Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred

by | in Jewish Thought

A Theological Approach

Understanding anti-Semitism—dubbed by historian Robert Wistrich “the longest hatred”1—is far from simple. Entire libraries explore and agonize over an animus that appears as illogical as it is ineradicable. It is tempting to consign it to the realm of the inscrutable and treat it as a subcategory of the suffering of the righteous, a subject explored in Tanach in the Book of Job. Its sequence of theodicies reach their denouement when God challenges Job from a whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel in words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell, if you have such understanding.”2 Job acknowledges that attempting to understand his suffering is futile: “I have spoken without understanding things too complex for me, which I did not know.”3 Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explains: “If you do not know the alphabet of creation, why be so impudent as to ask questions about the workings of the world?”4 Rabbi Soloveitchik assumes that one should try not to comprehend the suffering but to develop in response to it. “The Holy One said: ‘Job! True, you will never understand the inner essence of the why, the reason for suffering and its purpose . . . . If by your suffering you are able to elevate yourself to the spiritual level that you have not heretofore attained, you will then know that your travail was intended as a device for your perfection in both spirit and soul.’”5

Anti-Semitism or Jew-Hatred?
Yet while this may offer a cogent, sensitive approach to the inexplicable individual suffering of Job, many will find it inadequate to explain the Jew-specific ubiquity that is anti-Semitism. In truth, even the term “anti-Semitism” is sanitized; we should call it what it is—Jew-hatred. The term “anti-Semitism” was actually coined in the 1870s by a German Jew hater, Wilhelm Marr, when “the old term ‘Jew-hatred’ had become obsolete . . . and did not suit the modern pseudo-scientific, nationalistic, anti-Christian ideology which arose.”6 As Wistrich points out, “There was clearly a need to establish a new paradigm for anti-Jewishness which sounded more neutral, objective, ‘scientific’ and in keeping with the liberal, enlightened Zeitgeist.”7 “Anti-Semitism” is the hatred for, or the effort to discriminate against, Jews, because they are Jews.

In analyzing this phenomenon, some Jewish thinkers turn to a pessimistic statement cited by Rashi: “Said Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: ‘halachah hi b’yadua she’Eisav sonei leYa’akov, according to the law, it is well-known that Esau hates Jacob.’”8 This appears to extrapolate from a specific narrative—that of Esau and Jacob—the shocking axiom that non-Jews permanently and eternally hate Jews. There are those who have understood this statement maximally and assume it to innately regulate all interactions between non-Jews and Jews. Yet the uncountable positive and even lifesaving encounters between non-Jews and Jews throughout history negate this approach, and while there clearly remain individuals and even nations who still harbor primitive hatreds toward us, we have many friends and admirers. Additionally, research shows that the phrase “halachah hi, according to the law” (the part that transforms Rabbi Shimon’s statement from an observation about Esau to an existential reality) is absent from all known editions of the Sifrei from which Rashi draws and is probably a scribal error. As Rabbi Benjamin Lau wrote on this topic, “this ‘halakhic principle’ will be applicable only to those who declare themselves enemies of the Jews.”9

Contextualizing Anti-Semitism
Some thinkers attempt to contextualize anti-Semitism by locating it within a specific social, religious or economic milieu. A common example examines the undeniable role of Christianity in much of European Jew-hatred. In analyzing possible origins of the Holocaust, Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits observes: “The Nazis had a comparatively easy time of it. There was great understanding evinced for their anti-Semitism the world over. After all, hatred and suspicion of the Jew were deeply rooted in the Christian civilization of the West. The venom had been spread for many centuries.”10 And the political scientist Hannah Arendt cites the German Zionist thinker Moritz Goldstein as saying: “For eight hundred years . . . the Jews have been persecuted, beaten, mocked and branded as heretics. And why? Because they were so obstinate to remain Jews though there was Christianity in this world.”11 Arendt herself suggests that modern anti-Semitism may have been a response to the economic power and social integration achieved by certain Jews.12

Yet these (and other) circumstantial explanations for anti-Semitism ignore the reality: Jews have been hated in all times and all contexts. While Rabbi Dr. Berkovits is surely correct about the influence of centuries of Christian anti-Jewish hatred on the Holocaust, it cannot explain other manifestations of anti-Semitism. Jew-hatred is as old as ancient Egypt, was rife in the atheist USSR and is virulent in many Muslim countries today. Indeed, Wistrich wrote: “The Enlightenment and the French Revolution demonstrated that anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism did not require a specifically Christian source of inspiration and could even be animated by anti-Christian sentiments.”13 And the fact that at various times—and sometimes the same—Jews have been hated because we were rich/poor; Communist/Capitalist; controlling/parasitic; reactionary/ revolutionary, belies an economic explanation. Indeed, any crisis can and has been used to stir up anti-Semitism. “It has always been relatively easy for a ruler, a general, a charismatic preacher, a rabble-rouser, or a disgruntled neighbor to get a crowd going. All that is needed is a crisis, and suddenly the cry is heard: ‘The Jews are to blame!’”14 As Dennis Prager and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observe, “Each era has its own ‘justification’ for Jew-hatred: medieval Christian anti-Semites found the Jews’ religious beliefs intolerable, and today’s anti-Zionists loathe the Jews’ national commitment.”15

The Jewishness of Anti-Semitism
Critically, contextual explanations are flawed because they deny the specific Jewishness of anti-Semitism. By way of illustration, Arendt was willing to see the Holocaust as no more than a convenient proxy for Hitler’s megalomania, with the Jews as the scapegoat.16 Rejecting the notion of an eternal anti-Semitism, she claims: “The foundations of anti-Semitism are found in developments that have very little to do with Jews,”17 suggesting that the Jews were just unlucky and the same murderous hostility might easily have been directed toward another group to the same effect.

But denuding anti-Semitism of its visceral anti-Jewishness denies the very essence of the evil. Professor David Nirenberg argues that anti-Semitism is more correctly called anti-Judaism, by which he means that Western society is actually founded on the rejection of Jewish values and ideas, on negating the ethical principles on which Judaism is based. In effect, its very identity is predicated on denying the moral conscience of Judaism. As Professor Nirenberg writes: “Anti-Judaism should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.”18 Furthermore, Professor Nirenberg points out that an anti-Jewish stance is a core part of the West’s self-definition. “Anti-Judaism . . . is precisely this: a powerful theoretical framework for making sense of the world.”19

This startling claim is supported by statements attributed to Hitler and his henchmen in explaining their motivation for his “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem.” Hitler himself is alleged to have said that “conscience is a Jewish invention like circumcision; my task is to free men from the dirty and degrading ideas of conscience and morality.”20 And Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideologue Alfred Rosenberg felt that “the Old Testament as a book of religious instruction must be abolished once and for all. With it will end the unsuccessful attempts of the last one-and-a-half millennia to make us all spiritual Jews.”21 These citations indicate that the underlying motivation of Nazi anti-Semitism was to rid the world of Judaism by eliminating its proponents—the Jews. For its champions, anti-Semitism is an existential battle for the very soul of the world. In the words of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “[Anti-Semitism] explains the course of the world by the struggle of the principle of Good with the principle of Evil. Between these two principles, no reconciliation is conceivable; one of them must triumph and the other be annihilated.”22

A Jewish Basis for Anti-Semitism
As obnoxious as they may seem, these ideas have a strong Jewish basis. The so-called “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah23 describes an individual who will endure horrible torture and mistreatment. The majority of classical Jewish commentators, including Rashi,24 identify the servant with the Jewish people. The travails of the “servant,” then, represent the relentless persecution of the Jews throughout history as they attempt to fulfill their mission of promoting ethical monotheism and Divine teachings to the whole of humanity. Elsewhere, Isaiah makes this role quite explicit: “You are My witnesses, says the Lord; and My servant whom I have chosen, so that you shall know and believe in Me and understand that I am He . . . .”25

To explain this idea, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan offers a curious parable. You are given an island inhabited by several belligerent and exploitative tribes where there is much suffering caused by war, poverty and prejudice. Your assignment is to “play God” and improve the society, teaching its members to live together in harmony, thereby reducing or eliminating suffering. You will achieve this by deploying a group of undercover infiltrators to achieve the Divine goal without reducing the islanders to a hopeless state of dependence or exacerbating their hostilities—i.e., without revealing your identity.26 Rabbi Kaplan notes that “these infiltrators would always be in a position of great peril. Operating on a different value system, they would always be considered outsiders. The more their message diverged from that of the majority, the more they would be resented. Scattered throughout the island to spread their message, they would very likely become a persecuted minority.”27

Applying his parable to the fate of the Jewish people, Rabbi Kaplan reminds us that “it is our task to bear witness to God’s plan for humanity . . . . We are thus taught that Israel is like the heart of humanity, constantly beating and infusing all mankind with faith in God and His teachings.”28 I believe that this concept lies at the heart of the Jew-hatred we call anti-Semitism.

Fears and the Future
Yet while anti-Semitism has been the norm for so much of European history, its every emergence sounds a death knell for the society within which it appears. Referring to the Holocaust, Rabbi Dr. Berkovits notes that, “What the world did not realize was that one cannot revive old slumbering hatreds and prejudices and render them respectable without debauching the moral foundations of an entire civilization.”29 In a similar vein, Sartre believes that anti-Semitism threatens the entire world order. “What must be done is to point out . . . that the fate of the Jews is his fate. Not one Frenchman will be free so long as the Jews do not enjoy the fullness of their rights. Not one Frenchman will be secure so long as a single Jew—in France or in the world at large—can fear for his life.”30

An ironic final word goes to Prager and Rabbi Telushkin. They point out that the appropriate religious response is for us to become even more effective at our mission as the “servant” of God, role-modeling and promoting ethical monotheism, equity and social justice:

. . . if the goal is to put an end to anti-Semitism, then Jews must also attempt to influence the moral values of non-Jews so that no aspect of Judaism any longer threatens the non-Jews’ values . . . Jews must therefore resume their original task of spreading ethical monotheism. The Jewish role is to bring humankind not to Judaism but to universal, God-based morality. It is the exquisite irony of Jewish history that this task, which has been the ultimate cause of anti-Semitism, must be fulfilled to end anti-Semitism.31

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue in London. He learned in Gateshead Yeshiva and was educated at Oxford University. He is principal of Rimon Jewish Primary School, head of modern rabbinic thought and rosh midrasha at the London School of Jewish Studies and rabbinic consultant to University Jewish Chaplaincy. Rabbi Belovski is the author of three books and regularly broadcasts live on BBC Radio 2.


1. Robert S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (London, 1991).

2. Job 38:2, 4.

3. Ibid., 42:3.

4. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen, My Beloved Knocks, ed. Jeffrey R. Woolf, trans. David Z. Gordon (Hoboken, New Jersey, 2006), 13.

5. Soloveitchik, 14.

6. Jerome Chanes, A Dark Side of History: Anti-Semitism Through the Ages (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 2001), 9.

7. Wistrich, xv.

8. Rashi, commentary to Genesis 33:4.

9. Benjamin Lau, “Portion of the Week/ When dots make all the difference,” December 7, 2006,, accessed September 2014.

10. Eliezer Berkovits, Faith after the Holocaust (Hoboken, New Jersey, 1973), 12.

11. Hannah Arendt, “Antisemitism,” in The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York, 2007), 54.

12. Ibid., 71.

13. Wistrich, xxi.

14. Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of AntiSemitism (Brookline, Massachusetts, 2011).

15. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, Rev. ed. (New York, 2003), 22.

16. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd ed. (New York, 1958), 6–7.

17. Arendt, The Jewish Writings, 75.

18. David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking, 1st ed. (London, 2013), 6.

19. Ibid., 464.

20. Robert G. L. Waite, The Psychopathic God: Adolph Hitler (Boston, 1993), 16. This quote is understood to have originated with Hermann Rauschning, a confidante of Hitler who later left the Nazi party and became an outspoken critic of Hitler. As such, its accuracy may be questioned.

21. Nirenberg, 578.

22. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (New York, 1995), 28–9.

23. Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12.

24. Rashi, commentary to Isaiah 52:13.

25. Isaiah 43:10.

26. Aryeh Kaplan, If You Were God (New York, 2004), 173–93.

27. Ibid., 188.

28. Ibid., 189–90.

29. Berkovits, 12.

30. Sartre, 110.

31. Prager and Telushkin, 190.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2015.