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Section: Antisemitism

Modern antisemitism

A French antisemitic caricature portraying Jews taking over the world. The caricature represents the Rothschild Jewish banking family
A French antisemitic caricature portraying Jews taking over the world. The caricature represents the Rothschild Jewish banking family © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

The development of science and technology during the period we now know as the Enlightenment challenged previously held views and attitudes. These new ideas brought with them a greater tolerance and sensitivity towards others.

Jews were given more rights and freedoms during this period. The French Revolution in 1789 was a break from past ideas and the 40,000 Jews of France were granted rights. As the French conquered much of Europe, the idea of giving rights to Jews spread. However, these modern ideas did not filter through to the powers governing Eastern Europe and therefore had little impact on the Jewish communities there. During the 17th and 18th centuries scientists tried to organise their knowledge of the natural world.

Explorers from Europe discovered very different groups of peoples and cultures around the world. However, by the 19th century race theorists began to misuse the ideas developed by these explorers and apply them to human beings. Having been previously been excluded from mainstream European life for centuries, during the 19th century Jews began to be allowed to take part in modern society.

However, many people felt insecure and some felt that the Jews were still outsiders. This led to resentment of those Jews who were successful. In 1879 a German journalist, Wilhelm Marr, first used the term ‘antisemite’ to describe people who hated Jews. He argued that everything that was wrong in Europe was wrong because of the Jews. By the end of the 19th century, an increase in anti-Jewish feeling was evident in France and Germany. Anti-Jewish riots in Russia and Poland also led to a great westwards migration of Jews from those countries.

This section charts the course and development of Jewish persecution from the anti-Judaism in the 15th century through to the advent of Antisemitism during the 19th century.

The 'Enlightment'

In 1440 the printing press was invented. Previously all written communications had to be hand written. This new technology meant that ideas could spread with ease. Books and pamphlets printed at the time of the Renaissance led to the rapid spread of ideas that challenged existing conservative views. The growth of Protestantism led to conflict and challenge within Christian communities. The overall challenge to religious ideas and traditions began a movement towards freedom of thought. The result was greater tolerance and sensitivity towards others. The development of science and technology during this period also challenged previously held views and attitudes. The concept of rights and freedoms for individuals evolved slowly over centuries.  In some areas what became known as ‘the Rights of Man’ were applied to groups other than Christians, such as Jews. Such ideas were key to what became known as the Enlightenment. The French Revolution in 1789 was a break from the past. Under the slogan ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ French people of all statuses were given rights. After long debate, the 40,000 Jews of France were also granted rights. The French leader Napoleon took power in France and then conquered much of Europe. He spread the ideas of the French revolution, which included giving rights to Jews in all of the countries he conquered. These enlightenment ideas influenced many of the future changes to come in both Western Europe and modern America. However, they did not filter through to the powers governing Eastern Europe and therefore had little impact on the Jewish communities there.

Is there such a thing as a race?

Charles Darwin, author, in 1859, of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
Charles Darwin, author, in 1859, of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain.

Today people use the word ‘race’ to suggest different groups of human beings according to their appearance. However, science cannot support such a way of dividing people up. Clearly there are people from different parts of the world with different diets, climates and cultures who have developed in different ways. Genetically there is no difference between people of different skin colours. The word ‘race’ has sometimes been applied to different ethnic groups.

This way of dividing people up became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries as scientists tried to organise their knowledge of the natural world. They began to divide up plants and animals into groups. Explorers from Europe discovered very different groups of peoples and cultures around the world. As a result of this knowledge people began to divide humans into different groups. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his important work, ‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’. He claimed that certain species are best able to survive.

Race theorists misused the ideas of Charles Darwin. In a movement that became known as Social Darwinism,a theory of racial differences was applied to human beings. Since Europeans devised this idea, they placed themselves at the top of what became known as the racial pyramid. These ideas were used to claim that some races were superior to others.

The development of European nations

Map highlighting the development of modern European nation states during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Map highlighting the development of modern European nation states during the 18th and 19th centuries.

There have been different European territories with various languages and groupings for many centuries. The idea of the modern nation state only developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. As technology and communication improved, rulers sought to stamp their aauthority on the territories under their control. Borders became more fixed and governments became more organised. The growth of nation states led to the idea of nationalism, the movement that encouraged each distinct group to want to have its own country. After the First World War, defeated empires were broken up and new states were created. Across Europe this meant many new countries had different attitudes to their citizens, including their Jewish communities.

When was antisemitism developed?

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 - 1882) was a French aristocrat and novelist who became famous for developing the racialist theory of the Aryan master race in his book 'An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races' (1853–1855).
Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 - 1882) was a French aristocrat and novelist who became famous for developing the racialist theory of the Aryan master race in his book 'An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races' (1853–1855). Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain.

Jews had been excluded from mainstream European life, and separated out in many different ways for centuries. During the 19th century some countries allowed Jews to take part in modern society. Once legal restrictions were lifted, many Jews became very involved with the societies in which they lived, often taking leading roles in arts, politics, science and business. In societies that were undergoing changes many people felt insecure and some felt that the Jews were still outsiders. This led to resentment of those Jews who were successful. In 1879 a German journalist, Wilhelm Marr, first used the term ‘antisemite’ to describe people who hated Jews. He defined the Jews as a separate ‘race’. He drew on old Christian prejudices against Judaism. He argued that everything that was wrong in Europe was wrong because of the Jews. In contrast, Marr identified what he called the ‘Aryan’ peoples, from Northern Europe, as the highest type of human being. He defined them as being biologically superior and claimed they were only held back by Jewish power.

Antisemitism in the 19th century

The development of Nationalism allowed Jews to be patriotic about the country in which they lived. However, many of their non-Jewish fellow citizens still considered Jews to be outsiders.

The spread of ideas in the previous centuries had allowed many individuals to think for themselves. New ideas appeared about how society should exist. One such idea was communism. The founder of communism, Karl Marx, was of Jewish birth but was an atheist. Some people, including Jews, saw communism as an ideal.

They believed everyone would be treated fairly and religion wouldn’t matter any more. Communism became popular amongst the working classes, who felt that they were exploited. The leaders of many communist groups were young Jews who were rebelling against their own religious backgrounds as well as seeking equality for all.

The majority of Jews were never communists, but the association with communism led to further antisemitism amongst people who saw it as dangerous to their way of life.

By the end of the 19th century, there had been waves of anti-Jewish feeling in France following the Dreyfus case. There were anti-Jewish riots in Russia and Poland leading to a great westward migration of Jews from those countries.

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The 'Enlightment'

The 'Enlightment'

What happened in August