Fast forward to 19th Century in Europe where pseudo-scientific theories of race emerged. The term “Aryan” comes from a Sanskrit word for “noble” and it was originally used to denote the early speakers of Indo-European languages. The word was co-opted most notoriously by a French aristocrat, diplomat and writer: in his Essay on the Inequalities of the Human Races (1855) Arthur de Gobineau employed the names of Noah’s sons (Japheth, Shem, Ham) to divide the “Caucasians” into three groups: the Japhetites (aka Aryans) were the master race, destined to rule and, in Gobineau’s scheme, they were centered in Germany; the Jews were the Semites, busily contributing to the decay of Aryan Europe; the Moors of North Africa comprised the Hamites. Gobineau self-servingly declared himself to be Aryan, claiming that as a French nobleman his roots went back to the Hamite-bashing Germanic Franks: “732 and All That.” BTW, a more honest borrowing of “Aryan” is the modern name of Persia, namely Iran.
Gobineau thus added racism to xenophobic and religious anti-Judaism; the term anti-Semitism itself was only popularized around 1879 by the German race-agitator Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904), notoriously in his Zwanglose Antisemitische Hefte (Informal Anti-Semitic Notes). Marr himself started out as a left wing activist but the failure of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe pushed him opportunistically to the right. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica and others rightfully point out this term “anti-Semitism” is a misnomer since Arabs and other non-Jewish populations are ethnically Semites. (In fact, Arabs and Jews share tribal religious practices such as dietary laws and male circumcision, rituals which likely predate Judaism itself.) But the term anti-Semitism stuck and added a murderous racial animus to anti-Judaism as anti-Semitism became a dangerous political force in Europe.
Anti-Semitism also spawned a new industry: forged documents supporting the worst conspiracy theories directed against Jews. One notorious example is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903); though long known to be fraudulent, it was assigned reading for many German school children after the Nazis came to power; the forgery is still circulating widely today and has found a new life on the internet.
In the annals of suicide on a continental scale, nothing compares with what happened to Europe with the two world wars. The Holocaust, an incommensurable part of Europe’s self-destruction, led to the death of millions of its Jews and turned countless others into refugees – all the more insane in that the Jews were an integral part of the creation of modern Europe and its continuing dynamism – scientific, cultural and economic. In the après-guerre of the 1940s, the once haughty nations of Europe became client states of the US or the USSR and their once great colonial empires were in the process of dismantelement; leadership in technology had passed to new centers; German was no longer the language of Science.
Often a society will contain an energetic minority like the Jews in Europe, a minority that can play a significant role in the dynamics of the group as a whole – the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Chaldean Christians in Iraq, the Jains in India, … . Sociologists argue that the presence of such alternative groups is actually critical to the functioning of a complex society. On the other hand, xenophobic animosity toward these groups can linger quietly for centuries only to erupt suddenly – and now we are seeing anti-Christian violence in Egypt; religious minorities are at the brink of extinction in war-torn Iraq and Syria. But still even after the humiliating defeat of Germany and Austria in the nightmare of the First World War, how the power of anti-Semitism could be so readily exploited so as to lead to the horrors of the Holocaust leaves one silent – nothing can be said that makes sense really and silence is at least a sign of respect for the victims.
Indeed the history of the animus against Jews in Christian Europe has a long arc, a complex and painful story. The magistral 1959 novel Le Dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just) of André Schwarz-Bart actually takes on the story of hostility toward European Jewry from the massacres at the time of the Crusades through to the Holocaust. The book’s theme comes from the Talmudic legend of the Lamed-Vav, the thirty-six just men without whom the world cannot survive. It was one of the two books that most influenced the young Noam Chomsky as related in a recent NY Times interview: “Astonishing book, had a tremendous impact … that kind of book you read, and you walk around in a daze for a couple of days.” (The other book was All God’s Dangers, the biography of African-American sharecropper Nate Cobb.)
Today, while “anti-Semite” is still one of the most biting accusations one can think of, it frankly risks being diluted by politicians and lobbyists who declare all and any criticism of the policies of the state of Israel to be anti-Semitism – this kind of thing muddies already turgid waters and makes dialogue all the more difficult. On the other hand, it is true that criticism of Israeli policies is often motivated by naked anti-Semitism or anti-Semitism parading as something else, exacerbating things all the more.
But Christian-Jewish relations in Europe would not be the same after the Holocaust. Already during WW II, while hiding from the Gestapo in occupied France, history professor Jules Isaac managed to write a detailed guide to rethinking Christian teachings and Christian readings of scripture – published as Jésus et Israël in 1948, an English translation was published in 1971. In 1947 the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) organized a meeting at Seelisberg in Switzerland to formulate a program for combating anti-Semitsm. There the pre-publication manuscript of Jésus et Israël was circulated and it had a real influence on the “Ten Points of Seelisberg” published by the conference. For this text, click HERE . Isaac also went on to be one of the founders of l’Amitié judéo-chrétienne de France and continued to campaign for Christian-Jewish understanding.
But Isaac was not new to the fight against anti-Semitism and not new to working with Christians. As a young man, he made the friendship of Charles Péguy, the Catholic writer and poet, and with Péguy, he joined the ranks of the dreyfusards, the supporters of the cause of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of brutal anti-Semitism – the struggle to exonerate Dreyfus lasted from 1886 to 1906, a long campaign that included Emile Zola’s legendary pamphlet J’Accuse (1898). Isaac worked with Péguy to launch the periodical Cahiers de la Quinzaine (1900-1914) – a political (e.g. it was strongly dreyfusard) and literary revue (e.g. it launched the career of future nobelist Romain Rolland). During the Great War, Dreyfus served at Verdun and Chemin des Dames and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel at the end of the war; Péguy was killed at the front on the eve of the Battle of the Marne; Isaac was wounded at the Battle of Verdun. For a video interview with Isaac on the topic of their friendship and Péguy’s “passion pour la verité,” click HERE .
After the conference at Seelisberg, Isaac worked assiduously with the Catholic Church on Christian-Jewish relations – even securing audiences with Pope Pius XII (1949) and with Pope John XXIII (1960). This latter meeting proved most fruitful and, spurred on in large part by Isaac’s tireless efforts, the Second Vatican Council issued a historic document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time, 1965) which recognized that all major faith traditions had validity and shared values – including Judaism and Islam.
But still, it was only very recently in 2011 that Pope Benedict XVI exonerated the Jews from the responsibility for Jesus’ death – in his book Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week Benedict argues that the real villains were the Temple authorities and not all Jews, finally saying what, frankly, is obvious from the point of view of Christian Theology: Jesus’ death “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all.”
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are known as the Abrahamic Religions as all trace their roots back to Abraham of Ur. In a kind of Oedipal/Freudian fit, the two “sons” of Judaism have turned on the “father.” Thus Islam too has baked anti-Judaism into its scripture with numerous Koranic verses such as “Allah has prepared for them [the Jews] a grevious scourge. Evil indeed is what they have done.” However, historically, the Islamic world was much more accepting of Jews than the Christian world; in the Middle Ages Judaism thrived in the Caliphate: thus the Rabbinic Tradition was continued with the Babylonian Talmud; the definitive Masoretic text of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) was compiled; the philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed, … . However, in the last century, driven largely by the Arab-Israeli conflict, once great centers of Jewish life like Teheran, Baghdad, Alexandria and Cairo lost their Jewish populations. In this century, Egyptian and Syrian television have put on shows based on the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now virulent Islamic anti-Semitism in the basest sense of the term is the order of the day and it spreads via Islam from the Middle East throughout the world, a tragic replay of the Christian Middle Ages.
In Western Europe, classical Christian anti-Semitism is, let us say, largely quiet – even the Passion Play people at Oberammergau have sanitized their centuries old texts and now organize bridge-building group-travel to Israel. However, in France, Muslim anti-Semitism has taken on deadly proportions; again it is complicated – aggravated by the Palestinian situation, by inveterate Muslim anger that in colonial North Africa Jews were made French citizens but Muslims were not, etc. In Germany it is smoldering to the point that the Berlin government’s admission of one million refugees from the Middle East has people worried about the resulting increase in the Muslim population there. The US overall has been a good place for Jews – per Occam’s Razor, no established religion is the simplest explanation. That is not to say that anti-Semitism hasn’t played an ugly role in American life. Ominously, the present danger comes most from the white-supremacy movement where anti-Semitism has taken root – e.g. the neo-Nazi chant of “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville in 2017, the murderous attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Daniel Goldhagen was indeed right to title his book on the current threat of global anti-Semitism The Devil That Never Dies.