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The emergence of antisemitism

The emergence of antisemitism
As Professor Cohen explains, the religious, social, and economic factors that led to the development of antisemitism in Christian Europe were absent in the Muslim world. As opposed to Christian Europe, where Jews were often singled out as a demonic and destructive force, Islam did not attribute satanic powers to the Jews. When Jews were discriminated against, it was mostly because they belonged to the Dhimmi class as a whole rather than to the Jewish religion in particular. Furthermore, during this time period Jews were not perceived as a major threat to Islam. It was rather the Christians, who as rulers and members of the opposing imperial forces, were seen as an imminent danger to Islamic dominance and expansion.
When then does antisemitism begin to evolve in the Islamic and Arab world and what form does it take? As we will now see, a shift in the way Jews were treated and perceived began in the 19th century. I consider antisemitism as a phenomenon which developed since the mid-19th century.
It started as an imported kind of idea, which infiltrated or permeated the Middle Eastern societies at the beginning by different missionaries, Christian missionaries, who brought it to the Middle East with their missions, and from there, with the changes in the Middle East - the penetration of colonial powers, new ideas, changes in the political order, and of course Zionism - three major factors which somehow combined to create a new perception of the Jews of the Middle East. It appears then that the development of antisemitism in the Arab and Islamic world is related to three
major factors: the importation of European ideologies and concepts into this sphere, the collapse of traditional political systems and the loyalties and practices associated with them, and the appearance of Zionism. Let’s first turn to the penetration of ideas and ideologies into the Muslim world. Antisemitic perceptions of European-Christian origin made their first major appearance in the Middle East with the Damascus Affair of 1840. One of the notorious blood libels of modern times, the affair began with the disappearance of an Italian monk and his native servant. Rumors began to spread across the Christian quarter of Damascus that the local Jews had murdered the two in order to obtain their blood for the baking of the Matza, the unleavened bread traditionally eaten on Passover.
This accusation was followed by the imprisonment and torture by the local authorities of several Jews, and led to acts of violent pillaging of the Jewish community. Several Jews had lost their lives as a result of the brutality that erupted. Eventually following the intercession of Jewish communities in Europe and governments in the West, the Ottoman Sultan himself intervened, explicitly denouncing the libel. The surviving arrested Jews were released. Prior to the events in Damascus the blood libel was not typical to the Arab and Muslim discourse in the Middle East. However, following 1840, this medieval Christian accusation began to take root in the popular imagination of the area.
The events surrounding the Damascus Affair reflected the growing interference of European forces in the region. It was also during this time that the Ottoman Empire introduced a set of modernizing reforms that included the gradual institution of legal steps that released non-Muslims from their inferior status in society, completely changing the traditional political systems. Notions of civil equality were introduced to the area, disrupting the traditional societal structures, and destabilizing Muslim and non-Muslim relations. Combined with the new political philosophies that infiltrated the regions of the empire, such as nationalism and socialism, these changes would prove to have a lasting negative effect on the way Jews and other non-Muslims were perceived and treated.
The term “equality” was strange, was new for Muslim and Arab societies. They were the subjects of the Sultan, exactly as non-Muslim minorities. However, their status was different - they were the Muslims, they were the masters, and they were used to it that the non-Muslim communities were a kind of a second-rate subject. And here we are with the new reforms, somehow the whole world is starting to change, and Christians or Jews could get involved in things which they never could do previously. If you add to this other concepts like nationalism, capitalism, socialism, all these “isms”, which also infiltrated and came by the colonial powers, it changed and it somehow undermined the regular world order to which they were all used to.
And this created tensions - tensions between communities, non-Muslim communities and Muslim communities, which did not happen in the past because most of them although they lived in different quarters, they were used to interact in a much more, I wouldn’t say equal, but at least on a daily basis. All these created a new atmosphere and a new attitude, not only towards the Jews, but also towards Christians, who were in fact the first to suffer from these new tensions and changing loyalties

Dr. Esther Webman

When and why does antisemitism begin to evolve in the Islamic and Arab world and what form does it take?


  • Frankel, Jonathan, The Damascus Affair: ‘Ritual Murder,’ Politics, and the Jews in 1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

  • Lewis, Bernard, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).

  • Sivan, Emmanuel, “A Resurgence of Arab Anti-Semitism,” in William Frankel, ed., Survey of Jewish Affairs, 1988 (London: Associated University Presses, 1989).

  • Stillman, Norman A., The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991).

  • Stillman, Norman A., “Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism in the Arab and Islamic Worlds Prior to 1948,” in Albert S. Lindemann and Richard S. Levy, eds., Antisemitism: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 212 – 221..

  • Webman, Esther, “The Challenge of Assessing Arab/Islamic Antisemitism,” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 46, no. 5 (2010), pp. 677 – 697.

  • Webman, Esther, “From the Damascus Blood Libel to the “Arab Spring”: The Evolution of Arab Antisemitism,” Antisemitism Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 2017), pp. 157 – 206.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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