Woodcut of a group of men in a pit being set on fire.
Lesson

The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism

Students explore the long history of discrimination against Jews and come to understand how anti-Judaism was transformed into antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

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At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

Overview

About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students began the “We and They” stage of the Facing History scope and sequence by examining the human behavior of creating “in” groups and “out” groups” and by considering the concept of universe of obligation. This lesson introduces antisemitism, a historical example of how humans have created “in” groups and “out” groups. Students will explore the long history of hatred and discrimination against Jews, and they will see how anti-Judaism, a religious prejudice, was transformed in the nineteenth century into antisemitism, a form of racism. Learning about the development of antisemitism will provide students with important context for the worldview of the Nazis. It will also help students recognize and understand the impact of stereotypes and myths about Jews that persist today.

A note on terms:

The term anti-Judaism refers to religious prejudice against Jews before the historical emergence of the concept of race.

The word Semitic does not actually refer to a group of people. It is not a “race” but rather a linguistic term that refers to a group of languages traditionally spoken in the Middle East and parts of Africa, including Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia, as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Because there is no such thing as a Semitic race, Facing History and Ourselves uses the alternate spelling antisemitism.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • What is antisemitism, and how has it impacted Jews in the past and today?
  • What are the consequences when a “single story” is used to exclude a group of people from a society’s universe of obligation?
  • Students will be able to explain how anti-Judaism developed into antisemitism in the nineteenth century.
  • Students will consider the present-day implications of longstanding patterns of discrimination and violence against Jews.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 3 readings, available in English and Spanish 
  • 1 handout,  available in English and Spanish 
  • 1 assessment 
  • 1 extensions

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.

1

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.

  • 1George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 9.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers 

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and backgrounds.

Students may begin this lesson with misconceptions about Judaism. Antisemitic beliefs and stereotypes persist today. Students may encounter facts and information in this lesson that conflict with things they learned at home or in church and that they did not realize were rooted in the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Therefore, it is important to be ready to respond to “single stories” about Jews that may arise in class, help students consider where such stories came from, and ground the discussion in what we know from history about the origins of antisemitic ideas.

  • If, in the course of teaching this lesson, you become concerned that your students have a limited understanding of what it means to be Jewish and are relying on stereotypes and single stories instead, consider returning to the Lesson 2 extension activity “Explore the Complexity of Jewish Identity.”
  • If you taught the extension about Jewish identity in Lesson 2, you might review the identity chart for “Jewish identity” that the class created in order to remind students of the variety of ways that individuals define their relationship to Jewish culture and religion and the idea that there is no single story that explains what it means to be Jewish. 

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Antisemitism
  • Anti-Judaism
  • Aryan
  • Marginalize

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

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Lesson Plan

Activities

  • The history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism is in part a story of rumors, lies, and myths that have persisted over the course of centuries. Begin this lesson by asking students to record their observations about rumors, lies, and myths from their own experiences. Ask students to respond to the following question in their journals:
  • How do rumors get started? Why might lies and myths about people persist even after they have been proven wrong? Have you ever helped to spread a rumor that you doubted or knew wasn’t true? Why?
  • While students should be allowed to keep their own stories of spreading rumors private, you can ask for volunteers to share their more general observations about why rumors and lies can be so persistent.
  • Inform students that in this lesson, they are going to learn about antisemitism. Tell them that its most basic definition is “hatred of or hostility toward Jews,” but it is also a form of racism. In this lesson, they will look at history to understand how religious prejudice against Jews evolved into racism.
  • Give students the handout Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism.
  • Instruct students to read the handout with a partner, stopping at each box to annotate the section and answer the text-based questions.
  • Debrief the reading with students by asking them to share their answers to the questions. Take this opportunity to correct any misunderstandings regarding the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism.
  • In the same pairs, ask students to discuss the following questions:
    • What do students notice about the history of hatred, discrimination, and violence toward Jews?
    • How is antisemitism, which emerged in the 1870s, different from the anti-Judaism that existed before the 1870s? Why is that difference significant?
    • How were “single stories” used to exclude Jews from the universe of obligation of individuals and societies? What were the consequences?
  • Ask the student pairs to share their answers to these questions in a brief class discussion.
  • Have students work in pairs to read and respond to “We Don’t Control America” and Other Myths, Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3. Roughly a third of the groups should work with each of the three excerpts from the reading set.
  • Each group’s task is to read the assigned excerpt and discuss the following questions:
    • How does the myth described affect the writer? How does she respond when confronted with the fact that another person believes a false myth or stereotype about Jews?
    • How do you explain why people might believe such myths and stereotypes about Jews? What might it take to overcome these false antisemitic beliefs?
  • Finish the lesson with a brief whole-group discussion in which each group has the opportunity to share their observations.

Assessment

  • Gauge students’ understanding of and response to the history and impact of antisemitism by asking them to complete a one-page writing assignment in which they list three takeaways from this lesson. You might use the following prompt:
    What did you learn in this lesson about the history and impact of antisemitism that you think everyone should know? In a one-page writing assignment, list three facts, ideas, or events you learned about in this lesson, and for each one, explain why you think it is important for others to know about it.
  • Collect the handout Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism and examine students’ responses to the embedded questions for evidence of their comprehension of the reading and the history of antisemitism.

Extension Activities 

For a deeper and more detailed exploration of the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism, you can substitute the resources below for the reading Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism. The readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior and the videos listed below also include connection questions for additional discussion and reflection:

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Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts, available in English and Spanish,  that students use throughout The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism lesson plan.

Download the Files

Handout
Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism
Ensure students' comprehension of this reading on the history of antisemitism by having them annotate and respond to questions. View a Spanish language version of this handout.

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Handout
Overview of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism
Ensure students' comprehension of this reading on the history of antisemitism by having them annotate and respond to questions. View a Spanish language version of this handout.

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

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