy ticket to prosperity. In Spain in the early 15th century, a full third of the bishops were of Jewish descent.

The Church’s most brutal acts of anti-Semitism were the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, but despite all the persecution and cruelty the Church committed, it did have a moral streak to it. There was a limit to how much murder it could countenance. Only in the modern world when secularism took over did the world lose its moral inhibitions. Only then did murder occur on the scale of millions.

"The Wandering Jew," Nazi propaganda from 1937

Secular humanism, which began with the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century, unleashed an anti-Semitism that was not based on religion. In secular humanism, all religion is anathema. The new anti-Semitism was a racial, genetic anti-Semitism. It had nothing to do with the Jewish religion; it had to do with the Jew. As Heinrich Heine phrased it, “They do not hate my God; they hate my nose.”

This kind of anti-Semitism cannot be solved by conversion because conversion will not change your genetic structure. Racial anti-Semitism has proven to be far more pernicious and disastrous than the old religious anti-Semitism.

The new anti-Semitism was built on a conspiracy theory. The Russian secret police in the 1880’s published a fictitious book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which postulates that there is a Jewish conspiracy throughout the world and that meetings are held regularly (“sometimes in the back of the synagogue”) where the Jews plot the destruction of the non-Jewish world. It has been reprinted many, many times in dozens of languages. Hitler and Goebbels printed up millions of copies and made it famous. When Henry Kissinger visited King Fahd in Saudi Arabia in 1976, the king gave Kissinger a volume, telling him to read it so he’d understand the problems in the world.

In this view, all wars are caused by the Jews. All depressions are caused by the Jews. The Jews are the ones keeping the average hard-working citizen from becoming successful. There’s no cure for this, except to eradicate us.

Before the Enlightenment, Europe had gone for eight hundred years on the same basis: feudalism, monarchy, the Church. The Age of Enlightenment toppled that. In many ways, that was progress, but not all. The Industrial Revolution, which was the technological aspect of the Enlightenment, was similarly mixed. It saw the invention of the steam engine and all the advances that came with it, but it also saw the invention of guns. The American Civil War was a turning point in military history because 600,000 people were killed in four years. All of a sudden, the world became a much more dangerous place. And when people are living in a dangerous place they cannot control, they look for a scapegoat.

When the historical moment for a scapegoat arrived in Germany between the wars, the Jews were available. Germany lost the First World War, and it felt it should have won. In fact, if you look at the details of the military campaigns, you’ll see that it should have. It missed by a hairsbreadth. But after all that sacrifice and blood and the loss of its empire, Germany had nothing left. Somebody had to be at fault. And it wasn’t going to be the Germans.

Religious anti-Semitism had a history of well over a thousand years in Europe. Racial anti-Semitism built on it and twisted it into an even worse ideology. That lethal combination is the ground upon which Hitler was able to plant his terrible seeds. It enables us not to justify, nor even to understand, but to have some appreciation of how the Holocaust could have happened.

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Posted in:
Medieval Jewish History, Modern Jewish History
Rabbi Berel Wein

4 Responses to “Religious vs. Racial Anti-Semitism”

  1. Cheryl Goldberg says:

    this was a very interesting read on history. It is pretty sad though.
    Have a good shabbos.

  2. Bryna says:

    Anti-Semitism hasn’t disappeared, but at least now people are embarrassed to hold such views. In 1900s Russia, anti-Semitism was the official government policy. Both the police and the army conducted pogroms, and if the Jews fought back, the violence became even greater.

  3. Berel Wein says:

    Today anti-Semitism expresses itself most frequently in Israel-bashing. And the subject of anti-Semitism in Russia under the czars is a subject I hope to cover in the blog at some point in the future.

  4. Jeremiah says:

    I’m a Christian, and I stand with Israel.