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The Early Modern Period

The Early Modern Period
Let’s begin our examination of antisemitism in the Modern Era by focusing on the 16th to 18th centuries, a time known as the early modern period. Marked by major trends and movements such as the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, the early modern period brought with it dramatic, political, economic, and religious changes to Europe. It was also during this time that the European exploration and colonization of the Americas, Africa, and Asia took place. This led, among other things, to modern globalization and to the rise of early forms of capitalism. When discussing the history of the Jews of Europe, it is during this time period that the center of Jewish life was no longer concentrated in Western Europe.
Stimulated by their expulsions from the Western parts of the European continent in the late medieval period, Jews began searching for more tolerant and favorable conditions, eventually settling in Eastern Europe and in parts of the Ottoman Empire. How did the developments and changes of the early modern period affect the way the Jews of Europe were perceived and treated at this time? The answer to this question differs from Western to Eastern Europe. As we will now see, it is in Western Europe that the major anti-Jewish ideas and ideologies continued to originate during this time period, promoted by leading philosophers and thinkers of the intellectual elite, while in Eastern Europe a more grass-roots form of antisemitism began to develop.
Let’s explore this further by first turning to the Western areas of the European continent. If during the Middle Ages we see that the spread and formation of anti-Jewish ideas coincide with the major centers of Jewish population, in the early Modern period, we see a paradox appearing. The anti-Jewish ideas continued to be produced in Western Europe but the major centers of Jewish population are moving to the Eastern parts of Europe, to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and also to the Ottoman Empire. This production of anti-Jewish ideas even intensifies in the Western regions in the early modern age. Of course, since there were so few and marginal Jewish populations in Western Europe, we ought to ask ourselves why?
And we can answer it by saying that it wasn’t connected to the Jews themselves but rather to processes, very intense processes, inner Christian processes, going on in the West. First of all, new ideologies and new movements like Humanism, like Reformation, like the Scientific Revolution, like Enlightenment, like first signs of secularization, and so on. All of these movements clashing and arguing with each other, fighting with each other both in words and in swords, turn to the traditional archetype “other,” meaning the Jews, using them to define their own positions in the inner Christian polemic. So, for example, if we take the Reformation, for example, we can see a very ambivalent attitude towards the Jews.
For example, Protestants that were attacked and had to protect themselves from the accusations that they are Judaizers, that they are very much like the Jews, they are similar to the Jews, created a very sharp anti-Jewish new polemic, on the one hand. But, on the other hand, of course, when trying to define their own identity against the Catholic Church, they turn to Judaism. They had great interest in Judaism, learning Hebrew, translating the Bible from the Hebrew, showed their interest, of course, in the Jewish commentaries, translated also Jewish philosophy, Jewish prayer books.
All of this was very, very ambivalent and this ambivalence is also impersonated in the founder of Protestantism, in Martin Luther, who also in his early works, in his famous work Jesus the Jew, for example, showed very, very, very positive tendencies towards the Jews, criticized the traditional Church attitudes towards the Jews and so on when he wanted to define himself against traditional Christianity. But later on, when attacked by the Church, he turned to a very anti-Jewish, radical anti-Jewish positions, and even new radical anti-Jewish, not traditional, but expressed new anti-Jewish traditions in his works, especially in his famous work published in the 30s of the 16th century On Jews and their Lies.
There he went even against the traditional tolerance doctrine which helped the Jews to survive in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, abolishing that tradition and going out not only against Judaism but against the Jews themselves.

Dr. Judith Kalik

The 16th-18th centuries brought with them far-reaching changes and upheavals. How did these affect the way the Jews of Europe were perceived and treated? Let’s begin by focusing on Western Europe and on one of the first major developments taking place during this time – the Protestant Reformation.

What role did Jews and Judaism play for the thinkers of the Reformation?

For additional visual materials as well as relevant quotations please see “downloads” below.


  • Bell, Dean Phillip and Stephen G. Burnett, Jews, Judaism, and the Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Leiden: Brill, 2006).

  • Bell, Dean Phillip, Jews in the Early Modern World (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

  • Cameron, Euan, ed., Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • Kaufmann, Thomas, Luther’s Jews: A Journey Into Anti-Semitism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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