Antisemitism: Its History and Causes. Bernard Lazare 1894


WE have seen then that the causes of antisemitism are, in their nature, ethnic, religious, political and economic. They are all causes of far reaching importance, and they exist not because of the Jew alone, nor because of his neighbours alone, but principally because of prevailing social conditions. Ignorant of the real cause of their sentiments, those who profess antisemitism, justify their opinion by accusations against the Jew which, as we have seen, do not at all agree with facts. Charges racial, charges religious, charges political and economic, none of these grievances of antisemitism are well founded. Some, like the ethnic grievance arise from a false conception of race; others like the religious and political charges, are due to a narrow and incomplete interpretation of historical evolution; and last of all, the economic count, has its justification in the necessity of concealing the strife going on within the capitalist class. None of these accusations is justified. It is no more correct to say that the Jew is a pure Semite than it would be to say that the European peoples are pure Aryans.

Still though the Jews are not a race, they were, until our own days, a nation. They did not fail to perpetuate their national characteristics, their religion and their theological code, which was at the same time a social code. Though they were never guilty of working for the destruction of Christianity, and were never organized in a secret conspiracy against Jesus, they did lend aid to those who assailed the Christian religion, and in all attacks on the Church, they were ever in the front rank. In the same way, even if they did not constitute a vast secret society, implacably pursuing through the centuries as its object, the undermining of monarchy, they did render important aid to the cause of Revolution. In the nineteenth century they were among the most ardent adherents of the liberal, social, and revolutionary parties, to which they contributed men like Lasker and Disraeli, Cremieux, Marx and Lassalle, not counting the obscure herd of agitators. To the revolu- tionary cause, too, they contributed their wealth. Finally, as I have just said, if they did not, by themselves, erect the throne of triumphant capitalism on the ruins of the old regime they were instrumental in its erection. Thus are the Jews found at the opposite poles of modern society. On the one hand they labour assiduously at that enormous concentration of wealth, which, no doubt, is bound to result in its expropriation by the State; on the other hand, they are among the most bitter foes of capital. Opposed to the Jewish money baron, the product of exile, of Talmudism, of hostile legislation and persecution, stands the Jewish revolutionist, the child of biblical and prophetic tradition, that same tradition which animated the fanatic Anabaptists of Germany in the sixteenth century, and the Puritan warriors of Cromwell. In the midst of the many transformations which our age has witnessed, they have not remained inactive; indeed, it is their activity which has, I will not say caused, but rather perpetuated, antisemitism, for antisemitism is but the successor of the anti-Judaism of the Middle Ages. Long ago, in Spain, the persecution of the Moriscoes and the Marranos was an attempt to eliminate a foreign element in the Spanish nation; and in the same way the Jews were regarded as a strange tribe, a horde of deicides, whose aim was by propaganda to infuse their spirit into the Christian peoples, and in addition, to obtain possession of great wealth, the importance of which was becoming apparent even during the early years of the Mediaeval period. Antisemitism, at present, finds different expression from that of former times; the charges brought against the Jew have also varied, in that they are formulated after a different fashion and are given a basis of ethnologic and anthropologic theory; but the causes have not altered appreciably, and modern antisemitism differs from the anti-Judaism of former times only in that it is more self-conscious, more pragmatic, and more deliberate. At the bottom of the antisemitism of our own days, as at the bottom of the anti-Judaism of the thirteenth century are the fear of, and the hatred for, the stranger. This is the primal cause of all antisemitism, the never failing cause. It appears in Alexandria under the Ptolemies, in Rome during the lifetime of Cicero, in the Greek cities of Ionia, in Antioch, in Cyrenaica, in feudal Europe, and in the modern state whose soul is the spirit of nationality.

Let us leave now this old anti-Judaism and concern ourselves only with the antisemitism of modern times. A product of the spirit of national exclusiveness and of a reaction on the part of the conservative spirit against the tendencies set into motion by the Revolution, all the causes which have brought it about, or have served to maintain it, may be reduced to this one only: the Jews are not as yet assimilated; that is to say, they have not yet given up their belief in their own nationality. By the practice of circumcision, by the observation of their special rules of prayer and their dietary regulations, they still continue to differentiate themselves from those around them; they persist in being Jews. Not that they are incapable of the sentiment of patriotism – the Jews in certain countries, as in Germany, have contributed more than anybody else to the realization of national unity – but they seem to solve the apparently unsolvable problem of constituting an integral part of two nationalities; if they are Frenchmen, or if they are Germans, they are also Jews.

Why is this so? Because everything has contributed to maintain their peculiar characteristics as a people; because they have been the possessors of a religion which is national in character, and which had its perfect reason for existence while the Jews constituted a people, but which ceased to be of service after the Dispersion and now tends only to keep them apart from the rest of the world; because all over Europe they have established colonies jealous of their prerogatives, and clinging firmly to their customs, to their religious practices, to their manners of life; because they have been living for ages under the domination of a theological code, which has rendered them immobile; because the laws of the numerous countries in which they have made their abode, together with prejudice and persecution, have prevented them from mingling with the body of the people; because since the second exodus, since their departure, that is, from Palestine, they have raised around themselves, and others have raised around them rigid and insurmountable barriers. Such as they are they are the result of a slow process of creation, on their own part, and on the part of others: their intellectual and moral life is what it is, because others made it their object to differentiate the Jews from the world, and the Jews themselves devoted themselves to the same object. They feared defilement through contact, and they were feared in turn as a source of defilement. Their doctors forbade them to unite with the Christians, and the Christian lawmakers forbade all union with the Jews. Of their own impulse they devoted themselves to the occupation of money-changing, and they were forbidden to exercise any other profession than that; of their own accord, they separated themselves from the world, and they were forced by others to remain in the Ghettoes.

Here we find ourselves confronted with a most serious objection. The antisemites are not content with saying that the Jew belongs to a different race, and is therefore a stranger, but they declare that he is by nature an element which can never be assimilated; and even if some of them admit that the Jew may become a constituent part in the composition of nations, they would have it that such an amalgamation is only detrimental to that nation. The Semite, it is maintained, saps the strength of and destroys the Aryan, and this in spite of the antisemitic theory that the superior race is bound to overcome the inferior race without being in the least affected by it. Are the Jews then incapable of assimilation? Not the least in the world, and their entire history proves the contrary. It shows us[254] how large is the number of Jews who have become mixed with the other nations through baptism, how numerous were their conversions in the Middle Ages; how many Jews have been absorbed by the surrounding population, going over of their own free will to Christ, or driven to the baptismal font by the violence of monks and fanatical kings. Jews, in short, of whom we can no longer find any trace, just as we can no longer find any traces of the Goths, the Alamani and the Suevi, who with many other peoples united to form the French nation. At all times the Jew, like all Semites, has been in touch with the Aryan; at all times there has been intercommunication between the two races, and nothing can serve better to prove that their assimilation is possible. If we find certain resemblances between the Spanish Jew and the Jew of Russia[255] we find also marked differences, and these differences are due not only to the absorption of other races, attracted and converted by the Jew, but are the result also of the Jew’s natural environment, social, moral, and intellectual. The Jewish type has varied not only geographically, but has changed through time; it is a truism that the Jew of the Roman Ghetto was not the same as the Jew who fought under Bar-Cochba, just as the Jew of our great European cities does not resemble the Jew of the Middle Ages. The Jew has been no exception to this law of human evolution, and it is not the snows of Poland, or the burning suns of Spain that have been the principal factors in his development. He has been reduced to a state of putrefaction by the hostile laws of the nations in which he lived, and by his religion, a powerful and fearful religion, like all non-metaphysical religions which are characterized predominantly by a ritual and a Law. For the Jew this religion and this Law have always been the same, in all times and all places. They have been constant forces in his development, both externally and internally.

But during the last hundred years, these seemingly constant factors have undoubtedly undergone a change.[256] There are no longer external legislative restrictions on the Jew; the special laws to which he was formerly subjected have been abolished, and henceforth, he is amenable only to the laws of the country of which he is a citizen (and these laws, let me remark, differing with every country constitute in themselves a factor of differentiation for the Jew). With the disappearance of discriminating laws, his own peculiar laws have also disappeared. The Jew no longer lives apart, but shares in the common life; is no longer a stranger to the civilization of the countries which have received him; has no longer a literature of his own; nor manners that mark him as different from others. In short, he has adapted himself to the mode of life of whatever nation he adheres to. And as these modes of life differ from nation to nation, they serve to create marked differences among the Jews themselves, with the progress of time creating more and more striking variety among them. Day by day they are departing from the class of occupations and the type of religion peculiar to the Jew.

Still more important, however, is the fact that the Talmudic spirit is slowly vanishing. Such schools of the Talmud as still exist in Western Europe are disappearing day by day: the modern Jew is not even able to read Hebrew; freed from the bonds of the rabbinical code, the synagogue of the present day professes at most a sort of ceremonial deism, and deism itself is losing its strength with the modern Jew, making every reformed Jew ready for rationalism. Nor is it only Talmudism that is dying, but the Jewish religion itself is in its death agony. It is the oldest of all existing religions, and it would seem right that it should be the first to disappear. Direct contact with the Christian world has started it upon its course of dissolution. For a long time it has endured as all bodies endure which are deprived of light and air: but once a breach is made in the cavern in which it has been sleeping, the sun and the fresh breath of the outside air have entered and it has fallen apart. Together with the Jewish religion, the Jewish spirit is vanishing. True it is that that was the spirit which animated Heine and Boerne, Marx and Lassalle, but they were still the products of the Jewry; they were cradled in traditions which the young Jews of to-day overlook or despise. At the present time, if there is still such a thing as Jewish personality, it tends to disappear. What religious persecution could not bring about, the decline of religious faith, based upon national ideal has accomplished. The emancipated Jew, freed alike from hostile legislation and obscurant Talmudism, far from being an element to absorb others, has become an element that can be readily absorbed. In certain countries, as in the United States, the distinction between Jews and Christians is rapidly disappearing.[257] It is vanishing from day to day, because from day to day the Jews are abandoning their ancient prejudices, their peculiar modes of worship, the observance of their special laws of prayer and their dietary regulations. They no longer persist in the belief that they are destined always to remain a people; they no longer dream – a touching dream, perhaps, but ridiculous – that they have an eternal mission to fulfill. The time will come when they shall be completely eliminated; when they shall be merged into the body of the nations, after the same manner as the Phoenicians, who, having planted their trading stations all over Europe disappeared without leaving a trace behind them. By that time, too, antisemitism will have run its course. The moment, to be sure, is not near; the number of orthodox Jews is still great, and as long as they exist it would seem that antisemitism must exist.

If Judaism, then, is in the process of dissolution, neither is Catholicism or Protestantism gaining in strength, and we may venture to say that every external form of religion is losing its influence. On the one hand, we are advancing towards a narrow and stupid materialism, opposed to all religious feeling; on the other, our way is towards a state of philosophic and moral unreligion which shall be “a degree higher than religion or civilization itself.”[258] At the same time while these tendencies are increasing, religious prejudice is tending to disappear, and the prejudice of Christian against Jew, and of Jew against Christian, persistent, in its way, as the prejudice of the Catholic against the Protestant, cannot possibly be the only one to remain. Even now it is decreasing in intensity, and the time is near, no doubt, when every Jew will no longer be held responsible for the sufferings of Jesus on Calvary. With the steady extinction of religious animosities, one of the causes of antisemitism must disappear, and antisemitism itself must lose much of its violence, though exist it will, so long as the economic and ethnic causes which have made it, endure.

The spirit of national egotism and self-sufficiency, however strong it may be at present is also showing signs of decay. Other ideas have arisen, which from day to day are gaining in influence; they enter into the spirits of men, they impress themselves upon their understanding, they engender new conceptions and new forms of thought. The brotherhood of nations which formerly was a mere chimera, may be dreamt of now, without transcending the limits of common sense. The sentiment of human solidarity is growing stronger; and the number of thinkers and writers who labour at furthering its growth is increasing from day to day. The nations are coming into closer touch, and are learning to know one another better, admire one another, love one another. Increased facilities of communication tend to favour the development of the cosmopolitan spirit, and this spirit of cosmopolitanism will unite one day the most diverse of races in a peaceful Federation of definite entities, substituting universal altruism for selfish patriotism. The Jews are bound to profit by this decline of national exclusiveness, in that it must coincide with the partial elimination of their own peculiar characteristics. The progress of internationalism must bring about the decay of antisemitism. Parallel with the decline of national prejudices the Jews will witness the economic causes of antisemitism losing their force. At present the Jews are assailed as the representatives of foreign wealth. It is therefore just to suppose that when the animosity against things foreign shall have disappeared, Jewish capital will no longer be an object of attack for Christian capital. Competition will, of course, persist in spite of all this, and those Jews who persist in maintaining their national identity, will always remain the objects of an hostility based upon this competitive struggle.

Other events, however, and other changes may bring about the disappearance of these economic causes. In the struggle which is now on between the proletariat and the industrial and financial classes, we shall possibly see Jewish and Christian capitalists forgetting their differences to unite against a common enemy. If present social conditions persist, however, such a union of the Christian and Jewish bourgeoisie can only bring about a temporary truce. From the battle which must inevitably be fought out, the indications are that Capital cannot come out the victor. Founded upon egoism, upon selfishness, upon injustice, upon lies, and upon theft, our present society is doomed to disappear. However brilliant it may appear, however resplendent, refined, luxurious, magnificent, it is stricken with death. It has been weighed morally and found wanting. The bourgeoisie which exercises all political power because it holds control of all economic agencies, will draw upon its resources in vain; in vain will it appeal to all the armies that defend it, to all the tribunals of justice that watch over it, to all the legal codes that protect it; it will not be able to withstand the inflexible laws which day by day are working towards the substitution of communal property for the capitalistic regime.

Everything is tending to bring about such a consummation. Such is the irony of things that antisemitism which everywhere is the creed of the conservative class, of those who accuse the Jews of having worked hand in hand with the Jacobins of 1789 and the Liberals and Revolutionists of the nineteenth century, this very antisemitism is acting, in fact, as an ally of the Revolution. Drumont in France, Pattai in Hungary, Stoecker and von Boeckel in Germany are co-operating with the very demagogues and revolutionists whom they believe they are attacking. This antisemitic movement, in its origin reactionary, has become transformed and is acting now for the advantage of the revolutionary cause. Antisemitism stirs up the middle class, the small tradesmen, and sometimes the peasant, against the Jewish capitalist, but in doing so it gently leads them toward Socialism, prepares them for anarchy, infuses in them a hatred for all capitalists, and, more than that, for capital in the abstract. And thus, unconsciously, antisemitism is working its own ruin, for it carries in itself the germ of destruction.

Such, then, is the probable fate of modern antisemitism. I have tried to show how it may be traced back to the ancient hatred against the Jews; how it persisted after the emancipation of the Jews, how it has grown and what are its manifestations. In every way I am led to believe that it must ultimately perish, and that it will perish for the various reasons which I have indicated, because the Jew is undergoing a process of change; because religious, political, social, and economic conditions are likewise changing; but above all, because antisemitism is one of the last, though most long lived, manifestations of that old spirit of reaction and narrow conservatism, which is vainly attempting to arrest the onward movement of the Revolution.


254. Chap. x.

255. I am speaking of the Jews who have remained true to their faith.

256. I must repeat once more that I am speaking now only of the Jews of Western Europe, who have been admitted to the rights of citizenship in the countries where they live, and not of the Jews of the East, who are still subject to discriminating laws, as in Roumania, in Russia, in Morocco, and in Persia.

257. Henry George, Progress and Poverty.

258. M. Guyau, L’lrreligion de l’avenir, Paris, 1893.