The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism

Antisemitism has returned to mainstream politics in Europe and America. One fundamental misconception about antisemitism is that it is simply another form of racism. Thus Jeremy Corbyn responds to charges of antisemitism with “ ‘I’ve spent my whole life exposing racism in any form”. But of course, Corbyn is, at the very least, an enabler of antisemitism (and there is evidence he holds antisemitic prejudices himself — see here).

Why is antisemitism different from other forms of racism? And what makes antisemitism unique. When Noel Johnson and I began writing Persecution & Toleration, we didn’t envision antisemitism returning to prominence, but I believe our analysis sheds important insight on the institutional foundations of antisemitism.

First, definitions. As Deborah Lipstadt explains in her marvelous new book, antisemitism is a conspiracy theory. Its essence is that the Jews are somehow different from others; in its most extreme manifestations, Jews are the source of evil in the world.

But how did this conspiracy theory emerge? David Nirenberg in his book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, describes the transition from prejudice against a small group of stubborn monotheists in Judea to medieval and modern antisemitism. Many elements of antisemitism are the unfortunate byproducts of early Christian writers distinguishing themselves from their parent religion. Particularly damaging was the charge that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. But it took until the High Middle Ages for many key elements of antisemitism to develop. What is not fully appreciated in many journalist accounts of modern antisemitism is the extent to which antisemitism was baked into the political economy of medieval and early modern European societies. Hence antisemitism has institutional as well as cultural and religious foundations. Understanding this will shed light on why antisemitism is so prevalent on the political left, and not just the Neo-Nazi right.

Since medieval times, antipathy to Jews has been linked with anti-market sentiments. Anti-market sentiments run deep. Jean-Paul Carvalho and I wrote an essay that explored the conflict between our evolved instincts (which support cooperation in a small-scale group) and the market order that built on the insights of F.A. Hayek. We observed that:

“relations amongst members of a large and dispersed and anonymous society characterized by a complex division of labor are qualitatively different from the kinds of relationships that comprise a small-scale society. This is necessarily true, as Hayek realized, because of the divided and dispersed nature of knowledge occasioned by the division of labor. The information required to achieve coordination between agents is never “‘given” to a single mind which could work out the implications, and can never be so given’ (Hayek 1945, 519).”

Hayek noted that the market order is complex and intangible “based on purely abstract relations which we can only mentally reconstruct’’ (Hayek 1973, 38). This is a marvel:

“We do not see or know all of those who benefit from the exchanges we make; nor do we see how or understand how all the goods we consume are produced; the visible link between inputs and outputs is obscured”.

However, Hayek’s insight into the workings of the price system also explains antipathy towards markets, merchants, traders, moneylenders, and bankers. The benefits of the market order are not legible and this,

. . . is precisely what is alienating and discomforting; markets seem chaotic, unordered, inequitable, even random. Their arbitrary nature offends and demands management or correction. Market-based societies are open-ended, vast yet disparate networks utterly unlike anything our Pleistocene ancestors would have known. Hayek located the atavistic longing Rousseau, Marx, Marcuse articulated in precisely this incongruity. It is often impossible to keep track of all the different agents involved in even a simple market transaction, to count who is benefiting and who is losing out. All we see is the overall pattern, how the system seems to reward winners and losers”.

Middlemen and merchants become natural targets of resentment. After all: What do they make or produce?

Antisemitism became the insidious conspiracy theory that it is now because, over centuries, Jews became seen as the quintessential middleman, trader, merchant, and banker. It is this that animates modern antisemite slurs about “the Rothschilds” or “Jewish banksters” (see this).

Not only are Jews resented as merchants, traders, financiers, and bankers. But in their role as traders and bankers, they are not just any old traders or bankers; they are seen as puppet masters who secretly control the world. The antisemitism of Karl Marx epitomizes this:

“Thus we find every tyrant backed by a Jew, as is every pope by a Jesuit. In truth, the cravings of oppressors would be hopeless, and the practicability of war out of the question, if there were not an army of Jesuits to smother thought and a handful of Jews to ransack pockets.

… Thus do these loans, which are a curse to the people, a ruin to the holders, and a danger to the governments, become a blessing to the houses of the children of Judah. This Jew organization of loan-mongers is as dangerous to the people as the aristocratic organization of landowners… The fortunes amassed by these loan-mongers are immense, but the wrongs and sufferings thus entailed on the people and the encouragement thus afforded to their oppressors still remain to be told”.


But how did Jews become the epitome of faceless capitalism? In ancient times Jews were mostly illiterate farmers. They attracted the ire of the Romans because of their stubborn monotheism and not because they were suspected of pulling the strings of the Roman senate. To understand how the stereotype of the Jew as merchant and moneylender has been firmly entrenched in European cultural memory, we need to understand the political economy of medieval Europe.

Why were Jewish merchants and moneylenders? The first part of the answer to this question is from Marcestella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. In the Chosen Few, they document how the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 made rabbinical Judaism, with its emphasis on reading the Torah, the only viable form of Judaism. As a result of this religious injunction, Jewish fathers who could not educate their sons were stigmatized. Over time, therefore Jews who remained farmers shed this onerous requirement by falling away from the religion. Those for whom literacy conferred economic advantages, traders, doctors, scribes, remained in the religion. By the Middle Ages, Judaism had become a religion of literate and educated merchants, doctors, craftsmen, and scholars.

The second part of the answer requires understanding how Jews became associated with moneylending. As Noel Johnson and I outline in Persecution & Toleration, the prohibition on lending money at interest among Christians was crucial.

In the Middle Ages, all interest was viewed as usury (see my paper). Restrictions on interest may have made sense in a world where there were few opportunities for prohibitable investment (see this paper by Jared Rubin). But as the medieval economy took off after 1000 CE, new investment opportunities appear. The restrictions became increasingly burdensome.

The usury ban created economic rents. It restricted the supply of credit without dampening demand. One way rulers could appropriate these rents was by licensing Jewish moneylending and taxing it, while simultaneously suppressing Christian lenders. As Noel and I write:

“The commercial revolution, and the new urban economy it called into being, undermined the manorial economy and the conditions that made feudal monarchy a self-supporting political and economic equilibrium. Feudal rulers lacked the capacity to regularly tax their populations. Exploiting Jewish moneylending provided access to an alternative source of revenue: the growing economy . . .

. . . In this way, the state could support itself without investing a great deal in either fiscal or legal capacity. Taxes could be raised without the need for investment in monitoring or enforcement, as the Jews were relatively easy to extort. The simple threat to cease protecting the Jews from the antisemitic society that surrounded them was ample leverage to extort tax revenues from them. It was, in effect, easier to tax vulnerable Jews than to impose more uniform taxes.

As a result, the stereotype of the Jewish usurer became part of Europe’s political economy and cultural memory. Tragically we are still far from free from it. Over time antisemitic tropes became reinforced and embellished; the Jews became enmeshed in a system of indirect taxation and rent-extraction. Antisemitic slurs provided handy justifications for theft, robbery, and violence. They legitimized violence against Jewish communities. Not by coincidence, many of the worst antisemite tropes —the blood libel, notions of a Jewish conspiracy, accusations that Jews spread disease by poisoning wells — date to this period.

How these noxious antisemitic beliefs played in out in terms of expulsions, persecutions, and massacres — as accompanied the Black Death — will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Why Persecute

Why was religious persecution common in the premodern world? This is the question Noel Johnson and I address in Persecution and Toleration.

Answers that rely on the alleged barbarism of the times or the brutality or narrowed-mindedness of individual churchmen or rulers are unsatisfying. We need to understand why religious dissent was so alarming that political and religious authorities resorted to violent repression.

In Persecution and Toleration, we outline why states often had an incentive to enforce religious conformity.

Suppose the ruler wants to pass a law. The religious authority can choose to legitimate this law or to oppose it. If the religious authority opposes it, the law will be seen as illegitimate, and the ruler will face unrest or opposition in attempting to enforce it. If the religious authority legitimates the law, then compliance with the law will be greater and the law will be enforced at a much lower cost for the ruler. Rulers therefore have a good reason to want legitimacy. Because religious authorities were the most powerful source of legitimacy in the premodern period, it was natural for rulers to rely on religious legitimacy.

Rulers can bargain with religious authorities to obtain legitimacy. One way to do this is to enforce religious conformity. This provides a natural framework for studying religious persecutions.

One insight is that persecutions are necessarily political. The justification for persecution can vary. Secular authorities will persecution in terms of secular arguments. Religious authorities may persecute on religious or doctrinal grounds. But structurally these persecutions will resemble one another.

A second key argument is that some form of religious repression was the default in the premodern world but outright persecution was, in fact, quite rare. The default level of religious repression we characterize as a state of conditional toleration. Religious differences were usually tolerated, but only conditionally. Outright persecution was quite rare. But the threat of persecution played an important role in enforcing religious conformity, restricting dissent and providing states with legitimacy.

How general is our account? Is this story only applicable to Western Europe? Or to monotheistic societies? Can it explain the persecution of Christians in pagan Rome or the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan? And what distinguishes religious persecutions from other persecutions?


To address these concerns, consider the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Historians such as Candida Moss downplay these persecutions (here). Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age — reviewed positively in the New York Times —for example, writes:

“The idea, therefore, of a line of satanically inspired emperors, panting for the blood of the faithful is another Christian myth. As the modern historian Keith Hopkins wrote, ‘the traditional question: “Why were the Christians persecuted?” with all its implications of unjust repression and eventual triumph, should be re-phrased: “Why were the Christians persecuted so little and so late?”

Nixey correctly cautions the reader not to view Christian accounts of the death of martyrs as historical accounts. But her argument is a larger one. To her mind, the persecution of Christians was not a religious persecution. Commenting on the Roman governor Pliny’s decision to persecute some Christians, she writes:

“Pliny’s problem with all of this is not religious. He is not upset because Jupiter has been neglected, or Hera has been slighted: he is upset because the citizens of his province are becoming disgruntled by the Christians’ behaviour . . .”

“. . . Even the locals who were forcing Pliny’s hand might not have been complaining about Christians for religious reasons either: it has been speculated that what was really upsetting them was not theology but butchery. Local tradesmen were angry because this surge of Christian sentiment had led to a drop in the sales of sacrificial meat and their profits were suffering: anti-Christian sentiment caused less by Satan than by a slow trade in sausage-meat.”

Because Christians were punished as pests and social deviants, rather than for reasons conventionally identified as religious, Dixey suggests this was a simple matter of“law and order”. If anything her sympathies appear to be with the Roman governor responsible for prosecuting Christians:

“What should Pliny do with these odd people? Trajan’s reply is brief and to the point. He doesn’t get into theological or legal debates about the legal status of Christianity (to the disappointment of later scholars); nor does he (thus confounding the martyrdom tropes) fulminate against the Christians. He does agree with Pliny that those who are proved to be Christian ‘must be punished’ — though for precisely what charge is unclear. He also adds that ‘in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be’. Roman emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs. They had absolutely no wish to open windows into men’s souls or to control what went on there. That would be a Christian innovation.”

This hardly not exculpates the Romans or implies the persecution of Christians was a myth. Nixey is correct that the Roman authorities were unconcerned with what Christians believed. But she is wrong to suppose that this is the defining characteristic of religious persecution. And the urge to downplay the persecution of Christians suggests other anachronistic instincts are at work. After all, no-one denies that Christians were killed, often horrifically, in the Roman persecutions (for a critical review of Moss’s book, on which Nixey relies, see here).

Theologians were, of course, concerned with wrong beliefs. But the reason why religious dissent became a major concern to both secular and religious authorities in medieval Europe was precisely due to the threat heresy posed to the established social and political order.


Consider another example from medieval Europe. Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium explains the threat heretical movements posed to political order. Focusing on the most revolutionary millennium sects — movements that envisioned the last days as at hand, and took action to herald their coming — Cohn’s text vividly captures both the appeal as well as the radicalism and violence of these movements. Describing the manifesto of the “Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine”, Cohn writes:

“the route to the Millennium leads through massacre and terror. God’s aim is a world free from sin. If sin continues to flourish, divine punishment will surely be visited upon the world; whereas if sin is once abolished, then the world will be ready for the Kingdom of the Saints. The most urgent task of the Brethren of the Yellow Cross is therefore to eliminate sin, which in effect means to eliminate sinners . . . To achieve that end assassination is wholly legitimate: ‘Whoever strikes a wicked man for his evildoing, for instance for blasphemy — if he beats him to death he shall be called a servant of God; for everyone is in duty bound to punish wickedness.’ In particular the Revolutionary calls for the assassination of the reigning Emperor, Maximilian, for whom he had an overwhelming hatred.”

Such beliefs were a threat to all established authority. Church authorities were naturally concerned with monitoring belief and practice. But heresy also posed a potent threat to secular authority.

Of course, many people in medieval society had incorrect and unorthodox religious beliefs. What principally concerned the Church was not ignorance but heresy: obstinately holding beliefs that directly contradicted Church teachings.

Heresy was feared because it was a source of disorder. Religious dissent had the potential to unleash revolutionary violence and social chaos. This was one reason why Martin Luther recanted his earlier support for religious liberty during the Peasant Revolt.

Arguments for enforcing religious conformity went deeper than the fear of revolutionary violence. Such was the importance of the Church to the social and political order that all challenges to Church authority were perceived as threats to society.


Consider the doctrine of apostolic poverty — which emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries as the Commercial Revolution was transforming the European economy increasing urbanization, trade, wealth, inequality and also poverty. Shocked by the growing gap between the rich and the poor, adherents to this doctrine aspired to the simple poverty of Christ’s followers. They lived without property or money and they were critical of the wealth accumulated by the Church.

The fact that the Church was wealthy did not, of course, imply that Churchmen were not devout or dedicated. The problem was, however, that the Church was also a political institution. Many bishoprics were the preserve of the nobility who would jostle to ensure that their younger sons became influential churchmen. These prelates were expected to be the equal of the secular nobles, to entertain lavishly, and to dress splendidly. Taken too far, therefore, apostolic poverty threatened the legitimacy of the Church and its relationship with secular authority.

Through mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, the Church could accommodate these demands and concerns. But groups who directly attacked the legitimacy of the Papacy itself, such as the Waldensians and the Spiritual Franciscans could not be tolerated. The leader of the Spiritual Franciscans, Angelo da Clareno denied that Pope John XXII was pope, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Church. Precisely because of the threat they posed to the church and state alliance — and not because of their theological beliefs, which were unremarkable — the Spiritual Franciscans had to be repressed.

Were the concerns of the Roman Emperors so different from those of medieval rulers and churchmen? Religion was not a private affair in antiquity. It had political consequences; it mattered for the fate of the Empire. The first Empire-wide persecution of Christians occurred under Decius (r. 249–251). Decius’s response to the political crisis facing the Empire — invasions from both Persia and the Goths — was a revival of the state religion and the imperial cult.

Claiming that Roman persecutions of Christianity were not religious but political, as Moss and Nixey do, is misleading; all persecutions are political. Because it began as a persecuted cult, Christianity as a religion contained many potent arguments against religious persecution. For these reasons, it was probably less predisposed to persecution than many other religions. Nevertheless, the fact that the medieval Church eventually came to persecute dissent points to deep, structural, political economy factors that made religious freedom impossible. It this these factors that are the subject matter of Persecution & Toleration.

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