Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources


Anti-Semitism = hostility toward or prejudice against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

Oxford English Dictionary. Semite: A person belonging to the race of mankind which includes most of the peoples mentioned in Gen. x. as descended from Shem son of Noah, as the Hebrews, Arabs, Assyrians, and Aramæans. Also: a person speaking a Semitic language as his native tongue.

Semitic languages: family of languages originating in Near / Middle East including Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopia), Hebrew (Israel), and Aramaic (sub-family incl. Canaanite languages of Hebrew & Phoenician; primary language of Jesus of Nazareth & disciples; Modern Aramaic still spoken and written by Assyrians).


Though "Semite" may have wider applications, the term Antisemitism was coined in 19th-century Germany as a euphemism for Judenhass or "Jew-hatred."

Antisemitism is such a widely recurring phenomenon in western or world history that its origins and range of expression cannot be neatly summarized. The details below are only a sampling of many nations' experience.


Historical variations: 

  • Middle Ages in Europe:

    • Superstition that Jews eat Christian babies or use their blood in rituals ("blood-libel")

    • Exclusion of Jews from nations or trades > "a people without a country" > international / cosmopolitan identity

  • 19th-century Europe: "pogroms" or purges of Jews by European or Eastern European peoples

    • Compare today's "ethnic cleansing."

    • musical depiction: A Fiddler on the Roof

  • mid-20th century:

    • World War 2 and Nazi-Jewish "Holocaust"—-6 million+ Jews systematically murdered; many more displaced.

    • 1948 establishment of nation-state of Israel in Palestine

  • late 20th, early 21st century:

    • Islamic fundamentalism often identifies as anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist < creation of state of Israel in Arab-controlled Palestine in late 1940s

    • Rise of neo-Nazism in parts of Europe, USA, sometimes associated with Christian fundamentalism; "Holocaust denial"


Sources or causes of anti-Semitism?

These variable causes combine and shift with historical  circumstances . . .

Early Christian Europe: 

  • Jews as "chosen people" vs. Jews as "Christ-killers"

  • Jews as money-lenders < biblical restrictions on "usury" or interest; since Jews were "outsiders," they could fill this function of lending money, which helped them succeed but could also make them targets of resentment

Sigmund Freud's theory (Moses and Monotheism, 1937): Jews hold themselves apart from others, which inspires mistrust.

Because Jews remain "separate" while being seen as having power, they feature in many convenient conspiracy theories for nationalist ideologies like Nazism, Fascism, or Stalinism. (Nationalism defines itself through "self-other" dialectic, with "real Americans / Germans / Italians / Russians" identified as "us" and Jews as "them.")


Compare to Gypsies (Roma), who also remain subject to discrimination or conspiracy-thinking. The Gypsies (Roma) are an ethnic group without a national homeland who instead make temporary homes in many nations, but always remain a minority with distinct identity or economic niches, subject to suspicion.

For 2-3 thousand years no Jewish nation, no "Israel" except in Jewish-Zionist aspirations . . .

Until 1948, when United Nations authorizes creation of Nation of Israel from territory in Palestine. Subsequent wars and continuing conflicts over land have regenerated and intensified anti-semitism among Arabs and Muslims throughout Middle East.

Muslim immigration to Europe has regenerated another form of antisemitism in Europe, not only among Muslims but also the left-wing emergence of "New Anti-Semitism": European leftists increasingly sympathize with Palestinians and resent aggressive Israeli security and settlement policies.


Plus mixed anti-Semitic and pro-Israel attitudes among American religious conservatives.

Pro-Israel: American evangelicals and fundamentalists see creation of State of Israel in 1948 as essential sign of fulfillment of biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse / Millennium when Christ returns for the Rapture, Last Judgment, etc. Religious Right supports Orthodox settlements in formerly Palestinian lands, supports right-wing politicians in Israel.

Pro-Israel attitudes intensified by anti-Muslim attitudes and events like Iranian Revolution and 9/11 Terrorist Attacks. State of Israel seen as important military ally against Muslim states.

Anti-Semitic: As with other nationalist ideologies, American Conservatism may interpret some aspects of Jewish identity and history as anti-American.

Many European-Jewish immigrants to USA came from rural villages with communal traditions or rural settings with strong unions and trade guilds. Such traditions made many Jews sympathetic to Socialism, Communism, and later Liberalism.

more recent instances:

Barbra Streisand and others as "Hollywood liberals" (This connection began in the early days of the motion picture industry, when most Hollywood studio heads were Jewish.)

Concerns that Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ  would go anti-Semitic (fears partly inspired by Gibson's father, a Holocaust-denier)

Pat Robertson's apocalyptic novels of the 1980s-90s sometimes featured a shadowy "banking clique," which may be read as old-fashioned Christian smear against Jewish moneylenders or "Eastern bankers."


Applications to Immigrant Literature

Recent student generations are increasingly oblivious to Jewish identity. Why?

As Nazi-Jewish Holocaust fades into a stock Hollywood formula for institutional suffering and Israel loses prestige on account of settlement expansion and religious fundamentalism,

Compare to Irish as ethnic group formerly distinct through religious difference. As society secularizes and religious distinctions disappear, students feel uncomfortable recognizing Jews as separate. Like the Irish, Jews are now "just Americans," and no one thinks about Jews as Jews except in increasingly rare cases of far-right antisemitism.

Aside from some urban enclaves, Jews increasingly intermarry with other secularized or religiously-indifferent people of same educated-professional classes.

Aside from Orthodox enclaves (and settlements in Israel), Jewish birth rates are low, so that despite professional prestige, Jews are numerically a smaller part of American and world population.

Since Hitler, most overt anti-Semitism (aside from the Islamic version) is seen as tasteless, so the issue shows up mostly in terms of innuendo and political correctness