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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2007
Number 66
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Why a Dictionary of Antisemitism

(This essay is adapted from the Introduction to Robert Michael and Philip Rosen, Dictionary of Antisemitism from the Earliest Times to the Present, Lanham, MD.: Scarecrow Press [], 2006.)
By Robert Michael

To attempt to define and trace the permutations and combinations of antisemitism, the world’s longest and most pervasive hatred is a daunting task. In 1879 Wilhelm Marr created the word Antisemitismus, and it swiftly found its way into Europe’s languages. (Moshe Zimmermann, Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Antisemitism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) Antisemitism in the broadest sense means hostility toward Jews and everything Jews—not “Semites”—stand for. (Shmuel Almog, “What's in a Hyphen?” SICSA Report: Newsletter of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Summer 1989) Indeed, there are no Semites; there are only peoples who speak Semitic languages. More specifically, antisemitism refers to the irrational dislike or hatred of Jews, the attempt to demoralize or satanize them, the rejection of the validity of the Jewish religion, the Jewish way of life, the Jewish character, the Jewish spirit, and, ultimately, the Jewish right to live. In his Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport has indicated that antisemitism and anti-Jewishness, like other ethnic prejudices, express themselves as antilocution, avoidance, discrimination, physical attack, and extermination. Assault, expropriation, expulsion, torture, and murder could be added to his list. The German scholar Josef Joffe analyzed these psychosocial aspects of antisemitism: stereotyping, denigration, demonization, obsession and elimination. (Josef Joffe, “Nations We Love to Hate: Israel, America and the New Antisemitism,” Posen Papers in Contemporary Antisemitism, No. 1 Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2005, 1–16)

Three analogies from the chemical, medical and biological sciences may clarify antisemitism’s ideological functions. First, although they exist within different historical contexts, anti-Jewish ideas, emotions, and behaviors are reactive elements easily combining with other ideologies, such as nationalism, racism, social Darwinism, conservatism, fascism and socialism to form an explosive compound. Second, like a virus, anti-Jewishness rests dormant at different levels of the societal and individual psyche, surfacing especially during the throes of social or personal crisis. Third, although Jews have often been compared to parasites in both medieval and modern antisemitic imagery, antisemitism itself is a parasitic idea, growing more powerful by feeding on the human emotions of fear, anger, anxiety and guilt.

In “Know Thyself,” Richard Wagner argued that the Jews represented the multifaceted power of evil, the “plastic demon” responsible for the decadence of all human society. (Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1892–99, 6:264 –65, 271) But this phrase of Wagner’s is better used to describe antisemitism itself, which takes on such variegated forms as to render the concept almost indefinable. In March 2005, the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia gave it a try. They formulated a Working Definition of Antisemitism. They observed that antisemitism, beyond the obvious hatred toward Jews, has rhetorical and physical manifestations directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities, toward the state of Israel conceived as a Jewish collectivity. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits. (European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, “Working Definition of Antisemitism,” March 16, 2005)

It is evident that antisemitism is comprised of constituent elements. Although racial, cultural, literary, economic, ethnic, psychosocial, and political antisemitism exist and are usually interwoven, the most basic, vigorous, and longest-lived cause of antisemitism is religious. Gordon Allport wrote that religion stood as the focus of prejudice because “it is the pivot of the cultural tradition of a group.” (Allport, Nature of Prejudice, 446) Even the aforesaid Wilhelm Marr’s “secular” racism existed alongside his religious antisemitism. He associated the “Germanness” he admired with Christianity and contrasted them both to Jewishness. Called “the new Luther” and defending Christian hostility to Jews, Marr believed that Germany was a Christian country, and his goal was to rid Christianity of Judaism’s alleged sway. His Antisemites’ League used a German oak leaf and a Christian cross as its symbols. (Paul Rose, Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990, 14; Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975, 264) In an 1891 article, Marr referred to his movement as composed of “Christians and Aryans.” (Zimmermann, Wilhelm Marr, 83, 88–94, 105, 107, 112)
Christian scholars have recognized a dark side to Christian theology and practice in regard to the Jews. Alan Davies has asked whether “centuries of religious anti-Judaism . . . so poisoned the conscience of the ordinary Christian as to blunt his capacity to recognize simple cruelty.” (Alan Davies, Antisemitism and the Christian Mind, New York: Herder and Herder, 1969, 39) John Gager wondered “not simply whether individual Christians had added fuel to modern European antisemitism, but whether Christianity itself was, in its essence and from its beginnings, the primary source of antisemitism in Western culture.” (John Gager, The Origins of Antisemitism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, 13) Robert Willis concluded that “theological antisemitism [established] a social and moral climate that allowed the ‘final solution’ to become a reality.” (Robert Willis, “Christian Theology after Auschwitz,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 1975: 495)
American antisemitism is often seen as an exception to the “religious rule” because on the surface it seems so secular. (Robert Michael summarizes the argument in his introduction “The United States Is Above All Things a Christian Nation” for his Concise History of American Antisemitism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) After a careful study of American opinion in the 1960s, Charles Glock and Rodney Stark concluded that “the heart and soul of antisemitism rested on Christianity” and that 95 percent of Americans got their secular stereotypes of Jews from the Christian religion. (Charles Glock and Rodney Stark, Christian Beliefs and Antisemitism. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966, xvi, 50–65, 73–74, 105, 185–87)
Western society for the last 1,700 years has been a societas christiana. The Church Fathers set the tone by effectively using sacred scripture as a warehouse for material against Jews. (Irving Zeitlin, Jesus and the Judaism of His Time, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1988, 184 –201)  Jews were no longer merely those annoying people whom a minority of pagans disdained for their “laziness” on the Sabbath or refusal to eat pork. (Menachem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 3 vols. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1984) With the establishment of Christianity, Jews became deicides, Christ-killers, God murderers, and more. (Rationally, even Christian antisemites recognized that Jews could not have murdered God; but antisemitism is not rational.) Besides, Christianity established its own identity in large part by distancing itself from Judaism. Every Father of the Church attacked the Jews. St. Jerome called all Jews “Judases;” St. Augustine called Jews “Cains;” St. John Chrysostom called Jews “useless animals who should be slaughtered.”(Jerome, De Antichristo in Danielem 4, 11:21–30; Augustine, “Reply to Faustus, the Manichaean;” John Chrysostom, Homilies against Judaizing Christians, 1.2.4 – 6) In the 4th century, St. Ambrose asked, “Isn't it in the synagogue where the Jews are possessed by the unclean spirit of demons and pollute their pretended bodily purity by the inner shit (filth) of their souls?” (Ambrose, “Exposito Evangelii Secundum Lucam,” Libris X) In the 16th century, Martin Luther, trained as a priest but founding Protestantism, answered that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” (Martin Luther, The Jews and Their Lies, in Luther's Works, tr. by Franklin Sherman, Philadelphia 1971, 47:167)

History awaited the right leader, movement, crisis, and context to actualize this antisemitic religious ideology into reality. These leaders were found from the Middle Ages onward. Based on antisemitic myths and fantasies of ritual murder, blood libel, desecration of the Host, worship of the Judensau, and poisoning of the wells, Christian Crusaders, townsmen, and authorities defamed, ghettoized, assaulted, expropriated, expelled, physically attacked, tortured, and murdered tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Jews or more, centuries before the Holocaust. The papacy's verbal abuse, ghettos, and hesitant and inconsistent protection of Jews made it indirectly complicit in many of these physical attacks on Jews. (Shlomo Simonsohn, The Apostolic See and the Jews, 8 vols. Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1988-1991; see also the forthcoming Robert Michael, Dark Side of the Church: A History of Catholic Antisemitism, Lexington Books, 2007) Although in every generation some Christians treated the people of Moses with respect, all too many regarded Jews as threats to their very lives--as demons, monsters, and plague-rats that had to be killed. (Frederick Schweitzer, “The Tap-Root of Antisemitism: The Demonization of the Jews,” in Remembering for the Future. Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press, 1988, 879–90)
Ignoring the salvific power of the sacrament of baptism, several Church Fathers argued in a racist fashion that a Jew could no more become a Christian than a leopard change its spots. (St. Isidore of Seville, Contra Judaeos, 1, 18)  Spain integrated religious and racist antisemitism to establish history’s first institutionalized racism from the 15th through the 19th centuries; i.e., during the Inquisition. (Yosef Yerushalmi, Assimilation and Racial Antisemitism, New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1982; Léon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1974; Albert Sicroff, Les controverses des statuts de “pureté de sang,” Paris: Didier, 1960) In the latter century, racial antisemitism strengthened all across Europe. (Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Reden an die deutsche Nation, 1808, Sixth Address, Point 81; Eleonore Sterling, Judenhass, Frankfurt: Europaische Verlag, 1969, 128–29) Nationalism and racism mixed with religious antisemitism into the potentially explosive brew that would fully erupt during the Holocaust. (Peter Pulzer, The Rise of Political Antisemitism in Germany and Austria, rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, 312)
To many modern writers, no matter how assimilated the Jews became, they were considered unchristian aliens. Mark Twain (whose Austrian critics accused him of being a Jew!) wrote that “by his make and ways [the Jew] is substantially a foreigner wherever he may be, and even the angels dislike a foreigner.” (Mark Twain, “Concerning the Jews,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1899) The term Jew itself became a curse word. Mark Gelber has observed that “without a truly significant counterbalance to a negative Jewish character or to pejorative references to Jews, such depictions or references must be considered as examples of literary antisemitism.”(Mark Gelber, “What Is Literary Antisemitism?” Jewish Social Studies 42, no. 1, Winter 1985) Christian antisemitism corrupted the work of Balzac, Trollope, Hawthorne, and hundreds of other important authors who were taught their antisemitism at their mother’s knee, their father’s table, their teacher’s bench, and their priest’s or minister’s pulpit. Their work is also cited in the Dictionary of Antisemitism and speaks for itself.
What offers hope is the case of the physician, professor, and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. An advocate of religious toleration, Holmes observed that it is right that “the stately synagogue should lift its walls by the side of the aspiring cathedral, a perpetual reminder that there are many mansions in
the Father’s earthly house as well as in the heavenly one.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Over the Teacups, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1891, 197) But Holmes confessed that, as a young man, “I shared more or less the prevailing prejudices against the persecuted race,” which he traced to Christian teaching and Puritan exclusiveness.
In a remarkable poem originally entitled “A Hebrew Tale,” Holmes demonstrates how he overcame his early antisemitism. This poem provides us as well with an important insight into the process of how antisemitism works: how one event can trigger a sequence of hostile thoughts and feelings about Jews. Holmes recounts how he was hemmed in by Jews attending a play. He found their appearance distasteful, reminding him of their deicide, of their perfidy, of their usury, of their murder of Christian children. In this one poem, Holmes captures the two millennia of Jewish history in Christian lands, and the promise of a better future. Holmes mentions the

hooked-nosed kite of carrion clothes,
The sneaky usurer, him that crawls
And cheats . . .
Spawn of the race that slew its Lord.
Up came their murderous deeds of old,
. . . Of children caught and crucified;
. . . of Judas and his bribe . . .

But when Holmes looked more closely into the faces of the Jews surrounding him, he thought Jesus must have resembled these same Jews.

The shadow floated from my soul,
And to my lips a whisper stole, . . .
From thee the son of Mary came,
With thee the Father deigned to dwell,—
Peace be upon thee, Israel. (Holmes, The Complete Poetical Works
 of Oliver Wendell Holmes
, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1895, 189)

During the Holocaust, the U.S. Treasury Department’s report entitled “The Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews” summarized the relationship between the Western Allies and the Germans and many other Europeans and their governments in discrimination against, and mass murder of, Jews. The “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” combined religious, nationalist, racist, sociocultural, and economic antisemitism. As Raul Hilberg put it: “The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The German Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.” (Raul Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, rev. ed., New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985, 1:8 –9)

The ferocious outbreak of twenty-first-century homicide bombings and war makes the Dictionary's entries on Islamic antisemitism essential reading. Many contemporary Muslims fear and hate Jews and believe that Jews, who are imagined to dominate the West, are an evil religious community who deserve no homeland and ought to be annihilated. (Robert S. Wistrich, Muslim Antisemitism, New York: American Jewish Committee, 2002)

Despite the tragic history of antisemitism reflected in the entries of this dictionary, antisemitism is not one unending continuum. Just as there have always been Righteous Gentiles who have treated Jews with respect, so there were periods in Jewish history of relative tolerance and peaceful coexistence. During whole decades of the post-Holocaust period, antisemitism has remained relatively dormant. Yet the virus of antisemitism has once again erupted, and the need to catalogue its manifestations and identify its etiology--as the Dictionary of Antisemitism attempts to do--has never been more vital.
Besides being a co-author (with Philip Rosen) of Dictionary of Antisemitism (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006), Professor Michael is the author of Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006) nominated for a National Jewish Book Award; Dark Side of the Church: A History of Catholic Antisemitism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007); A Concise History of American Antisemitism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich (with Karin Doerr) (New York: Greenwood Press, 2001).

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