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Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust

November 19, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Unique in its universality, intensity, longevity and irrationality: What is the root of anti-Semitism?

History provides far too many examples of man's inhumanity to man: social injustice, religious oppression, cultural clashes, ideological wars, class hatred, and most every other form of racism and intolerance.

One particular form, however, stands out amongst all others: Anti-Semitism. Unique in its universality, intensity, longevity and irrationality, anti-Semitism is a historical phenomenon which falls outside of normal sociological bounds.

In 1987, President Chaim Herzog of Israel commissioned a colloquium on anti-Semitism. Professor Michael Curtis of Rutgers University spoke there about the irrationality of anti-Semitism:

The uniqueness of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that no other people in the world has ever been charged simultaneously with alienation from society and with cosmopolitanism, with being capitalistic exploiters and also revolutionary communist advocators. The Jews were accused of having an imperious mentality, at the same time they’re a people of the book. They’re accused of being militant aggressors, at the same time as being cowardly pacifists. With being a chosen people, and also having an inferior human nature. With both arrogance and timidity. With both extreme individualism and community adherence. With being guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus and at the same time held to account for the invention of Christianity.

As historian Martin Gilbert observes in the Jewish History Atlas:

As my research into Jewish history progressed, I was surprised, depressed, and to some extent overwhelmed by the perpetual and irrational violence which pursued the Jews in every country and to almost every corner of the globe. If, therefore, persecution, expulsion, torture, humiliation, and mass murder haunt these pages, it is because they also haunt the Jewish story.

Which leaves us with one question: What is the root of anti-Semitism?

"Jews Are Rich, Powerful and Control The World"

Many claim that anti-Semitism is a reaction to Jewish political and economic power. Consider the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book invented by the Russian secret police, purporting to be the discussions of Jewish elders plotting to take over the world. It was – next to the Bible – the best-selling book in the world during the 1920s. In the United States, Henry Ford sponsored its publication. It has since been printed in numerous languages internationally, and presently has widespread distribution in Japan.

But could Jewish wealth and power really be the cause of anti-Semitism? The Jews of Poland and Russia (17th-20th centuries) were poor and powerless. Yet they were still persecuted. Cossacks didn’t check bank accounts before initiating pogroms. When the Nazis liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jews lived there under incredibly impoverished conditions. The reality is that poor Jews have been just as hated as rich Jews.

As Jews were slaughtered en masse, the claim that Jews control governments became painfully absurd.

Furthermore, if it is true that Jews control the governments, then why didn’t even one country accept Jewish refugees struggling to escape Europe during the Holocaust? Surely with all their wealth and political power, at least one government would have allowed the Jews in! When government after government buried its head in the sand as Jews were being slaughtered en masse, the claim that Jews control governments becomes painfully absurd.

Jewish "success" may make an anti-Semite gnash his teeth, but that’s clearly not the root cause of anti-Semitism.

"Jews Claim to be the Chosen People"

The University of California at Berkeley conducted a survey, asking a group of non-Jewish Americans whether they believed a series of negative statements about Jews. By far the number one belief (held by 59%) was that Jews consider themselves as God’s chosen people.

It is true that Jews have always claimed to be different. Throughout history, Jews have kept to themselves, didn’t socialize with non-Jews, and had a completely different ethical, cultural and social system – including different dress, laws, and language. To top it all off, Jewish allegiance was never primarily to the countries in which they lived. The Jew always dreamt of going back to Zion. They were the ultimate outsiders.

If anti-Semites hate Jews because they claim to be chosen, then what happens when Jews dropped their claim of chosenness? When the Enlightenment came to Europe, many Jews said “Now’s our chance!” They shed their foreign dress, shaved their beards, enrolled in universities – and intermarried. In Germany and Austria, Jews for the first time said: "We’re no longer chosen. We’re going to become like you. Our home is here. Berlin is our Jerusalem.” After centuries of hatred, the Jews anticipated a warm welcome from their gentile neighbors.

Where do we see the most vicious outpouring of anti-Semitism? Precisely in Germany and Austria – at the time and place that Jews dropped the claim of chosenness!

If chosenness is, in fact, the real explanation for anti-Semitism, then many of peoples should be hated for similar claims of chosenness. Americans have the concept of Manifest Destiny – i.e. that it was the divine will of God to annex territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The name China means “center of the universe.” The name Japan means “the sun only shines for them.” But nobody hates them for this!

Other reasons have been suggested for anti-Semitism, but they also are lacking. Some say Jew-hatred stems from being different, or being outsiders, but as we have seen even when Jews been as German as the Germans, anti-Semitism has not lessened (usually the opposite). Others say Jews were a convenient scapegoat – but hatred must exist as a precondition to be chosen a scapegoat (i.e. no one ever chose midgets as the scapegoat for a country's problems).

Others suggest that anti-Semitism exists because of Deicide: Jews killed their God. But historians show that anti-Semitism existed much before Christianity, and has appeared in countless non-Christian countries.

We can see then that all the stated 'reasons' are not reasons at all, but rather are excuses for anti-Semitism. What is the real reason?

The Attempt to De-Judaize Anti-Semitism

In her diary, on April 11, 1944, Anne Frank wrote:

Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now? It is God who has made us as we are, but it will be G-d, too, who will raise us up again. Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason only do we now suffer. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English or representatives of any country for that matter. We will always remain Jews.

Anne Frank said, in effect, that Jews have something special to contribute to the world – and because of that they have been persecuted.

But by and large, the world would rather de-Judaize anti-Semitism. When The Diary of Anne Frank was adapted into a Broadway play, we hear her explanation of anti-Semitism quite differently:

“Why are Jews hated?” she asks, “Well, one day it’s one group, and the next day another...

In other words, the reasons for anti-Semitism have absolutely nothing to do with being Jewish. The Jews went through a Holocaust, the most systematic attempt to murder a people in the history of all humanity – and it was not for Jewish reasons. Dumb luck. We were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hitler’s Reason for Anti-Semitism

There was one individual, however, who stated clearly that hatred of Jews is because there’s something unique about the Jews: Adolf Hitler.

His driving ambition was to turn the world away from monotheism and bring it back to paganism. He stood for the superiority of the Aryan race: "Might makes right... survival of the fittest... eliminate the infirmed and handicapped."

There was only one obstacle standing in Hitler’s way: The Jews. Hitler knew it was the Jews who introduced the ideas of love your neighbor, helping the poor and the sick, and all men are created equal. Hitler hated the message of the Jews because it totally contradicted what he wanted the world to become.

As Hitler said:

“Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I am freeing man from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge, from the dirty and degrading self-mortifications of a false vision called conscience and morality, and from the demands of a freedom and personal independence which only a very few can bear.”


“The Ten Commandments have lost their validity. Conscience is a Jewish invention; it is a blemish like circumcision.”

Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not a means to an end. It was his goal. Long after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had effectively dismantled the Jewish community of Germany, Hitler was still not satisfied. In 1942, at the Wansee Conference, Hitler launched the "Final Solution" of genocide.

Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not a means to an end. It was his goal.

Then, with the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944, top German military officers determined that railway lines must be prioritized to transport vital troops and equipment to the battlefront. The Wehrmacht urged Hitler to provide this infusion of desperately-needed supplies. Ignoring their warnings, Hitler instead gave orders to allocate the precious rail-lines to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews en masse to the extermination camps. Historians acknowledge this decision as a key factor in further debilitating the German war effort. Hitler, it seems, regarded the killing of Jews even more important than winning World War Two.

He said:

“If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition. If one little Jewish boy survives, without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school; it’s in his soul.”

The Torah View of Anti-Semitism

The Torah itself teaches that anti-Semitism will exist and that Jews will be hated for precisely the reasons echoed in Hitler’s words.

The Talmud (Shabbat 69) declares:

Why was the Torah given on a mountain called Sinai? Because the great “sinah,” the great hatred of the Jew, emanates from Sinai. (Sinah, the Hebrew word for hatred, is pronounced almost identically to Sinai.)

Before the Torah was given, people built their lives on a subjective concept of right and wrong. At Sinai the Jewish People were told that there is one God for all humanity who makes moral demands on human beings. You can’t just live as you please; there is a higher authority you are accountable to.

The Russians were threatened by a handful of Jews who wanted to study Hebrew.

The Jews were given the responsibility to represent that morality and be a light unto the nations. So, despite the fact that they were never more than a tiny fraction of the world’s population, Jewish ideas became the basis for the civilized world. And with that, they became a lightening rod for those opposed to the moral message. That’s why the Russians, although they were a huge superpower in the 1970s, were threatened by a handful of Jews who wanted to study Hebrew.

Why would people hate the Jewish message?

Consider the words of Aldous Huxley, in his book, Confessions of an Atheist:

I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently, I assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.

For the one who rejects morality and conscience, the only way to get of rid of the message… is to destroy the messenger.

Why Be Jewish?

The solution to anti-Semitism is the flip-side of the cause. Jewish values are the cause of anti-Semitism, and Jewish values are the solution. Only by studying Torah – and teaching it to others – can we ever hope to bring the world to a point where evil is eradicated.

When human beings embrace the moral doctrine that Judaism brought to the world from Sinai – that there is a God who demands ethical behavior from every human being – then there will be no holocausts.

And that is the exquisite irony of Jewish history.

The world cannot get the message unless the messengers learn it and teach it. The world desperately needs the Jewish message. Now go and study.


  • Based on the seminar, Why the Jews, by Raphael Shore.
  • Hitler quotes from Herman Rauschning, Hitler Speaks, Kessinger Publishing, 2006.
  • Anne Frank quotes from Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews, Touchstone, 2003.

See the online seminar, "Why the Jews?"


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