The rise of antisemitism in Europe

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Emily Murphy

18th August 2021


Antisemitism is one of the oldest forms of discrimination. It predates Christianity and is regularly referenced in ancient Greek and Roman texts. There is no definitive point at which we could say antisemitism began, however, it seems to have predominantly originated in the pre-Christian civilizations in Europe. The term “Semitic” is derived from Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. The “Shemitic” people are a group of Arab jews found throughout the Middle East, however, the term antisemitism is generally associated with the discrimination of Jews collectively.


When we typically think of antisemitism, the Holocaust immediately springs to mind. However, prior to the 1930s antisemitism had taken root  just as much in Western Europe as in central or Eastern Europe. There are few periods historically where Jews didn’t specifically face harassment or exclusion from society. During the Black Death in the 14th century, many Jewish communities were blamed for the plague and countless Jewish people were massacred or forced to convert to avoid execution. In February 1349, the Strasbourg city council burned alive approximately 2,000 Jewish men, women, and children in an attempt to stop the plague from reaching the city, as did other councils across France and wider Europe.


During the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote about “the Jews and their lies,” in which he condemned the community and fostered disdain. It was not uncommon for Christians in the Middle-ages to deliberately spread misinformation and lies to discourage conversion. Arguably the most common rhetoric was of “blood libels,” an idea which first began in Norwich in 1144, but later became a common belief across Europe. This accusation suggests Jews ritualistically kill Christian children as a form of sacrifice, echoing prehistoric beliefs of the cult-like practices of the Jewish people. This myth solidified a dislike and distrust of Jews for decades and later became an aspect of Nazi propaganda. In the 19th century, Jews in Damascus were charged for the death of a monk, and in 2014 a Hamas spokesperson said, “We all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos. This is not a figment of imagination or something taken from a film. It is a fact, acknowledged by their own books and by historical evidence.” The spokesperson could not produce any evidence when asked.


There has been an alarming spike in Jewish people, including rabbis, being attacked in the streets or in synagogues.”

Unfortunately, antisemitism seems to be on the rise once again. There has been an alarming spike in Jewish people, including rabbis, being attacked in the streets or in synagogues. In April of this year, a Jewish graveyard in Belfast was defaced with anti-Jewish symbols. In May, a British Rabbi was hospitalised after being attacked by a group of teenagers. A significant amount of these incidents have been associated with ‘far-right’ organisations or individuals. However, more recently, anti-Jewish sentiment has been linked with left-leaning pro-Palestine activists, who seem to be equating this disapproval of and dislike for the Israeli state with the global Jewish community.


In France, home to the third-largest Jewish population worldwide, there was a 74 per cent increase in antisemitic attacks between 2017 and 2018. In January 2019, a poll from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights showed that 89 per cent of European Jews reported that antisemitism had significantly increased in the past five years, with almost 40 per cent saying that they were considering emigrating because they “no longer feel safe as Jew.”


The recent rise in antisemitic acts has at times been linked to Covid-19 restrictions. During periods of turmoil, it seems that anti-Jewish sentiment rises. We need only look to poverty-stricken Germany in the 1920s or the Partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century. An economic boycott of Jewish businesses was instigated by Father John Creagh during a sermon in Limerick in 1904. Following this, a teenager was briefly imprisoned for attacking a rebbe (the leader of a Hasidic Jewish sect). During this time, many Jewish families left the area, with many moving to Cork with the intention of emigrating. The incident was widely condemned by many in Ireland, and Creagh was later moved to a congregation on a Pacific island.


In Halle, Germany in October 2019, a man armed with a machine-gun and video camera attempted to massacre the congregants of a Yom Kippur gathering. In his online Manifesto, he stated “If I fail and die but kill a single Jew, it was worth it. After all, if every White Man kills just one, we win.” Had the doors of the synagogue not been locked, a bloodbath would have ensued.


As a society, we often like to believe that we have progressed far beyond the downfalls and bigotry of our ancestors. It can be rather easy to pass off such issues as belonging to the past because we are not regularly faced with them. However, a sudden attack that specifically targets a community, such as the defacing of a Jewish cemetery in Belfast, reminds us of our own inadequacies. It is not enough for us to condemn such acts privately or post our disapproval on social media while the topic is trending. We must all make the conscious effort to engage with those outside our immediate communities, to learn about their customs, traditions and struggles, and to castigate discrimination when we encounter it.




Featured photo by David Holifield

This article was supported by: STAND Humanitarian Editor Caoimhe + Programme Assistant Alex


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