The history of hatred and prejudice towards Jews extends back in time more than two millennia, when malicious lies and rumours were first circulated about Jews. Early on, the discrimination of Jews was linked to their religious beliefs, and thus known as anti-Judaism; however, it later became linked to an idea that Jews were biologically different. In Spain in the mid 1400s, Purity of Blood laws were developed ‘to differentiate between “Old Christians” of Catholic heritage, and conversos, the newer Christian converts of known or suspected Jewish or Muslim heritage’.
By focusing on ‘blood’, the laws suggested there was an innate, biological and hateful difference between conversos and ‘Old Christians’. Those who were considered to have ‘impure’ blood due to their Jewish or Muslim heritage were subsequently prevented by law from marrying ‘Old Christians’, discriminated against and prohibited from taking on certain positions in public life. These Purity of Blood laws were later central to the Spanish Inquisition and were used to justify the persecution, torture and expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. The notion that Jews were biologically different was then reinforced by the emergence of the concept of race during the Enlightenment: Jews were depicted as a separate ‘semitic’ race.
‘Race science’, which advanced the idea that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races, was originally invented in the 1700s by scientists in Europe and the Americas to justify slavery and other imperialistic practices: if it could be scientifically proven that white people were biologically superior to those who they colonised and enslaved, then their actions would not contradict the Enlightenment ideals of human freedom and equality. The trend for ‘race science’ continued on into the late 1800s with many white European and American scientists continuing to divide humankind into smaller and smaller ‘races’. One of these was the ‘Semitic race’, which they used to categorise Jews and which led to the emergence of antisemitism: antisemites used ‘race science’ to justify discrimination against Jews. Antisemitism is, therefore, a form of racism.
Although ‘race science’ was widely denounced after the Second World War and the mass murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany and its allies, the ideas it propagated of racial difference have not gone away. Antisemitism still exists, as does anti-Judaism. At their root, both antisemitism and anti-Judaism rely on the idea that certain physical, intellectual and moral differences exist between Jews and other groups, and that these differences are biological, permanent, and render Jews odious.
Since 2009, the number of antisemitic incidents recorded in the UK has, on the whole, been increasing.
The Community Security Trust (CST), a UK charity that advises and represents the Jewish community on matters of antisemitism, terrorism, policing and security, has documented this rise and highlighted how the number of incidents has been historically high in recent years.
This rise in antisemitism is due to a range of factors: far-right theories of white supremacy, which build on ideas initially propagated by ‘race science’, have gained more momentum in recent years, aided by nationalistic sentiment;
the political sphere – the rise in populism, antisemitism in the Labour Party, and the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) in 2016 – has created a space in which antisemitic ideas have gained prominence; conspiracy theories scapegoating Jews to suggest they are behind – and the beneficiaries of – global events such COVID-19, 9/11 and, paradoxically, the Holocaust have, with the help of social media, reached large audiences;
and spikes in conflict between Israel-Palestine have been exploited by those with antisemitic prejudices and used as an opportunity to attack Jews everywhere.
These manifestations, along with others, deploy old antisemitic tropes, adapting them to retain relevance in contemporary society.
As Joe Mulhall notes:
Across the millennia the core prejudice and hatred has remained constant, but the form and lexicon of antisemitism has often changed and updated to reach new audiences in each new century and for each new generation.
Antisemitism is a threat to human rights: it can make Jewish individuals and communities fearful of displaying their Jewish identity in case they are attacked, and, like all expressions of hate, it can allow intolerance to flourish (hate begets hate).
As Human Rights First notes:
Antisemitic violence harms not only its direct victims but entire Jewish communities, preventing them from being able to exercise their fundamental rights. And the potential damage is even greater: Left unchecked, antisemitism leads to the persecution of other minorities, and to an overall increase in repression and intolerance. An increase in antisemitism is a harbinger of societal breakdown.
The persistence of, and rise in, antisemitism in the UK and around the world should be of concern to us all.