The biblical roots of antisemitism

People have hated the Jews ever since they refused to accept God’s Torah.

Miniature Torah, part of the National Library of Israel collection. Credit: Courtesy.
Miniature Torah, part of the National Library of Israel collection. Credit: Courtesy.
Steve Lipman
Steve Lipman

In his 1990 book Anti-Semitism: A Disease of the Mind, psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin described hatred of Jews and Judaism as a mental or emotional “symbol sickness” that involves envy, low self-esteem and projection of one’s inner conflicts.

Dr. Rubin was on the right path. From a Torah-based perspective, antisemitism is not only a sickness, but an opportunistic disease. Some diseases are constantly present in the body, but are rendered ineffective by the immune system. They can wreak havoc only when the immune system weakens or collapses.

Today, antisemitism and antisemites appear to believe that society’s resistance to them is collapsing. The current wave of antisemitism in the United States bears this out.

Antisemitism, of course, never really went away. It was in the closet, hiding its face. For several decades, those with hate in their hearts were outnumbered by well-intentioned non-Jews, shamed into silence by an environment of tolerance or frightened of criminal penalties.

Moreover, in the aftermath of World War II, sympathy for the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust, admiration for Israel’s resilience and Western tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities made public expression of Jew-hatred unfashionable if not anathema.

But times change. The memory of the Holocaust fades, the image of Israel changes from David to Goliath, Holocaust denial grows. In the minds of woke progressives, Jews are no longer a vulnerable minority but part of the “white supremacist” power structure. Antisemitism has become politically correct. The taboo against openly libeling or physically attacking Jews is gone. The disease of antisemitism is now free to attack the Jewish body.

Traditional Jewish literature, the Torah and the Talmud, predicted that this would happen. The “new” antisemitism is not new. It is over 3,000 years old; as old as God’s gift of the Torah to the nation of freed Israelite slaves.

According to Jewish tradition, God offered the Torah to all the nations of the world, in order to prevent them from becoming jealous of the Jews as God’s “Chosen People.” The Talmud tractate Avoda Zara cites three nations, representing the world’s most dominant groups and their ways of life, which refused the divine offer.

The Talmud states that all three nations, descended from biblical figures, turned down the offer because the Torah proscribed certain practices they were unwilling to give up: The brothers Amnon and Moab, who were descendants of Lot and his daughters, did not want to forgo their devotion to sexual immorality. Descendants of Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother, wanted to retain their tribe’s reliance on theft. Descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother, refused the offer because of their forefather Isaac’s blessing to Esau—“by the sword thou shalt live.”

This is the origin of 3,000 years of antisemitism. According to experts, there are three dominant strains of antisemitism: religious, political-economic and racial. The Crusades and the Inquisition were motivated by religious antisemitism, pogroms by political-economic antisemitism and the Holocaust by racial antisemitism.

These three types of antisemitism align with the three biblical antecedents: Amnon-Moab would not give up their “religious” behavior, a form of idolatry that used sex to attract converts. Ishmael’s propensity for robbery and violence was political and economic, with crime systemically instituted on a national level. Esau’s pledge to “kill my brother Jacob” was racial in nature, connected to the biological family ties with Jacob. The rabbis declared that it was inevitable for Esau, seen as the progenitor of the Edomites, Romans and Christians, to hate Jacob, who represents the Jewish people.

This paradigm is thematic rather than genealogical. No one can determine who is a descendant of these ancient nations. Anyone can act like Esau.

Moreover, the paradigm is not clearly delineated. Religious, political-economic and racial antisemitism inevitably overlap.

Contemporary headlines indicate that the short-term outlook for the eradication of antisemitism is not encouraging. Given the power of its ancient origins, it is likely to increase if given the opportunity.

Steve Lipman, a Buffalo native, was a staff writer at The Jewish Week in New York from 1983 until 2020, when the paper stopped publishing.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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