The word semitism goes back to Shem, one of sons of Noah (Gen. 5:32). His descendants included among others the Arameans, Arabs, and Jews. Antisemitism, however, is not directed against all Semitic people, only against the Jews.

“Hostile feelings towards the Jews go back to antiquity. Manetho, an Egyptian priest in the third century B.C., presented the Exodus not as a miraculous rescue of the descendants of Abraham from Egypt but as the expulsion of a leper colony and other polluted groups. Apollonius Molon, a Greek rhetorician in the second century B.C., wrote an essay in which he claimed that the Jews worshipped asses, and had an asses’ head in their Temple.”1

The hatred between the Romans and Jews is well documented. In 142 B.C. the Jews gained independence from the Greek Seleucids, but in 63 B.C. their kingdom was invaded by the Romans and set up as a Roman client state. The Jewish revolt in A.D. 66 led to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and after the Bar Kokhba revolt (A.D. 132–136), Jews were driven out of Jerusalem, which became the Roman colony Aelia Capitolina.


Christians and Jews

The first Christians were all Jews. During the first century A.D., Jewish-Christians and their Gentile converts lived side by side with Jews. Jewish-Christians included “a great many of the priests” (Act 6:7)2 and Pharisees (15:5). They kept the various Sabbath, food, and purity laws (20:20–26) and celebrated the Jewish feasts (vs. 16).

The parting of the ways between Jews and Christians came in the second century A.D., particularly after the Bar Kokhba revolt in A.D. 132. “The existing conflict between the Jews and the Roman Empire made it necessary for Christians to develop a new identity to avoid the repressive and punitive measures (fiscal, military, political, and literary) aimed at the Jews.” Furthermore, the influence of Jewish-Christians “who insisted on the literal observance of certain Mosaic regulations prompted Christians to sever their ties with Judaism.”3

In the centuries that followed, the antagonism between the two groups increased. Jews added a curse on Christians (Birkat haMinim) to their liturgy, and Christians began to identify Jews as Christ-killers. Christian antisemitism has a long and sorry history. Some notable events in this history were:

1. Expulsion of Jews from England. Economically, Jews played a key role in England. The church at that time strictly forbade the lending of money for profit, creating a vacuum in the economy of Europe that Jews filled because of extreme discrimination in every other economic area. Canon law was not considered applicable to Jews, and Judaism did not forbid loans with interest between Jews and non-Jews. In 1290, King Edward needed cash, so he expelled the Jews from England, seizing all their assets. 
     2. The Black Death. This epidemic is estimated to have killed half the population of Europe. Its causes were not understood at that time, but rumors circulated that it originated with the Jews, after terrified Jews confessed under torture. Thousands of Jews were killed, particularly in Germany, Austria, and France.
     3. Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. During the early Middle Ages, Spain was a safe country for Jews. Their expulsion in 1492 was preceded by several massacres of Jews (1366, 1391). Hoping for mass conversions, Pope Benedict in 1415 issued a papal bull consisting of very restrictive measures for Jews. They had to always wear a badge and were denied holding public offices, nor could they follow any handicrafts, or act as physicians or pharmacists. Following their success against the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella, on March 31, 1492, expelled the Jews from Spain. Between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism emigrated to other lands such as Portugal, North Africa, Holland, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire.
     4. The Cossack rebellion. Between 1648 and 1657, in what is today Ukraine, orthodox Cossacks rebelled against their Polish Roman Catholic overlords. In the process, not only many Catholics, but also tens of thousands of Jews were massacred. 
     5. Russian pogroms. A pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or expulsion of an ethnic or religious group, particularly Jews. The first modern Russian pogrom took place in Odessa in 1871. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on March 13, 1881, for which some blamed the Jews, pogroms in various Russian cities were state sponsored. The pogroms continued for more than three years and were followed by antisemitic laws. This resulted in a panic flight of Jews from Russia westward. “The first big rush to get out came in 1881–2. Thereafter Jews left at an average of 50,00–60,000 a year.”4 


The Aryan Myth

For centuries, philologists had noticed similarities between most European languages, Sanskrit, and Persian, hence the name Indo-European family of languages. Sanskrit was the classical language of South Asia; it is still the sacred language of Hinduism. The word Aryan goes back to the Sanskrit word arya meaning “noble.” It was used as an ethnocultural self-designation by the ancient Iranian people, and is the etymological root of the name “Iran.” 

In 1808, the German poet and philologist Karl Friedrich von Schlegel focused on the relationship between Sanskrit and the Germanic languages (German, Swedish, Dutch, etc.). He assumed that these related languages derived from a common tongue called Aryan, “one that had supposedly been spoken by a people named ‘Aryans’ who inhabited the Land of ‘Aryana,’”5 the mythical homeland of the early Iranians. This theory was taken up by anti-Semitic professors, authors, and journalists in Germany, who suddenly derived their ancestry from these Aryans. In their minds, the Aryans became the embodiment of the master race of humankind. Everyone who considered himself or herself to be somebody now descended from these Aryans. That the word Aryan was a philological and not a racial term did not matter to them.

The German success in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 confirmed in their eyes the belief that the German people were indeed a Herrenrasse (master race), the descendants of the Aryans. At the same time, these anti-Semites accepted the dualism of the Iranian religion— Zoroastrianism. In this dualism, Ahura Mazda, the god of light, fights against Ahriman, the god of darkness, and finally defeats him. This was transformed into the battle between the Aryan race and the Jewish race in which the master-race must destroy the Jewish slave-race.6

The term anti-Semitism was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, the founder of the Anti-Semitic League, who believed that the Jews were morally and physically inferior humans by nature. He was supported by Richard Chamberlain, the son-in-law of the composer Richard Wagner, who called the existence of the Jewish race a crime against the holy laws of life, and by Kaiser Wilhelm’s court preacher Adolf Stöcker, who stated that “modern Judaism is an alien drop of blood in the German body—one with destructive power.”7 These views were rejected by many people around the globe, not least by the United States Supreme Court, which in 1923 stated: “The term Aryan has to do with linguistic, and not at all with physical characteristics, and it would seem reasonably clear that mere resemblance in language . . . is altogether inadequate to prove common racial origin.”8


The Holocaust

The apex of anti-Semitism was reached in the time of Hitler (1889–1945) and the National Socialist Workers Party (Nazi party), that systematically murdered almost six million European Jews.

According to Hitler’s book Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), he became an anti-Semite in Vienna, though a school friend reported that “Hitler was already a confirmed anti-Semite when he went to Vienna."9 Whatever the case, in Vienna he buried himself in anti-Semitic literature. In 1913 he left Vienna and went to Munich, where a year later he joined the German army. When Germany lost the war, Hitler, like many other Germans, believed the legend that the German army had not lost the war in the field but had been stabbed in the back by traitors (Marxists and Jews) at home. In 1919, he joined the Nazi party that 14 years later brought down the Weimar Republic, which had replaced Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918.

Soon after Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, step by step, the Nazis began to eliminate Jews from every area of German life. In April, Jewish business establishments began to be officially boycotted, and all Jews were dismissed from civil-service posts. In 1935, the Nuremberg race laws decreed that anyone who had more than one-quarter Jewish blood was not German. He or she was to be ejected from German national life and was forbidden to marry a full-blooded German. Following the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Polish Jew on November 7, 1938, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, initiated the events of Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) in which Nazi mobs vandalized hundreds of Jewish homes, schools, businesses, and synagogues. Nearly a hundred Jews were murdered.

With the beginning of the second World War in September 1939, the situation of the Jews deteriorated rapidly. A series of concentration camps were established, where mainly Jews, but also other non-Aryans, were forced to work “from dawn till dusk seven days a week, dressed in rags and fed on bread and watery soup, potatoes and sometimes meat scraps.”10 Thousands died every month. In 1941, the mass-extermination phase began in camps, resulting in nearly three million deaths. Three million more died from exposure to other atrocities. The genocide of the Jews in Europe was Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question.”11

One would think that after this appalling spectacle of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism would finally have been wiped out. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Every year, thousands of incidents of anti-Semitism occur. There is no excuse for a Christian to participate in any anti-Semitic activity. While the New Testament clearly indicates that the Jewish leadership and its followers clamored for the death of Jesus (Matt. 27:19–23), we cannot blame all the Jews at that time and certainly not the Jews today for what happened. Jesus, in harmony with God’s plan of salvation, died for all humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16, 17).


1. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 134, 135. 

2. Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.

3. Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University Press, 1977), 305.

4. Johnson, A History of the Jews, 365.

5. Nathan Ausubel, “Anti-Semitism: The ‘Racial Purity’ Myth,” The Book of Jewish Knowledge (New York: Crown Publishers, 1964), 6.

6. Ibid., 7

7. Ibid., 8.

8. Ibid., 7.

9. William L, Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (London: Book Club Associates, 1970), 42.

10. Johnson, A History of the Jews, 490.

11. Francois Furet, Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), 182.