History of Jewish Persecution

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson details the history of anti-Semitism in the modern world. We will explore the development of anti-Semitic ideas, the incorporation of racial theories, and the shifts in rhetoric that eventually led to the Holocaust.

Jewish Persecution in Context

A Medieval woodcut depicting the blood libel legend.

Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years. From ancient, pre-Christian times to contemporary anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, the Jewish people have been relentlessly singled out, marginalized, and murdered. The story of anti-Semitism in the modern world is the story of morbid fantasies that refuse to die; it is the story of how one minority group of people can become the scapegoat for the majority's fears, anxieties, and hostilities.

During the Holocaust of the 20th century, millions of Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis. Although the Holocaust was the bloodiest and most destructive example of anti-Semitism in history, it was by no means an isolated event. The paranoid, race-based anti-Semitism that allowed the Holocaust to take place had its roots in the early middle ages with many developmental stages along the way.

Early Modern Anti-Semitism

Throughout the early modern period, European folklore constructed increasingly bizarre accusations concerning Jewish magic and ritual. Such stories first emerged in the medieval period, but took on new intensity after the Protestant Reformation. The notorious blood libel legend stated that Jews would occasionally kidnap Christian children, kill them as part of a religious ritual, and consume their blood and/or flesh. Throughout the 16th and into the 17th century, Jews were regularly persecuted and even executed based on accusations of witchcraft. Jewish persecution at this time was an important aspect of the larger witch hunt phenomenon, which targeted not only Jews but other marginalized people as well, particularly women.

Protestant reformer and father of the Reformation Martin Luther was also the father of modern anti-Semitism. In a pamphlet called 'The Jews and Their Lies,' Luther articulated what would come to be the main aspects of anti-Semitism in the modern era. Luther reiterated the familiar blood libel accusation, but added onto it the idea that Jews were not just a separate religion, but a separate race, paving the way for the racialization of anti-Semitism in the years to come.

Anti-Semitism in the Modern World

During the tumultuous years of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Jews would be blamed for everything from devil worship to international communism. In the 19th century, the notion that Jews were planning to take over European governments and possibly the whole world began to circulate. This paranoid conspiracy theory failed to offer a legitimate explanation for how a marginalized religious minority might accomplish such a thing, or why, but the fantasy persisted in many parts of Europe. The Czarist Russian secret police forged the notorious 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' which was purported to be a collection of documents outlining a secret Jewish society's plans for world domination.

A Spanish edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion from 1930 featuring an anti-Semitic illustration.

By 1917, World War I was tearing Europe apart and the Russian Revolution was underway. Many people, particularly in post-war Germany, were looking for someone to blame for Germany's defeat in World War I and for the rise of communism in Russia.

Adolf Hitler's Third Reich was preoccupied with anti-Semitism and saw Jews as the primary cause of Germany's national struggles. In his long, ranting manifesto 'Mein Kampf,' Adolf Hitler discussed communism and Judaism as one and the same sinister entity. This fusion of the two major threats to the Nazi agenda into one monstrous conspiracy would have profound consequences both for the invasion of Russia and the extermination of millions of Jews across Europe.

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