Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Bernard Lazare 1894


AFTER being assailed as a Semite, as a stranger, as a revolutionist, as an enemy to Christianity, the Jew is attacked as a factor in economic affairs. This has been the case ever since the dispersion. Already before our era the Romans and the Greeks were jealous of the privileges which permitted the Jews to carry on trade under more favourable conditions than the rest of the people,[243] and during the Middle Ages the usurer was hated as much as, if not more than, the murderer of Christ.[244] The condition of the Jews was changed at the end of the eighteenth century; and so favourable was the change to them that it tended to confirm, if not to increase, the feeling of antipathy with which they were regarded. Economic antisemitism to-day is stronger than it ever was, for the reason that to-day, more than ever, the Jew appears powerful and rich. Formerly he was not seen: he remained hidden in his Ghetto, far from Christian eyes. He had but one care, to conceal his wealth, that wealth of which tradition regarded him as the gatherer, and not the proprietor. The day he was freed from his disabilities, the day the restrictions put to his activities fell away, the Jew showed himself in public. Indeed, he showed himself with ostentation. He wished, after centuries of imprisonment, after years of oppression, to appear a man; and he had the naive vanity of the savage. That was his way of re-acting upon centuries of humiliation. On the eve of the French Revolution, they saw him humble, timid, an object of general contempt, exposed to insult and injury. They found him after the tempest, free, liberated from every constraint, and from a slave, become a master. Such a rapid exaltation was offensive. People were affronted by the wealth which the Jews had now attained the right to pile up, and recourse was had at once to the old accusation of the fathers, the charge that the Jew was an enemy to society. The wealth of the Jew, it was said, is gained at the expense of the Christian. It is acquired through deception, through fraud, through oppression, by all means and principally by detestable means. This is what I shall call the moral charge of the antisemites, and it may be summed up thus: the Jew is more dishonest than the Christian ; he is entirely unscrupulous, a stranger to loyalty and candour.

Is this charge well founded? It was true and still is true in all those countries where the Jew is kept outside of society; where he receives only the traditional Talmudic education; where he is exposed to persecution, to insult, and to oppression; where people refuse to recognize in him the dignity and the independence of the human being. The moral condition of the Jew is due partly to himself, and partly to exterior circumstances. His soul has been moulded by the law which he imposed on himself, and the law which has been forced upon him. Throughout the centuries he lived twice a slave: he was the bondman of the law, and the bondman of everyone. He was a pariah, but a pariah whom teachers and guides united to keep in a state of servitude more complete than the ancient bondage of Egypt. From without, a thousand restrictions impeded his way, arrested his development, restrained his activity; within, he was confronted by an elaborate system of prohibitions. Outside the Ghetto, he experienced the constraint of the law; within the Ghetto, he suffered the oppression of the Talmud. If he attempted to escape from the one, a thousand punishments awaited him; if he ventured to depart from the other, he exposed himself to the Cherem, that awful excommunication which left him alone to the world. It would have been vain to attack these two hostile powers boldly; and therefore the Jew attempted to triumph over them by guile. Both forms of oppression developed in him the instinct of cunning. He attained to an unequaled talent for diplomacy, to a subtlety rarely found. His natural finesse increased, but it was employed for base purposes – to deceive a tyrannical God and despotic rulers. The Talmud and anti-Judaic legislation united to corrupt the Jew to his very depths. Impelled by his teachers, on the one hand, by hostile legislation on the other, by many social causes besides,[245] to the exclusive occupation of commerce and of usury, the Jew became degraded. The pursuit of wealth ceaselessly prosecuted, debauched him, weakened the voice of conscience within him, taught him habits of fraud. In this war of self-preservation which he was forced to carry on against the world and against the secular and religious law, he could conquer only by intrigue, and the unhappy wretch, given over to humiliations, to insults, forced to bow his head under blows and curses and persecution, could avenge himself on his enemies, his tormentors, his executioners only by guile. Robbery and bad faith became his weapons; they were the only weapons of which he could possibly make use, and therefore he exerted himself to elaborate them, to sharpen them, and to conceal them.

When the walls of the Ghetto were overthrown, the Jew, such as he had been made by the Talmud and the legislative and social restrictions imposed upon him, did not change all at once. Upon the morrow of the Revolution he lived just as he had lived upon its eve, nor did he alter his customs, his manners, and, above all, his spirit, as quickly as his condition in life had been altered. Liberated, he retained the soul of a slave, that soul which he is losing day by day as one by one the memories of his degradation are disappearing.

I have already shown how in the course of time the bourgeoisie found in the Jew a powerful and marvelously endowed ally. During long centuries, while society was still plunged in the barbarism of the Middle Ages, the Jew, the trader of old, well armed, well provided with a fine mental equipment, and rich in the possession of ages of experience, was either the representative of capital as employed in commerce and in usury, or else aided in its creation. Nevertheless, these forms of capital did not attain their greatest influence until the labour of centuries had prepared the way for their domination and had transformed them into industrial and bonded capital. To accomplish this, capital needed those two great movements, the Crusades and the discovery of America, followed by the manifold colonial enterprises of Spain, of Portugal, of the Netherlands, of England, and of France, all the activity, in fact, of the age of commercial development. It needed the establishment of public credit and the rise of great banking institutions. It needed the rise of manufactures and the scientific discoveries which brought about the invention and the perfection of machinery. It needed all the elaborate legislation looking towards the restriction of the labourer’s rights and wages, until the moment came when the proletariat was deprived even of the right of association; it needed all that and many other causes besides, causes historic, religious and moral, in order to make present-day society what it is. Those who maintain that the Jews are the sole cause of the present state of things succeed only in establishing their own absurdly marvelous ignorance.

Of course, as I have just said, the part played by the Jews in the development of modern society, was important, but its true character is very little known, or, at least, very imperfectly known, and that especially to the antisemites. It is not to this very elementary knowledge of the economic history of the Jews that antisemitism must be attributed. Our knowledge of the Jews since their emancipation is more complete; in France, under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, they stood at the head of the financial and industrial enterprise, and were among the founders of the great canal, railway and insurance companies. In Germany their activity was exceedingly great. They were at the bottom of all the legislation favourable to the carrying on of banking and exchange, the practice of usury and speculation. It was they who profited by the abolition, in 1867, of the ancient laws limiting the rate of interest. They were active in bringing about the enactment of the law of June 1870, which exempted stock companies from government supervision. After the Franco-German War, they were among the boldest speculators, and at a time when German capitalists were carried away by a passion for the creation of industrial combinations, they acted a no less important part than had the Jews of France, from 1830 to 1848.[246] Their activity persisted until the financial panic of 1873, when the country squires and the small traders who had been ruined by the excesses of this Gründer Periode (the era of promoters) in which the Jew had played the most important part, gave themselves up to the most violent antisemitism, such, indeed, as proceeds only from injured interests.

Once the important part played by the Jews of this period had been proven, and, indeed, their importance was undeniable, people proceeded to the conclusion that the Jew was the possessor of capital par excellence. This became an added cause of hatred against him. The Jews, it was asserted, held everything, and the word Jew, after having been a synonym for knave, malefactor and usurer, came to be used as equivalent to rich. Every Jew is a capitalist; such is the common belief. The error of course is deep.

There remain, about two million Jews in Western Europe and in the United States, who may be said to belong to the middle class. Of these two millions, however, it must be admitted that if they were of very little importance a hundred years ago, they are of very great importance to-day. Through their wealth, through their education, through their relations to one another, they occupy a place far out of proportion to their numbers. Compared with the general body of the population they are but a handful, and yet their position in life is such that they are to be seen everywhere, and in number seem to be legion. It is true that we must avoid the common error of comparing them with the total population of any country, inasmuch as they do not generally live outside of towns, but confine themselves to the cities where they play a correspondingly important part. If we would arrive at some exact statistical basis we must compare them to the Christian population of their own class, that is, to the bourgeoisie of commerce, industry and finance. And yet even when we reduce the comparison to these two factors, the Jew versus the bourgeoisie, it is still in favour of the Jew. Wherefore, then, this preponderance ? Some Jews are in the habit of ascribing their economic supremacy to their intellectual superiority. This boast of Jewish superiority is not altogether true, or, at least, requires explanation. In the present bourgeois society, which is founded upon the exploitation of capital and upon exploitation by capital, where the power of wealth is supreme, where stock-jobbing and speculation are all-powerful, the Jew is certainly better equipped for success than any other body. Though he may have been degraded by his exclusive devotion to commerce through the ages, his experience has nevertheless endowed him with certain qualities which have become of surpassing value in the new organization of society. He is cold and calculating, supple and energetic, persevering and patient, clear and exact, qualities which he has inherited all from his ancestors, the money changers and traders of mediaeval times. When he devotes himself to commerce or to finance, he naturally profits by the education which his ancestors have undergone through centuries, an education which has rendered him, perhaps, not more suited for certain pursuits as his vanity suggests, but certainly more adaptable to them. In the present industrial struggle, he is better endowed, man for man – I am speaking in general terms – than his competitors, and all things being equal, he must succeed because of his superior equipment. He has no need to make use of fraud, or, at least, to make more use of it than his neighbours, since his [l68] personal and inherited qualities are sufficient to assure him the victory.

Still the possession of such personal gifts is not sufficient to explain the preponderance of the Jews. Among the Christians, too, there are ancient merchant families; a section of the bourgeoisie has inherited qualities very similar to those of the Jews, and therefore it would seem, should be able to challenge the Jews successfully. The answer is that there are other, farther reaching causes, arising both from the nature of the Jew and from the character of modern society. Bourgeois society is based entirely upon competition between man and man in the field of the daily necessities of life. It affords us the spectacle of individuals fighting bitterly one against the other, of isolated units stubbornly disputing the victory and making use of their own individual resources. In this state of society Darwin’s principle of the struggle of life dominates. This spirit governs the actions of every man, and tacitly it is recognized that victory ought to belong to the strongest, to him, that is, who is best equipped, whose body and whose spirit are most perfectly adjusted to the social conditions of existence. If we conceive, then, in the midst of such a community, based upon egoistic action, associations of citizens strongly organized and gifted, animated for many centuries by the spirit of common action, and knowing by instinct and experience, the advantages which they may derive from union, it is certain that such organizations by directing their activity towards the same end as that pursued by the scattered individuals around them will possess such an advantage in the struggle as to assure them an easy victory. This is just the role which is being played by the Jews of the middle class in modern society. They are desirous of winning the same prizes of life as the Christian; they enter the same field of battle; they have the same ambitions; they are just as keen, just as greedy, just as hungry for wealth, just as foreign to any form of justice that is not the justice of their caste, or that does not defend them against the classes they hold in subjection; they are, to sum up, just as immoral at bottom as the Christian in the sense that they consider only the advantages which they may obtain for themselves, and that the sole ambition of their lives is the acquisition of material goods, of which each hopes and strives to obtain the maximum. But in this daily struggle, the Jew, who, personally, as we have already seen, is better endowed than his competitors, increases his advantage by uniting with his co-religionists possessed of similar virtues, and thus augments his powers by acting in common with his brethren; the inevitable result being that they out-distance their rivals in the pursuit of any common end. In the midst of a disunited middle class, whose members are engaged in a perpetual struggle against one another, the Jews stand united as one. This is the secret of their success. Their solidarity is all the stronger in that it goes so far back. Its very existence is denied, and yet it is undeniable. The links in the chain have been forged in the course of ages until the flight of centuries has made man unconscious of their existence. It is worth our while to see how this bond of union was formed and how it was perpetuated.

Jewish solidarity dates from the Dispersion. Jewish emigrants and colonists took up their residence in foreign countries, and wherever they made their home they constituted a distinct society. Their communities centered around their houses of prayer, which they built in every town where they formed a nucleus. Everywhere they possessed numerous important privileges (see Chapters II and III.). The Diasporoi were invaluable allies of the Greeks in carrying on the work of eastern colonization, and strangely enough the Jews who adopted Hellenism, assisted in turn in Hellenizing the East. As a recompense they were allowed to retain their national homogeneity, together with full powers of self-government. This was the case in Alexandria, in Antioch, in Asia Minor, and in the Greek cities of Ionia. In almost every city they constituted corporations at the head of which was an ethnarch or patriarch, who, with the assistance of a council of leaders and a special tribunal, &laqno;exercised all the powers of civil authority and of justice. The synagogues were “veritable small republics.” They were, in addition, the centres of religious and public life. The Jews came together in their synagogues, not only to listen to the reading of the Law, but also for the discussion of their private affairs and for the purpose of exchanging views upon the general course of events. All the synagogues were closely connected in a vast federation which included within its scope the entire ancient world, progressing parallel with the expansion of the Macedonian power and Hellenistic civilization. They communicated with one another by messengers and kept one another in constant touch with events, the knowledge of which was likely to prove useful. In every city the Jewish traveler could count upon the aid of the community; when he arrived as an immigrant or as a settler, he was received as a brother, succoured in his need and assisted in his designs, he was permitted to take up his home wherever he desired and he enjoyed the protection of the community which put all its resources at his disposal. He did not come as a stranger bound upon a difficult conquest, but as one well equipped and with protectors, friends, and brothers by his side. Throughout Asia Minor, the Archipelago, Cyrenaica and Egypt, a Jew might travel in perfect security; everywhere he was treated as a guest, everywhere he proceeded straight to the house of prayer, where he was sure to find a welcome. The Essenes carried on their propaganda in the same manner. They, too, created their little social centres, little associations in the very heart of the Jewish communities, and in this fashion they traveled from city to city, at their own free will taking no thought of the morrow.

At Rome, where they lived in considerable numbers,[247] the Jews were as firmly united as in the cities of the Orient. “They are bound together by indissoluble bonds by the ties of loving sympathy,” says Tacitus.[248] Thanks to their solidarity, they had acquired at Rome, as in Alexandria, such power that political parties feared them and sought their support. “You know,” says Cicero,[249] “how great is the multitude of the Jews, how firm their union and their sympathy, how striking their political skill and their sway over the crowd in the assemblies.”

When the Roman Empire fell, when the barbarian hosts invaded the ancient world, and triumphant Catholicism entered upon its career of expansion, the Jewish communities did not change. They were still powerful organisms and the activity of their common life was such as to lend them great powers of resistance. In the midst of the universal upheaval they preserved their religious and social unity, two inseparable bonds to which they owe their prosperity. The members of the Jewish synagogues drew still more closely together. It was owing to this mutual support that they suffered nothing from the great changes that were going on about them. For some time, even after the Gothic and German kingdoms had been established Jewish communities preserved a certain degree of self-government. They were placed under a special jurisdiction and in the midst of those new societies they constituted veritable trading corporations in which none of the ancient solidarity was wanting. In proportion as the nations became more hostile to the Jews, in proportion as persecution and oppressive legislation increased, their solidarity increased. The external and internal forces which tended to imprison the Jews within the narrow circumference of their Ghettoes, only served to foster the spirit of union among them. Isolated from the world, they only tightened the bonds which held them together. Their common life nourished the desire for, and the need of, fraternal action. In other words, the Ghettoes developed the spirit of Jewish solidarity. In addition, the synagogues had succeeded in preserving their authority, so that while the Jews were subject to the harsh laws of king and of emperor, they had also a government of their own, councils of elders, and tribunals, to whose decisions they submitted. Their general synods forbade, in fact, any Jew under the pain of anathema, from citing a fellow Jew before a Christian tribunal.[250] Everything drove them to unity in those long years of horror and cruelty known as the Middle Ages. Had they been disunited they would have suffered still more. By common action they could defend themselves the more easily and escape some of the calamities that threatened them without end. In the eleventh century a Rabbinical synod at Worms, forbade a Jewish landlord to rent out his house, occupied by a Jew, to a Gentile without the consent of the tenant[251] and a council of the twelfth century forbade a Jew, under the pain of anathema, to bring a fellow Jew before a Christian tribunal. The Jewish community, or Kahal, made use of a powerful weapon against those who proved themselves lacking in the spirit of solidarity; it struck them with anathema and pronounced against them the Cherem Hakahal (the ban of the community) .

In this manner, the action of time, the influence of hostile legislation and of religious persecution, and the need for mutual defense, have intensified the feeling of fellowship among the Jews. In our own day the powerful institution of the Kahal exerts its influence wherever the Jew is subjected to a rigorous regime, and even the reformed Jew, who has broken away from the narrow restrictions of the synagogue, and yields no obedience to the will of the community) has not forgotten the spirit of solidarity.[252] Once having acquired the sentiment of union and fostered it by the habit of ages, they could not get rid of it in getting rid of their faith. It had become a social instinct, and social instincts, slowly formed, are slow to disappear. A Jew will always obtain assistance from his co-religionists, provided he be found faithful to the ties of Jewish brotherhood; but, if on the contrary, he prove hostile to the sentiment of Jewish unity, he will meet with nothing but hostility. The Jew, even though he may have departed from the synagogue, is still a member of the Jewish free-masonry,[253] of the Jewish clique, if you will.

United, then, by the strongest feelings of solidarity, the Jews can easily hold their own in this disjointed and anarchic society of ours. If the millions of Christians by whom they are surrounded were to substitute this same principle of co-operation for that of individual competition, the importance of the Jew would immediately be destroyed. The Christian, however, will not adopt such a course, and the Jew must inevitably, I will not say dominate, the favourite expression of the antisemites, but certainly possess the advantage over others, and exercise that supremacy against which the antisemites inveigh, without being able to destroy it, seeing that its reason lies not only in the middle class among the Jews, but in the Christian bourgeoisie as well.

If we keep in mind, then, this conception of Jewish fellowship and the fact that the Jews at present, constitute an organized minority, we are not unjust in concluding that antisemitism is, in part, a mere struggle among the rich, a contest among the possessors of capital. In truth, it is the capitalist, the merchant, the manufacturer, the financier, among the Christians, who feels himself injured by the Jews, and not the Christian proletariat, who suffer no more from the class of Jewish employers than from their Christian masters; less, indeed, if we consider that in a case like this, where numbers count, the entrepreneur class among the Jews by comparison with the Christians amounts to little. This will explain why antisemitism is essentially the sentiment of the middle classes, and why it is so rarely met with, except in the form of a vague prejudice among the mass of the peasants and the working classes.

This war within the ranks of capital does not reveal itself after the same fashion; it presents rather two aspects, according as it arises from the hostility between the landowning class and the capitalist class in the narrower sense, or from competition within the industrial class itself.

The agrarian capitalist, in his contest against the captain of industry, has embraced antisemitism, because to the territorial lord, the Jew is the representative of commercial and industrial capitalism. For this reason, in Germany, the Agrarian Protectionists, are bitter enemies of the Jews, who are among the most conspicuous champions of free trade. By instinct and self-interest the Jews are opposed to the physiocratic theory which would vest political power only in the owners of land; they maintain rather the theory of modern industrialism, which makes political power go hand in hand with industrial development. Jews and Agrarians both are probably unconscious, as individuals, of the part they are playing in the economic struggle, but their mutual hatred comes from this source, nevertheless. The man of the lower middle class, the small tradesman whom speculation has probably ruined has much clearer ideas of why he is an antisemite. He knows that reckless speculation, with its attendant panics, has been his bane, and for him, the most formidable jugglers of capital, the most dangerous speculators are the Jews; which, indeed, is very true. Those even whose downfall has not been caused by speculation, ascribe their misfortunes indirectly to this cause which has destroyed a great part of the industrial and commercial capital of the world. But here, as everywhere, they make the Jew responsible for a state of things, of which he is far from being the sole cause.

The other form of economic antisemitism is more simple. It arises from the direct competition between Jewish and Christian brokers, manufacturers, and merchants. The Christian capitalist, acting for the most part, independently of his fellows, when confronted by the harmonious, if not united, opposition of the Jewish capitalists, finds himself necessarily at a disadvantage, and in the daily struggle for life frequently succumbs to his adversaries. He, therefore, suffers directly, from the rise of Jewish manufacturers and merchants. Hence his extreme animosity against the Jews, and the desire to break the power of his fortunate rivals. This is the most violent, the most bitter of all the manifestations of antisemitism, because it is the expression of the sentiments of those who feel themselves injured in their personal interests.

This prejudice against the Jews has prevailed to the present day, secret, instinctive rather than deliberate, and acquired by heredity. People still feel an intense bitterness against the deicides, and glance with no favourable eye at their riches, for they still find it difficult to understand how this tribe of miscreants and murderers, doomed to perdition, can legitimately be the owners of wealth. The belief is still held that the Jew cannot acquire wealth without plundering the sons of the soil – every owner of land looking upon himself as its child. If economic antisemitism therefore must be regarded as the manifestation of a struggle within the ranks of capital, we must not forget, too, that it is an outcome of the opposition between national and foreign wealth.


243. Chap. ii.

244. Chap. v.

245. Chap. v.

246. Otto Glagau, loc. cit.

247. E. Renan estimates the number of Jews in Rome at the time of Nero at from twenty to thirty thousand (L’Antechrist, p. 7, note 2).

248. Hist. v. 5.

249. Pro Flacco, xxviii.

250. These synods frequently met after the twelfth century, and constituted the first general assemblies of the Rabbis since the closing of the Talmud. Jacob Tam (Rabbenu Tam), the founder of the school of Tossafists, was the first to bring about the reunion of such assemblies, for the purpose, undoubtedly, of considering means of common resistance to persecution.

251. Jost, Geschichte der Juden, Berlin, 1820, Vol. 2.

252. The Alliance Israelite Universelle, founded in 1860 by Adolphe Cremieux, and numbering at present more than thirty thousand members, has served only to foster the fraternal spirit among the Jews. The aims of the Alliance are to ameliorate the intellectual and moral conditions of the Jews in the Orient by the establishment of schools, to take measures for their relief from oppression, and to bring about their complete emancipation .

253. I am not speaking, of course, of Masonic lodges, but use the word Free Masonry in the broad meaning of the term.