The lessons in this section of the unit examine how societies decide who belongs and the consequences of those decisions. Ideas about human similarities and differences—such as ethnicity, religion, and nation—have greatly influenced the way many societies have defined their membership in the past several centuries. When people claim that the differences that matter most are permanent and biological, that belief leads to racism. According to scholar George Frederickson, racism has two components: difference and power.
It originates from a mindset that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the . . . Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group.
Although antisemitism—a central component of the Nazi worldview—is based on the belief that Jews are members of a distinct race, the history of hatred, prejudice, and discrimination targeting Jews extends back in time more than two millennia, long before the idea of race emerged during the Enlightenment.
In the late 1800s, many European and American scientists continued to divide humankind into smaller and smaller “races.” One of these was the “Semitic race,” which they used to categorize Jews. The term antisemitism was coined by the German Wilhelm Marr, who published a pamphlet in 1878 titled “The Victory of Judaism over Germandom.” Filled with lies and myths about Jews, Marr’s pamphlet argued that Jews were more than a distinct “race.” They were dangerous and alien, intent on maliciously destroying German society. Marr founded the League of Anti-Semites in Berlin in 1879 to combat the threat he imagined that Jews posed. Although his political organization did not gain much support, the racist beliefs of antisemitism spread across Europe, providing justification for discrimination and violence against Jews in the twentieth century.
Antisemitism relies on the idea that certain physical and intellectual differences exist between groups and that these differences are biological, permanent, and irreversible. Because they believed, falsely, that differences between so-called races were justified by modern science, antisemites were convinced that science also justified discrimination against Jews.
Historian Deborah Dwork explains:
The move from anti-Judaism—against the religion—to antisemitism with this notion of "race" was only possible when Europeans conceived of the idea of race. And once they had conceived of the idea of race in the 19th century, Wilhelm Marr had the notion that Jews constituted a "race." And thus, antisemitism can be seen as a form of racism.