antisemitism & cultural & spiritual genocide

BASIC DEFINITIONS

ANTISEMITISM is hostility, discrimination, and/or prejudice against Jews on an ethnic, cultural, or religious basis.

GENOCIDE is the deliberate killing of an ethnic group or nation with the aim of destroying said ethnic group or nation.

CULTURAL GENOCIDE is widely considered to be a component of genocide and refers to the eradication of cultural artifacts (e.g. books), artwork, and other cultural structures and the suppression of cultural practices (such as religious practices and spirituality). 

 

JEWS & GENOCIDE 

The Holocaust was far from the first or only genocidal campaign against the Jewish People. 

The story of Purim, for example — dated somewhere in the 5th century BCE — tells the story of how the Jews were saved from genocide in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. 

While the historicity of the story of Purim is still debated, there are other examples of genocide in early Jewish history. For example, the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 CE), when the Romans killed ~600,000 Jews in Judea (modern-day Israel/Palestine) is considered by historians to have been an act of genocide. 

Over the past two millennia, genocidal campaigns against Jews have taken place everywhere from nearly every corner of Europe to the Middle East and North Africa, with the most recent act of genocide/ethnic cleansing still taking place in Yemen today. 

In addition to human lives, each genocide also resulted in the loss of culture. 

 

COLONIZATION & FORCED DISPLACEMENT 

Colonization, imperialism, and forced displacement throughout Jewish history resulted in major cultural losses. 

For example, when Judea was occupied by the Seleucid Greek Empire, the king Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed Jewish practices and placed an altar to Zeus in the holy Jewish Temple (2nd century BCE). 

The Roman Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE) and destruction of the Jewish Temple resulted in perhaps the most devastating loss of Jewish culture to date. Prior to its destruction, Jewish practice revolved around the Temple. Following the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 CE) and the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Jewish People from Judea, Jewish practice would never again be the same. 

Judaism is an indigenous land-based practice. When Jews were dispossessed from their ancestral land, many of these traditions and practices were lost. 

 

FORCED DISPLACEMENT (2) 

Throughout history, Jews have been expelled from nearly every country in Europe, North Africa, Southwest Asia (the Middle East), and Central Asia. With each forced displacement, it’s only natural that parts of Jewish culture were lost or even destroyed.

For instance, prior to the Spanish Inquisition, the Iberian Peninsula had become the most important, flourishing hub of Jewish life, a period known as “the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain.” While the exact time that the golden age ended is debated, Jewish life in Spain and Portugal was all by destroyed after the Alhambra Decree of 1492, when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. 

 

FORCED CONVERSIONS 

Throughout history, Jews have been forcibly converted to other religions (or been killed), particularly Christianity and Islam. 

For example, in 1921, Yemen reintroduced what was known as the “Orphans’ Decree,” which forcibly converted Jewish orphans to Islam. In response, the Jewish community of Yemen responded quickly to the news of an orphaned child, taking them in and raising them as their own. However, the risk of getting caught prompted many Yemeni Jews to smuggle the children out of Yemen and into Mandatory Palestine (modern-day Israel/Palestine).

Forced conversions during the Spanish Inquisition resulted in major loss of Jewish life and culture. Some have estimated that as many as 25% of Latin Americans have some Sephardi Jewish heritage. Most are unaware of it or weren’t aware of it until recently. 

 

BOOK BURNINGS 

Much of Jewish culture, history, and thought was lost to book burnings throughout history. For instance, King Louis IX of France put the Talmud “on trial” in 1240. 24 carriage-loads of Jewish religious manuscripts were burned in the streets of Paris.

In 1490 Spain, more than 6000 volumes of books “infected with Jewish errors” were burned. 

The Nazis, too, burned Jewish books. In 1933, German university students engaged in mass burnings of books they considered to be “un-German,” destroying countless important works by Jewish writers. 

 

THE HOLOCAUST 

The Holocaust destroyed much more than Jewish lives and Jewish books. Entire records of Jewish communities were lost. Languages, such as Yiddish, were all but destroyed. Before the Holocaust, 11-13 million people spoke Yiddish. Today, only around 1 million people speak the language.

Communities — and their heritages — were also lost. For example, the Romaniote Jewish community of Greece, the oldest Jewish community in Europe, was nearly destroyed in its entirety. The Jewish community of Vilnius, Latvia, which was once known as the “Jerusalem of the north” for its flourishing Jewish life, was decimated. This was further exacerbated by the Soviet occupation post-WWII, which forbade Jewish cultural practices. 

 

SOVIET CULTURAL GENOCIDE 

The Soviet Union is infamous for its suppression of Jewish tradition and cultural life. Though not “officially” illegal, Jews were punished for studying and speaking Hebrew. Many times, they were imprisoned and even tortured under the guise of having committed “Zionist crimes.”

For Soviet Jews, life in the USSR often became unbearable, even after the death of Stalin (Stalin was a huge antisemite, possibly planning a Jewish genocide that never came to fruition due to his sudden death). Jews were not allowed to assimilate fully into Soviet society due to their ethnic background, but they were also not allowed to practice their heritage. 

 

The Soviets also repressed teaching the history of the specific antisemitic nature of the Holocaust.