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Anti-Semitism: is it our fault?

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain responds to the question: A non-Jewish friend asked me why anti-semitism had gone on so long and was so widespread, with the hint that at least some of it might therefore be our fault. Is he right ?

Yes, there are some obnoxious Jews, just as every group has its unpleasant characters, but that is a reason to dislike them, not all Jews everywhere. Your friend is right, though, that if we step back and look at the phenomenon of anti-semitism, it is extraordinary that it has been present in virtually every country and every age, but thankfully never all at the same time. Yet there are also very clear reasons that explain its existence and survival at different periods in world history:

  • From 70 CE Jews were in exile after the Romans conquered the land of Israel; it meant they were always a minority in other people’s countries, outsiders in an insider’s world, and became either the objects of suspicion or the scapegoats used by rulers to divert popular discontent.
  • In Christian countries, they had the added problem of being the main villains in the Christian story: there is no crime higher than being accused of killing the son of God, and so were deemed to be destined to be persecuted as part of God’s will.
  • Another problem in Christian lands in the Middle Ages was that a significant percentage of Jews were connected with moneylending – a trade essential to society but one that brought great unpopularity and which was forced on them through other occupations being barred to them.
  • 2000 years of religious anti-semitism so poisoned Europe that after Christianity lost influence, racial anti-semitism took over as the reason for disliking Jews; it saw Jews as intrinsically ‘different’ and therefore a threat.
  • In recent decades, Jews have been identified with Israel and suffered accordingly whenever its reputation dipped, while anti-Zionism has also crossed over into anti-semitism.

There may be a temptation to ask ‘is there something wrong with us?’ But actually, given both the above and also the great contributions of Jews to societies in which they have been allowed to live peacefully, the answer is ‘no’. As Rabbi Hugo Gryn used to say: “You judge the moral health of a society by the way in which it treats its minorities”.

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