The Roots of Anti-Semitism

Having read the book critique helps to understand the key points. In my novels Double Crossing and Cursing Columbus, the Jewish characters confront anti-Semitism both in Europe and the America. These suspenseful tales for older children and young adults introduce them to Jewish traditions and beliefs and provide a realistic portrayal of immigrant life at the turn of the 20th century. Double Crossing was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Children's Books.

Religious Anti-Semitism
Racial Anti-Semitism
Contemporary Anti-Semitism
Bibliography of Children's Books about Contemporary Anti-Semitism
Bibliography of Children’s Books about Racism

The Longest Hatred: Anti-Semitism is defined as prejudice or hostility to Jews.  Although both Jews and Arabs are members of the Semitic race, anti-Semitism refers only to hatred of the Jews. Anti-Semitism can be directed against an individual, but it is usually directed against a larger group of people, and is made up of myths, ideology, and prejudices that do not have a basis in fact. Anti-Semitism has been in existence for over two thousand years and still exists today.

Defacement of a Jewish cemetery in France, 2004

There are three major types of Anti-Semitism:

1.Religious Anti-Semitism

The New Testament holds the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus, who was himself a Jew.  The anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament were written in a period of tension between the early Christians and the Jews.  The Jews refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah and adopt the new religion that was developing. This angered the early Christians. 

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church taught that the Jews were collectively and permanently responsible for killing Jesus. The Church and local authorities imposed economic restrictions that forced Jews into the unpopular profession of money lending, which was forbidden to Christians. This earned the Jews the hatred of their Christian neighbors, who were dependent on Jewish moneylenders whenever they needed to borrow money. During the Middle Ages every large scale calamity, from the terrible plague called the Black Death to the Mongol Invasion, was blamed on the Jews.  Passion plays depicting the Jewish mob calling for the death of Jesus were a popular form of entertainment and are still presented today. 

The yellow badge Jews were forced to wear can be seen in this marginal illustration from an English manuscript.

Many false stories were spread about Jewish religious practices.  These were accepted as fact by the unschooled, illiterate population of Europe.  Jews were accused of torturing the wafers symbolizing the body of Jesus in a reenactment of the Crucifixion.  More shocking, they were accused of kidnapping and murdering Christian children, in order to drink their blood for religious ceremonies, even though the consumption of blood is prohibited by the dietary laws of the Jewish religion. These blood libels continued into the twentieth century and brought about the death of thousands of innocent men, women and children during riots caused by the false rumors. These riots were often politically and economically motivated: the property of the Jewish population was seized and they were often evicted from their homes.

This illustration comes from a 15th century German woodcut showing an alleged host desecration. In the first panel the hosts are stolen, in the second the hosts bleed when pierced by a Jew, in the third the Jews are arrested, and in the fourth they are burned alive.

Pope John XXIII officially absolved the Jews of collective responsibility for the death of Jesus in 1965, but it takes more than a single pronouncement to erase two thousand of years of hatred. 

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2.    Racial Anti-Semitism

Racial anti-Semitism had its roots in the rising nationalism in the Europe of the 19th century.  The Jews living in countries like France, Germany, Austria, Poland, etc. were viewed as an “alien” nation, even thought they had lived in their country for hundreds, or even thousands of years. Racial anti-Semitism grew hand-in-hand with the pseudo-science of eugenics.  Eugenics classified the Jewish people as a sub-group of the Semitic race, sharing (negative) characteristics that prevented them from assimilating into European society. Racial anti-Semitism blames the Jews for anything negative that happens in a country: economic problems, wars, dissident social movements, etc. Governments and right-wing political parties use the Jews as scapegoats for any misfortune to deflect the blame from the real cause. 

There are many examples of racial anti-Semitism.  During the Dreyfus affair in France in the late 19th century, a secular Jewish army officer was accused of treason on trumped up charges that were later proved false.  The pogroms in Russia in the 1880s began after the Jews were falsely accused of assassinating Czar Alexander II.  A pamphlet entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a forgery used by the Russian secret service to prejudice the Czar by accusing the Jews of a worldwide economic conspiracy. It was adopted by anti-Semitic movements in many countries and is still being used today to arouse public feeling against Jews. The most well-known example of racial anti-Semitism is the systematic brutal murder of six million Jews, 1.5 million of them children, in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust of World War Two. The Nazis used racial criteria to define Jews as anyone who had at least one Jewish grandparent.


Concentration camp inmates during the Holocaust

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3.    The New Anti-Semitism

The new anti-Semitism criticizes Israel and Zionism in order to avoid criticizing Jews in general.  Many of the stereotypes of traditional racial and religious anti-Semitism are used to attack the existence of Israel and Israeli policies, including political cartoons reminiscent of those that were popular in Nazi Germany. Proponents of the new anti-Semitism compare Israeli policies with those of Nazi Germany, deny the right of Israel to exist as an independent nation, severely criticize Israel for behavior that other nations also engage in, and hold Jews throughout the world collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel. Unlike traditional anti-Semitism,

Cartoon from the Syrian daily newspaper Tishreen (April 30, 2000)

which was usually the province of right wing conservatives, the new anti-Semitism is espoused by the political left, as well as Muslim nations hostile to the existence of Israel. Although some critics hold that the new anti-Semitism is solely a critique of Israeli policy, others believe that it has significantly contributed to the rising incidence of anti-Semitism in contemporary Western society.

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Children’s Books about Anti-Semitism today:

  • Arrick, Fran.  Chernowitz!  [Young Adults. Anti-Semitism in a contemporary high school.  Excellent.]
  • Bush, Lawrence.  Rooftop Secrets and Other Stories of Anti-Semitism. [Middle Grade]
  • Cohn, Janice D.S.W.  The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate [Middle Grade]
  • Cormier, Robert.  Tunes for Bears to Dance To. [Young Adult.  Excellent]
  • Lansky, Kathryn.  Prank  [Young Adult]
  • Romm, J. Leonard.  The Swastika on the Synagogue Door. [older Middle Grade]

 Can you help me?  I have read Chernowitz and Tunes for Bears to Dance to, so I can recommend them.  If you have read any of these books and want to write me a short blurb, I will be happy to put it on the website so that other viewers will know more about these books.

If you have read any other books about anti-Semitism today, please let me know so I can add them to the list.  Thank you!

Illustration from Nazi Propaganda Book for Children

Nazi propaganda for German children from Julius Streicher's publication Der Giftpilz (Toadstool), 1938. The caption reads: "The God of the Jews is Money. And to gain money,
he will commit the greatest crimes..."

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Children’s Books about Racism:

Author Title Subject Grade Level
Bagdasarian, Adam Forgotten Fire Armenian Genocide YA
Berry, James Ajeemah and His Son African Enslavement MG
Bruchac, Joseph Trail of Tears Native American MG
Coleman, Evelyn White Socks Only Racism in the U.S. Picture Book
Feelings, Tom The Middle Passage African Enslavement MG/YA (picture book)
Filipovic, Zlata Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo Ethnic Cleansing in the Former Yugoslavia MG/YA
Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki and James D. Houston Farewell to Manzanar Racism in the U.S. YA (memoir)
Kherdian, David The Road from Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl Armenian Genocide MG
Lester Julius From Slave Ship to Freedom Road African Enslavement MG
Lester, Julius To Be a Slave African Enslavement MG/YA
McKissack, Patricia C. and Frederick L. McKissack Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters African Enslavement MG
Miller, William Richard Wright and the Library Card Racism in the U.S. Picture Book
Mochizuki, Ken Baseball Saved Us Racism in the U.S. Picture Book
Naidoo, Beverly Journey to Jo’Burg South African Apartheid MG
Nye, Naomi Shihab Habibi Israeli - Palestinian Conflict MG/YA
Paulsen, Gary Nightjohn African Enslavement MG
Spinelli, Jerry Maniac McGee Racism in the U.S. MG
Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Racism in the U.S. MG/YA
Wiles, Deborah Freedom Summer Racism in the U.S. Picture Book
Yep, Laurence The Star Fisher Racism in the U.S. MG/YA

MG = Middle Grade
YA = Young Adults

For more titles, I suggest the excellent bibliography in Edward L. Sullivan’s The Holocaust In Literature for Youth in the chapter “Making Connections.”  There are also good bibliographies on-line, such as Kay Vandergrift's.

 Additional suggestions are welcome.  

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