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The Roots Of Anti-Semitism
Even though the term anti-Semitism came about in the later 19th century, anti-Jewish feelings can be traced to ancient civilizations. The Romans, for example. who held poly theistic beliefs (the worship of many gods), resented Jews for their belief in one God and for their refusal to participate in pagan rituals.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 of the Common Era, pressure was put on the Jews to convert. Many church leaders, who became frustrated when Jews refused to forsake their religious beliefs, began to promote the idea that Jews, and not the Roman authorities in Palestine, were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.
During the Middle Ages various laws were passed that placed special restrictions on where Jews lived, curtailed their social and economic interactions with non-Jews, and increased the pressure on them to convert to Christianity. The Crusades were a turning point in the history of anti-Jewish feeling because they set off a wave of riots that killed many Jews and forced many more to flee from Western to Eastern Europe.
During the Middle Ages, myths and superstitions grew out of ignorance. Jews frequently became the victims of hideous rumors and scapegoats for disasters that could not be explained. Jews were accused of starting the Black Plague of the 14th century by poisoning wells. The fact that thousands of Jews also died of the plague did not deter the accusations.
Money-lending served as another "black mark" against European Jewry of the Middle Ages. As the European economy began to grow, capital was needed to stimulate trade and industry. The Christian Church had condemned money-lending as wicked and immoral. With other opportunities closed to them by law, some Jews became money lenders, providing money to build cathedrals, promote trade and furnish armies. It is ironic to think that these Jewish moneylenders were resented by the very people that they helped. In addition, in many European countries Jews were forced to live apart from Christians in ghettos. While Jews were forced into these ghettos, they were perceived as outsiders. They were seen as a people who chose to live separately from the larger community.
Even though the 19th century brought an end to the policies that created ghettos and saw more tolerant feelings toward Jews develop, a surge of nationalism brought a new form of anti-Jewish feelings based on race. It now carried a new name, anti-Semitism. Some Eastern European countries went as far as to launch government sponsored violence against the Jews and their property called pogroms. Many of these anti-Semitic outbreaks resulted in death and forced emigration.
The Nazis were able to build upon these prejudices and negative stereotypes that had developed over hundreds of years to blame the Jews for Germany's defeat in World War I and the country's post-war problems. The fact that thousands of Jews fought bravely for Germany in World War I did not matter. Adolf Hider would come to power in Germany in 1933 and launch anti-Jewish policies which culminated in genocide, the mass death of more than 70 percent of European Jewry.
Judaism is a religion which is based on beliefs and practices, as are all religions. Judaism believes that there is one God. To Jews, Jesus was one of many religious leaders. He is not recognized as the embodiment of God on earth. Practices, such as keeping kosher and observing the sabbath, are derived from the Bible and rabbinical deliberations since Biblical days. They create a unique way of life. Especially significant observances are the study of holy texts, prayer, and acts of loving kindness.
Throughout a long history Jews have considered each other as members of a large family beginning with Abraham. They have a strong group identity. This consciousness of belonging to a people and not just what we call in English a religion is what distinguishes Judaism.
Since the time of the Bible, migrations and conversions have created Jews with a variety of physical features.
The term "Semite:" Semitism applied to Jews to define them as a race is imprecise, because Jews have been a mixture of people from earliest times.
Based on text written by Rabbi Ronaki Roth 1988.