Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Bernard Lazare 1894


To inquire into the revolutionary tendencies of Judaism does not mean to examine Jewish Communism. Moreover, from the fact that the so-called Mosaic institutions had been inspired by socialistic principles it should not necessarily be inferred that the revolutionary spirit has always guided Israel.

Communism and revolution are not inseparable terms, and if nowadays we cannot utter the first word without fatally evoking the other this is due to the economic conditions governing us and to the fact that the transformation of the present-day societies, based as they are on individual property, is considered impossible without a violent tearing up. In a capitalistic State the communist is looked upon as a revolutionist, but it is not taken into account that a partisan of private capital would be treated in similar fashion in a communistic State.

If it can be said, with Renan, of the Jews that they have been an element of progress or at least of transformation, if they could be regarded as the ferments of revolution, and that, too, at all times, we shall see, it is not because of these laws on gleaning, on the workmen’s wages, on the sabbatic and jubilee years, which are found in the Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, etc., [208] but because they have always been malcontents.

I do not mean to claim thereby that they were mere mudslingers and systematic opponents of all government, for they were not wrought up against an Ahab or Ahaziah only but the state of things did not satisfy them; they were forever restless, in the expectation of a better state which they never found realized. Their ideal not being one of those which are satisfied with hope they had not placed it high enough for that they never could lull their ambitions with dreams and phantoms. They thought they had a right to demand immediate satisfactions and not remote promises. Hence this constant agitation of the Jews, which had manifested itself not only in prophetism, Messianism and Christianity that was its supreme consummation, but as well since the time of the dispersion, and then in an individual manner.

The causes that gave birth to this agitation, which kept it up and perpetuated it in the souls of some modern Jews, are not external causes such as the tyranny of a ruler, of a people or ferocious code: they are internal causes, i.e., such as pertain to the very essence of the Hebrew spirit. The reasons of the sentiments of revolt with which the Jews were animated must be sought in the idea they had of God, in their conception of life and death.

To Israel, life is a boon, the existence granted to man by God is good; to live is in itself good luck.

By contrast, death is the only evil that can afflict man, it is the greatest of calamities; it is so horrible, so frightful that to be struck by it is the most terrible of punishments. “May death serve me as expiation,” the dying would say, for he could not conceive of a more serious punishment than that consisting in death. The only recompense that the pious earnestly desired was that Yahweh might make them die sated with days, after years passed in abundance and jubilation.

Besides, what recompense other than this could they have expected? They did not believe in the future life, and it was late, perhaps only under the influence of Parsism, that they began to admire the immortality of the soul. For a Jew, his existence ended with life, he was sleeping till the day of resurrection, he had nothing to hope for except from existence, and the punishments that threatened vice, just as the satisfactions that accompanied virtue, were all of this world.

Having no hope of future reward the Jew could not resign to the misfortunes of life; it was only at a very late date that he could console himself in his misfortunes by dreaming of celestial happiness. To the scourges befalling him he replied neither with the Mohammedan’s fatalism, nor with the Christian’s resignation, but with revolt. As he possessed a concrete ideal, he wanted to realize it, and whatever retarded its advent aroused his wrath.

The peoples that believed in a world beyond, those who deluded themselves with sweet and consoling chimeras and let themselves be lulled to sleep with the dream of eternity; those that possessed the dogma of rewards and punishments, of paradise and hell, all these peoples accepted poverty and sickness with bowed heads. The dream of future rejoicing kept them up, and without anger they put up with their sores and their privation. They consoled themselves of the injustices of this world by thinking of the mirth that would be their idyllic pleasures, they consented to bend, without complaint, before the strong who tyrannized them.

But this idea of the continuity and persistence of the personality contributed nothing to the formation of the moral being with the Jews. In earliest times they did not share the hopes of the later Pharisees; after Yahweh had closed their eyelids, they expected only the horror of Sheol. Accordingly, life was for them the important thing; they sought to beautify it with all blessings, and these mad idealists, who had conceived the pure idea of one God were, by a startling yet explicable contrast, the most untractable of sensualists. Yahweh had assigned to them a certain number of years on earth; in this existence, always too short to suit the Hebrew, He demanded of them a faithful and scrupulous worship; in return, the Hebrew claimed positive advantages from his Lord.

The idea of contract dominated the whole of Jewish theology. When the Israelite fulfilled his duties toward Yahweh, he demanded reciprocity. If he thought himself wronged, if he considered his rights had not been respected, he had no good reason to temporize, for the minute of happiness he lost was a minute stolen from him, one which could never be returned to him. Accordingly, he looked to a punctual fulfillment of mutual obligations; he wanted a correct balance to exist between his God and himself; he kept a strict account of his duties and his rights, this account was part of the religion, and Spinoza could justly say : [209] “With the Jews the religious dogmas did not consist in instructions, but in rights and prescriptions; piety meant justice, impiety meant injustice and crime.”

The man whom the Jew lauds is not a saint, not a resignee: it is the just man. The charitable man does not exist for those of Judah’s people; in Israel there can be no question of charity, but only of justice: alms is but a restitution. Besides, what did Yahweh say? He has said: “Just balances, just weights, a just ephah and a just hin shall ye have;” [210] he has also said: “Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbours.” [211]

From this conception of the primitive times of Israel came the law of retaliation. Simple spirits, imbued with the idea of justice, were obviously bound to come to: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The rigour of the code softened only then when a more exact idea of equity was obtained.

The Yahwehism of the prophets reflects these sentiments. What the God they praise wants is: “Let judgment run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream;” [212] he says: “I am the Lord which exercise loving kindness, judgment and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight.” [213] To know justice is to know God, [214] and justice becomes an emanation from divinity; it takes on the character of a revelation. With Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel it formed part of the dogma, it had been proclaimed during the Sinaitic theophanies, and little by little is born this idea: Israel must realize justice.

On returning from Babylon, the Jewish population formed a considerable nucleus of poor, just, pious, humble, and saints. A great portion of the Psalms came from this midst. These Psalms are for the most part violent diatribes against the rich; they symbolize the struggle of the ebionim against the mighty. When addressing the possessors, the sated, the Psalmists readily say with Amos: “Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail,” [215] and in all these poems written between the Babylonian exile and the Maccabees (589-167) the poor is glorified. He is God’s friend, His prophet, His anointed; he is good, his hands are pure; he is upright and just; he is part of the flock of which God is the shepherd.

The rich is the wicked, he is the man of violence and blood; he is knavish, perfidious, haughty; he does evil without motive; he is contemptible, for he exploits, oppresses, persecutes and devours the poor. But his great crime is that he does not do justice; that he has bribed judges who condemn the poor beforehand. [216]

Incited by the words of their poets, the ebionim did not slumber in their misery, they did not delight in their misfortunes, they did not resign to poverty. On the contrary, they dreamed of the day that would avenge the iniquities and opprobriums heaped upon them, the day when the wicked would be hurled down and the just exalted: the day of the Messiah.

When Jesus comes he will repeat what the ebionim Psalmists had said, he will say: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled;” [217] he will anathematize the rich, and will exclaim: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” [218] On this point the Christian doctrine will turn out to be purely Jewish, not at all Hellenic, and Jesus will find his first adherents among the ebionim.

Thus the conception the Jews formed of life and death furnished the first element of their revolutionary spirit. Starting with the idea that good, that is justice, was to be realized not beyond the grave for beyond the grave there is sleep, until the day of the resurrection of the dead but during life, they sought justice, and never finding it, ever dissatisfied, they were restless to get it.

The second element was given them by their conception of divinity. It led them to conceive the equality of men, it led them even to anarchy; a theoretic and sentimental anarchy, since they always had a government, but a real anarchy, for they never accepted with cheerful heart this government, whatever it were.

Whether worshiping Yahweh as their national God, or when they rose with their prophets to the belief in one and universal God, the Jews never speculated over the essence of Divinity. Judaism never set for itself any essential metaphysical questions, whether about the “beyond” or the nature of God. “Sublime speculations have no connection with the Scripture,” says Spinoza, “and, as far as I am concerned, I have not and could not learn, from the Holy Writ, any of the eternal attributes of God”, [219] and Mendelssohn adds: “Judaism has not revealed unto us any of the eternal truths.” [220]

The Jews looked upon Yahweh as a celestial monarch, who would give a charter to his people and enter into engagements with it, demanding, in return, obedience to his laws and prescriptions. In the eyes of the ancient Hebrews and, later on, the Talmudists, the Bene-Israel alone could enjoy the prerogatives granted by Yahweh; in the eyes of the prophets, all nations could lawfully claim these privileges, because Yahweh was the God Universal, and not the equal of Dagon or Beelzebub.

But Yahweh was “the supreme head of the Hebrew people”, [221] He was the all-powerful and formidable lord, the only king, jealous of His authority, cruelly punishing those who showed themselves rebellious against His omnipotence. In good luck, as in ill-luck, a pious Jew had ever to have recourse to Him. To turn to men and not to God Yahweh was a crime, and having made an alliance with Rome and Mithridates I, Judas Maccadaeus in- curred this anathema of Rabbi Jose, son of Johanan: “Accursed be he who places his reliance in creatures of flesh and who removes his heart from Yahweh !” Yahweh is thy fort, thy shield, thy citadel, thy hope, say the Psalms.

All Jews are Yahweh’s subjects; He has said it Himself: “For unto me the children of Israel are servants.” [222] What authority can, then, prevail by the side of the divine authority? All government, whatever it be, is evil since it tends to take the place of the government of God; it must be fought against, because Yahweh is the only head of the Jewish commonwealth, the only one to whom the Israelite owes obedience.

When insulting the Kings, the prophets represented the sentiment of Israel. They were giving expression to the thoughts of the poor, the humble, all those who, being directly ill-used by the power of the Kings or of the rich, were more inclined, for that very reason, to criticize or deny the good coming from this tyranny.

Holding Yahweh alone as their lord, these anavim and ebionim, were ever driven to revolt against human magistracy; they could not accept it, and during the periods of uprising Zadok and Judah the Galilean were seen carrying with them the zealots by their cry: “Call none your master!” Zadok and Judah were logical: if we place our tyrant in heavens we cannot endure one down here.

God himself commands this equality, and again the mighty are the obstacle to its realization. The humble, who live in common, practice it; they follow the communistic precepts of Leviticus, Exodus, Numbers, precepts inspired by preoccupations with equality. As for the rich, they forget that God had made all men from the same clay, they disown the equality proclaimed by God. Thus they oppress the people, they fill their houses with the spoils of the poor, they browse his vineyard, they make of widows their prey, of orphans their booty, [223] and owing to them inequality exists.

At them, at these possessors and these grandees the prophets hurl the anathema; the psalmists thunder: “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, show thyself !” [224] they cry. They rebuke the rich for the abundance of his treasures, his luxury, his love of pleasures; whatever contributes to raise him materially above his brethren; whatever can give him the impious arrogance of deeming himself made of other dust than that of which is made the mountain-shepherd who pastures his sheep and fears God; whatever makes him forget this divine truth; men are equal to one another, since they are the children of Yahweh who pretended giving each of his subjects an equal share of the earth they tread on, an equal share of joys and blessings.

After Yahweh they believed in self only. To the unity of God there corresponded the unity of being; to God absolute absolute being. Accordingly, subjectivity has ever been the fundamental trait of the Semitic character; it has often led the Jews to egoism, and having once exaggerated this egoism, certain Talmudists ended with recognizing, in the matter of duties, nothing but duties to one’s self. This subjectivity, as much as monotheism, accounts for the incapacity shown by the Jews in all plastic arts. As for their literature it was purely subjective; the Jewish prophets, like the psalmists, like the poets of Job and the Song of Songs, like the moralists of the Ecclesiastes and the Book of Wisdom, knew only themselves and generalized their feelings or their personal sensations. This subjectivity also makes us understand why the Jews have at all times, even in our days, shown so much aptness for musicthat most subjective of all arts.

Thus they were undeniably individualists, and these men, so eager to pursue earthly interests, appear to us thanks to their uncompromising conception of existence as untractable idealists. Now, an individualist imbued with idealism is and will always be in revolt. He will never want to allow anybody to violate his sacred self, and no will can prevail over his.

Notwithstanding their long bondage, despite the years of martyrdom which have been their lot, in spite of the centuries of humiliation, which have debased their character, depressed their brains, cramped their intelligence, changed their tastes, their customs, their aptitudes, the debris of Judah have not abjured their so vivid dream, which had been their support and inspiration during the wars for independence.

The funeral-piles, massacres, spoliations, insults, everything contributed to make dearer to them the justice, the equality and the liberty which during many long years were for them the emptiest words. The great voice of the prophets proclaiming that the wicked will be punished one day has always found an echo in these tenacious souls that did not like to bend, and despised this so miserable reality in order to delude themselves with the idea of the future time; that future time, of which Amos and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and all those have spoken who sang Mizmorim (psalms), to their own accompaniment on stringed instruments. However gloomy the present, Israel never ceased to believe in the future.

The Jews were told: “Why do you await Messiah; obdurate, know ye not that he has come?” They answered with sarcasm, they shrugged their shoulders and replied: ’The Messiah has not come, for we are suffering, for famine desolates the land, for the black pest and the nobleman burden the sorrowful wretches !” But when they would be told that their Meshiach would never come, they would lift up their bowed down heads and, stubborn that they were, would say: “Meshiach will come one day and on that day will be understood the word of the Psalmist: ’I have seen the wicked in great power and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away and lo ! he was not; yea, I sought him, but he could not be found’ [225] and the poor, the just are those who will possess the earth.”

The narrow practices into which their doctors had pressed the Jews, have put to slumber their instincts of revolt. Under the bonds of the Talmudic laws, they felt tottering in them the ideas that had ever sustained them, and it could be said that Israel could be vanquished only by himself. Still the Talmud did not debase all Jews; among those who rejected it there were some who persisted in the belief that justice, liberty and equality were to come to this world; there were many of them who believed that the people of Yahweh was charged with working for this coming. This makes it plain why the Jews were implicated in all revolutionary movements, for they took an active part in all revolutions, as we shall see when we study their role during all periods of trouble and change.

It remains now to know how the Jew has manifested these revolutionary tendencies, whether he was actually (as he is accused) an element of disturbance in modern societies; and thus we are led to examine the religious, political and economic causes of antisemitism.


208. Leviticus, xix, xxv;

209. Exodus, xxii; Numbers, xxv.

210. Levit., xix, 36.

211. Levit., xix, 15.

212. Amos, v, 24.

213. Jeremiah, ix, 24.

214. Jeremiah, xxii, 15-16.

215. Amos, viii, 4.

216. Psalms, xxvi, 10; lxxxii, 2-3; lviii, 2; xxii; xlviii; lxix; cii, 1, 2; cvii, etc.

217. Matth., v, 6.

218. Mark, x, 25.

219. Spinoza, Letters, xxxiv.

220. Mendelssohn, Jerusalem.

221. Munk, Palestine.

222. Levit., xxv, 55.

223. Isaiah, iii; x.

224. Psalms, xciv.

225. Psalms, xxxvii, 35-36.