Anti-Semitism: Where Does It Come From? Why Does It Persist?

By | Mar 31, 2014

In our March/April issue, we examine two big questions with deep contemporary resonance: Where does anti-Semitism come from? Why does it persist? Here we highlight one response, from Jeremy Cohen, the author of several books, including The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism and Christ-Killers, the Jews and the Passion, from the Bible to the Big Screen, and professor of European Jewish history at Tel Aviv University:

“In the earliest Christian writings, such as the letters of the Apostle Paul, there is a pattern by which Christians define who they are in terms of who they are not, in terms of an opposition to the Other–and that Other is the Jew. If the New Testament is a heavenly covenant, then the Torah of Jews is an earthly law. If Christians are identified with a heavenly Jerusalem, then Jews are identified with an earthly Jerusalem. In order for Christianity to be right, Judaism must be wrong.

At the same time, Jews and Judaism have a place in the Christian world, because they and their Bible testify to Christianity’s biblical origins, and the contrast between the defeated, enslaved Jew and the victorious Christian validates Christianity. When Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) taught that Jews needed to be preserved–and dispersed and subjugated–so that Christians could define themselves in opposition to them, we might say that he perceived them as standing on a platform in a railroad station waiting for the “Salvation Express” to come and pick them up. But they would be standing there forever, because they had missed the only such train–the one that would have led them to Jesus Christ. In Augustine’s terms, the Jews were “stationary,” stuck, as it were, in “useless antiquity.” The Jew reading his Bible resembled a blind man looking into a mirror, and could best appreciate their own vision in contrast to him.


Notwithstanding this perception of the Jews, there was, in fact, a vibrant and creative post-biblical rabbinic tradition evolving at the same time that Christianity was evolving. When the late medieval Church eventually awakened to the realities of Talmudic Judaism, it had the Talmud confiscated, tried and burned, because it deviated from the Christian construction of who the Jews needed to be: fossils of an Old Testament that had long ago lost its validity and vitality.

Talmudic Jews, then, as opposed to the blind unbelievers that Augustine beheld in the Jews, were now seen as rejecting the truth deliberately, and there was little need and less tolerance for them in a properly ordered Christian society. Christian teachers soon concluded that the Jews had killed their Messiah and their God intentionally. The popular imagination ran wild with this myth of the deliberate unbeliever, nourishing the demonization of Jews and promoting blood libels, well-poisoning charges, and other such late-medieval accusations. Here lay important groundwork for modern anti-Semitism: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and its myth of the international Jewish conspiracy, for example, owe much to medieval and even classical Christian patterns of thought.”

To read the rest of the nuanced and wide-ranging responses in this important symposium, including contributions from David Mamet, Cynthia Ozick, Shlomo Sand and many more, download our free ebook.


2 thoughts on “Anti-Semitism: Where Does It Come From? Why Does It Persist?

  1. Gnarlodious says:

    You brilliantly described the game of zero-sum economics but with a religious twist. To build our empire we have to steal yours. For us to be saved we must deprive you of salvation. This approach pretty much encapsulates feudalist thinking in which the individual is all-important. Christianity has always been a feudal religion because salvation is personal, whereas Judaism requires the redemption of the Jewish people collectively. It is easy to see why Christians rejected collective redemption because there are myriad Christian sects and all are convinced of their personal salvation. But there is still only one Judaism and it is not even sure of salvation.

  2. Richard Gopen says:

    In her introduction to “Anti-Semitism: Where Does It Come From and Why Does It Persist?,” Nadine Epstein describes one of her rare encounters with possible anti-Semitism: “In my 20s, an older, hard-drinking Irish Catholic boss labeled me “too intellectual,” which might have been a code word for Jewish in his lexicon.” While she rightly dismisses her boss’s subtle prejudice, she is obviously blind to the irony of her own blatant bigotry. Does it advance her argument that he was Irish and Catholic? Would it not have been sufficient to call him Gentile or non-Jewish? And “hard-drinking?” What does that possibly add to the story other than promoting a very negative stereotype? Wouldn’t we all pounce on a description by an Irish Catholic of her boss as “an egghead Jew”? And this is hardly as negative a stereotype as “hard-drinking.” Am I the only reader who is outraged by this? Shouldn’t we heal ourselves of prejudice before we accuse others? Does it even help to reduce bigotry by rooting out subtle slights? And finally, why are we Jews the only ones who ask so many self-examining questions? (Answer: We’re not!)

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