Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Bernard Lazare 1894


To make the history of antisemitism complete, omitting none of the manifestations of this sentiment and following its divers phases and modifications, it is necessary to go into the history of Israel since its dispersion, or, more properly speaking, since the beginning of its expansion beyond the boundaries of Palestine.

Wherever the Jews settled after ceasing to be a nation ready to defend its liberty and independence, one observes the development of antisemitism, or rather anti-Judaism; for antisemitism is an ill chosen word, which has its raison d’etre only in our day, when it is sought to broaden this strife between the Jew and the Christians by supplying it with a philosophy and a metaphysical, rather than a material reason. If this hostility, this repugnance had been shown towards the Jews at one time or in one country only, it would be easy to account for the local causes of this sentiment. But this race has been the object of hatred with all the nations amidst whom it ever settled. Inasmuch as the enemies of the Jews belonged to divers races, as they dwelled far apart from one another, were ruled by different laws and governed by opposite principles; as they had not the same customs and differed in spirit from one another, so that they could not possibly judge alike of any subject, it must needs be that the general causes of antisemitism have always resided in Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it.

This does not mean that justice was always on the side of Israel’s persecutors, or that they did not indulge in all the extremes born of hatred; it is merely asserted that the Jews were themselves, in part, at least, the cause of their own ills.

Considering the unanimity of antisemitic manifestations, it can hardly be admitted, as had too willingly been done, that they were merely due to a religious war, and one must not view the strife against the Jews as a struggle of polytheism against monotheism, or that of the Trinity against Jehovah. The polytheistic, as well as the Christian nations combated not the doctrine of one sole God, but the Jew.

Which virtues or which vices have earned for the Jew this universal enmity? Why was he ill-treated and hated alike and in turn by the Alexandrians and the Romans, by the Persians and the Arabs, by the Turks and the Christian nations ? Because, everywhere up to our own days the Jew was an unsociable being.

Why was he unsociable ? Because he was exclusive, and his exclusiveness was both political and religious, or rather he held fast to his political and religious cult, to his law.

All through history we see the conquered peoples submit to the laws of the conqueror, though they may guard their own faith and beliefs. It was easy for them to do so, for with them a line was drawn between their religious teachings which had come from the gods, and their civil laws which emanated from legislation and could be modified according to circumstances, without inviting upon the reformers the theological anathema or execration; what had been done by man could be undone by man. Thus, if the conquered rose up against the conquerors, it was through patriotism alone, and they were actuated by no other motive but the desire to regain their land and their liberty. Aside from these national uprisings, they seldom took exception to being subjected to the general laws; if they protested, it was against particular enactments which placed them into a position of inferiority towards the dominant people; in the history of the Roman conquests we see the conquered bow to Rome when she extended to them the laws which governed the empire.

Not so with the Jewish people. In fact, as was observed by Spinoza,[1] “the laws revealed by God to Moses were nothing but laws for the special government of the Hebrews.” Moses,[2] the prophet and legislator, assigned the same authority for his judicial and governmental enactments, as for his religious precepts, i.e., revelation. Not only did Yahweh say to the Jews, “Ye shall believe in the one God and ye shall worship no idols,” he also prescribed for them rules of hygiene and morality; not only did he designate the territory where sacrifices were to be offered, he also determined the manner in which that territory was to be governed. Each of the given laws, whether agrarian, civil, prophylactic, theological, or moral proceeded from the same authority, so that all these codes formed a whole, a rigorous system of which naught could be taken away for fear of sacrilege.

In reality, the Jew lived under the rule of a lord, Yahweh, who could neither be conquered, nor even assailed, and he knew but one thing, the law, i.e., the collection of rules and decrees which it had once pleased Yahweh to give to Mosesa law divine and excellent, made to lead its followers to eternal bliss; a perfect law which the Jewish people alone had received.

With such an idea of his Torah, the Jew could not accept the laws of strange nations; nor could he think of submitting to them; he could not abandon the divine laws, eternal, good and just, to follow human laws, necessarily imperfect and subject to decay. Thus, wherever colonies were founded by the Jews, to whatever land they were deported, they insisted, not only upon permission to follow their religion, but also upon exemption from the customs of the people amidst whom they were to live, and the privileges to govern themselves by their own laws.

At Rome, at Alexandria, at Antioch, in Cyrenaica they were allowed full freedom in the matter. They were not required to appear in court on Saturday;[3] they were even permitted to have their own special tribunals, and were not amenable to the laws of the empire; when the distribution of grains occurred on a Saturday their share was reserved for them until the next day,[4] they could be decurions, being at the same time exempt from all practices contrary to their religion;[5] they enjoyed complete self-government, as in Alexandria; they had their own chiefs, their own senate, their ethnarch, and were not subject to the general municipal authorities.

Everywhere they wanted to remain Jews, and everywhere they were granted the privilege of establishing a State within the State. By virtue of these privileges and exemptions, and immunity from taxes, they would soon rise above the general condition of the citizens of the municipalities where they resided; they had better opportunities for trade and accumulation of wealth, whereby they excited jealousy and hatred.

Thus, Israel’s attachment to its law was one of the first causes of its unpopularity, whether because it derived from that law benefits and advantages which were apt to excite envy, or because it prided itself upon the excellence of its Torah and considered itself above and beyond other peoples.

Still had the Israelites adhered to pure Mosaism, they could,

doubtless, at some time in their history, have so modified that Mosaism as to retain none but the religious and metaphysical precepts; possibly, if they had no other sacred book but the Bible they might have merged in the nascent church, which enlisted its first followers among the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Jewish proselytes. One thing prevented that fusion and upheld the existence of the Hebrews among the nations; it was the growth of the Talmud, the authority and rule of the doctors who taught a pretended tradition. The policy of the doctors to which we shall return further made of the Jews sullen beings, unsociable and haughty, of whom Spinoza, who knew them well, could say: “It is not at all surprising that after being scattered for so many years they have preserved their identity without a government of their own, for, by their external rites, contrary to those of other nations, as well as by the sign of circumcision, they have isolated themselves from all other nations, even to the extent of drawing upon themselves the hate of all mankind.”[6]

Man’s aim on earth, said the doctors, is the knowledge and observance of the law, and one cannot thoroughly observe it without denying allegiance to all but the true law. The Jew who followed these precepts isolated himself from the rest of mankind; he retrenched himself behind the fences which had been erected around the Torah by Ezra and the first scribes,[7] later by the Pharisees and the Talmudists, the successors of Ezra, reformers of primitive Mosaism and enemies or the prophets. He isolated himself, not merely by declining to submit to the customs which bound together the inhabitants of the countries where he settled, but also by shunning all intercourse with the inhabitants themselves. To his unsociability the Jew added exclusiveness.

With the law, yet without Israel to put it into practice, the world could not exist, God would turn it back into nothing; nor will the world know happiness until it be brought under the universal domination of that law, i.e., under the domination of the Jews. Thus the Jewish people is chosen by God as the trustee of His will; it is the only people with whom the Deity has made a covenant; it is the choice of the Lord. At the time when the serpent tempted Eve, says the Talmud, he corrupted her with his venom. Israel, on receiving the revelation from Sinai, delivered itself from the evil; the rest of mankind could not recover. Thus, if they have each its guardian and its protecting constellation, Israel is placed under the very eye of Jehovah; it is the Eternal’s favoured son who has the sole right to his love, to his good will, to his special protection, other men are placed beneath the Hebrews; it is by mere mercy that they are entitled to divine munificence, since the souls of the Jews alone are descended from the first man. The wealth which has come to the nations, in truth belongs to Israel, and we hear Jesus Himself reply to the Greek woman: “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and so cast it unto the dogs.”[8] This faith in their predestination, in their election, developed among the Jews an immense pride. It led them to view the Gentiles with contempt, often with hate, when patriotic considerations supervened to religious feeling.

When Jewish nationality was in peril, the Pharisees, under John Hyrcanus, declared impure the soil of strange peoples, as well as all intercourse among Jews and Greeks. Later, the Shamaites advocated at a synod complete separation of the Jews from the heathens, and drafted a set of injunctions, called The Eighteen Things, which ultimately prevailed over the opposition of the Hillelites. As a result Jewish unsociability begins to engage the attention of the councils of Antiochus Sidetes; exception is taken to “their persistence in shutting themselves up amidst their own kind and avoiding all intercourse with pagans, and to their eagerness to make that intercourse more and more difficult, if not impossible.”[9] And the high priest Menelaus accuses the law before Antiochus Epiphanes, “of teaching hatred of the human race, of prohibiting to sit down at the table of strangers and to show good-will towards them.”

If these prescriptions had lost their authority when the cause which had produced and, in a way, justified them, had disappeared, the evil would not have been great. Yet we see them reappear in the Talmud and receive a new sanction from the authority of the doctors. After the controversy between the Sadducees and the Pharisees had terminated in the victory of the latter, these injunctions became part of the law, they were taught with the law and helped to develop and exaggerate the exclusiveness of the Jews.

Another fear, that of contamination, separated the Jews from the world and made their isolation still more rigorous. The Pharisees held views of extreme rigour on the subject of contamination; with them the injunctions and prescriptions of the Bible were insufficient to preserve Man from sin. As the sacrificial vases were contaminated by the least impure contact, they came to regard themselves contaminated by contact with strangers. Of this fear were born innumerable rules affecting everyday life: rules relating to clothing, dwelling, nourishment, all of which were promulgated with a view to save the Israelites from contamination and sacrilege; all these rules might properly be observed in an independent state or city, but could not possibly be enforced in foreign lands, for their strict observance would require the Jews to flee the society of Gentiles, and thus to live isolated, hostile to their environment.

The Pharisees and the Rabbinites went still farther. Not satisfied with preserving the body, they also sought to save the soul. Experience had shown them that Hellenic and Roman importations imperiled what they deemed their faith. The names of the Hellenistic high priests, Jason, Menelaus, etc., reminded the Rabbinites of the times when the genius of Greece, winning over one portion of Israel, came very near conquering it. They knew that the Sadducean party, friendly to the Greeks, had paved the way for Christianity, as much as the Alexandrians and all those who maintained that “none but the legal provisions, clearly enunciated in the Mosaic law were binding, whereas all other rules growing from local traditions or subsequently issued, could lay no claim to rigorous observance.[10]

It was under Greek influence that the books and oracles originated which prepared the minds for Messiah. The Hellenistic Jews, Philo and Aristobulus, the pseudo-Phocylides and the pseudo-Longinus, authors of the Sibylline oracles and of the pseudo-Orphics, all these successors of the prophets who continued their work, led mankind to Christ. And it may be said that true Mosaism, purified and enlarged by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, broadened and generalized by the Judaeo-Hellenists, would have brought Israel to Christianity, but for Ezraism,Pharisaism and Talmudism, which held the mass of the Jews bound to strict observances and narrow ritual practices.

To guard God’s people, to keep it safe from evil influences, the doctors exalted their law above all things. They declared that no study but that of the law alone became an Israelite, and as a whole life-time was hardly sufficient to learn and penetrate all the subtleties and all the casuistry of that law, they prohibited the study of profane sciences and foreign languages. “Those among us who learn several languages are not held in esteem,” said Josephus; contempt alone was soon thought insufficient, they were excom municated. Nor did these expulsions satisfy the Rabbinites. Though deprived of Plato, had not the Jew still the Bible, could he not listen to the voice of the prophets? As the book could not be proscribed, it was belittled and made subordinate to the Talmud; the doctors declared: “The law is water, the Mishna is wine.” And the reading of the Bible was considered less beneficial, less conducive to salvation than the reading of the Mishna.

However, the Rabbinites could not kill Jewish curiosity with one blow; it required centuries. It was as late as the fourteenth century, after Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Bechai, Maimonides, Bedares, Joseph Caspi, Levi Ben Gerson, Moses of Narbonne, and many others, were gone, all true sons of Philo and the Alexandrians, who strove to verify Judaism by foreign philosophy; after Asher Ben Yechiel had induced the assembly of the rabbis at Barcelona to excommunicate those who would study profane sciences; after Rabbi Shalem, of Montpellier had complained to the Dominicans of the Moreh Nebukhim, and this book, the highest expression of the ideas of Maimonides, had been burnedit was only after all this that the rabbis ultimately triumphed.[12]

Their end was attained. They had cut off Israel from the community of nations; they had made of it a sullen recluse, a rebel against all laws, foreign to all feeling fraternity, closed to all beautiful, noble and generous ideas; they had made of it a small and miserable nation, soured by isolation, brutalized by a narrow education, demoralized and corrupted by an unjustifiable pride.[13]

With this transformation of the Jewish spirit and the victory of sectarian doctors, coincides the beginning of official persecution. Until that epoch there had only been outbursts of local hatred, but no systematic vexations. With the triumph of the Rabbinites, the ghettos come into being. The expulsions and massacres commence. The Jews want to live aparta line is drawn against them. They detest the spirit of the nations amidst whom they live - the nations chase them. They burn the Moreh - their Talmud is burned and they themselves are burned with it.[14]

It would seem that no further agency was needed to render the separation of the Jews from the rest of mankind complete and to make them an object of horror and reprobation. Still another cause must be added to those just mentioned: the indomitable and tenacious patriotism of Israel.

Certainly, every people was attached to the land of its birth. Conquered, beaten by the conquerors, driven into exile or forced into slavery, they remained true to the sweet memories of their plundered city or the country they had lost. Still none other knew the patriotic enthusiasm of the Jews. The Greek, whose city was destroyed, could elsewhere build anew the hearth upon which his ancestors bestowed their blessings; the Roman who went into exile took along with him his penates; Athens or Rome had nothing of the mystic fatherland like Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was the guardian of the Tabernacle which received the divine word; it was the city of the only Temple, the only place in the world where God could efficiently be worshipped and sacrifices offered to Him. It was only much later, at a very late day, that prayer houses were erected in other towns of Juda, or Greece, or Italy; still in those houses they confined themselves to the reading of the law and theological discussion; the pomp of Jehovah was known nowhere but at Jerusalem, the chosen sanctuary. When a temple was built at Alexandria, it was considered heretical; indeed, the ceremonies which were celebrated there had no sense, for they ought not to be performed anywhere but in a true temple; so St. Chrysostom, after the dispersion of the Jews and the destruction of their city, was justified in saying: “The Jews offer sacrifices in all parts of the earth except there where the sacrifice is permitted and valid, i.e., at Jerusalem.”

All Jews of the period of dispersion sent to Jerusalem the didrachm tax for the maintenance of the temple; once in their lives they came to the holy city, as later the Mohammedans came to Mecca; after their death they were carried to Palestine, and numerous craft anchored at the coast, loaded with small coffins which were thence forwarded on camel’s back.

It was because in Jerusalem only, in the land given by God to their ancestors, their bodies would be resurrected. There those who had believed in Yahweh, who had observed his law and obeyed his word, would awake at the sound of the last trumpet and appear before their Lord. Nowhere but there could they rise at the appointed hour; every other land but that washed by the yellow Jordan was a vile land, fouled by idolatry, deprived of God.

When the fatherland was dead, when adversity was sweeping Israel all over the world, after the Temple had perished in flames, and when the heathens occupied the holiest ground, mourning over bygone days became everlasting in the soul of the Jew. It was over; they could no longer hope to see on the day of mercy the black buck carry away their sins into the desert, neither could they see the lamb killed for the pass-over night, or bring their offerings to the altar; and, deprived of Jerusalem during life, they would not be brought there after death.

God ought not to abandon his children, reasoned the pious; and naive legends came to comfort the exiles. Near the tombs of the Jews who die in exile, they said, Jehovah opens long caverns through which the corpses roll as far as Palestine, whereas the pagan who dies there, near the consecrated hills, is removed from the chosen land, for he is unworthy of remaining there where the resurrection will take place.

Still that did not satisfy them. They did not resign themselves to visiting Jerusalem merely as pitiable pilgrims, weeping before the ruined walls, many of them so maddened by grief as to let themselves be trampled upon by horses’ hoofs, embracing the ground while moaning; they could not believe that God, that the blessed city had abandoned them; with Judah Levita they exclaimed: “Zion, hast thou forgotten thy unfortunate children who groan in slavery ?”

They expected that their Lord would by his mighty right hand raise the fallen walls; they hoped that a prophet, a chosen one, would bring them back to the promised land; and how many times, in the course of ages, have they left their homes, their fortunes they who are reproached of being too much attached to worldly goodsin order to follow a false Messiah who undertook to lead them and promised them the return so much longed for ! Thousands were attracted by Serenus, Moses of Crete, Alroi, and massacred in the expectation of the happy day.

With the Talmudists these sentiments of popular enthusiasm, this mystic heroism underwent a transformation. The doctors taught the restoration of the Jewish empire; in order that Jerusalem might be born anew from its ruins, they wanted to preserve the people of Israel pure, to prevent them from mixing with other people, to inculcate on them the idea that they were everywhere in exile, amidst enemies that held them captive. They said to their disciples: “Do not cultivate strange lands, soon you will cultivate your own; do not attach yourself to any land, for thus will you be unfaithful to the memory of your native land; do not submit to any king, for you have no master but the Lord of the Holy Land, Jehovah; do not scatter amongst the nations, you will forfeit your salvation and you will not see the light of the day of resurrection; remain such as you left your house; the hour will come and you will see again the hills of your ancestors, and those hills will then be the centre of the world, which will be subject to your power.”

Thus all those complex sentiments which had in olden days served to build up the hegemony of Israel, to maintain its character as a nation, to develop a high and powerful originality, all those virtues and vices which gave it the spirit and countenance necessary to preserve a nation; which enabled it to attain greatness and later to defend its independence with desperate valour worthy of admiration; all that, after the Jews had ceased to be a State, combined to shut them up in the most complete, the most absolute isolation.

This isolation has been their strength, in the opinion of some apologists. If they mean to say that owing to it the Jews have survived, so much is true; if the conditions are considered, however, under which the Jews have preserved their identity as a people, it is obvious that this isolation has been their weakness, and that they have survived up to modern times, as a race of pariahs, persecuted, often martyred. Moreover, it is not only to their seclusion that they owe this surprising persistence. Their extraordinary solidarity, due to their misfortunes, and mutual support count for very much; and even in our day, when they take part in public life in some countries, having abandoned their sectarian dogmas, this very solidarity prevents them from dissolving and disappearing as a people, by conferring upon them certain benefits to which they are by no means indifferent.

This solicitude for worldly goods, which is a marked feature of the Hebrew character, has not been without effect upon the conduct of the Jews, especially since they left Palestine; by directing them along certain avenues, to the exclusion of all others, this feature of their character has drawn upon them the most violent animosities. The soul of the Jew is twofold: it is both mystic and positive. His mysticism has come down from the theophanies of the desert to the metaphysical dreaming of the kabbala; his positivism, or rather his rationalism, manifests itself in the sentences of the Ecclesiastes as well as the legislative enactments of the rabbis and the dogmatic controversies of the theologians. Still if mysticism leads to a Philo or Spinoza, rationalism leads to the usurer, the weigher of gold; it creates the greedy trader. It is true that at times these two states of the mind are found in just opposition, and the Israelite, as it occurred in the middle ages, can split his life into two parts: one devoted to meditation on the Absolute, the other to business.

Of the Jewish love for gold, there can be no question here. Though it may have grown so abnormal with this race as to have become well-nigh the only motive of their actions, though it may have engendered a violent and exasperated antisemitism, yet it cannot be classed among the general causes of antisemitism. It was, on the contrary, the effect of those very causes, and we shall see that it is partly the exclusiveness, the persistent patriotism, and pride of Israel, that has driven it to become the hated usurer of the whole world.

In fact, all the causes we have just enumerated, if they be general, are not the only ones. I have called them general, because they depend upon one constant element: the Jew. Still the Jew is only one of the factors of antisemitism; he provokes it by his presence, but he is not the only one that determines it. The nations among whom the Israelites have lived, their manners, their customs, their religion, the philosophy even of the nations in whose midst Israel has developed determine the particular character of antisemitism, which changes with time and place.

We shall trace these modifications and variations of antisemitism through the course of ages down to our epoch; and we shall examine whether, in some countries at least, the general causes I have attempted to deduce are still operating, or whether the reasons for modern antisemitism must not be sought elsewhere.


1. Tractatus theologico-politicus.

2. When I say “Moses assigned,” it is not to maintain that Moses himself elaborated all the laws which pass under his name, but merely because he is credited with having revised them.

3. Cod. Theod., book II, title III, 2. Cod. Just., book I, title IX, 2.

4. Philo, Legat. ad Cai.

5. Dig., book I, title III, 3. (Decisions by Septimius Severus and Caracalla.)

6. Spinoza, Tractatus theologico-politicus.

7. The Dibre Sopherim.

8. Mark, vii, 27.

9. Derembourg, Geographie de la Palestine.

10. Graetz, Histoire des Juits, b. II, p. 469.

11. Ant. Jud., xx, 9.

12. The Jewish thought still had a few lights in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. But those among the Jews who produced anything mostly took part in the struggle between philosophy and religion, and were without influence upon their co-religionists; their existence is therefore no denial of the spirit inculcated on the masses by the rabbis. Besides, one meets, throughout that period, none but unimportant commentators, physicians and translators; there appears no great mind among them. One must go as far as Spinoza to find a Jew truly capable of high ideas; it is wellknown how the Synagogue treated Spinoza.

13. Insolentia Judaeorum,” spoken of by Agobard, Amolon and the polemists of the Middle Ages means nothing but the pride of the Jews, who consider themselves the chosen people. This expression has not the sense forced into it by modern antisemites, who, it may be noted, are poor historians.

14. The Roman laws, the Visigothic ordinances and those of the Councils will probably be cited; yet nearly all these measures proceeded principally from Jewish proselytism. It was not until the thirteenth century that the Jews were radically and officially separated from the Christians, by ghettos, by symbols of infamy (the hat, the cape, etc.). See Ulysse Robert, Les Signes d’infamie au Moyen Age. (Paris, 1891.)