Antisemitism

Antisemitism is hatred of, or discrimination against, Jews as individuals or as a collective. It has been prevalent in Middle Eastern and European history, taking on distinct characteristics through different time periods, and referred to “the longest hatred” and a virus which has mutated throughout the centuries. Former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks MBE, has created a video called ‘The Mutation of Antisemitism’ which succinctly conveys how it has evolved.

Ancient (Christian) antisemitism

Pagan antisemitism in the Greek and Roman world objected to Jewish exclusiveness. The rise of Christianity added a new false accusation – that the Jews were responsibile for crucifying Jesus. The early Christian Church developed the notion that the Jews were therefore a people rejected by G-d and children of the devil (see John 8:44). With the political victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire, these theological views were translated into social reality, and possessing few civil rights the Jews were to be preserved as a people to witness the triumph and ‘truth’ of the Church.

Medieval antisemitism

Demonisation of Jews by the Church and their resulting inferior social and political status were carried over into medieval Europe. The conspicuous success of Jews as money-lenders (a profession forbidden to Christians) became a further factor in the growth of populist antisemitism. This manifested in mob violence (pogroms) during the Crusades, which entailed massacres of Jews and looting of their property. New anti-Jewish myths were developed, including the ritual slaughter of Christian children, the desecration of the sacred Host and the poisoning of wells. These slanders have persisted powerfully, especially in Eastern Europe, until today.

Jews were forbidden to enter trades or professions or to own land and frequently had to wear a badge or distinguishing garment such as a pointed hat. They were forced to live in ghettos – sections of a town or city in which they were segregated from the general population and which they were forbidden to leave. They were subjected to excessive taxation, denigrating legislation, inquisition, censorship, forced baptism, compulsory attendance at church, property confiscation and even expulsion. Attacks on, and expulsions of, Jews were commonplace throughout medieval history, so that by the mid-1500s Christians had forcibly emptied most of Western Europe of Jews.

Racially-motivated antisemitism

The French Revolution of 1789 and the emancipation of French Jews in 1791 seemed to promise a fresh beginning. But the liberalism of capitalist society in the 19th century prompted a backlash, with conservatives denouncing Jews as the “gravediggers of Christian society”, while peasants and artisans feared them as “capitalist exploiters and rapacious financiers”. The new, pseudo-scientific doctrine of racial antisemitism drew on these stereotypes and formulated a view of history as a struggle for racial supremacy between Jews and “Aryans”.

From there it was a short step to the paranoid belief in a Jewish world conspiracy which aimed to undermine societies, overthrow governments and seize global power. This was the claim of a document forged by a Russian secret policeman at the end of the 19th century and published between 1903 and 1905 as The Protocols of The Elders of Zion. Hitler found the document “enormously instructive” and they served both as a primer for Nazi politics and as alleged “proof” of a conspiracy. Two years after the Nazis came to power, the book became required reading in German schools.

The Holocaust

This act of genocide, which occurred during World War II, saw six million Jewish men, women and children systematically murdered by Nazi Germany, its allies and collaborators. It was the deadliest manifestation of antisemitism in history and its effects still reverberate globally today. Read more at holocaust.com.au.

A triumphal arch erected in Rome in AD 81 to commemorate the conquest of Judea and the destruction of Jerusalem by the emperor Titus. It shows the captors carrying the golden candlestick and sacred utensils from the Jewish temple at Jerusalem to Rome.
Depiction of Jews burning in medieval times.
Posters for the Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda film 'The Eternal Jew'.
US Senator Alben W. Barkley, member of a committee investigating Nazi atrocities, looks at a pile of bodies at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Arab and Islamic antisemitism

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people more than 3000 years ago. Since ancient times, centres of Jewish civilisation were established in many parts of the adjacent regions, with significant Jewish communities existing throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Babylon, The Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and the Gulf region for 2000 years – centuries before the advent of Islam and the Arab conquest.

In the Arab-Muslim world Jews typically had the legal status of dhimmi (protected minority) and were subjected to a number of restrictions, including having to live in segregated quarters, wear distinctive clothing and express public subservience to Muslims. There were prohibitions against proselytising and marrying Muslim women, and limited access to the legal system (the testimony of a Jew did not count if it was contradicted by that of a Muslim). Jewish communities, like Christian ones, were typically constituted as semi-autonomous entities managed by their own laws and leaders, who carried the responsibility for the community towards the Muslim rulers.


By medieval standards, conditions for Jews under Islam were generally more formalised and better than those of Jews in Christian lands. When granted freedoms, they prospered and could attain high political rank, economic prosperity and academic success, but their position was frequently precarious. There were numerous incidents of massacres of Jews in North Africa, especially in Morocco, Libya and Algeria in the seventh century, where eventually Jews were forced to live in ghettos (or mellahs). Decrees ordering the destruction of synagogues were enacted in the Middle Ages in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. At certain times in Yemen, Morocco and Baghdad Jews were forced to convert to Islam or face death. Blood libels and other false accusations led to wrongful imprisonment and massive rioting in the 1800s; and in the 1930s and 1940s Nazi-inspired massacres took place in Libya, Egypt and Algeria and most infamously in Baghdad – known as the Farhud.


Antisemitic sentiments in the Arab-Muslim world today are partly the result of the internalisation of classic Christian and modern European forms of antisemitism, which have been imported into Arab and Muslim societies, along with various conspiracy theories. While borrowing themes from Western antisemitism, Arab-Islamic antisemitism also has indigenous sources and motivations, stemming from religious and nationalist sentiments, producing a unique symbiosis between Islamic precepts regarding Jews and motifs from the repository of Christian, racial and political antisemitism. It stems also from a refusal to accept Israel’s existence.

Cartoon in the Qatari al-Watan newspaper May 2018.
Imam Mandhir Abdullah at a Copenhagen mosque sermon in March 2017.
Iranian Ayatollah Alireza Ebadi during a May 2019 Friday sermon that aired on Iranian TV.
Cartoon published in September 2018 by the al-Raya daily newspaper (Qatar) depicting a Jewish man drinking the blood of Palestinians.

Definition of contemporary antisemitism

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – an alliance of 33 Western countries that unites governments and experts to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance – has devised a definition of antisemitism which is endorsed by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies:

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
  • Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Contemporary forms of antisemitic discourse

Some expressions are easily identified as being antisemitic, eg “God damned you Jews to hell”, “Yes it is true Jews run the world”, the “evil greedy money-loving nature of Jews”, or “Hitler should have finished them off”.

Other comments are not as easily recognised as antisemitic. This can be because they are ambiguous, borderline, coded or disguised as political criticism of Israel, or because the connection to classical forms of antisemitism is not recognised. Not all people who harbour hostility towards Jews are open about their views, which results in antisemitic rhetoric often being more subtle and less overt than that expressed by those who openly acknowledge their bigotry.

The word “Zionist” in the hands of antisemites has become a substitute for pejorative reference to Jews. A variation of this technique is the use of classical anti-Jewish motifs and themes in the expression of what, on the surface, may appear to be political opinion about Israel. For example, where once it was claimed that Jews seek to control the world, now it is claimed that Israel seeks to control the world; where once it was said that Jews lusted after Christian blood, now it is said that Israel lusts after Palestinian blood; where once it was said that Jews were Satanic, now it is said that Israel is Satanic.

Is anti-Zionism the new antisemitism?

Yes it is. Criticism of Israel per se does not constitute antisemitism, but in this short video, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Lord Rabbi Sacks MBE shows the connection between Jews, Judaism and Israel and how the re-establishment of Israel is the greatest expression of the Jewish collective – making it a target of the “new antisemitism”.

Antisemitism in Australia

Jews arrived in Australia as convicts on the First Fleet in 1788.

The Jewish community is an integral part of Australian society, exemplified by two Jewish governors-general (Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen) and the Chief of the Australian Army in World War l (Major-General Sir John Monash). Jews have been able to participate in the political process from early times and have distinguished themselves across civil society, including in philanthropy (eg the Lowy Institute), the arts, medicine, the law, sport and business. However, there have been elements of society which have sought to delegitimise Jews from the earliest days of European settlement, regarding them as “other” and as “un-Australian”.

The Jewish community is the only community within Australia whose places of worship, schools, communal organisations and community centres need, for security reasons, to operate under the protection of high fences, armed guards, metal detectors, CCTV cameras and the like. The necessity is recognised by Australia’s law enforcement agencies and arises from the entrenched and protean nature of antisemitism in western and Muslim culture, resulting in a high incidence of physical attacks against Jews and Jewish communal buildings over the last three decades, and continuing threats.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, which annually logs antisemitic incidents, recorded 366 incidents during 2017-18 – an increase of 59% over the previous 12-month period. This was an unprecedented percentage increase which included spikes in incidents of harassment, vandalism, threats by email, telephone and posters; the number of physical assaults remained constant.

A recently-formed neo-Nazi group, Antipodean Resistance, was responsible for 133 (36%) of the 366 incidents, mostly comprising placing threatening posters, stickers, graffiti and murals in public places. Antipodean Resistance was also responsible for incidents involving vandalism and some of its members infiltrated the NSW Nationals in 2018, until being identified and expelled from the party. The number of incidents attributable to Antipodean Resistance rose from 50 in the previous year – a rise of 166%.

Jews are verbally abused and harassed in the vicinity of synagogues on a regular basis, particularly during the Jewish Sabbath (Friday evening and Saturday) and on Jewish festivals.

There has been an online surge in calls to kill Jews and of images of Jews being murdered. Most of this incitement occurs on the Gab platform, which is a haven for extremists and racists, many racists having moved to Gab when Twitter closed their accounts in December 2017. In October 2018 Gab suspended its entire platform – but only for a week – after the murder of 11 Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, USA, by a man who had incited against Jews on Gab and who promoted a “‘White Genocide”’ myth. There are other popular social media platforms which also host pages on which Jews are denigrated. For a comprehensive list of antisemitic incidents in Australia during the 12 month period ending September 30 2019, please refer to the ECAJ Antisemitism Report 2019.