Note: This topic had been on my list of “things to post about some day” for months. It moved up to the top of the list on October 7, 2023. On that date, Jews in Israel — civilians, babies, elderly — were mass murdered by members of a savage, cowardly terrorist organization 1 who then ran back to hide behind their own women and children. When reading the post below, notice that NOTHING — not one of the centuries of excuses given — comes close to justifying this Satan-worshipping act.
Note 2: In this article, I am using the term “anti-Semitism” for any discrimination against Jews, whether due to their religion or their ethnicity. I am aware that the situation is complicated, to say the least, and that some forms of persecution claim to be either religious-only, race-only, or politically based. I also use the generic “Church” for everything from the New Testament church through the Catholic Church prior to Reformation and on to the current world-wide body of followers of Jesus. And, I use “Arab” and/or “Muslim/Islam” somewhat interchangeably, even though I know that not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim. I apologize for the over-simplification. This post is already three times as long as my usual. To spell out all of the details would make it far too long!
Question: Other people groups have been minorities, or had disputes over land and boundaries. Black, White 2, Irish, German, Hispanic, Asian…At some point, almost everyone has been the underdog, the minority, the one to be bullied or reviled. But no one has been as universally despised — for as many centuries, by as many other peoples — as the Jews have been. Why? What is it about the Jews that attracts so much negative attention?
Satan hates all humans, simply because God loves them. He hates the Jews especially, though, because they were chosen as the lineage of the Messiah, Jesus, God’s human expression come to rescue all humans from Satan’s slavery. Satan is delighted with all forms of anti-Semitism, and gleefully instills it in everyone he can influence. Below, I will attempt to describe some of his biggest victories.
Use these links to navigate to individual sections.
Roman Empire and Diaspora
Rome was the last major empire to conquer the people of Israel, in 63 B.C. Before them had been the Assyrians in 740 and 722 B.C. and the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Babylon was conquered by Persia in 539 B.C, which was then conquered by Greece (Alexander the Great) in 329 B.C. Then Israel ping-ponged between two of Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria, for a couple of hundred years. The Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids in 168 B.C. resulted in the Hasmonean dynasty, the closest to self-rule that Israel had enjoyed for centuries. Then came Rome…
After a Jewish revolt in 66 A.D., Rome responded by destroying Jerusalem, including the temple, in 70 A.D. Jews still held on, though, and later staged another revolt. The suppression of that revolt in 135 A.D. destroyed almost 1000 villages.
While Jewish people still remained in Israel, many were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They joined other Jews already scattered during the previous centuries, collectively known as the Diaspora. The dispersed Jews never forgot their God, their faith, or their culture, though.
This dynamic of maintaining the identity of “Jewish” for generations — even while not living in the traditional homeland of Israel — is one of the distinctive characteristics of Jews. Think about it: When Irish or Germans immigrated to America, they (or their children) assimilated within a generation or two, and became “Americans”. When one country conquers another (pick any war, anywhere in the world), the conquered people either stay in place or leave the area and become no longer a distinct people group. Has anyone but the Jews ever been forced to leave their homeland, but still maintained their group identity…for centuries?
That identity alone would have a tendency to cast Jews as misfits, and easy targets for persecution. No matter how long they lived anywhere in the world, they would remain a recognizable minority. Even as they participated fully in the life of their host country, that nationality would never be their only core identity. This has left the Jews vulnerable over the centuries to undeserved charges of disloyalty.
The Christian Church
When I started researching for this article, I was stunned, appalled, and ashamed to learn that Christians have contributed to — even have been the source of — a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment over the centuries. (I know, that’s supposed to be common knowledge, but it wasn’t to me. I was blissfully ignorant.) I am still appalled and ashamed, and apologize to those who are still God’s chosen people for the harm they have experienced at the hands of Christians. Anti-Semitic “Christians” may be claiming the name of Christ, but they are not truly acting in His name!
The Early Years
All of the original Christians were Jews, and, of course, Jesus Himself was a Jew. Christianity quickly extended beyond Jews, however. The book of Acts describes that expansion: In chapter 8, Philip preaches to the half-Jewish Samaritans, and then leads an Ethiopian to Christ; in chapter 10, Peter is shown in a vision that “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (verse 15) and so is willing to go to the Gentiles of a Roman centurion’s household; in chapter 11, the first majority-Gentile church is founded at Antioch (verses 19-26). Most of the remaining chapters describe Paul’s travels and church-planting throughout the Roman Empire.
Acts describes persecution by Jews against Christians, but not the other way around. This included the stoning of Stephen as the first Christian martyr (chapters 6 & 7) and Saul’s campaign to stamp out this new movement (8:1-3, 9:1-2). Acts also describes tension between those who thought that Gentile Christians must also become Jewish converts vs. those who asserted that faith in Christ alone was sufficient. That issue was officially resolved in favor of the latter by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:1-33, but the “Judaizers” continued to trouble Paul throughout his career.
Christians did not see themselves as a new religion, separate from Judaism, however. Neither did anyone else: The outside world saw Christianity as merely one sect within Judaism. Instead, Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, an affirmation of all of Jewish Scripture. Paul and others always preached first to the Jews, in their synagogues, arguing their case directly from what the Jews already believed. Any Jew who accepted Jesus was cheerfully welcomed. But those who rejected Him were left behind, and the message taken to Gentiles in their place. This message of “Jesus is the prophesied Messiah. Faith in Him is the only thing that can make a person right with God.” was (and still is) the line of separation between Christians and Jews.
Note: Most of the early church history below comes from a doctoral dissertation done in 2007 by S. Mark Veldt of Western Michigan University 3. I am grateful to have found this detailed research that I don’t have the time or resources to do myself.
That attitude continued for the first 200-300 years of the Church. Writings from the first several generations of church leaders consistently expressed that Christianity was the ongoing fulfillment of Judaism. Jews who denied Jesus as the Messiah were wrong, and were missing out on God’s kingdom. But the door was always open for them to accept Christ and join the kingdom. There was no persecution of Jews as “bad”, or worse than anyone else. They were simply sinners in need of a Savior, as are all humans. Their status as God’s chosen people was not denied, but it was not sufficient to save them without faith in Jesus.
By sometime around 300 A.D. (give or take 50 years), the writings of church leaders started being more critical of the Jews. There was more of an attitude of “Shame on them. With their history of the old covenant, they should have known better and been able to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.” There was also “What would you expect? Look at their history: They always rebelled and persecuted the prophets.” This led into “No wonder God has taken away their glory, and given it to the Church in their place.” Still, there continued to be a wish that the Jews would wake up and accept Christ (although with less confidence that such a thing was possible). There still was nothing condoning persecution of anyone for being Jewish.
A dramatic change in attitude came about in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea in about 315-325 A.D. While still claiming Christ as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, Eusebius sought to distance Christianity from Judaism. He did so by claiming that Christianity was more directly a descendant of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) who pre-dated Moses, and that Judaism with its Mosaic law was a temporary and now obsolete “side trip”. In his view, the Jewish people were so incurably rebellious, blind, and antagonistic to the truth of Christ that it was time to give up on them. The Christian Church was now the new Israel; the old needed to go away 4. This un-Biblical concept is known as “Replacement Theology” 5.
The polytheistic Greco-Roman culture was already inclined to be antagonistic toward Jews, mostly due to their insistence on clinging to their only one true God and their adherence to His laws. It didn’t help that Jews were sometimes successful at winning converts away from the pagan religions. (As were Christians, putting them into competition with both the Jews and the pagans.) When the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity influenced by Eusebius, his “good Christians replace bad Jews” attitude could now have official sanction to pile onto the existing ill will 6.
Middle Ages and Reformation
This official, political antagonism toward Jews became the cultural norm for the next thousand years. Throughout the Middle Ages, any kind of slander against Jews — that they as a race killed Christ, that they used the blood of Christian children in their rituals, that their destruction and dispersion was God’s punishment and rejection of them, that they served the anti-Christ — was automatically accepted as truth 7. Jews were even scapegoats for disease, accused of maliciously causing the infamous Black Plague that killed one-third of the population of Europe in the 1300’s. 8
Keep in mind that during these centuries, the common people had no way to read anything of Scripture on their own. Scriptures were hand-copied, so they were rare. What copies existed were in Hebrew, Greek or Latin, not the common language (and literacy was not very common in any case). Most people accepted whatever “the Church” said as their authority. Sadly, as the official Church became more entwined with governmental power, it far too often mis-used that authority.
One would think that the Protestant Reformation in 1517, with its breaking away from corrupt Church hierarchy, would cause Christian attitudes toward Jews to improve. At about the same time, the Bible was being translated into everyday languages, and the printing press was making copies more readily available. Now everyone could read for themselves that:
- Zechariah prophesied both a falling-away and also a return for the Jews (Zechariah 12-13, especially 12:10 and 13:8-9).
- Jesus lamented over His people’s rejection, without hating them, and predicted that they would eventually say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:37-39, Luke 13:34-35).
- Jesus prayed forgiveness for His executioners (Luke 23:34).
- Paul considered the Gentile church to be grafted onto the still-viable root of Judaism (Romans 11).
- Paul was willing to give up even his own salvation if that would save his fellow Jews (Romans 9:1-5, Romans 10:1-4).
- Revelation describes a massive outreach to the Jews (Revelation 7:1-8, 14:1-5).
All of that should be a death-blow for anti-Semitism, right? Unfortunately, not so much. The stereotypes and antagonism toward Jews were too deeply entrenched in the culture.
I can’t mention this point of history without reference to Martin Luther and his contradictory writings. In 1523, he wrote “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew“, advocating friendly contact and hopeful evangelism with Jews. Twenty years later, in 1543, he wrote “On the Jews and Their Lies“, which was emphatically, even violently, anti-Jewish. A common explanation for his change of heart is disappointment that the Jews still didn’t accept Jesus even when presented in the reformed Protestant style as opposed to the traditional Church. Luther’s later writings were appropriated by Hitler 400 years afterward, to devastating effect. 9 10 11
It took until 1965 for an official declaration to be issued by Pope Paul VI declaring that Jews as a whole were not to be held accountable for the guilt of Jesus’ crucifixion 12, and that all forms of persecution, including anti-Semitism, were to be rejected.
Note: See this article “Why Many Jewish People Think Christianity Is Antisemitic” by Jews for Jesus for an enlightening Jewish perspective on this Christian history, and its impact on current-day evangelism to our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Arabs and Islam
The other major source of anti-Semitism is, of course, the Arab and/or Islamic Middle East.
Historically, the people group we now call Arab are related to the Jews. They include descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, while the Jews are descended from Isaac, the miraculous son of God’s promise. Over time, some of the “cousins” migrated to populate what is now called the Arabian Peninsula, home to Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries.
Islam arose with Mohammed in 613 A.D. on the Arabian Peninsula. Its first centers were the cities of Mecca and Medina in what is now Saudi Arabia. From there, it expanded — often via military force — throughout the Middle East and beyond.
For all of its history, the land of Canaan/Israel/Palestine remained home to both sets of descendants, Arabs and Jews. By the time of the Roman Empire dominance over the area, the Arab population was identified more with Syria to the north, while the Jews were in the more southern areas of Galilee and Judea. The entire region was known as Palestine, more as a geographic designation than as anything resembling a unified nation or people group, whether Arab or Jewish 13.
Over the centuries, this geographical area was ruled by many overseers, but never by any government of its own after Rome conquered the (Jewish) Hasmonean Dynasty in 63 B.C. Those overseers included 14:
- The Roman Empire, until the 300’s A.D.
- The Byzantine Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire after an internal split, until 636 A.D.
- Being Christian, the Byzantines brought with them the anti-Jewish attitudes of the Church as discussed above.
- There was some overlap with Persian rulers who fought against the Byzantines and briefly held Palestine in the early 600’s.
- Arab Muslims, expanding Islam from the Arabian Peninsula after Mohammed’s death, from 636 to 1099.
- At this point, persecution of the Jews was partly due to being simply non-Muslim rather then being specifically Jewish. All other religions were also persecuted, although Jews and Christians as “people of the Book” were sometimes given some leeway.
- However, Mohammed considered himself to be the final and only legitimate successor to the legacy of Abraham, which the Jews did not accept. This led to significant discrimination as the Muslims gained power.
- During this time, many of the remaining Jews left the area, causing the population to become majority Arab.
- European Crusaders, from 1099 to 1291, ostensibly resisting Muslim expansion and conquest and restoring the Holy Land for Christianity, but persecuting and sometimes massacring Jews as well.
- Mamluks, non-Arab Muslims who overpowered the Crusaders, from 1291 to 1516.
- The Ottoman Empire, Turkish Muslims who had conquered the Byzantines, from 1517 to 1917.
- Britain, in the aftermath of World War I, from 1918 to 1948.
Modern Palestine and Israel
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, persecution of Jews in Europe grew rapidly. Examples include the Dreyfus affair — where a Jewish captain in the French army was falsely accused of treason — and the thoroughly-debunked “Protocols of the Elders of Zion“, a false document claiming Jewish plans to control the world which is still being published in Muslim countries to this day 15.
Jews wanting to escape that persecution began immigrating back into Palestine, joining the few who had never left. They purchased land — mostly unoccupied by anyone — and co-existed uneasily as a minority with their Arab neighbors. This continued during the British Mandate years, and is a factor still today. The practice is known as “aliyah“, or “going up”, as in up to Jerusalem at its higher elevation.
Over a few decades of this immigration, the population shifted. While it remained majority Arab, the Jewish minority grew in proportion. In 1800, the counts were 246,000 Muslim/7000 Jewish. In 1914, they were 525,000 Muslim/94,000 Jewish. By 1947, at the end of the Mandate, they were 1,181,000 Muslim/630,000 Jewish. The influx of Jews exacerbated the already high tensions with the Muslims, and made the Arab populace that much more ready to ascribe evil intent to the Jews.
By this point, both of these sets of Palestine-area residents wanted to have their own nations…in the same physical location. Both felt that they had a right to the land: Arabs because of greater population (and the Muslim imperative to make all the world Muslim), Jews because of historical ties (and the belief that God’s covenant of the Promised Land was still true).
When the British Mandate ended in 1948, the Jewish residents declared themselves to be the State of Israel. Most Arabs in the area were expelled or left on their own; those who remained were automatically considered to be Israeli citizens 16. Even today, Arab Israelis are about a fifth of the population. They hold prominent positions, including in the Israeli government.
Arab nations all around immediately attacked the new state, but were defeated. Their claim is that the Israelis are interlopers intruding onto land that rightfully belongs only to Arab/Muslims 17. As you can see by the complexity of this article, though, the issue is far more complicated. 18
Prejudice and persecution against Jews has existed throughout practically their entire history, both in Palestine and around the world. You have to go back to the reigns of David and Solomon (about 1100-1000 B.C.) to find a Jewish nation with strong borders and the respect of others. The disrespect since then is caused by a combination of …
- being a conquered nation, then …
- a dispersed people who persisted in maintaining their cultural identity, while …
- holding to a monotheistic faith in the midst of polytheism, followed by …
- competing with the other two monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, and finally …
- returning to have their own sovereign nation in the original land, the same location as Arab/Muslims want a nation 19.
The current situation brings all of that baggage on top of what in other places would be a simple land dispute…over land at the crossroads of three continents 20, containing the most holy places in the world for three different religions!
The REAL Bottom Line
Note: None of the above really explains the level of hatred that was displayed on October 7th, though. That can only be explained by one thing: Pure evil. Of all those celebrating — in the streets of Gaza, in American universities, even in the halls of the U.S. Congress — the burning and beheading of Jewish babies, no one is celebrating more than Satan is.
As I said at the beginning, Satan hates the Jews because they are God’s chosen nation to bring Christ to the world. But it doesn’t stop there. God’s covenants with the Jews have not yet been completely fulfilled. Christ will return, and will rule on David’s throne from Jerusalem with redeemed Jews beside Him 21. Satan’s quest to stop God by destroying the Jews continues to this day, and is at the root of the worst anti-Semitism.
Satan did not succeed at stopping Jesus’ first coming in fulfillment of God’s promises, though. He won’t succeed in stopping His second coming to fulfill the rest, either. But he, and those he deceives, won’t stop trying until they are forced to at the end of time (Revelation 20:7-10).
Footnotes and Scripture References
- which will not be named here…it doesn’t warrant that respect
- Yes, even White. Years ago, a missionary couple staying with our church were describing their life in Rwanda. At one point, he said “You know what’s funny to a Rwandan? Me!” He was so different: too white, too tall, the wrong color hair and eyes. He stood out everywhere he went.
- Veldt, S. Mark, “Christian Attitudes toward the Jews in the Earliest Centuries A.D.” (2007). Dissertations.925. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/925
- See the 40+ pages starting at page 364 of Mark Veldt’s dissertation for more detail.
- To manufacture Biblical support requires twisting interpretations so that every condemnation of sin is directed at Israel, while all promises of future glory in the same passages are directed at the Church. God doesn’t work that way.
- See Mark Veldt’s conclusion starting at page 463 of his dissertation.
- See the Holocaust Museum’s history of this period here.
- BTW, we owe our word “scapegoat” to the Jews. In the instructions for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, verses 5-10 and 20-22 describe symbolically transferring the sins of the people onto a goat. That goat is then to be released into the wilderness, carrying the people’s sin, shame and guilt away from the camp.
- This scholarly document has more to say about both Martin Luther and his fellow Reformer, John Calvin, and their attitudes toward Jews.
- This article describes a Reformation-anniversary exhibit in Berlin that details how the Nazi’s used, and sometimes twisted, Luther’s writings.
- Here is a history of the Reformation from a Jewish perspective.
- “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”
- See this (note: Jewish) source for a bit more detail.
- The summary below owes much to this Israeli tourism site. Oddly, this was the best site I found to summarize the history in a way that seemed both neutral and manageable to read.
- See more on the distribution of this document here.
- See this article for more detail.
- Here is the official Arab League statement at the time.
- Even though I have distilled and over-simplified the resources I found as far as I could manage!
- In addition to the existing 22 Arab nations and/or existing 55 Muslim nations, per this article.
- Europe, Asia, and Africa
- It is possible that the current secular political State of Israel may not be the vehicle that God will use to bring this about. It is certainly His prerogative to act in a completely unforeseen way instead. Still, He will keep His promise to the Jews. They are still His chosen people; He has not abandoned them, and He never will.