Who are the Jews?
The Jews are a people or nation – not a race or religious group. However, the Jewish religious tradition has played a critical role in survival and development of the Jewish civilization through time. According to Orthodox Judaism (the religion), a Jew is a person who’s mother is Jewish. As a result of non-Jews joining the nation which occurs through conversion to the religion of Judaism, there are Jewish people with many different skin colors. Also, while many Jews live according to rules and traditions laid out by orthodox Judaism, including the practice of not working on the Sabbath (~25 hours, from before sundown on Friday night to after sundown on Saturday night) and eating only Kosher food, many Jews do not.
In the past two hundred years, alternative religious traditions have developed within the larger Jewish community. These include Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism. Many Jews are not religious, and some even adhere to the rules and practices of other religions. While diverse, Jews are bound together through time by a shared ancestry, history, fate and affinity to a corpus of texts, including the Bible, Mishna and Talmud. The Jewish people are an ancient nation, tracing back thousands of years, with a memory rooted at the dawn of human civilization in Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt. They had political autonomy in land overlapping with the modern state of Israel during much of the period from ~1000 BCE to the early days of the common era.
Following destruction of the Jewish Temple (in Jerusalem) by Rome in 70 CE, the Jewish people have been scattered throughout the world (the Jewish Diaspora) and subject to persecution as a minority group within other civilizations. A small percentage of Jewish people have always lived in the land of Israel. With establishment of the modern state in 1948 (one of many states formed with dissolution of the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I), as well as the destruction of European Jewry in the holocaust and expulsion of Jews from Arab states, many Jewish people have moved to Israel. Approximately half of the world’s 14.5 million Jews now live in Israel.
What is the reason for antisemitism?
Jew hatred has many forms, and these morph through time. Indeed, Jews have been hated and persecuted for a myriad of indefensible reasons, depending in large part on what issues are important to the larger society in which the Jewish people participate. For much of the past two thousand years, Jews in Christian Europe were accused of Deicide (killing Christ). With the enlightenment, Western thought moved from its Christian foundation towards classical reason and a more nationalistic world view. Excesses associated with this transition led to a transition in Jew hatred from religion-based antisemitism (where Jews were perceived as Christ killers) to a nationalism/race-based Jew hatred. This form of antisemitism led to the murder of more than 1/3rd of world Jewry (6 million people, including 1.5 million children) in the Holocaust (Shoah). This event was catastrophic but not unprecedented, as the murder of Jews on a very large scale had been officially sanctioned in many societies over the past 2000 years.
Thousands and thousands of Jews had been slaughtered in eastern Europe, including the Ukraine and Russia from the mid 17th century through to the beginning of the 20th century. Race-based antisemitism was not new, and while growing most virulently in 19th and early 20th century Germany, it was to be found everywhere.
Jew hatred based on ethnicity and Jewish peoplehood did not end with the Holocaust. However, this type of antisemitism was considered unsophisticated in polite company following WW2. Since the war, the Western world has once again transitioned, moving away from racism and nationalism towards a more universalistic foundation – with the resurgence of large empires and development of international bodies including the United Nations. It is in this context that Jew hatred has once again morphed. The single Jewish majority country in the world has become a focus for hatred with antizionism (hatred for the State of Israel) being the polite, acceptable and widespread form of Jew hatred. At the United Nations, of 193 member states, Israel, with less than 9 million people, representing 0.11% of the world’s population, is targeted by approximately 1/3rdof all negative general assembly resolutions. Antizionism developed within the Soviet empire and grafted successfully onto more ancient forms of religious antisemitism in the Islamic world. In a new global context, today’s Jew hatred has many left wing, right wing and religious forms.
The Jewish tradition is scholastic in nature and many of its sacred texts have helped to develop a finely balanced view of the dignity of individual man, together with the importance of communal action. Indeed, the Jewish people have given the world many ethical concepts that are now taken for granted. As British historian Paul Johnson wrote in History of the Jews, “Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
The Jewish approach to ethics and human progress with a priority placed on true freedom of thought, has put a target on the Jewish people, who resist totalitarianism in any and all forms. Jew hatred is but one reflection of totalitarian ideology that comes to destroy all societies.