Anti-Semitism, sometimes called history’s oldest hatred, is hostility or prejudice against Jewish people. The Nazi Holocaust is history’s most extreme example of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism did not begin with Adolf Hitler: Anti-Semitic attitudes date back to ancient times. In much of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish people were denied citizenship and forced to live in ghettos. Anti-Jewish riots called pogroms swept the Russian Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and anti-Semitic incidents have increased in parts of Europe, the Middle East and North America in the last several years.
The term anti-Semitism was first popularized by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879 to describe hatred or hostility toward Jews. The history of anti-Semitism, however, goes back much further.
Hostility against Jews may date back nearly as far as Jewish history. In the ancient empires of Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, Jews—who originated in the ancient kingdom of Judea—were often criticized and persecuted for their efforts to remain a separate cultural group rather than taking on the religious and social customs of their conquerors.
With the rise of Christianity, anti-Semitism spread throughout much of Europe. Early Christians vilified Judaism in a bid to gain more converts. They accused Jews of outlandish acts such as “blood libel”—the kidnapping and murder of Christian children to use their blood to make Passover bread.
These religious attitudes were reflected in anti-Jewish economic, social and political policies that pervaded into the European Middle Ages.
Anti-Semitism in Medieval Europe
Many of the anti-Semitic practices seen in Nazi Germany actually have their roots in medieval Europe. In many European cities, Jews were confined to certain neighborhoods called ghettos.
Some countries also required Jews to distinguish themselves from Christians with a yellow badge worn on their garment, or a special hat called a Judenhut.
Some Jews became prominent in banking and moneylending, because early Christianity didn’t permit moneylending for interest. This resulted in economic resentment which forced the expulsion of Jews from several European countries including France, Germany, Portugal and Spain during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Jews were denied citizenship and civil liberties, including religious freedom throughout much of medieval Europe.
Poland was one notable exception. In 1264, Polish prince Bolesław the Pious issued a decree allowing Jews personal, political and religious freedoms. Jews did not receive citizenship and gain rights throughout much of western Europe, however, until the late 1700s and 1800s.
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, Jews throughout the Russian Empire and other European countries faced violent, anti-Jewish riots called pogroms.
Pogroms were typically perpetrated by a local non-Jewish population against their Jewish neighbors, though pogroms were often encouraged and aided by the government and police forces.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution, an estimated 1,326 pogroms are thought to have taken place across Ukraine alone, leaving nearly half a million Ukrainian Jews homeless and killing an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 people between 1918 and 1921. Pogroms in Belarus and Poland also killed tens of thousands of people.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s on a platform of German nationalism, racial purity and global expansion.
Hitler, like many anti-Semites in Germany, blamed the Jews for the country’s defeat in World War I, and for the social and economic upheaval that followed.
Early on, the Nazis undertook an “Aryanization” of Germany, in which Jews were dismissed from civil service, Jewish-owned businesses were liquidated and Jewish professionals, including doctors and lawyers, were stripped of their clients.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 introduced many anti-Semitic policies and outlined the definition of who was Jewish based on ancestry. Nazi propagandists had swayed the German public into believing that Jews were a separate race. According to the Nuremberg Laws, Jews were no longer German citizens and had no right to vote.
Jews became routine targets of stigmatization and persecution as a result. This culminated in a state-sponsored campaign of street violence known as Kristallnacht (the “night of broken glass”), which took place between November 9-10, 1938. In two days, more than 250 synagogues across the Reich were burned and 7,000 Jewish businesses looted.
The morning after Kristallnacht, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Prior to Kristallnacht, Nazi policies toward Jews had been antagonistic but primarily non-violent. After the incident, conditions for Jews in Nazi Germany became progressively worse as Hitler and the Nazis began to implement their plan to exterminate the Jewish people, which they referred to as the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem.”
Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis would use mass killing centers called concentration camps to carry out the systematic murder of roughly 6 million European Jews in what would become known as the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism in the Middle East
Anti-Semitism in the Middle East has existed for millennia, but increased greatly since World War II. Following the establishment of a Jewish State in Israel in 1948, the Israelis fought for control of Palestine against a coalition of Arab states.
At the end of the War, Israel kept much of Palestine, resulting in the forced exodus of roughly 700,000 Muslim Palestinians from their homes. The conflict created resentment over Jewish nationalism in Muslim-majority nations.
As a result, anti-Semitic activities grew in many Arab nations, causing most Jews to leave over the next few decades. Today, many North African and Middle Eastern nations have little Jewish population remaining.
Anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States
Anti-Semitic hate crimes have spiked in Europe in recent years, especially in France, which has the world’s third largest Jewish population. In 2012, three children and a teacher were shot by a radical Islamist gunman in Toulouse, France.
In the wake of the mass shooting at the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, four Jewish hostages were murdered at a Kosher supermarket by an Islamic terrorist.
The U.K. logged a record 1,382 hate crimes against Jews in 2017, an increase of 34 percent from previous years. In the United States, anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent in 2017—the largest single-year increase ever recorded by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights advocacy organization.