a history of racial antisemitism

RACISM

Racism is the belief that some groups of humans are inferior to others based on behavioral and physical traits. It’s also prejudice, discrimination, and/or bias against people because of their race or ethnicity.

It’s important to note that race is a changing social construct, meaning what is or isn’t considered a “race” might vary among different cultures and societies. For example, what is considered a race in the United States (for example, the “white race”) was understood differently in Nazi Germany (for example, the Nazis considered themselves the “Aryan race” and others that might be considered white today, such as Slavs, were then regarded as racially inferior).

Today, anti-racism advocates consider racism to be “prejudice plus power.” This is because it’s the people in power that determine the racial categorizations in any given society. For example, a Jew in Nazi Germany hating Germans would have no systemic power to harm Germans, whereas Germans that hated Jews had all the power in the world to systemically hurt Jews. It was also the people in power — Germans, in this case — that decided that the Jewish People were a “race” in the first place.

 

ANTI-JUDAISM VS ANTISEMITISM

Anti-Judaism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based only on religion. Antisemitism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based on religion, culture, and/or ethnicity. In other words, anti-Judaism is always antisemitism, but antisemitism is not always anti-Judaism.

The word “antisemitism” itself was coined in the 1870s by an antisemite in Germany to replace the previously used term “Jew-hatred,” as “antisemitism” sounded scientific, which “legitimized” it. This was during the beginning of the height of the scientific racism movement (see my post YES, THE HOLOCAUST WAS ABOUT RACE).

Much — but not all — of the early anti-Jewish sentiment and persecution in Europe was motivated by anti-Judaism. The persecution of Jews based on the antisemitic conspiracy of deicide (the ahistorical claim that Jews killed Jesus), for example, stems from anti-Judaism. Jews were persecuted on the basis that they had chosen to reject Jesus and Christendom. 

Racial antisemitism is one form of antisemitism separate from anti-Judaism (although of course there’s always overlap, particularly where conspiracy theories and tropes are concerned).

 

CONCEPT OF A “SEMITIC RACE”

The word “Semitic” comes from Semitic languages, a branch of Afroasiatic languages. Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew (the ancestral language of the Jewish People), for instance, are three examples of Semitic languages.

In the Middle Ages, Europeans believed all Asiatic peoples — including Jews — descended from Shem (where the term “Semite” comes from), one of the sons of Noah. By the 19th century, Europeans believed that Jews were members of a distinct “Semitic” race. Once again it’s important to remember that race is a changing social construct, and as such, what is or isn’t a race is defined differently among different cultures, places, and time periods.

In the 1800s, race theorist Arthur de Gobineau claimed that three distinct races existed: white, black, and yellow. Among the “white” races was the “Aryan” race, which had remained “the purest” over time. Meanwhile, other “races,” such as the “Semitic” Jews from Southwest Asia (the Middle East), were a “dirty,” mixed race made up of white, black, and yellow ancestry. This idea that the Jews were “diluting” or “soiling” the white Aryan race was later adopted by the Nazis. It’s still very much present among white supremacists, who claim Jews are trying to “trick” their way into the white race to enact a “white genocide.”

 

"LIMPIEZA DE SANGRE"

The Spanish Inquisition and subsequent expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 is usually associated with anti-Judaism. What many do not know, however, is that racial antisemitism played a massive role in the persecution of Jews in Spain.

During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were faced with three choices: convert to Christianity, leave Spain, or die. Understandably, many Jews chose to convert. These Jews were known as “conversos” or “New Christians.” Unbeknownst to them, however, not only were they distrusted, but they would still be persecuted.

The Spanish nobility had developed an ideology known as “limpieza de sangre,” or cleanliness of blood. According to this ideology, New Christians were racially inferior to Spaniards. In 1449, New Christians in Toledo were subjected to anti-Jewish riots and banned from official positions. After 1478, New Christians were officially persecuted exactly as Jews were. This policy later extended to Portugal, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia.

The Spanish Inquisition was not formally disbanded until 1834.

 

DEHUMANIZATION

The history of racial antisemitism often goes hand in hand with the dehumanization of Jews. Not only were Jews treated as a distinct race, but we were treated as a “non-human” race. As Hitler himself said, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”

Since the dawn of Christianity, Jews have been demonized — and, as such, dehumanized. Mistranslations of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) led Christians to believe that Jews — quite literally — had horns on their heads. Ancient Jewish practices, such as lighting the Shabbat candles or praying in a “strange” language (Hebrew), were used as proof that Jews were demonic and sub-human. Antisemitic propaganda long portrayed Jews as insects, wolves, and vermin, something that we see to this day in antisemitic cartoons. During the European witch trials between the 14th and 17th centuries, Jewish women, Roma women, and “witches” were persecuted interchangeably.

 

NAZIS & SCIENTIFIC RACISM

“Scientific racism” (also known as “biological racism”) is a pseudoscientific form of racism that claims there is scientific evidence to justify racial discrimination or the belief that some races are inferior or superior to others. The Nazis applied the theories of scientific racism to antisemitism and antiziganism (anti-Roma racism), which in turn were the two main factors that fueled the Holocaust.

Nazi antisemitism, though heavily influenced by centuries of European anti-Judaism (persecution of or bigotry against Jews based on religion), was exclusively racial antisemitism. In fact, the Nazis originally did not persecute the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus because they incorrectly thought that Mountain Jews were religious but not ethnic Jews. Jews that converted to other religions were still persecuted. In fact, the Nazis believed that it was your “Jewish blood” that determined your Jewishness. In the Nazi hierarchy of race, Jews were considered the inferior race.

The Nazis justified the Jewish and Roma genocides with the belief that they had to eradicate the defective Jewish and Roma “racial traits.”

 

IN THE UNITED STATES

The United States has a history of systemic racial antisemitism. Between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, a massive wave of Jewish immigrants fled antisemitic violence in Eastern Europe and arrived to the United States. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a surge in xenophobic, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant sentiment. These Jewish immigrants were often racially classified as “Hebrews.” According to historian Eric Goldstein, “Jews were a racial conundrum, a group that could not clearly be pinned down according to the prevailing racial categories…in the minds of white Americans, Jews were clearly racial outsiders.” In the American hierarchy of race, Jews were somewhere in the middle: not quite white but not Black, either.

In the 1930s, immigration restrictions banning Jews were highly motivated by racial antisemitism. Until the 1970s, Jews were still banned from “white spaces” in the United States, such as country clubs but most notably, higher education.

Racial antisemitism in the United States is very much alive and well. For example, at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, marchers cried “Jews will not replace us!” alluding to the conspiracy theory that Jews are perpetrating a genocide of the white race.

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