As the Protestant reformation took hold, the position of Jews in Europe was unchanged. They remained subject to occasional massacres, such as those that occurred during wars between Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians and Roman Catholic Poles in the mid-17th Century, which rivaled the worst massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages. Periodic persecutions of Jews continued until the late 18th Century, as history moved into the “Age of Reason”, when the power of the Church loosened its hold on the people of Europe.
Yet anti-Semitism still continued in a different form. As reason took over from faith, Jews were not so much blamed as “Christ-killers”, as for Christianity itself and, ironically, the injustices and cruelty committed by followers of “religion”. Some of the most prominent figures, such as Voltaire, ridiculed the Jews as a group alienated from society who practiced a primitive and superstitious religion.
Until the French Revolution of 1789, Jews in Europe were still viewed as outsiders with few civil rights. They were taxed as a community, not as individuals and were forced to continue to rely on their own communities, which were strengthened as a result. The French Revolution, with its promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity, changed this and the rights of citizenship were extended to Jews, as long as they were willing to be treated as individuals rather than a community. The individual was king and the slogan emphasised this: “To the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a people, nothing.”
This emancipation resulted in another transformation of anti-Semitism. With the emergence of nationalism as the defining factor in European society in the 19th Century, anti-Semitism acquired a racial rather than a religious character and Jews, with their differences, were regarded as aliens in society. Dodgy scientific theories asserting that the Jews were inferior to the so-called Aryan “races” gave anti-Semitism new ‘scientific’ respectability and popular support, especially in countries where Jews could be made scapegoats for existing social or political grievances. In this new climate, anti-Semitism became a powerful political tool, as politicians were quick to discover. In both Germany and Austria in the late 19th Century, anti-Semitism became an organised movement with its own political parties.
The Russian Empire had restricted Jews to western regions known as the Pale of Settlement. In 1882, new laws, drafted after widespread anti-Jewish riots, or pogroms, had broken out in the Russian Pale the previous year, stripped Jews of their rural landholdings and restricted them to the towns and cities within the Pale. These measures, which crippled many Jews’ activities as rural traders and artisans, spurred the emigration of more than a million Jews to the United States, England and other places over the next four decades.
In France the Dreyfus Affair became a focal point for anti-Semitism. In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a highly placed Jewish army officer, was falsely accused of treason. His final vindication twelve years later was hampered by the French military and the bitterly anti-Semitic French press.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book Outcast Nation )
How did anti-Semitism move with the times?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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