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‘Antisemitism’ before ‘Race’?

Words matter. For historians of Jewish-Christian relations in the Western World, the decision to use the terms Antisemitism or Anti-Judaism is often made in the light of differing opinions about the nature of anti-Jewish sentiment in different historical periods. One question, however, has proved to be particularly problematic: is it possible to talk about ‘Antisemitism’ in the Middle Ages, before the appearance of scientific concepts of ‘race’?

In October 2012, I was invited to give a research seminar paper on anti-Jewish propaganda produced in the late medieval and early modern Iberian world at an Australian university. The title of the paper included the term ‘Antisemitic propaganda’ and the terms ‘Antisemitic’ and ‘Antisemitism’ were used a few times during the seminar. During the questions that followed it, several academics in the audience – historians of twentieth-century Europe – vigorously questioned the appropriateness of using the concept of ‘Antisemitism’ in a pre-modern context. I was forcefully reminded by my colleagues that Antisemitism was a racial hatred of Jews, linked to the rise of ‘scientific racism’ in the nineteenth century.  Therefore, whilst ‘modern’ hatred of Jews is racial, pre-modern hatred of Jews was distinguished and defined by its purely religious character. It was the height of absurdity, a terrible anachronism even, for a historian to use the concept of ‘Antisemitism’ in a medieval or early modern context. Such a reaction will not come as a surprise to historians who have worked on the subject of anti-Jewish sentiment and propaganda in medieval Christian Europe.

It has been repeatedly, and rightly, pointed out that the term itself was apparently coined by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr (1819–1904), who founded the League of antisemites (Antisemiten-Liga) in 1879, and it became popularized by Marr and others in the 1880s. Moreover, for many historians of antisemitism, the concept carries a clear racial component. Marr and other antisemites defined Jews collectively by their supposedly shared ethnicity and ‘racial identity’ as ‘Semites’ rather than their adherence to the religion of Judaism in order to distinguish them from ‘Aryans’. The concept built on the theories of nineteenth-century anthropologists who conflated linguistics and ethnicity to produce ‘Semitic races’ (thus racializing both Jews and Muslims as ‘Semites’). In the eyes of many modern antisemites, even conversion to Christianity does not turn a Jew into a Christian. As such, it may not seem possible to separate Antisemitism from the rise of ‘scientific racism’ and the racial theories that emerged in the nineteenth century. Given this historical context, the use of the terms antisemites and Antisemitism in a medieval context might well appear highly contentious: at best an imprecise use of language or, at worst, a grave anachronism. Historical anachronism – the utilization or application by historians of concepts or key terms that did not exist in the period that they are studying – has long been held to constitute one of the most serious errors that a historian can commit.

Yet the concentration on race as the defining feature of modern Antisemitism oversimplifies its multifaceted nature. To argue that ‘Antisemitism’ began in 1879 when Wilhelm Marr first used the term or with the racial theories of the nineteenth century overlooks the fact that the origins of many of the key modern Antisemitic tropes can be traced back to medieval ideas about Jews. These are (1) the fixation on a secret Jewish conspiracy to take political and economic control of the world by subverting Christian society, (2) the belief that modern Jews follow a form of Judaism that has been perverted by the Talmud and which incites them to undermine Christian society and attack Gentiles in general and Christians in particular, and (3) the equation of Judaism and Jewish ethnicity.

Whilst the medieval papacy was more-or-less consistent in espousing the Augustinian position of a grudging toleration of the Jews as a ‘witness people’, it is important to note that its position was not always followed by many Christians, including many men of the Church. By the end of the medieval period, circa CE 1500, the notion that the Jews were intrinsically inclined to evil and the conflation of Judaism and Jewish ethnicity had become current across Europe.  Numerous Christian writers essentialized Judaism to the point that it transformed into the functional equivalent of the modern concept of race.

Just as modern historians of ‘race’ are increasingly noting that ethnic prejudice preceded modern theories of race by centuries, is it similarly important to note that the existence of a proto-racialized prejudice against Jews pre-dated the nineteenth century. If historians are increasingly willing to talk about the existence of ‘racisms’ (plural), is it perhaps not also possible to discuss the existence of different ‘Antisemitisms’ (plural)? To use the terms ‘Antisemitic’, ‘Antisemite’ or ‘Antisemitism’ in a medieval context may be jarring to some modern historians but its use offers a tool that historians can use to describe the formation of key concepts. Used wisely and contextually, ‘Medieval Antisemitism’ (as opposed to just ‘Antisemitism’) can be a useful concept with which historians can designate a form of anti-Jewish hatred that was not simply religious in character and that prefigured ‘Modern Antisemitism’ even though it did not possess the pseudo-scientific racial vocabulary and emphasis on the nation-state of ‘Modern Antisemitism’.

by Francois Soyer