Origins of Anti-Semitism, Part I
Jude Wanniski
November 2, 1999


When I think of a Jewish intellectual, I think of our mutual friend Irving Kristol. When I think of a Jewish political activist, I think of you, with Abe Rosenthal of the NYTimes not far behind. You are all in your seventies, yet remain intellectually vibrant, energetic. I suspect at least some of your active involvement in the debates over the future of Israel in general and the future of Jews in particular has to do with the new millennium. There of course is a natural focus in our calendar on the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago, the fact that he was a Jew, and that all Christians and many Muslims believe He was divine and that all Muslims deeply revere Him. As a Catholic who has spent most of his life as close to Jews as I have been toward fellow Christians, I find myself distressed at the disconnect in discussions between these two groups of Americans. Most Christians I know, and even some Jews I know, don't think there is "anti-Semitism" in our culture the way there was generations ago. Your full-page indictment of Pat Buchanan as an anti-Semite in the WSJournal of October 25th -- to which he pleads innocent -- prompted me to re-read that section of Will Durant's Story of Civilization Vol. IV: The Age of Faith that covers anti-Semitism's origins. I did so believing not one American in ten thousand -- especially the baby boomers -- have any idea what this is all about. I'm going to run out a few graphs of the Durant book here, Norman, to open this to discussion as we count down to Y2K, the second millennial anniversary of the birth of the most influential Jew who ever lived. You would agree with that, Norman, wouldn't you? Yes, Abraham got the ball rolling, and Moses did his thing at Mount Sinai, but Jesus really spread the Word.

I'm going to kick this issue around with some frequency as we approach Y2K.... Here is Durant on "Anti-Semitism: 500 - 1306."

What were the sources of the hostility between non-Jew and Jew?

The main sources have ever been economic, but religious differences have given edge and cover to economic rivalries. The Moslems, living by Muhammad, resented the Jewish rejection of their prophet; the Christians, accepting the divinity of Christ, were shocked to find that His own people would not acknowledge that divinity. Good Christians saw nothing unchristian or inhuman in holding an entire people, through many centuries, responsible for the actions of a tiny minority of Jerusalem Jews in the last days of Christ. The Gospel of Luke told how "throngs" of Jews welcomed Christ into Jerusalem (xix, 37); how, when He carried His cross to Golgotha, "there followed Him a great company of people, and of women, who also bewailed and lamented Him" (xxiii, 27); and how, after the crucifixion, "all the people that came together to that sight... smote their breasts" (xxiii, 48). But these evidences of Jewish sympathy for Jesus were forgotten when, in every Holy Week, the bitter story of the Passion was related from a thousand pulpits, resentment flared in Christian hearts; and on those days the Israelites shut themselves up in their own quarter and in their homes, fearful that the passions of simple souls might be stirred to a pogrom.

Around that central misunderstanding rose a thousand suspicions and animosities. Jewish bankers bore the brunt of the hostility aroused by interest rates that reflected the insecurity of loans. As the economy of Christendom developed, and Christian merchants and bankers invaded fields once dominated by Jews, economic competition fomented hate; and some Christian moneylenders actively promoted anti-Semitism. Jews in official positions, especially in the finance department of governments , were a natural target for those who disliked both taxes and Jews. Given such economic and religious enmity, everything Jewish became distasteful to some Christians, and everything Christian to some Jews. The Christian reproached the Jew for clannish exclusiveness, and did not excuse it as a reaction to discrimination and occasional physical assault. Jewish features, language, manners, diet, ritual all seemed to the Christian eye offensively bizarre. The Jews ate when Christians fasted, fasted when Christians ate; their Sabbath of rest and prayer had remained Saturday as of old, while that of the Christians had been changed to Sunday; the Jews celebrated their happy deliverance from Egypt in a Passover feast that came too close to the Friday on which Christians mourned the death of Christ. Jews were not allowed by their Law to eat food cooked, to drink wine pressed, or to use dishes or utensils that had been touched, by a non-Jew, or to marry any but a Jew; the Christian interpreted these ancient laws -- formulated long before Christianity -- as meaning that to a Jew everything Christian was unclean; and he retorted that the Israelite himself was not unusually distinguished by cleanliness of person or neatness of dress. Mutual isolation begot absurd and tragic legends on both sides. Romans had accused Christians of murdering pagan children to offer their blood in secret sacrifice to the Christian God; Christians of the twelfth century accused Jews of kidnaping Christian children to sacrifice them to Yahweh, or to use their blood as medicine or in the making of unleavened bread for the Passover feast. Jews were charged with poisoning the wells from which Christians drank. And with stealing consecrated wafers to pierce them and draw from them the blood of Christ. When a few Jewish merchants flaunted their opulence in costly raiment, the Jews as a people were accused of draining the wealth of Christendom into Jewish hands. Jewish women were suspected as sorceresses; many Jews, it was thought were in league with the Devil. The Jews retaliated with like legends about Christians, and insulting stories about the birth and youth of Christ. The Talmud counseled the extension of Jewish charity to non-Jews; Bahya praised Christian monasticism; Maimonides wrote that "the teachings of Christ and Mohammed tend to lead mankind toward perfection"; but the average Jew could not understand these courtesies of philosophy, and returned all the hatred that he received.

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The fact is, Norman, that most Americans -- especially those under 50 -- associate anti-Semitism with Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and WWII. As a Catholic now 63 years of age, I vividly do recall the anti-Semitism within the Church of the post-war era, before Pope John Paul and Vatican II in 1962 cleansed it from the unofficial, casual practices of some church clergy and members. I think it is interesting to note that Durant wrote the above around 1950... Volume IV was published in 1951. Note especially the opening to this section: "The main sources have ever been economic, but religious differences have given edge and cover to economic rivalries." For most of the last several centuries, Christians, Muslims and Jews have lived together peacefully. Most of the serious pogroms aimed at wiping out Jewish populations in one European city or another took place either in the medieval era, after the first Millennium, or in the Twentieth century. As Durant points out, the causes were economic, yet there was always that religious overlay. Jews were the Christ killers -- easy scapegoats when populations became squeezed by collapsing economies.

The Millennium should focus our attention on this nexus, especially if Y2K leads to any serious global economic problems when the calendar changes in two months. The fact is, Norman, that Jews were the among the most important financiers of the Old World a thousand years ago, at Y1K, and the serious pogroms of the 11th century were related to that date change. As Durant points out earlier in Volume IV -- and as you are well aware -- Jews became adept at moneylending because Christian Law -- and later Islamic Law -- prohibited the lending of money at usurious rates of interest. It now seems so obvious that these prohibitions would give Jews an automatic advantage in money and banking. As the year 1000 approached, those Christians who believed it would be the end of the world were eager to borrow against their assets in order to buy indulgences from the Holy Mother Church. When 1000 came and went with no end to the world, those Christians in hock to Jewish bankers were not exactly happy campers. In a second part to this discussion about the origins of anti-Semitism, we will let Durant tell us just how unhappy they were, and what the consequences were for the Jewish communities of the medieval era.