Anti-Semitism, A Tentative Historical Framework
The answers are layered, historical, philosophical, religious, economic.
I can offer a brief framework as to anti-Semitism’s origin and development and culmination in the ravines and the ovens and on at the Toulouse school some years back, at the Pittsburgh shul last year.
The religious schism that began at Jerusalem over who and precisely what Jesus was in the years subsequent to his murder was not particularly more threatening to Jews than Roman occupation had always been. Just one for now: the row between Paul and Peter, for example, was an intra-Jewish divide over Jesus’ essence Peter and the other original followers were largely content with a Jesus who was a miracle-worker and extraordinarily wise and deep thinker, their Rabbi and friend. As a miracle-worker Jesus fit well within a long line of Jewish magicians who could perform all sorts of supra-natural acts for the good of many. (Of course, none of them were so blessed that any of them could do what every Jew most wanted — make Romans disappear.)
Paul’s Jesus, unlike Peter’s, informs the New Testament. Jesus is immediately transcendent in the Epistles and by the time of John’s Gospel — the last written of the four canonized, perhaps around 110 C.E…there are well over twenty extant gospels only four of which were authorized by the Bishops at Nicea in 325 C.E. By John’s Gospel Jesus is fully the Word-in-Flesh. In that period Jews holding to the Mosaic traditions thoroughly rejected the idea not only of Jesus-as-Messiah/human/demi-human sacrifice, but they rejected the entire idea of a spiritual Redeemer-as-Messiah/as-God.
The traditional Jewish Messiah is not and has never been one of a god who comes in flesh to save believers for a benign hereafter. The traditional Jewish Messiah idea is of an anointed from the Davidic line (and nearly every Jew of that time knew Jesus wasn’t and, later, was scandalized that Matthew’s Gospel said he was). The traditional Messiah would be a leader sent by God who would save Jews from oppression and usher in God’s Justice. It’s clear, in fact, to some scholars that Judas’s treachery had to do with his dramatic disappointment with Jesus’ avoidance of any sustained violence against Roman authority when the disciples arrived at Jerusalem. (Iscariot derives from the word Sicarii, Zealots, a wildly-anti-Roman Jewish sect.)
The Jerusalem schism that left Peter and his band mourning their murdered, gifted rabbi, and Paul setting out on road upon road to convert gentiles — Peter believed Jesus was sent to Jews and Jews only– led through many twisty turns to the eventual idea that once Rome itself converted…not to believe in Jesus-as-God was just not where the smart-money was. While Christianity, as a religious ideology isn’t, in itself, and wasn’t, as a new religious philosophy, dangerous to Jews, once Roman power itself became Christianized power, wielding the full force of the state, Christianity became lethal to Jews.
The 50,000 or so crucifixions that took place in southern Israel (Judea) alone between the time Jesus was born until the year 50 C.E. and the millions throughout the empire make it clear that Jesus’ execution was not an anti-Semitic act. Crucifixion was a universal Roman method of execution. And yet it also neatly fit Rome’s desire to humiliate Judeans because Rome knew that Jewish law required a dead body to be covered by sunset, and crucified corpses would often hang for days.
Now, here’s a useful schema for approaching an historical understanding of anti-Semitism. It isn’t all-inclusive. It is, however, a helpful, three-stage historical window through which you can trace the outlines of anti-Semitism’s subsequent development.
Stage 1. RELIGIOUS ANTI-SEMITISM
This is the anti-Semitism that grows from the Paul-Peter schism at Jerusalem and subsequent Roman adoption of Christianity as an official state religion. Jews increasingly are given a stark choice in nations and territories where Christianity spreads under the Roman banner. Religious anti-Semitism says You May Not Live Here As a Jew. (Convert Or Get Out.)
Stage 2. POLITICAL ANTI-SEMITISM
This stage of anti-Semitism is in full dress by the time Martin Luther rejects many of the Church’s central tenets in the early 1500s. Luther and the Church agree, however, they do not want Jews in Christian lands. (By “political”, of course, I refer to political maps, maps that draw national boundaries.) Political anti-Semitism says You May Not Live Here. (Get Out. Leave, or Die.)
Stage 3. RACIAL ANTISEMITISM
While Nazis did not invent racial anti-Semitism (there are certainly hints of it in Luther’s and others’ writings), Nazis raise the idea to the level of Philosophy, near to a state-religion. Racial anti-Semitism already assumes the sub-humanity of Jews, assumes Jews are a parasitical danger regardless of what Jews profess to believe. Jesus-belief is well beside the point by Stage 3 as is where Jews choose to live or are pushed to live. Jews are now seen as an infection. Racial anti-Semitism says You May Not Live. All anti-Semitism, now, is racial. In that sense, Nazism won.
This mini-history and schema cannot answer fully the WHY. It offers jumping-off points. Nazis acted on the third and ultimate stage of anti-Semitic development with a consistency and a routine, almost nonchalant, brutality that would have made some pre-Christian and Christianized Roman Legions envious.
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