Naftali Rothenberg
Naftali Rothenberg

A brief history of antisemitism

Jews in Israel and in communities around the world are watching with discomfort, surprise and anxiety at the outbreak of antisemitic waves in the countries we so love to travel in and enjoy living in. “Why is this happening to us?” “Where did it come from?”

Well, it did not erupt suddenly and did not come out of nowhere. Antisemitism in Europe and its affiliates in America and around the world has a constant underground presence. Evolution of thousands of years. Go a little below the surface and you will find thick layers of rock of antisemitism not to mention the European groundwater — whose antisemitism is flowing. Seventy years ago, the Allies defeated the Nazi armies that most peoples of Europe enthusiastically enlisted in their extermination enterprise. Is it conceivable that the defeat of the Nazis suddenly obscured hatred of Israelites? The Dutch (for example) who enthusiastically helped the Nazis to send to the camps over 80% of Dutch Jews ended up forever with antisemitism? Suddenly Ukrainians and Poles who murdered Jews became lovers of Israel? In Thessaloniki, Rome, Madrid, Strasbourg, Budapest, Vienna, Frankfurt, Paris, Barcelona, ​​Dublin and London, have they managed to clear the hatred of street stones and markets or just hide it in corners and cracks?

The Holocaust: Europeans are shocked by themselves

The modern and distant history of every city in Europe is saturated with horrific events of Jewish persecution and mass murders. But the Holocaust, the system of mass extermination initiated by Nazi Germany and with the active participation of many peoples surpassed in size any antisemitic resemblance. The terrible result shocked even some of Israel’s haters. In the countries that began to rebuild the ruins of the war there was no room for official antisemitism. Some expressed the new trend in laws against antisemitism and Holocaust denial. The leadership of the Catholic Church that for more than a thousand years led the incitement, persecution and pogroms and summed up the shameful history in silence as consent to the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe was forced to reckon and publish a new definition of church relations with the Jews. There is no doubt that the position of the states and the Vatican has an impact, but it does not eradicate hatred from the root.

The Jewish Nation-State: A Turnaround

Five years after the defeat of the Nazi regime, the Jewish national movement succeeded in establishing the State of Israel with the aim of making Jews responsible for their fate. The establishment of the state is a turning point in terms of antisemitic outbursts. Some of these are directed at the state and allow haters of Israel not to be considered antisemitic. Sometimes they go wrong and “Death to Israel” unites with “Death to the Jews.” Israel is identified in the world as the state of the Jews. There is no consensus on the question of whether the establishment of the state benefited the Jews’ treatment of hatred towards them. Some Jews and others accuse Israel of being the cause of the outbursts of hatred. I believe that since the establishment of the state, our ability to stand up to antisemitism, here and around the world, has improved somewhat. It is not known what will happen in the future.

Jews respond to antisemitism

Jews’ responses to antisemitism were and are numerous and varied. Some try to explain the reasons and motives of our enemies in different ways. I concluded that anti-Semitism could not be explained or understood. It has no parallel in the hatred of peoples, religions and cultures for each other.

Among those who believe they understand the reasons there are those who think that Jews are hated because of their separatist religion, or because of their identity. They therefore decide to avoid the customs of tradition and create for themselves a “universal” space. Today there are those who claim that separation from the State of Israel will prevent antisemitism against them.

There are Jews who justify antisemitism in their treatment of it for various reasons and themselves join the waves of hatred against their people.

Some decide to stop being Jews. The phenomenon saddens me but I understand their hearts. Millions of Jews throughout the ages have managed to escape hatred towards them in this way. Many others were persecuted for their origins even when they were no longer Jews.

Others live the hatred every day and in one way or another function within it: “The whole world is against us” they claim, and there is nothing to be done against it. It is hard to live with such a hard consciousness. To my delight, most Jews since then have adopted the most fascinating position of all: repression.


The ability to repress has allowed us to get up the morning after the pogroms, in every European city and country, for thousands of years, and to start “business as usual” with those who only yesterday murdered us and incited against us. I do not write this with the slightest hint of cynicism. This is a superior trait not only because of its contribution to our survival but most of all – because of its moral qualities. We reject hatred outright and do not share our haters with the opposite hatred. If it is possible to act against its explicit aspects, we do so to remove it from the public agenda. It helps even more to repress, not address it and simply live our lives, in a Jewish society, in a mixed society and in the global world. It allows us to enjoy a trip abroad, do business with non-Jewish colleagues and maintain a flourishing Jewish community almost in every city in the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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