Antisemitism, Then and Now

19 June 2022

This week we're thinking about the Changing Face of Antisemitism—a program recorded last month at the Stanford Humanities Center for our first live, in-person event in 2-1/2 years.

Antisemitism is a big problem these days and it's hard to see it getting any better; both the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League reporting massive increases in incidents over the past several years. Antisemitism is also a really old problem. Back in the Middle Ages, Jews were getting banished from their home countries and getting massacred because people blamed them for the Plague. And don't forget the forced conversions to Christianity and the murders in the Inquisition. It’s been bad for Jews for a very long time.

Strangely, though, it can be hard to even talk about the problem without people assuming that you're trying to diminish other people's suffering, or that you're trying to advocate for some controversial policy—even if the only thing you're trying to advocate for is people being nice to each other. So where does all this intolerance comes from?

At least part of it seeme to come down to scapegoating. Like he situation with the the bubonic plague all those years ago, there was a similar weird conspiracy theory about COVID recently. Bad stuff happens in the world, people want someone to blame for it. So they pick on the Jews.

But why blame the Jews specifically? Well, they eat different foods, celebrate holidays at different times, maybe dress a little differently. All that makes it easier for the surrounding population to separate them out, identify them, and point the finger at them when it's convenient. But Jews don't always eat different foods or dress differently from everybody else. Plenty of Jews just eat Big Macs and wear jeans. So why doesn't protect them from prejudice?

Maybe wearing jeans and eating Big Macs isn't enough for some people. Obviously not every non-Jew has these views, but there are clearly some who would prefer that Jews went to church on Sunday and believed the things that they believe. Jews not doing that may mark them off a little bit as suspect.

There's certainly a longstanding strand of Christian theology that blames Jews for the death of Christ. And throughout the medieval period, when huge numbers of Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity, the choice was either convert or die. So perhaps the problem is really, at base, about religious intolerance.

But it can't all be about religious intolerance. Think about Germany in the 1930s and 40s: Jews could convert to Christianity all they wanted, but that still wouldn't protect them in the slightest. So ut must be about more than that.

And the best candidate for that more may be straightdforward racism. Being Jewish is something you inherit—something associated with stereotypes about your physical appearance. And many people think it's not something you can change just by converting or assimilating. This kind of essentialist thinking is behind some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.

But how far back does that thinking apply? If we look to older stereotypes, they tend to be less about race and more about money. Think about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: he's depicted as heartless grasping moneylender out for his literal pound of flesh. That's arguably an antisemitic depiction, but it's not about race—it's more about people taking their economic anxieties and then projecting them onto the Jews.

Of course that still doesn't explain why they project them onto the Jews and not to somebody else. And yet it can be hard to chalk it up to racism when Jewishness isn't a race, given there are Jews from all over the world—Eastern Europe, Syria, China, Ethiopia. Not to mention that you can convert to Judaism. So how it could possibly be thought of as a race?

Perhaps it doesn't matter that Jews aren't all from the same place don't all look alike. It may not even matter whether race is a real thing at all. If Jews are perceived as a race, then maybe that that's where antisemitism comes from.

That said, in the grand sweep of human history, talk about race is a relatively recent phenomenon, whereas antisemitism is age-old. Surely a lot of it goes back to the kinds of jobs that Jews were forced to take up in the Middle Ages. They were often siloed off into financial professions, which led to a number of people associating Jews with money, which had all the downstream consequences that we know about.

Of course many non-Jews also worked in finance, and some of them got blamed too but, Jews have borne the brunt of it—six million murdered in the Holocaust, including some of our own relatives. So it's affected us directly and continues to affect us today. Digging deep into the historical roots of these pernicious myths about Jews and Jewishness may help us understand how we ended up in the situation we're in today. Fortunately our guest, historian Francesca Trivellato, author of a book about the emergence of finance capitalism and how that interacts with antisemitism, was well-positioned to help.

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