Previous Page | About the author | Content | Home | Next Page


Theological anti-semitism

Andrei Cornea



1. The story goes that once, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, asked his personal physician whether he knew any irrefutable and supreme proof of God’s existence. ”The Jews, your Majesty!” the doctor answered [1] .

Indeed, the mere survival of this people, scattered across the whole world, subjected to such suffering and yet outliving most of its former persecutors, still seemed to many of Frederick’s contemporaries to be a most divine plan. But, as time went by, a lot of people became uninterested in finding any supreme proofs whatsoever; they simply claimed that: ”God died”. And since nothing transcendental was worth proving any more, what more need could there be for the Jews themselves? What could you do with a ”supreme” and even a living proof of the existence of a God you wanted dead? That was the moment when the ”Final Solution” became entirely possible.

My claim is that Anti-Semitism relies on a theological and metaphysical basis. This is precisely why there has always been something unique and special about it: it is probably the only case in history when, for centuries, a whole people have been turned into a theological and metaphysical proof. Of course, in Anti-Semitism one can always discover the seeds of ”normal” xenophobia, racism, nationalism, economic and political interests, as everywhere where a minority is persecuted. Yet, Anti-Semitism is more than that. I am not saying that the Jewish suffering has to be privileged as such, as being more ”precious” than that of the Armenians, the Tutzis, the witches, or the Blacks; Anti-Semitism is neither ”better” nor ”worse”, neither bigger, nor lesser than any other ”anti-”; it is just different to the extent it has a theological root, which is missing in other cases [2] . Therefore, it must be understood differently from all other collective and racial hatreds; and it is likely that, for the European civilization, its meaning is crucial.


2. In my opinion, Anti-Semitism is intrinsically bound to Christianity (and as such, intrinsically bound to Europe), but it is so in two opposite ways. 1) First, any fundamentalist Christian, no matter what his/her exact denomination was, could not help but develop anti-Semitic attitudes. 2) Secondly, and paradoxically enough, any radical anti-Christian outlook tends to be anti-Semitic as well. Therefore, a radical anti-Christian formula is as anti-Semitic as a fundamentalist Christian one. 3) Reciprocally, there is no radical Anti-Semitism that does not become anti-Christian eventually. I shall try to uphold these theses and to draw a few consequences for modern Anti-Semitism.

Authentic Anti-Semitism — which has to be carefully distinguished from mere Anti-Judaism —begins as soon as, with St. Paul, Christianity asserts itself as distinct from Judaism. Ever since Jews have consistently been viewed by Christians as the people-proof par excellence.

So, at least according to the meaning of the word ”Anti-Semitism” I am using here, I do not consider that the anti-Judaic outbursts among Greeks and Romans ever represented a real Anti-Semitism, because they did not originated within a theological idea, either transcendent, or secularized. Nor is Islamic anti-Judaism anti-Semitic as such, due to the same lack of a theological foundation. Persecutions against Jews in the Roman Empire or in the historical Islam were almost always politically motivated and they used to last just as long as the rulers found it expedient, i.e. not very much. For instance, although the Romans disliked the Jews, they still respected their particularity; from Julius Caesar onwards, Jews were granted a unique exemption from worshipping Rome’s gods and imperial images, and neither Caligula’s paranoia [3] , nor Hadrianus’ temporary decrees could end this privilege.

On the contrary, for Christianity there has always been a ”Jewish problem”, located in the very core of its identity, even when there was no political reason for it. And even when active Christianity began losing its grip on the European consciousness during secularization, the ”Jewish problem” was passed on to different secular trends. Almost one hundred years ago, the great German scholar, Julius Wellhausen, formulated briefly this problem as follows: ”Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew”. [4]


3. Of course, it has always been known that Jesus was Jewish; but it was only during the last century that a new critical-historical approach to New Testament texts has pointed out that Christ’s basic message was addressed rather to ”the lost sheep of the House of Israel” than to the Gentiles; moreover, Jesus never intended to replace Judaism by any other new religion, let alone by a worship of his own alleged divinity [5] .

Most scholars, walking in the footprints of a famous book by Albert Schweitzer, believe that the historical Jesus (”rabbi Joshua”, as his disciples used to call him) was an authentic Jew from 1st century Palestine. He was leading a small apocalyptic sect and was preaching ”the good tidings” of the imminent coming of ”God’s Kingdom” on earth [6] . This was meant to be the desirable and long-awaited end of the whole world, bad as it was, as well as the dawn of a new, extraordinary era, when God himself would directly reign on earth and would root out any suffering and injustice.

To prepare for the ”Kingdom’s coming”, Jesus said, people should replace normal ethics with a kind of an ad interim ethics. He conceived it in rather radical terms: people were being told not to worry any longer about housing, eating, earning and saving; he even told them to forget about social conveniences, such as burying their close relatives, and to escape family ties. Not that the Oral Law, taught by the Pharisees, was bad, but, as world’s end was dawning, it was just about to be no longer enforceable.

Yet, Jesus’ and the Pharisees’ approaches were not intrinsically conflicting; they were just referring to different life-situations: while the latter were teaching Israel how to adjust to normal circumstances, the former was announcing exceptional times. Perhaps he also claimed he was the Messiah, a claim which was not, in itself, contrary to mainstream Jewish beliefs. Yet, Jesus never pretended he was ”God’s son” in the concrete, carnal way Hercules was thought to be Jupiter’s.

So why was Jesus put to death? E. P. Sanders thinks that the great-priest Caiphas and his aids were afraid that Jesus’ apocalyptic and radical message, welcomed by the crowds, could stir up social unrest in Jerusalem and thus bring about a brutal Roman reaction. They acted according to the maxims of political realism and denounced Jesus to the Romans as a would-be Messiah. To Romans any Messianic claim amounted to treason, for ”Messiah” (The Anointed one) was an old, Jewish royal title, challenging the Roman authority over Judea. Pontius Pilatus, whose cruelty was well known according to Josephus Flavius, ordered Jesus to be crucified. So ”Rabbi Joshua” died on the cross while waiting in vain for the ”Kingdom” to come.

But his followers never gave up hope. They believed that, somehow, their master had been resuscitated and that the coming of the Kingdom was not cancelled, but just delayed. But for how long? First, they thought the arrival of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ second coming (parousia), would occur within their life span. Then, as some of them began to pass away, the survivors hoped that at least one of them would live to see it. But when the entire generation who had known Jesus died away, second-generation Christians realized that the Kingdom was not meant to come during the foreseeable future.

Then, these Christians who had not known Jesus of Nazareth personally, said to each other: perhaps Jesus’ message was misunderstood by his close followers. And so an apocalyptic Jewish sect, which had lost its raison d’être, seized the opportunity to transform itself into an universal salvation religion.


4. It is Saul, or Paul of Tarsus, who is thought to be the main author of this huge transformation. Paul was a well-cultivated, Hellenized Pharisee, a Roman citizen, who first persecuted Jesus’ followers and subsequently converted to the very creed he had hated earlier. He is rightly considered the founding father of Christianity as an universal religion, distinct from Judaism.

Now, Paul was well aware that, since the coming of the ”Kingdom” was not about to happen in the near future, Christians could not live any further by the ad interim ethics preached by Jesus and his close apostles. For Paul, the fact that Jesus had died and risen again was more important than what exactly rabbi Joshua had said or done, while alive. (In fact, Paul had never known Jesus and so what Rabbi Joshua had said was of little value for him.) So he replaced ”the message of Jesus” with the ”message on Jesus”. [7]

The fact that a man could die and come back to life had no point in Judaism. On the contrary, in the heathen mystery religions, a god who once put to death could rise again and save his adepts through his death was very commonplace.  Therefore, Paul assumed that Jesus was a divine and not just a human Messiah, sent on earth to suffer and to atone for mankind through his blood. [8] But as a divine Jesus was blasphemous for Judaism, Paul realized that the Christian sect had no future within Judaism.

Consequently, he decided to try to convert the Gentiles, while giving up the former requirement that, prior to baptism, every Gentile should become first Jewish by circumcision and Sabbath observance. It was a decisive step, which initially met some significant resistance from the apostles led by Peter and James. [9] But eventually Paul won the apostles over to his ideas, because he was right from a theological point of view: as the apocalyptic message of Jesus the man was being proven false, there was room left but for the salvation message on Jesus, God’s Son. But, as I have already said, while preaching about a god who dies and rises again was just commonplace with the Gentiles, it meant apostasy with the Jews.

Yet, Paul never parted with Judaism totally; he knew he had to rely on the religious legitimacy only Judaism could provide. He read the Bible (and especially the Prophets) in a very special key and thought he found out there that the death and the resurrection of a Savior had been predicted long before Jesus’ birth. So, according to Paul’s interpretation, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came on earth to redeem mankind, as well as to fulfill the Old Testament’s prophecies.

Paul’s mixture of Judaism and mysteries religion was to become an extraordinary success story [10] : on the one hand, it created a salvation myth, of universal appeal, on the other hand, it provided the myth with a solid, peculiar historical basis that was wholly lacking in the pagan mysteries religions. It was this successful combination that helped spread Christianity all over the Roman Empire. But eventually it also brought about a lot of theological controversy and unleashed the anti-Semitic attitudes that have marked out the European history ever since.


5. At least one of the consequences of the Pauline synthesis, with much bearing on the Christian-Jewish relationship, is obvious: if Jesus Christ ”fulfilled” the Scriptures of the Old Testament, it was the Jews and especially their wise men — the Pharisees — who should have acknowledged his mission, rather than anyone else. In other words, if Jesus really came according to the Scriptures, revealed to the Jews by God himself, who else rather than the Jews, the qualified interpreters of the Scriptures, would have to properly understand this event and, consequently, to convert to Christianity?

Yet, this did not happen. Besides, the more the Christians parted with the authentic teaching of rabbi Joshua and focused on the Christ’s resurrection, the worse the relationships with the remaining Jews became. For us this is nothing but normal, since among Christians, the uncircumcised Gentiles who believed that Jesus was a God — a blasphemous belief for a Jew — tended to prevail numerically over the Jewish-Christians.

But anyone who believed both in the divinity of the Jewish Scriptures and in the divinity of Jesus must have seen the Jews’ reluctance to endorse the Christian-Pauline message as extremely upsetting, since it challenged the identity as well as the legitimacy of the new faith. Actually, Christians met this challenge in three main ways:

a) Some, a minority, decided to stay within the primitive Jewish-Christian tradition. These are the so-called ”Nazarenes” and ”Ebionites”, who rejected the divinity of Jesus and are still mentioned two centuries after Christ as a small sect. But in the long run this re-Judaization of Christianity was a failure: while it kept apart Christianity from the mysteries religions, it did not make it appealing for the Jews either; for it was all too obvious that Jesus’ main teaching on the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God had turned out to be a false prophecy. On the other hand, the salvation message was meaningless unless Jesus was a divine being, for only the blood of a god could redeem the whole mankind.  Consequently, the Ebionite sect was doomed to remain marginal and to disappear obscurely.

b) The second way for some Christians to meet the identity challenge was Gnosticism, especially the doctrine of Marcion. [11] The Gnostic-Marcionite response is as simple, as it is radical: since Judaism refuses to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, one has to totally reject Judaism itself, along with the Jewish Bible.

In fact, Marcion, who lived in the 2nd century AD, drew the last consequences of some aspects of the Pauline theology: whereas he accepted as valid only a few Pauline Epistles and a ”cleansed” version of the Gospel according to Luke, he totally rejected the Old Testament. He conceived a dualistic metaphysics, grounded in his teaching about ”the two Gods”: the former — good and supreme — God was wholly spiritual and practically unknown to humans till the coming of Christ, who was his messenger; the latter God is the biblical Jahwe, a bad and inferior God, the Creator. He made the world, sin and grief. The Jews and the Old Testament where he was worshipped as the unique God were actually his devilish messengers, i.e. the messengers of the big Lie. Therefore they had to be rejected because they told people lies and taught them to ignore the true God. [12]

The Church fought hard to overcome the Gnostics, against whom Justinus, Tertullianus, Iraeneus, Hippolitus, Epiphanes, Philostratus, Theodoretus wrote a lot. Marcion’s dualistic solution had logic on its side, which made it all the more attractive for those seeking to explain logically the cause of evil and, consequently, it was a difficult match for its opponents. But the Church Fathers were well aware that the radical, cosmological Anti-Semitism of Marcion and of Gnosis in general could bring about utter destruction upon Christianity.

Indeed, if the Old Testament was thought to be a devilish work, what legitimacy could it bestow upon Jesus? Actually the historical basis of Incarnation, devoid of all its scriptural basis, would have had nothing to rely on! And if the Jews were completely sinful and devilish, how was it possible that the Son of the perfect and supreme God had been born from a Jewish maiden? How was it possible that Jesus himself had been circumcised and brought up in the Jewish Law?

Had Christianity fared along the Gnostic path and had it got rid of all its Jewish historical and scriptural background, it would have lost almost all marks that made it so special among the other salvation religions of the Eastern Roman Empire. So it would have developed into just another mystery cult, like Mithra’s or Osiris’. The Fathers were aware that inside Christianity there must be a Jewish hard core you could not do away with, for you would simply suppress Christianity itself.  Therefore, in Marcion we have a good example of how any radical Anti-Semitism ends by becoming anti-Christian as well.

c) Now let us examine the third response to this identity issue: this is the ”orthodox” response most Christians gave as they were walking in the footsteps of Paul.

While the Jewish Christians rejected Jesus’ divinity and the Gnostics rejected his Jewishness, the Pauline Christianity in its both Roman and Byzantine forms tried to come up with a bold synthesis: it sought to keep both his divinity and his Jewishness. [13] Thus, the Pauline synthesis led to the Nicaean formula of ”homousia”, whereas, as regards the Jews, it led to what I call an ”ambivalent Anti-Semitism”.

Already in the Synoptic Gospels, which reconstructed the life and the deeds of Jesus in the light of the Pauline synthesis, the Jews were dealt with in a very hostile way. [14] Subsequently, the apologists, like Justin the Martyr, took up this fateful model and so did the Church Fathers later on. Many of these writers, like Tertullianus, Cyprianus and, later in the East, Gregory of Nyssa or John Chrysostomus, embarked upon a real hate campaign against the Jews, charging them with every imaginable crime and sin. [15]

But the wound kept on bleeding: why wouldn’t the Jews accept Jesus, a Jewish man, as the Messiah and the Son of God? Why did they obstinately refuse to believe in his resurrection? The answer Pauline Christianity had been offering ever since was that they were ”blind”, obdurate, and their vices made them unable to see the truth located in their own Scriptures. [16] Moreover, because of their wickedness and envy, they had allegedly killed Jesus; this was the most terrible charge that could have been brought to an ethnic group: the Jews were guilty of deicide, they were ”God-killers” par excellence. [17]

Yet, one has to grasp just how paradoxical this charge actually was: for, since the Pauline Christianity held that God’s violent death was necessary for the redemption of the sinful mankind, there had to be a God-killing people. So the crime and the guilt of the Jews seemed to be necessary as well: hadn’t they killed God, there would have been no redemption.

So, it is worth noting that this strong Christian-Pauline Anti-Semitism has always revealed a certain amount of restraint, though relative. The reasons were theological as well as practical:

First, the Church Fathers could not help noticing that, despite the catastrophe of 70 AD, Judaism went on existing, even thriving. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, rabbinical Judaism was reformed by Johannan ben Zakkai and his school of Javneh. Subsequently, it got a new momentum across the Diaspora and continued to make many proselytes among the Gentiles and even among some Christians. As late as the 6th century AD, a few decrees of the Roman Emperors were needed to stop this process, by outlawing it. So, although God had severely punished the Jews, it seemed that He did not want to destroy them.

Secondly, no matter how much the Fathers wished to see the Jews as spiritually blind and unable to understand their own Scriptures, they often could not avoid resorting to their despicable wisdom: so did Origenes and Jerome, when they wanted to improve their knowledge of the Bible beyond the standards of the Greek version and gain access to the Hebrew original. They felt compelled to go to the rabbis who taught them Hebrew, Aramaic and how to interpret the Bible. Many centuries later, a few Reformation scholars, like Reuchlin and Melanchton, did the same. So it seemed obvious that old Israel had not yet lost its knowledge and wisdom altogether.

But essentially the same old problem was looming over and over again: without an act of God-killing and a people of God-killers there could have been no salvation, and without salvation all mankind would be doomed.


7. Thanks to Paul again, Christians (who belonged with the Orthodox, Nicaean creed) came to believe that the Jews had to play a big part in the salvation history, and that eventually, when times would be ripe, they would gladly accept the Christ and voluntarily commit themselves to baptism. [18]

This was the origin of the theory of the ”mystery of Jewish survival”, a theory which found its classical form in Augustine. Augustine compared the Jews to Cain, who deceitfully killed his brother and deserved to die, but nevertheless was spared by God and cursed to wander unhappily across the whole world ever after. Like Cain, the Jews deserved to die, for they were guilty of deicide; nevertheless God wanted them alive, but subjected to a humiliating status, so they could bear witness to the superiority of the Christian truth. [19] At the end of times they would voluntarily convert to Christianity and, as Paul had said, by then ”all Israel will be redeemed”. As Fred Gladstone Bratton noticed, the Jews were despised and hated because of their alleged deicide, but simultaneously also respected because of the ”uniqueness of their seed”. [20]

The consequences of this ambivalent status of the Jews emerged throughout much of the European history. During the Crusades, for instance, on the one hand, large masses of the fanaticized Christians attacked, plundered and killed the Jews they met on their way to the Holy Land. On the other hand, some bishops, Popes or other important personalities of the Church tried to exert some restraint; they strongly opposed the killing of the Jews and even the forced baptism. For instance, during the 2nd Crusade, Bernard de Clairvaux censured the German priest Radulf for inciting the crowds to murder Jews. In 1204, the Pope Innocent IV issued a decree that absolved the Jews of the charge of ”ritual murder”. [21]

We can now sum up the features of traditional Anti-Semitism, which is based on an identity crisis, central to Christianity: for traditional Christians, Jews are a ”living proof”; yet this proof has always had a twofold meaning: on the one hand, the painful condition of the Jews, and the persecution every Christian could lawfully inflict upon them, were thought to reflect the fact that the Jews were wrong and the Christians were right. On the other hand, the Jews had to be kept alive and allowed to practice their faith, for their mere survival was also thought to witness a divinely devised plan. Ultimately, people used to believe that the strange and mysterious fate befalling the Jews was proving both God’s wrath and mercy.

All these speculations seemed to acknowledge that the legitimacy of Christianity was being both denied and upheld by Judaism. It was being denied by it due to the fact that the Jewish people, the privileged depository of the sacred Scriptures, had refused to hail Jesus the Jew as the Messiah and God’s Son. It was being upheld by it due to the fact that not only the Messiah, but also the Christian God, were concepts formed and developed within the Jewish religious consciousness. Deep inside every Christian there was, as it were, a Jew; therefore, on the one hand, the Church had to repress the Jew in order to prevent him from resurfacing and from re-Judaicizing Christianity; on the other hand, it also had to stop short of eliminating the ”Jew from inside”, because if one had done away with him, Christianity would have received a mortal blow as well. The Church feared that the death of Judaism, either by genocide, or by forced baptism could only trigger a resurrection of some un-repented anti-Christian Gnostic beliefs.

Interestingly enough, Jews themselves agreed with their persecutors that they, the Jews, were the ”the people-proof”, so that their difficult existence and their survival was theologically meaningful.  Of course, there was disagreement on what precisely was to prove. For instance, Jehuda Halevi developed the concept of ”Israel, a suffering heart”, meaning that, as Israel was the ”heart of the nations”, she also was the most sensitive of them all. This way, Halevi tried to explain why the ”Chosen People” was also the unhappiest.


8. As the Modern Age debunked and later tore to pieces Medieval thinking, the traditional, ambivalent Anti-Semitism I have just described lost its position and was little by little replaced by other forms. Some of these were extremely aggressive and eventually led to the Holocaust.

Of course, it is beyond any doubt that modernization and secularization brought many essential benefits to the Jews: in the 17th century they were permitted to return to different Western countries from where they had been expelled three centuries earlier; in the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, as the ghettos were dismantled, Jews were granted civil and political rights. In Western and Central Europe most of them were assimilated very quickly and, in general, very successfully to the mainstream European culture to which they soon contributed a lot. In Eastern Europe assimilation was much slower and many Jews continued to live in traditional ”shtetls” and to be subjected to discrimination, and even to periodic pogroms.

Nevertheless towards the end of the 19th century, anti-Semitism was on the rise everywhere in Europe: in France, this rise was highlighted by ”l’affaire Dreyfuss” while in Germany, Wilhelm Marr had coined the word ”Anti-Semitism” just a few years earlier.

Why, if just a ”theological passion”, did anti-Semitism re-emerge precisely when traditional religion seemed to be declining? Of course, one must also consider the various social, political and economical explanations that may account for this development. Yet, I think that, as paradoxical as it may seem, Anti-Semitism continued to feed itself on the ”theology of the people-proof”. From the 18th century onwards, Christianity was not just abandoned by more and more European thinkers; it was challenged by different powerful ”secular” faiths, as Socialism, Nationalism, Progressivism, Racism, etc. The struggle was one of antagonistic faiths rather than of one religion challenged by an opposed irreligiousness. But any faith challenging Christianity, irrespective of whether it was regular or secular, had in it as much a potential of anti-Semitism as any traditional form of Christianity.


9. In modern Europe, Christianity has often seen itself as a besieged city. It seemed as if the divine order was being violated by the ever-growing secularism. And the Jews were often thought to have an important part in this violation. Due to the emancipation, the ”deicidal people” seemed to be better and better off. Their ”crime” looked like not being atoned for, any more.

Moreover, the Jews seemed to be carrying on with their old sinister plans. In the view of fundamentalist Christians, there were two well-known stereotypes that properly described Jewish misdemeanor: the Jew seen as a capitalist and the Jew seen as a socialist. Both characters were supposed to attempt to subvert the Christian order, despite the paradox of their co-operation. From Edouard Drumont’s ”France juive”, supported by a large part of the French Catholic press and clergy, from the ”Dreyfuss Affaire” and to the ”Protocols of the Sion’s Sages”, both stereotypes occurred over and again. The old charge, that the Jews had killed God, was turned into its modern counterpart: that the Jews wanted to destroy the Christian nations.

Of course, in the meantime the Church (especially the Catholic and a few of the Protestant sects) has fared a long way from there. Yet the road has been thorny: one has just to point to the shameful behavior towards the Jews of Pope Pius XII during World War II. [22] Even the Vatican Council II failed to wholly clear the Jews of the deicide charge. While the draft stated that ”the Jewish people should never be persecuted, nor should it be considered as separated from God, nor accursed, or guilty of deicide”, in the Council’s Acts final form the last three words were dropped out.

Yet, in the recent years, Pope John-Paul II made further steps on the way of discarding traditional Catholic Anti-Semitism. He even apologized on the Church’s behalf for the persecution and suffering to which the Jews were subjected for so many centuries. Nevertheless, it is still unclear to what extent these last events purport to a complete uprooting of theological Anti-Semitism, or rather express a personal, though impressive, commitment of John-Paul II himself. Actually there are some hints that the Vatican Curia was not very happy with the apology and put some pressure on the Pope to soften its wording, so it is uncertain whether the next Pope will fully endorse it. [23]


10. Naively, one could assume that ”progressive” attitudes, opposed to clerical and conservative trends, would reject anti-Semitism as well. A lot of Jews fell pray to this naďve misrepresentation. In fact, many advocates of the modernization, which ultimately sprang out from the Enlightenment ideology — various sorts of liberals, socialists, nationalists, republicans etc. — were strongly anti-Semitic. The reason of this ”progressive” Anti-Semitism, if anything, is obvious: they were anti-Semitic because they embarked upon a radical anti-Christian and anti-”ancient regime” militancy. Their anti-Christian position was not real agnosticism or skepticism. Rather, it was a true religious passion, hardly disguised in secular clothes. These radical and modern authors used to worship such modernity gods as Reason, History, Proletariat, Nation, or Science, instead of kneeling before the much-hated Jewish-Christian God.

One of the most characteristic and earliest cases is Voltaire [24] : for him, the Jews were but a vile and superstitious sect, incapable of progress, a kind of a despicable historical relic. But their most serious sin was, according to Voltaire, that they had invented Christianity. Later on, all Jewish vices were taken over by the Christian clergy. ”The only difference between you (the Jews) and our priests — he would write — is that our priests burned you with the help of the laymen, while your priests have always sacrificed human victims with their own hands.”

Many other writers and philosophers who were fighting the so-called reactionary spirit during the 19th century took a similar position. Their manifest anti-Christian stance almost inevitably generated Anti-Semitism. Fourier, Prudhon, Michelet, Fichte, Hegel, Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach and, of course, Karl Marx, are probably the best known of these ”progressive anti-Semites”. The Romantic historian Jules Michelet, for instance, reproached Judaism its alleged ”lack of ideal” and its parochial spirit. Ernest Renan, famous for his defense of ”political nationhood”, popularized the racial Aryan myth in France and held the Jews as inferior, just because they were ”Semites”. According to Renan, the ”Semites”, and all the more the Jews, were lacking a real creative mind, and, consequently, had no epic, no mythology, no painting, no civic life. Nietzsche’s more complex case deserves mentioning as well: while the philosopher opposed the ever-growing contemporary German Anti-Semitism and nationalism, nonetheless, because of his fierce adversity to Christianity, he charged the Jews with authorship of the ”ethic of resentment”: Nietzsche claimed that, in order to take revenge on the Romans, the Jews invented and spread Christianity, which eventually subverted the noble virtues of the Ancient World and poisoned the spirit of Modern Times [25] .

For most writers of this kind, the solution to the ”Jewish Question” was assimilation: the Jews had to be assimilated to their host-nations and had to disappear as an ethnic-religious community. So, while for the ”reactionary” clerical anti-Semites the scandal was that, by assimilation, the ”accursed race” would loose its inferior social status - ”willed by God” - without necessarily submitting to baptism, the ”progressive” anti-Semites could not condone any attempt on the part of the Jews to preserve at least a part of their Jewishness. In order to please the former anti-Semites the Jews had to live apart, as they used to do for centuries; to please the latter, they had to fully melt into their host-nations. So, no matter how hard some of them tried, they could eventually please neither.

In fact, the reluctance of many Jews to fully give up their Jewishness seemed to suggest the failure of the rationalist and ”progressive” ideology, which could not account for the survival of this ”historical-theological relic”. On the other hand, the Jews as a nation represented a challenge to the ”one and indivisible Nation” this ”progressive” ideology strove to legitimize. One way or another, the Jewish survival down into the Modern Age seemed to ”prove” something; but what else could it prove but the existence of ”the divine design”, i.e. the existence of the Jewish-Christian God these authors were fighting?

The case of Marxism is highly significant in this respect: for any orthodox Marxist, modern Jews were an anomaly: they form neither a social class, nor a nation (in the sense of Stalin’s famous definition of a nation), nor are they a religious community, nor a national ”normal” minority. Actually, Marxism failed to explain ”the Jewish Question” in terms of class struggle, or in terms of economic determinism. The Jews seemed to continue to exist despite the requirements of the ”most scientific and progressive theory”. When, however, this theory attempted to meet this challenge, the conclusions were lamentable as, for instance, this statement by Jean-Paul Sartre proves: ”On ne trouve gučre d’antisémitisme chez les ouvriers.” [26]

The failure of Marxism to address appropriately the ”Jewish Question” could induce the idea of the failure of Marxism altogether. To avert such possible danger Marxism developed a peculiar Anti-Semitism, very much in use in the Communist societies: as a rule ”the Jewish Question” was ”solved” by omission: one simply avoided speaking about Jews, their culture, their history, their suffering, the Holocaust, Zionism, etc. As Jews were still a ”negative theological proof”, this would have jeopardized the alleged superiority of Marxism over Christian metaphysics of history, so the less you referred to them, the better. Thus, not being referred to, the Jews ”vanished” from the theory, long before their almost physical disappearance from Central and Eastern Europe due to the Holocaust and the emigration that followed thereafter.

Yet, some Jews also felt attracted to the way Marxism wanted to solve the ”Jewish Question” by means of omission. A lot of them espoused Marxism very much, just because Marxism had no room for Jewishness as such. They thought that, if this is the price to pay to get rid of Anti-Semitism, it is worth paying it. Yet, this proved to be a mistaken choice: for Communist societies developed a strange ”Anti-Semitism without Jews”, which they subsequently passed on to their post-Communist heirs.


11. Still, the most virulent Anti-Semitism was introduced by some racist and extreme-nationalist authors, such as the Comte de Gobineau, E. Drumont, composer Richard Wagner, H. S. Chamberlain, Paul de Lagarde, or, in Romania, A. C. Cuza, Nae Ionescu, Nichifor Crainic. [27] What is striking is that these writers were either openly hostile to traditional Christendom, and supported an ”Aryanized” Christianity, or (as in the Romanian case) they embarked upon a ”Gnosticized” Christianity, which they called ”Orthodoxy”. Actually, these anti-Semites rediscovered and ”secularized” a few Gnostic and Marcionite themes.

For instance, the promoters of the ”Aryan myth” rediscovered a profoundly dualistic theology: for them, history was but the theatre where two cosmological antagonistic forces fought to death: the Aryans, who represented the good, and the Jews, who were the evil. As for Marcion, the Jews were supposedly damned because they had been created by an evil and imperfect God, so for those who upheld the ”Aryan myth”, the Jews were a damned, destructive race, which had to be wiped out. And as Marcion wanted to keep his sect pure from Judaism, by rejecting the Old Testament, so did the neo-Gnostics: they tried to deny any positive value to ancient or modern Judaism, they strove to uproot Christianity from its Jewish soil, they even denied the capacity of baptism to wipe the difference between Gentiles and Jews. Taking up the teachings of Fichte or Paul de Lagarde they wanted an ”Aryanized or Nordic Jesus”; and, unlike Marcion, they rejected St. Paul too, on whom they blamed the ”Judaization” of Christianity.

The emergence of the neo-Gnostics confirms both theses no.2 and no.3: just because they are anti-Christian they are also anti-Semitic; but their radical Anti-Semitism makes them reject the core of Christianity as well, i.e.: that all men, irrespective of their race, can be saved, provided they accept baptism.


12. I think it is clear now why secularization did not put an end to Anti-Semitism: for conservative, religious people, the Jews were disliked because their assimilation was too successful; for the progressive republicans they never did enough, while for the neo-Gnostics they incarnated the cosmic evil no matter what they did. Traditional Christians regarded the Jews suspiciously because they saw that, after the emancipation, the ”deicide people” was no longer punished by a humiliating status for the crime it had allegedly committed; while militant and radical anti-Christians saw in the Jews the people who invented a much-hated God, or who spread across the world an universal ethic they despised and wanted replaced with a ”masters’ ethic”.

Eventually, the obduracy of the Jews to live on came to exasperate everybody: socialists were upset because they could not fit this people into their ”scientific” theory, nationalists could not swallow the world’s and homeless existence of the Jews among so many nation-states, militant atheists were exasperated because the Jews had invented God, while fundamentalist Christians were angry because the Jews had murdered God.

No wonder that, when Nazi neo-Gnosticism prepared to exterminate the Jews, the capacity and the will of other political, religious, cultural trends, either from inside or from outside Germany, to resist and to vehemently protest was so faint. This was why so many people who were not Nazi gave in, or even became accomplices in the murder.

In a world where God Himself was turning into a problem, Jews — the people-proof par excellence — could be but problematic, too. The problem (the ”Jewish Question”) was awaiting its solution, even if this meant to distort, to conceal the living proof or to do away with it. This was how the Holocaust was unleashed. This was why it remained, in a sense, unique. And even when there were practically no Jews left, as in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Anti-Semitism went on existing: this was the ”Anti-Semitism without Jews”. This is, perhaps, the last expression of an old theological passion, whose object has been an intellectual fancy, but whose victims have always been lots of real people.

Andrei Cornea holds a Ph.D. in classical philology from the University of Bucharest. He is currently a researcher at the ”Sergiu Al-George” Institute for Oriental Studies and an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of European Studies of the University of Bucharest. He is the author of several books on philosophy and he teaches Major Trends in Jewish Thought and Israeli literature at the M.A. program in Jewish Studies organized by the University of Bucharest.



[1] Leon Poliakov, History of Anti-Semitism, London, 1974. ”The uniqueness of the Jews' destiny has tenaciously been regarded, down through the ages, as the direct and explicit expression of the divine will, and this as much by the world as large as by the Jews themselves” (Introduction, p. 7).

[2] See Gavin Langmuir, Toward a Definition of anti-Semitism, Berkeley and L.A. 1990.

[3] This is what Philo of Alexandria tells us in his Ambassade to Caius.

[4] Fred Gladstone Bratton, The Crime of Christendom, Boston, 1969, p. 16.

[5] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Parish, 1993.

[6] Mark, 1,15.

[7] I Corinthians, 1, 23.

[8] Romans, 5, 12-21.

[9] Galatians, 2,11.

[10] On St. Paul, see: Günther Bornkamm, Paul (1971, 1969); Frederick F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (1978, 1984), Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians (1983).

[11] Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent, New York 1989.

[12] Cesare Manucci, Anti-Semitism e ideologia cristiana sugli ebrei, Milano 1982.

[13] See, for instance: Galatians. 3.23.

[14] Mathew, 27, 25.

[15] Homelies against the Jews, Migne, P.G. t.48, p. 843-942.

[16] 2 Corinthians, 3,14.

[17] In Mark and Matthew, Jesus is effectively beaten and crucified by the Roman soldiers, while in Lucas and John - by the Jews themselves.

[18] Romans, 11,15: See also Gavin Langmuir, History, Religion and Anti-Semitism, London 1990, chapter From Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semitism.

[19] Robert S. Wistrich, The longest hatred - Anti-Semitism, New York, 1991.

[20] Fred Gladstone Bratton, idem, p. 87.

[21] Gavin Langmuir, History, Religion and Anti-Semitism, London 1990, chapter From Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semitism, ”Yet, although some Christians... had tried to extirpate Judaism and Jews by force, they had done so in defiance of the authorities of their religion. For... the authorities defended the presence of the Jews in their midst, as they could use the degraded state of Jews as empirical evidence in support of Christian beliefs” (p. 295).

[22] John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope. The Secret History of Pius XII, Viking 1999.

[23] Corriere della Sera, 13 March 2000.

[24] Robert S. Wistrich, The longest hatred - Anti-Semitism, New York 1991, p. 45.

[25] Fr. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of the Morals.

[26] J. P. Sartre, Reflexions sur la Question juive, Paris 1954, p. 42.

[27] A forerunner was Fichte in Reden an die Deutsche Nation (1808): V. Gun-ther Bornkamm, Paul, London 1975.

Previous Page | About the author | Content | Home | Next Page

© University of Bucharest 2003. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Dr.Felicia Waldman
Last update: February 2003
Text editor&Web design: Raluca OVAC