Antisemitism is once again rearing its ugly head in the modern world. Across Europe, swastikas are being spray-painted on synagogues, Jewish cemeteries are being vandalised, and Jewish people are living in fear of harassment. In 2017, France saw a 74% increase in reported antisemitic incidents, and the Labour Party in the UK has spectacularly failed to tackle antisemitism amongst its members, leading 7 prominent MPs to quit in protest. In December 2018, a report by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that things are getting much, much worse for Jewish people across its member states.
And all this, whilst the Holocaust, one of the most horrific and black-hearted atrocities in the whole of history, is still a living memory for many people. But ask any Jewish person, and they’ll tell you the Holocaust and these disturbing recent trends are nothing new: antisemitism has been a problem for thousands of years. In this list, we’ll look at the history of antisemitism before the Holocaust. Though by no means exhaustive, look out for the shift from religious intolerance to baffling racial science and conspiracy theories as we progress from the first century BC to 1921.
20. Jewish refusal to worship Roman gods saw them ostracised and condemned by many classical writers
Hatred of Jews predates even Christianity (much, much more on which later). Jewish people migrated to Rome hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and by the start of Caesar Augustus’s reign in 27 BC there were 7, 000 Jews living in Rome itself. At the time, observing the Roman religion of Jupiter, Minerva, and Venus was a matter of patriotic duty. So when Jewish immigrants refused to comply, and insisted on keeping up their ancient traditions of worshipping a single deity whose chosen people they were and observing the Sabbath, they became enemies of the state.
Some of the earliest and most influential antisemitic writings came from the Roman lawyer and orator, Cicero (106-43 BC). His writings combined religious and cultural bigotry, which still lie behind today’s antisemitism. In Pro Flacco, he described Jewish customs as ‘at variance with the splendour of this empire and the dignity of our name and the institutions of our ancestors’, complaining of ‘the odium of Jewish gold’ and their insularity. Cicero’s polemics cast the Jews as a barbarous, alien people, and their influence rocketed when rebellions broke out a century later in the province of Judea (Israel) against Roman rule.