Antisemitism as we know it was given much of its decisive character and form as a result of a crisis within the Jewish community, a crisis that arose as a consequence of the conflict between Jews who accepted the messianic claims on behalf of Jesus and those who rejected these claims. Paul is the key figure here. In his radical anti-Judaic polemic, he insists that, “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” (Gal. 3: 13-14). Judaism is considered to be, “a dispensation of death, carved in letters of stone… a dispensation of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3: 6-11). Judaism is dark, carnal, deadly, unredeemed and unredeeming. Even more significant, Jews are “a rebellious and apostate people.” (Rom. 10:21).
These ideas were further developed in the Gospels, that were composed for and circulated among an increasingly gentile-Christian audience. In Mark, the Jews cry: “Crucify him.” (Mark 15-12-15). In Matthew, we read: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you.” (Matthew 23: 27-39). And by the time of the Gospel of John in the second century, we read that the Jews “are of your Father, the devil.” (John 8: 43). It is no coincidence that in John’s recounting of the crucifixion there is an excessive emphasis on the guilt of the Jews who, as the followers of Satan, killed Christ and thereby signaled their primordial otherness. As John now says: “the Jews do not belong to God.” (John 8: 47). Thus, by the second century, the normative, canonical literature of Christianity had come to picture Judaism as a spiritual cadaver and the Jewish people as an apostate, deicidal mob, loyal to Satan. And very importantly, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. this initial collision was inherited and expanded by an increasingly non-Jewish Church.
As the Jews and gentile Christians continued their polemical interaction, the Church Fathers, in the Patristic literature, developed the classical anti-Jewish thesis of “supersessionism” – i.e. that Christianity had superceded Judaism – and expanded the metaphysical claim that the clash between Jews and Christians was the embodiment in time and space of the Devil’s clash with Jesus. That is, the Jews were more than merely human opponents of God. So the clash between the two religions became deeply mythical and transcendental in nature. John Chrysostom, one of the more virulent anti-Jewish fathers, declared in his Eight Orations Against the Jews: “The Jews fight against the commands of God and dance with the Devil . . . the demons inhabit the very souls of the Jews” (4.7); and again, in Homily 1, he wrote: “Demons dwell in the synagogue not only in the place itself but in the souls of the Jews . . . .who are [a] common disgrace and infection of the whole world.” (Homily I).
Thus, the conflict between the synagogue and the Church should be seen as a conflict that belongs to myth and metaphysics, not to simple history.
After the combined hermeneutical assault of the New Testament and the patristic writing, the Jew will never again be, in Christian societies, “a man like other men.” He has become a mythic creature.
Many factors will contribute to the continuing evolution of anti-Judaism and antisemitism, but none will be more significant than this metaphysicalizing of Jewish being. This remains essential and constant even in modern circumstances and, above all, is central to the transcendentaling of the Jews in Nazi ideology. For Nazism, as for the Church, “the Jews” represent a trans-historical contrariety, an otherness that cannot be changed, and a fundamental enemy of both God and man. In the words of Gregory of Nyssa
“The Jews are slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of God, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies for their father’s faith, advocates of the Devil brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness.”
This claim was later recycled by Nazism. As Hitler pronounced:
Two worlds face one another – the men of God and the men of Satan. The Jew is the anti-man, the creature of another god. He must come from another root of the human race. I set the Aryan and the Jews against each other and if I call one of them a human being, I must call the other something else. The two worlds are as separate as man and beast. (Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, p. 718.
By the medieval period anti-Judaism was not merely a form of prejudice but had become a religious deed, an act of faith, central to, and emerging from, the most intimate religio-cultural sensibilities of medieval Christian society. It was a ritual that gave immediacy to the arcane beliefs of theology, especially for the unlearned masses. Translated into widespread popular beliefs, Jews were seen as literally non-human, pictured with tails and horns, and often with odd feet, and there was the claim that Jewish men menstruate and that Jewish women had a peculiar odor, “the fetor Judaicus” that only baptism could eliminate. Wearing a “Jew’s hat” and special clothing, the Jew was everything that Christians and Muslims were not. As Pope Gregory the Great commented: the Jews are “Preachers of [the] Antichrist.” Thus Jews were imaged as traitors, murderers, usurers, and thieves. In describing them, medieval authors refer to them as “serpents, spiders, . . . basilisks, goats, pigs, ravens, vultures, scorpions, dogs, cormorants, hyaenas, jackals, [and] vermin.” (Moshe Lazar, “The Lamb and the Scapegoat,” p. 55). In effect, Jews are thought of as non-human and so the living Jew is removed from the ordinary family of human beings. This inherent peculiarity also provided the basis for believing such ugly and nonsensical claims as the “Blood Libel,” the libel of “the desecration of the Host,” and the belief in Jews as black magicians.
Over the centuries, this theological myth became the foundation for Jewish life in Christian Europe. And from the late 6th century C.E., with the rise of Islam, a second negative theological myth emerged in the form of Muslim anti-Jewish accounts. The Muslim assault was, to some degree, less extreme because it lacked anything comparable to the Easter story, but canonical Islamic sources still presented Jews as the enemies of Muhammad and Islam, and, secondarily, as enemies of Allah. So, the Quran teaches that Jews are the “heirs” of pigs and monkeys (Sura 5) and this becomes the basis for a society in which Jews are defined as 2nd or 3rd class members of society, known as dhimmis.
Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire with the conversion of Constantine in 312 C.E., and then the Muslin conquest brought much of the Mediterranean world and all of the Middle East under Muslim control — which is where the majority of Jews lived until the post-Crusades era – these anti-Jewish theological tropes became culturally normative and influenced all cultural, political and economic activities in which Jews were engaged. Accordingly, Jews in Christian society were excluded from the guilds and universities, denied the right to own land, and then forced by circumstances to become usurers. And, when they were owed too much money, they were exiled, as occurred in England in 1290, in France in 1306, and for political, not economic reasons, from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496.
In Muslim communities and states Jews were classed, by definition, as “others” who, though they could not be forced to convert to Islam, were required to wear special “honey” colored clothes, pay additional special taxes like the jizya, and were not allowed to ride horses or build large synagogues. In these ways both Christian and Muslim societies regularized Judeophobia and anti-Jewish laws and habits. That is to say, when the times called for it, when an “enemy” was needed, a “diabolical” agent required, “the Jew” was the “natural” target to turn to, or rather, against.
The negative myths even existed in Christian societies where there were no Jews, like 16th century England, where they helped to produce both Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. This shows that once antisemitism was fixed as a central feature of Christian and Muslim societies, it existed in all times and not just in times of crisis. As such it was endemic, constant, and decisively defining. Very importantly, it was not the exclusive property of the political right or the political left. Both ideological camps used it with enthusiasm.
It is, therefore, within this larger context that we have to situate and explain the appearance and the relevance of anti-Semitism in times of crisis. When political and economic conditions are stable, the countervailing forces of other communal and state interests subordinate and control the radical exploitation of anti-Jewish political, economic, and social beliefs. But when communal (and individual) life becomes unstable, the necessity to “explain,” and the need for scapegoats arises and the circumstance of “the Jew” as the pre-eminent “other” becomes influential in both Christian and Muslim culture. “The Jew” is now referred to as the cause of the existential socio-political malaise and economic distress.
For example, Jews were blamed for the “Black Death” of 1348; the spread of syphilis in the 16th century (and today AIDS); the breakdown of medieval Christendom and the witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries. They were blamed by the Catholic Church for causing the Reformation, (which led to the formation of the first official ghettos—the first being established in Venice). They were considered responsible for the evils opposed by Chmielnicki in the Ukraine in 1648; for the assassination of Czar Aleksander II and for Russia’s economic difficulties which led to the pogroms of the 1880s; for the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (that ultimately led to the Dreyfuss Affair in 1893); and for the Dolchstoss accusation (that Germany was betrayed by socialists and Jews at home) that became so consequential in Germany after the loss of World War I. Then, too, the tension created by the rise of both an expansionist Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Third Reich increased the intense anti-Judaism in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
More recently, the increased manifestation of anti-Semitism in the former East Germany and post-Holocaust Poland, as well as the sharp spike in anti-Semitism in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, were caused by economic crises and political instability. And today, blaming “the Jew” is again the case in many right-wing circles in Europe that fear the dissolution of what remains of Christian Europe; and in sections of the American extreme right that fear the changing ethnic-racial make up of the United States. This accusation is also given prominence in anti-Jewish and anti-Western circles in dysfunctional Muslim cultures, both in the Middle East and in Europe.
As modern Europe showed after the Enlightenment, during the era of Jewish Emancipation between the French revolution and 1880, it could not abide the Jew as equal and as citizen. A Jew who looked like everyone else, a Jew who smelled like everyone else, and a Jew who spoke and acted as everyone else, was still unacceptable to many. And so, we see the emergence of movements like: Romanticism in Western Europe; Slavophilism, in Russia; Nationalism in France; and Aryanism in Germany; — movements through which disoriented and desperate intellectuals joined with large segments of the general community to create “new reasons for what it believed on instinct.” (That is, they created theories (a) based on notions of organic unity that the state is like a natural family, and (b) so-called “scientific” racial anti-Semitism.”) And these rabid, false conceptions and arguments came, not too many decades later, to justify Auschwitz, with the approval of much of Europe’s then dominant political class.
Italy and its racist laws
This complex history created the conditions out of which Mussolini’s fascism and Hitler’s National Socialist dystopia emerged. The defeat in war, the anomie created by modernity, the collapse of old, defining, boundaries, the ending of several major empires, the Russian revolution, and the considerable uncertainty that marked personal and national life, encouraged radical, totalistic, political ideologies. In the view of both Hitler and Mussolini, Western society was dissolving, and in so doing was undermining all the crucial inherited virtues and ideals. And, given the historical legacy described above, now inherited by 20th century Europeans, it had to be “the Jews” who were destroying modern Europe for their own selfish reasons. This theory, that was explained so neatly in the Czarist-sponsored 1903 Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was central to both Nazi and Fascist antisemitism. Just as Jews had earlier been in league with the Antichrist to destroy medieval Christian civilization, that defined itself as “the body of Christ,” Jews were again seen as the catalytic agents and promoters of unwelcome change. Jews were seen as the fermenters and supporters of socialism, anarchy, and revolution. For Slavophile or Panslavist intellectuals, Jews were considered a dangerous, always foreign, group and the enemy of an authentic Russian state. For romantics and nationalists, Jews were aliens who, by their nature, could not be assimilated. For racial theorists, Jews were beings of a different and inferior form. And for Hitler, Jews were untermenschen, diseased, very dangerous, and lesser beings.
In 1930s Italy, the radical political and ideological context created by Il Duce made room for, and even encouraged and came to believe in, the need for anti-Jewish racial laws. I do not doubt that Italians were considerably less antisemitic than Germans, Frenchmen, Austrians and Eastern European populations, as Renzo de Felice has argued in his many publications. But I am also convinced that Italy was not immune to anti-Semitism, nor was anti-Jewish legislation and the other actions undertaken by Mussolini solely the consequence of his alliance with Hitler. The Catholic Church, which was still a major cultural influence in Italy, was exceedingly hostile to Jews and Jewish emancipation. As a central pillar of the old establishment, it genuinely feared the changes brought by modernity: industrialization, urbanization, democratization, secularism, and socialism. And it blamed all of these “evils” on the Jews who appeared to be the beneficiary of these new ideas and the changes they brought. Both La Cultura Cattolica and L’Osservatore Romano constantly used The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in their anti-Jewish crusade. Even the “blood libel” was recycled in their pages after the Mendel Beilis trial in Kiev in 1913.
Mussolini came to power in 1919, intending to break the power of the trade unions and to control the emerging influence of the socialist parties in the immediate, polarized circumstances that followed the end of World War I. In 1919, reflecting the influence of antisemitic accusations, and very likely the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (that were soon to be published in Italy in 1921 and again in 1937), Mussolini wrote of “big Jewish bankers in London and New York [whose] Bolshevism [was] the revenge of Judaism over Christianity.” For Mussolini, who certainly vacillated in the 1920s and mid-1930s on the issue of antisemitism, Jews were suspect, despite the general Jewish support of Fascism. They were suspected of being anti-fascist, of being socialist (or communist), of exploiting the international political system, and, until the mid-1930s, with a great deal of inconsistency, of being “foreigners” and “aliens” in the Italian community and state. The rise of Hitler, the Depression, Mussolini’s alliance with the Führer, the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, Italy’s colonial policy, and the threat of war, all created an atmosphere of crisis in Italian political circles. The need to explain why there was a crisis at all, and the need for “reasons” for the crisis, galvanized the antisemitic elements in Mussolini’s outlook and politics, leading ultimately to the 1938 racist laws.
These laws should not be seen only as a form of appeasement to the Third Reich. As a reviewer of Paolo Orano’s highly influential 1937 Gli ebrei in Italia openly demanded in the pages of the newspaper If Popolo d’Italia: the Jews of Italy had “either to declare themselves unequivocally enemies (let it be repeated enemies) of international Judaism – masonic, subversive, and especially anti-Fascist . . . . or they should renounce Italian citizenship and residence.” (Michalle Sarfatti, Jews in Mussolini’s Italy, p. 113). This was an increasingly influential sentiment that Mussolini and his government now accepted.
In consequence, the government initiated a series of anti-Jewish laws as a means of “self-defense” against what it saw not only as an ideological opponent but also as a “racial enemy. Italians were, from this point forward, to be defined as “Nordic” or “Aryans” and Jews as “Semites.” As such, “Jewish” interests did not coincide with those of “real” Italians and the Italian state. Instead, Jews were said to be exploiting the present unstable political conditions for their own interest.
Accordingly, in February 1938, Mussolini requested that all high ranking Jewish officers in the armed services be identified; the Minister of Education asked that all Jewish students in Italian universities be identified as Jewish students; the director of the Ministry of the Interior told his subordinates to create a list of state workers who were “of the Israelite religion.” In addition, an office for the “study of race and the dissemination of racial propaganda in the Ministry of Popular Culture” (Sarfatti, p. 123) was also created in February, and in November 1938 all Jews, no matter how loyal or enthusiastic they had heretofore been, were expelled from the Fascist Party. In August of this same year, the Ufficio Studi de Problema della Rozza was created in the Ministry of Popular Culture which led to the issuance of further anti-Jewish racial legislation. Italians would now be protected from Jewish chicanery, avarice and political duplicity. What was self-identified as “Fascist racism” would ensure that the devolving social and political spiral was halted and that Italy would be made safer and appropriately unified