In this lesson, we explore the history of Judaism and antisemitism in Europe, specifically in the 19th century. We further delve into the Zionist movement that grew in response to European antisemitism.
Judaism in 19th-Century Europe
Just about everyone has heard of the Holocaust that occurred during World War II (WWII). Spurred by Hitler's rabid antisemitism, over six million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered in less than a decade simply for their religious beliefs and ethnic background.
While this is certainly one of the most horrific events in modern history, it is not the only episode of antisemitism, or hatred and violence against Jewish people, in our recent past. Indeed, the Holocaust can very easily be seen as the culmination of the antisemitism that grew throughout Europe in the 19th century.
Even prior to the 19th century, Jews had lived a pretty rough existence in Europe. Descendants of an ancient people who likely held an empire in the western Middle East, Jews had dispersed throughout Europe over the two millennia after the collapse of the Israelite Empire. They were often suspected of subterfuge and were periodically treated harshly throughout the continent.
In 1290, for example, King Edward I of England expelled all Jews from England, and they were expelled from France several separate times in the 14th century. Other nations periodically refused Jews entry or expelled the Jewish population at various times as well. Other draconian laws on Jews were passed in this period, too, including barring them from marrying or banning their Yiddish language.
Episodes of popular religious violence were also directed against Jews periodically. Seized by a religious fervor, medieval and early modern Christians at times attacked Jewish settlements or families claiming to exact revenge for the murder of Jesus Christ, whom the Bible claims was condemned by Jewish priests and elders.
Throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, Jews also gained a bad reputation as loan sharks and usurers. Though a small portion of the population was involved in money lending, it was by no means as widespread a practice as medieval Christians believed. However, so prevalent was the stereotype that Jews were admitted back into England in 1657 because the English state and the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, were in bad need of a loan!
However, as the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution radically changed Western society, there were reasons for Jews to be optimistic. Enlightenment ideas concerning universal equality tempered prejudices against Jews, and in France in 1830, Judaism was even recognized as an official religion acceptable to the state.
Unfortunately, antisemitism survived, especially in Germany and in Eastern Europe. Familiar tropes of antisemitic rhetoric and violence often appeared during periods of economic downturn when Europeans were seeking a scapegoat for their problems. For example, many of the political problems surrounding the unification of Germany in the 1860s were blamed by nationalist German writers on an international Jewish conspiracy that feared a unified Germany. Baseless accusations like these fueled antisemitism in Europe.
This rabid antisemitism throughout the continent in the 19th century is perhaps best encapsulated by the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s. A French military officer, Dreyfus was accused of selling military secrets to Germany. He was convicted less because of the evidence against him, which was flimsy at best, and more because of the strong antisemitism that existed in France. When the journalist Emile Zola exposed the French government's antisemitic bent and lack of real evidence, Dreyfus was released after serving two years in prison.
Despite these displays of antisemitism in Central and Western Europe, nowhere was antisemitism more prevalent than in Russia. Russian Jews were held responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, despite it clearly being the work of socialist revolutionaries, and violence against Jews across the country began in earnest.
Thousands of Jews died across Russia in the final decades of the 19th century, often at the hands of mobs of non-Jewish Russians. In 1894, violence against Jews in Russia became state-sanctioned when the heavily antisemitic Tsar Nicholas II took the throne and blamed nearly every political, economic, and social problem in Russia on Jewish subterfuge.
A product of the considerable antisemitic views in Russia and Europe in general, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was published in 1903 in Russia. A forged hoax, the work purportedly revealed a Jewish plot for world domination in the 20th century. The forged propaganda fueled further violence against Jews in Russia, and antisemites across Europe believed ardently in its authenticity.
In reaction to this considerable persecution, many Jews began to believe the only way to ensure their own and their community's safety was to begin organizing in solely Jewish enclaves. Many of these same Jews also believed in Zionism: the belief that the Jewish people should return to the Holy Land and establish a Judaism-centered state. By the mid-19th century, this region was largely inhabited by Arabs, many of whom were Muslim. The few Jews already living there were largely concentrated in Jerusalem.
As the Zionist movement grew, large groups of Jews began migrating to the Holy Land in the 1880s and setting up Jewish agricultural settlements. Only a decade later, Theodor Herzl began publishing a magazine promoting the creation of a Jewish state and held the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897. Herzl was the man whom many consider the founder of political Zionism.
Despite offers of territory in Africa from colonial Great Britain, Zionists wanted control of their ancestral territory in the Holy Land. Indeed, another large wave of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land from Eastern Europe took place when violence against Jews escalated once again in Russia after the publication of the The Learned Elders. Many of these new settlements were bankrolled entirely by wealthy European and American Jewish families, who believed the only way to save Jews in Europe from total extinction was emigration.
As one can see, the Jewish people do not have a fortuitous history in Europe. Whether it was the 1290 expulsion of Jews from England or the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s, Jews were often the scapegoat that Europeans blamed all of their problems on. Baseless accusations were often substantiated by flimsy or forged evidence; stereotypes and outright lies reinforced each other and perpetuated Europe's growing antisemitism.
Considering the strong feelings of antisemitism in Central and Western Europe and the Jews dying by the thousands in Russia, it comes as little surprise that men like Theodor Herzl resolved that Jews should leave the continent behind and return to their ancestral territory in the Holy Land. That this land was already inhabited by an entirely different, non-Jewish people would cause future problems in the 20th century.
When this lesson is complete, you should be able to:
- Identify Judaism and where it spread throughout Europe
- Define antisemitism and the attitude of many governments during the pre-WWII years against Jews
- Describe the various examples of violence against Jews throughout Europe
- Explain what Zionism is and how it grew during these decades