Clifford Rieders

The Roots of Antisemitism

Antisemitism is surging around the world. Less than 80 years after the Holocaust in Europe, which saw the murder of six million Jews, we hear calls for, “death to the Jews” being heard all over the world. Sometimes, the “new” antisemitism fits within the guise of anti-Israel or anti-Zionism. Other times, it is just good, old-fashioned hatred that Jews have endured for three millennia.

Most of the calls for genocide against the Jews comes from the fundamentalist Jihadist Arab world.  However, in Western Europe and the United States, the “kill the Jews” mentality has metastasized to others outside the fundamentalist Muslim community.  We see too many college students calling for the annihilation of Israel under the rubric, “from the river to the sea”.

Ignorance alone is not the best description for why the death of Israel and Jews in general is being called for on such a grand scale.  Antisemitic attacks and incidents around the world have been dramatically on the rise because Jews dare to defend themselves. That survival is most noteworthy in the State of Israel, which has always struggled and fought for its life against a tidal wave of murderous attempts to extinguish the Jewish State.

Where did all of this begin, and where will it go in the future?  Abraham, the first Jew, lived approximately 3,000 years ago.  In his time, the people of Canaan were concerned about his success.  They felt insecure and thought that his sheep and the number of wells he owned would somehow displace other peoples.  Abraham was accused of being a colonizer!  He and his wife, Sarah, known for their hospitality, managed to secure a peace treaty with the locals.  When Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, he insisted on paying for the land so that no one would ever say that he or his heirs stole it.

One of the first known statements of antisemitism was that made by the Pharaoh of Egypt after the death of Joseph.  Joseph had saved Egypt from starvation and became the second in command, just below the Pharaoh himself.  The new Pharaoh, “who did not know of Joseph”, expressed concern that the Children of Israel would be, “more numerous and stronger than we”.  This was the Pharaoh’s justification for slavery.  Sound familiar?  The Children of Israel were feared because of their success, and it was the concern of the Pharaoh that the strangers in Egypt’s midst would have dual loyalty; to their G-d first, and then to the State second.  Pharaoh’s decree, to kill the boys, was the first historical act of planned genocide of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik noted that Pharaoh’s rhetoric was one of the “historic” bases of anti-Semitism.  The Jews were considered “outsiders”, even though they had lived in Egypt for over 100 years.  The Jew as alien, loyal to a G-d more important than rulers or nationality was a threat to the locals.

Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans all considered Jews a form of “colonizer”.   The Jew was an outsider, a newcomer, and a people whose loyalty to moral values transcended national leadership.  It was established at post-World War II trials held in Nuremberg, that fidelity to moral virtues should transcend ruler, nation, flag, and personal interests.  The Jews alienated their neighbors for 3,000 years by subscribing to these principles.

The Jews were able to overcome the Greeks, thanks to the Maccabean revolt.  However, the Jews so loved their liberty, independence and freedom, principles enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, that they rebelled against the all-powerful Romans.  The Romans took their revenge, and in the year 125 of the Common Era, butchered approximately 1-1/4 million Jews.  The remnant of Jews stayed in the land that the Romans renamed Palestine and they also spread throughout the world.

Edward Flannery wrote an exhaustive history of antisemitism, which he saw as a theological issue.  In his encyclopedic work, The Anguish of the Jews, Flannery called not only for reform, but for, “profound and meaningful repentance”.  Flannery, referred to by Robert F. Drinan as, “an honest priest”, placed the blame for post-Roman antisemitism squarely on the church.  Flannery first published his important book in 1964.  According to Flannery, the outsider who believed in the one, invisible G-d of love and forgiveness, became a pariah to all those who placed their fidelity and faith in a human leader infused with G-d-like qualities.  According to Flannery, whether it was Jesus, Budda, Allah, Confucious, Zoroaster, the Jews rejected any prophet, zealot, or leader other than their notion of the G-d known by the noun, “I will be what I will be”.  For Jews, G-d was always both a noun and a verb. Even Moses was regarded as a flesh and blood human being.

Whether the hatred of the Jews is founded in competing ideology or a suspected group of outsiders, the question of the origin of the hate has almost lost its relevancy.  The hatred, disrespect and rejection of the Jew has been nurtured for most of recorded history.  When Israel, for example, fights for its survival against the genocidal attack by Hamas on October 7th, the world easily flips into the gear that this all must somehow be the fault of the stranger, the ger; a stranger in a strange land.  This was the name that Moses gave his son, Gershom.

Many Jews have addressed their dilemma by simply choosing not to be Jews.  They have integrated themselves into whatever society they lived, praying that their rejection of Judaism would give them protection.  That approach too failed to protect the Jews.

About the Author
Cliff Rieders is a Board Certified Trial Advocate in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a past member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority.
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