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Mile End Institute

A short introduction to anti-Judaism, for our times by Professor Miri Rubin


     One of the frustrations associated with the debate on whether Labour is or is not ‘antisemitic’, has been the failure to grasp the historical dimensions of what leads people to feel uncomfortable, threatened, or suspicious around Jews. All hates are historically determined. They arise from a combination of personal experience and attitudes shared by many, what we call culture. All forms of hate – homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny – must therefore be historicised if we are to understand them better. Hates share certain traits, but they are also distinctive. This is why a general ‘I am an anti-racist and have fought racism all my life’ may be a true claim, but it is also one which fails to appreciate what is at stake in anti-Judaism.

     I say anti-Judaism because antisemitism is a much later term, which came into common usage in the nineteenth century. Some antipathy towards the people of Judea – a province of the Roman Empire – was evident even before the birth of Christianity, but the systematic polemic with Jews and Judaism developed as the followers of Jesus – Jews who were soon joined by members of pagan communities across the Mediterranean – became a religion apart. They sought to define their young traditions against the Jewish world within which they were born.

     Christians saw in the Hebrew bible a book of prophecies that foretold the birth of the Messiah: Jesus, God and Man. Jews insisted that the Messiah had not yet come, and continued to adhere to what they believed to be God’s laws. Christians adopted the books and prophecies, rituals and traditions of Judaism and inverted them: the Passover meal became the first eucharist, baptism was likened to a new, blood-less circumcision. They claimed to replace sacrifices at the Temple with spiritual, clean ones. The patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and kings were all interpreted anew to offer models for a Christian world.

     To the Jewish bible – what Christians now called the Old Testament - were added the gospels that told the life of Jesus, as well as works about exemplary Christians, saints and martyrs; and there were stories about that Hebrew woman who responded to God’s call, Miriam (or ‘Mary’), Mother of God. Here was an idea of supersession – that the New Covenant replaced the Old, that Judaism had been right for its time, but that since the coming of Grace it has become obsolete. Polemical exchanges on all these subjects were conducted, first mostly in Greek, in the eastern Mediterranean, within a still-pagan Empire. Christians argued that Jews read the bible according to the flesh, in a low manner which missed the core message; while Christians understood it according to the spirit, in a true and inspired manner.

     By the fourth century, one strand among the Christian communities that had been marginal and sometimes persecuted triumphed thanks to imperial patronage – that of Emperor Constantine – and by the fifth century it became the official creed of the Roman Empire. In this position of Christian hegemony, law and theology now had to answer a pressing question: how should a Christian polity treat Jews?

     Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, emerged as the leading intellectual at work on imagining the Christian polity. His approach was deeply historical: looking back to the Jewish origins of Christianity, and forward to an apocalyptic future, when the Jews would convert at the end of time. Contemporary Jews were a necessary part of the Christian heritage: they were in error, true, yet they were essential to Christian life. They were the ‘book-carriers’, librarians of sorts, to Christians, since their books were essential to Christian flourishing. They were also useful witnesses to the truth, their miserable state in the present a true sign of their failure to recognise Jesus, and a punishment for a certain complicity – just short of guilt – in Jesus’ redeeming death. Imperial legislation of the period laid down the principles for Jewish life in a Christian empire: Jews could not rule or exercise authority over Christians; but nor were they to be killed and abused. They were a remnant, vulnerable; a teaching prop for the triumph of Christianity.

     The centuries that followed saw the reach of Latin Christianity across Europe (alongside Greek and Syriac Christianities in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia). Where dynastic kingdoms came to replace the once all-embracing Roman Empire, Roman law and Christian theology together defined the position of Jews. This varied vastly from region to region, with large populations in the Mediterranean – Spain, Italy and southern France of today – and by 1000 numerous communities in some northern European cities, where local rulers invited Jews to settle under their protection.

     Why invite Jews to settle? How were Jews useful to Christian polities? In a society whose wealth was based on land and agricultural produce, rulers gained through bureaucracies for the collection of tolls and taxes, for minting distinctive coins, and for reliable diplomatic service. But who could they trust?  A cohesive group, whose members were also linked to other European communities through kinship and business, and which depended for its very existence on the ruler, was an ideal cohort for the realisation of the will of rulers large and small.

     The identification of Jews with financial services was yet to be born. When bishops in the Rhineland sought to develop wine-making around 1000, they invited Jews from Italy to do so; when William the Conqueror established rule in England, he too brought over Jews from Normandy, to supervise coinage and later offer loans too. Roman law’s maxim, that the Jews belonged to the royal ‘purse’ - or treasury - made Jews servants of power, desirable dependents.

     This use of Jews as props for government became a widespread practice, yet this is not to say that rulers could always protect their Jews, or that they were not intermittently voracious and capricious. In 1096, for example, when troops of armed men marched to the Holy Land from France though the Empire on what was later called the First Crusade, they attacked and killed hundreds of Jews of the Rhineland cities, even though the local bishops, their lords, tried to protect them. In England, in 1190, the notorious massacre of Jews at Clifford’s tower in York occurred despite the protection which the local sheriff, the king’s representative, offered. And some kings combined protection and pressure: like Henry III of England, who encouraged conversion, or Louis IX of France, who staged a public disputation of the errors of the Talmud in 1240, at which the Jewish representative was bound to be the loser.

     Alongside the rise of these Christian polities and their policies towards Jews, the various agents of Christianity were at work, imagining Jews anew as part of their drives to reform and purify Christian life. Sara Lipton has shown in her book Dark Mirror that by 1200 there was a clear physical stereotype in representing male Jews: a pointed hat denoting eastern foreign-ness, a crooked nose, swarthiness to make them ugly, and an expression that was foolish or conniving, to show they lacked true reason and spirit.

     Alongside the established church there were groups of enthusiasts, revival movements that criticized power and wealth, like the Franciscans, followers of Francis of Assisi, merchant-to-be turned preacher. Urban Christians were called to value poverty, simplicity, and to identify with Christ’s life, especially his suffering on the Cross. New art forms developed out of this tendency like that of the Tuscans Duccio and Giotto around 1300, with Crucifixion scenes depicting ugly and angry Jews. Jews lived and even prospered in the cities where a religious culture steeped with such imagery prevailed. When in 1347 Europe was hit by the worst epidemic it has ever known, losing to the Black Death some 40-60% of its population – and especially in cities, homes to Jewish communities – the citizens of hundreds of towns and cities fell upon their Jewish neighbours, blaming them for poisoning the wells and so causing the mortality. Even pope Clement VI’s intervention, with the claim that Jews were also dying of the plague and should not be blamed, could not turn the tide. Hundreds of communities were destroyed in Germany, Iberia, and France. Many Jews migrated eastwards, where they hoped for greater safety.

     Most Jews lived far less eventful lives than the generations of 1347-8. They flourished and achieved, studied and innovated in thought and practice. They were in most ways embedded in localities, which became their homes: while maintaining their religious traditions they spoke the local dialect, adapted local food and drink to Jewish dietary law, dressed as others did, built homes and communal buildings in the local style. But they were vulnerable too. Between 1400 and 1500 they were expelled from all the main cities of the Holy Roman Empire, moving to small towns and villages, where they made a living in livestock trade and peddling, the beginning of the ‘shtetl’ Jewish experience, no longer inhabitants of the metropolitan centres.

     Dramatic expulsions re-figured the Jewish experience, like in Iberia. When the demands of urban competitors were fanned by revivalist preaching a violent wave of massacres took place in 1391, and led some 100,000 Jews converted to Christianity. A new form of Jew-hate now developed: a hatred of these ‘New Christians’, the Jews who had converted, but who could not be trusted. They were suspected of being false Christians, insidiously inhabiting Christian spaces, and mingling with Christian bodies. Iberian rulers introduced the inquisition in order to pry into their lives. They expelled the remaining Jews from the kingdom of Spain in 1492.

     But that was not all. Spanish monarchs also legislated to protect the ‘purity of blood’, and so to bar New Christians and their descendants – conversos – from leadership positions in state, church and religious orders. Even in their absence, the Jews were alive in the Christian imagination of those who advised kings and preached in town squares. So these conversos often left for more tolerant regions: the Low Countries, the Ottoman Empire, and the reaches of the growing Hispanic and Portuguese Empires.       

     What was the matter with Jews? Why were they suspect even after they had converted to Christianity? The associations we have already encountered at the dawn of Christianity, with matter rather than spirit, with the flesh rather than the soul, with the lowly rather than the sublime, with the denial of Christianity’s core truths, all persisted deep within European intellectual and ethical traditions, reborn at every turn. Thinking with Jews was inscribed into the traditions of debate and moral distinction available to Europeans intellectuals, but also into the devotional routine of parishioners, those most likely to be the Jews’ neighbours.

     David Nirenberg’s 2013 book, Anti-Judaism, shows just how. And so when Europe was torn over religion in the sixteenth century, and the ambition of a universal Christian church was shattered with the coming of Reform Christianities, Catholics hurled the abuse of ’Judaising’ at Protestants, for their emphasis on a more literal reading of scripture. And as Lyndal Roper has shown, over his lifetime, Martin Luther moved from seeing Jews as victims of a corrupt Catholic establishment, to imagining them as vicious demonic creatures: servants of the anti-Christ. In The Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare used the powerful tropes of Jewish greed and literalism to explore the Christian bonds of charity, even at a time when no Jewish communities were established in England.

     Jews become established over centuries as the inner voice of doubt, the questioner from within, as Christians reflected upon themselves; the Jew was the intimate other against whom morals, ethics, and aesthetics were judged. In Europe, and soon in its lands of conquest on other continents, Jews everywhere lived, got on, survived, even flourished, just ordinary Jews. Yet on occasion they could be morphed into that other Jew: cast in narratives of blood libel, or in conspiracies of deceit; doing and desiring as men and women did everywhere, but more so. And when Jews were thought of as Jews above all, they ceased to be everything else they were. The cultural resources for ‘othering’ Jews were abundant, and although not all Christians believed the narratives and claims, active use of them by preachers and other shapers of opinion within webs of interest and competition, could make Jews seem unworthy of the human care that all others deserved.

     This tension between embeddedness and helplessness sometimes led Jews to apocalyptic excess, sometimes to ostentatious conversion. Enlightenment thinkers sought the rule of reason in human affairs, and often felt keenly the state of the Jews. But the anticlerical vein of much Enlightenment thought also saw Jews as remnants of an obscure and obsolete religious past. As the age of revolutions and nineteenth century liberal constitutions offered degrees of emancipation and civic empowerment, many Jews enthusiastically joined the ranks of patriotic citizens: going to universities for ‘secular’ learning, joining political parties (and even leading some). And as they entered new spheres of action as citizens - army, high civil service, academia - some still felt that old discomfort at their presence. So while thousands of Jews became integrated and served their countries well, even forsaking many of the traditions of Judaism, circumstances could build up into ugly accusations. The Dreyfus Affair, which began in 1894 as a conspiracy against a Jewish officer concocted by another officer caught spying, split the French nation. Dreyfus's supporters – famously Émile Zola - were incredulous that in their modern, forward-looking republic such ugly antisemitism could be whipped up.

     Even when citizenship was an option, there were always some young Jews who were strongly attracted to a utopian future which might rid people like them of the dilemmas of identity, of belonging, or not. For some, few,  it was a dream of a Jewish state – Zionism. For other Jews it was internationalist socialist and communist movements, thus also feeding the traditional-conservative view of the Jew as godless and undermining of the moral order. Simon Schama has movingly shown how the utopian striving of Jews in their persecuted communities of eastern Europe, was transformed through migration to the US in the course of the late-19th and early-20th century. There they became ardent supporters of the New Deal, innovators in cinema and theatre, leaders in the civil rights movement and feminism. Even in post-war Europe, out of the ashes of Jewish communities there came keen social-democratic leaders, dreaming better futures. And in the UK, Labour was a natural home for many Jews.

     Jews are like all humans, diverse and fallible. A Jewish state is capable of aggression like all other states were and are; and its is right to call it out, for should they not know better? Jews involved in business can be as greedy and cunning as any other. From their liminal positions Jews have become particularly good at spotting human folly and commenting on it, from Philip Roth to Howard Jacobson; they look at their own predicament and laugh, like Maureen Lipman or David Baddiel.

     Over the last four years, Jews in the UK have stopped laughing. And the most dejected are those of us who identify with the values of Labour and have been its members and proud supporters.

     In the struggles for justice for women, for peace in Palestine, against Apartheid, and other legacies of Empire, some members of Labour now very close to the Leader have lost sight of what anti-Judaism means. The Holocaust is one iteration – unthinkably horrific – of what anti-Judaism - and other hatreds – can make possible. What we are facing now is another iteration of anti-Judaism, and many at Labour’s top table seem not to understand this; anti-Judaism is made subordinate to other claims for social justice. So I have tried here to suggest how insidious and persistent are its displays, how embedded in anti-capitalist sentiment (as the case of Hobson shows), how circular and self-fulfilling its claims.  To say ‘I am not a racist’ does not begin to understand the working of anti-Judaism in very diverse global cultures touched by Europe’s cultural heritage. It would take genuine openness and willingness to learn to change the attitude currently gripping too many of Labour’s members and leaders. Do they have the moral energy and courage to do so?


Miri Rubin is Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London and President of the Jewish Historical Society.