The Birth of Antisemitism

Beit Midrash for calendar_month February 2023

In ancient times, the Hebrews/Israelites faced difficult challenges from Gentile nations that sought to enslave them, afflict them, and even destroy them. These random acts of violence and mayhem, however, were generally motivated by the perennial human lust for conquest, the desire for power and privilege. Additionally, the land that God gave to the Israelites was situated at the confluence of three continents as well as at the juncture of north-south and east-west trade routes. This made the land of Israel not only attractive to empire builders but also virtually essential for exercising military might, controlling commerce, and mitigating against the designs of others who would impinge upon such interests. These military powers were more focused on controlling the area represented by the nation of Israel and extracting taxes from the inhabitants than they were on annihilating the people.

In the fifth century bc, however, something insidious was brewing in the world’s most powerful kingdom of the day that was to have continuing and enduring impact upon the people, nation, and land of Israel. The first recorded instance of an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people through systematic genocide emerged in the Persian Empire. Antisemitism,[1] the hatred of Jews as Jews, which includes all hostility, prejudice, and discrimination toward Jews, was born. And for twenty-five hundred years, this unparalleled[2] sociopathic disease has infested and infected large portions of the non-Jewish world, wreaking havoc upon the Chosen People through intimidation, violence, mayhem, and murder.

The foundation for antisemitism[3] had actually been laid in Babylon when the satraps and administrators of that kingdom sought to remove the king’s favorite advisor, the prophet Daniel. After a diligent and unproductive search for any evidence of malfeasance or unethical conduct on Daniel’s part, they finally concluded, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”[4] Then, they began to establish a foundation for what would become an insidious and enduring phenomenon wherein the Chosen People would be targeted individually and collectively simply because of their faith. This was the root cause of antisemitism: making charges against the Jewish people because of “something to do with God’s law.”

It was not long after Daniel’s experience that this idea was taken to extreme in another generation of the Medo-Persian Empire that had been established by Cyrus the Great.[5] In the fortress city of Shushan (Susa),[6] the capital city of this realm, Xerxes the Great[7] ruled over the vast domain that stretched from India to Ethiopia and into southern Europe. In the midst of the intrigue that unfolded in the royal court, a plot was developed which, if it had been successful, would have resulted in the complete genocide of the Chosen People and the termination of the Abrahamic covenant. At the same time, however, God was at work, orchestrating events so that the plot for evil would be exposed and foiled.

Xerxes was in a celebratory mood. So, he organized an ostentatious party to showcase his power and might and the beauty of his capital city in front of all his nobles and bureaucrats. “For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty.”[8] At the end of that time, he gave a seven-day banquet for all the people in Susa to see the sumptuous magnificence of his palace. Finally, on the seventh day, Xerxes commanded that his queen be brought before him so that everyone could see her beauty. When the orders were delivered to Vashti, however, she refused to appear.[9] The king was furious and after consulting with his advisors determined that in order to limit confusion throughout the realm, Vashti should be removed and replaced by another queen.[10]

A New Queen

After a long process, a new queen was indeed chosen. She was Hadassah (“Esther” in Persian), a young Jewish girl who was extraordinarily beautiful. As it turned out, Hadassah was also amazingly resourceful, socially adroit, and powerfully resolute. On the advice of Mordecai, her cousin and mentor, she kept her true identity as a Jewish maiden totally secret. Her emergence as queen of the Persian realm was the result of circumstances and events that were divinely orchestrated in preparation for what would be needed to ensure the survival of the Chosen People.

At this time, Persia dominated the entire Middle East and beyond; therefore, every Jew in the entire world lived in the Persian Empire. This created a unique situation in which every living Jew was vulnerable to decisions that issued forth from the Shushan palace and were then enforced by the strong, efficient, and merciless Persian military. The strategic placement of Esther as the queen of the realm and a favorite of Xerxes could not have been more important in this circumstance. Then, Esther’s position was strengthened even more when Mordecai discovered an assassination plot against Xerxes and encouraged Esther to expose it. Afterwards, both Esther and Mordecai were honored by the king.

A powerful and insidious evil, however, was lurking in the highest halls of the Persian government, for the realm’s newly appointed prime minister was a man who suffered from severe egomania. He loved the pomposity and the perquisites of power. He relished seeing the people bowing themselves to the ground in his presence. Because the Jewish people were under strict orders not to bow to anyone except God,[11] Mordecai refused to bow before Haman when he passed by in all of his pomp and glory. This, in turn, infuriated the prime minister, who sought for a way in which he could avenge himself against Mordecai and assuage the pain that this impudent Jew had inflicted on his ego. He could not be satisfied, however, with simply killing Mordecai. So, he “looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.”[12]

A Damnable Conspiracy

Instead of dealing directly with Mordecai, Haman approached the king with these scurrilous words of slander: “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.”[13] Then, he petitioned the king for the enactment of a vicious edict for genocide of the Jews and pledged to remunerate the king for any loss of revenue that might result from his plan to eliminate them: “If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them, and I will give ten thousand talents of silver to the king’s administrators for the royal treasury.”[14] To Haman, the lives of “all the Jews” in the Persian Empire were worth over $200 million in today’s money.[15]

The declaration, “It is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate [this] certain people,” was the first and perhaps most succinct description of overt antisemitism ever set forth. Throughout their history, the Jewish people had been—and would continue to be—judged because “their customs [were] different from those of other people,” for they had followed God’s instructions to separate themselves from participation in the idolatry of other nations. More often than not, the Jewish people found themselves unable to “keep the king’s laws.” While they did their best to be loyal subjects of the realms in which they lived, still they were bound by the Torah to keep God’s commandments,[16] even if it meant suffering persecution and martyrdom. Their time in Persia was no different.

Haman’s appeal was so effective that Xerxes gave him his own signet ring, told him to keep his money, and ordered him to “do with the people as you please.”[17] Immediately, the royal secretaries wrote the decree in Xerxes’ name in the languages of every province and sealed them with the king’s signet ring. Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the provinces of the Persian Empire with this order: “Kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and children—on … the thirteenth day of the twelfth month … and plunder their goods.”[18] Haman’s evil plot had the force of imperial law that was irrevocable. The prospect was simple: all the Jews in Persia—and, therefore, virtually all the Jews in the world—were going to be killed, effecting their complete genocide.

When Mordecai learned of the edict, he, like Jews throughout the realm, tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went about “wailing loudly and bitterly.” In short order, he conveyed the information of Haman’s plot on to Esther. The queen thought her hands were tied because unless she was summoned to appear before Xerxes, she could not do so without risking her own life in the process. Mordecai made this response to her excuse: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.”[19] Then he addressed his cousin with these immortal words: “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”[20]

Exposing the Plot

Esther immediately demonstrated her profound faith, asking Mordecai to request that all the Jews in Shushan fast and pray for her for three days and nights. Then she said, “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”[21] As she had promised, on the third day, Esther put on her royal robes and, fearing the worst, cautiously entered the royal court. When Xerxes saw her, however, he was pleased, so he held out the golden scepter, sparing her life. “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half of the kingdom, it will be given you,” he said.[22] The ever-resourceful Esther had already devised a plan as to how she would approach the king in the context of the court intrigue wherein Haman appeared to have the upper hand. “If it pleases the king,” she replied, “let the king, together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him.” The king agreed, and, in due course, with Haman in tow, she dutifully arrived at Esther’s banquet, asking, “Now what is your petition?” The coy Esther replied, “Let the king and Haman come tomorrow” to another banquet, and “then I will answer the king’s question.”

The biblical text reports that Haman went out that day happy and in high spirits. “I’m the only person Queen Esther invited to accompany the king to the banquet she gave,” he boasted. At the same time, however, he moaned to his wife, “All this gives me no satisfaction as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate.”[23] The resourceful woman had a solution: “Have a pole set up, reaching to a height of seventy-five feet, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai impaled on it.”[24] This suggestion delighted Haman, so he had the pole erected on which he just knew he would see Mordecai die the next day.

During the ensuing night, Xerxes could not sleep, so he ordered his servants to read to him from a book that chronicled the events of his reign. This book just happened to open to the records that detailed how Mordecai had exposed the assassination plot against the king. “What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?” the king inquired. “Nothing,” his servants replied. At that moment, Haman just happened to enter the royal chambers, so the king summoned him and asked, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” he asked. The prime minister, thinking that the king was speaking of him, replied, “Have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with the royal crest placed on its head. … Let them robe the man … and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him: This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”

To Haman’s utter shock and dismay, Xerxes immediately gave him this order: “Go at once. Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate.” Now filled with fear and consternation, Haman dutifully fulfilled his king’s command and then rushed home only to hear his wife say ominously, “Since Mordecai, before whom your downfall has started, is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin!”[25] Before Haman could do a thing, however, the king’s messengers arrived to escort him to the queen’s banquet.

After the festivities began, Xerxes again asked Esther, “What is your request?” This time, the queen boldly replied, “If it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed, and annihilated.”[26] Immediately, the shocked king asked his bride, “Who is … the man who has dared to do such a thing?” Unhesitatingly, Esther pointed out the enemy: “This vile Haman!” Upon hearing this news, the king was furious and went out into the palace garden to collect his thoughts. Realizing that the king would certainly decide his fate in a matter of minutes, Haman stayed behind to beg the queen for his life. When Xerxes returned, he found Haman falling on the couch where Esther was reclining and exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?” The king’s judgment was immediate and final: “Impale Haman on the pole by his house,” and the sentence was then carried out forthwith.

Antisemitism Avenged

That left one important bit of unfinished business. What could be done about the inalterable imperial decree that specified a date for the annihilation of all the Jews in the Persian Empire? As a counter-measure, Xerxes issued another decree giving the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves against anyone who would attack them. When this decree was published, there was great joy in Persia, especially among the Jews, and Mordecai was highly honored. Then, the text of Scripture makes this startling declaration: “Many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.”[27] The text does not explain how this was accomplished, but it does note the turn of events. Finally, on the day appointed, when “the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, now the tables were turned and the Jews got the upper hand over those who hated them.”[28] The victory of the Jews was complete. Genocide was averted. Am Yisrael chai!

Among the Jews, the next day was a time of such great rejoicing that a new festival celebrating that day was added to the calendar of Torah festivals outlined in Leviticus 23. This festival, called Purim,[29] thereafter became a prominent fixture in the lives of the Jews.[30] Each year thereafter, Purim was a time to celebrate God’s deliverance of the Jews from the certainty of death into abundant life—all because divine providence had positioned a young Jewish girl in the palace of the world’s most powerful king and had emboldened her with faith to intercede for the deliverance of her people. Esther was, indeed, elevated by God’s hand into royalty “for such a time as this,” and she did not fail to accomplish her mission. The genocide of the entire Jewish people was averted, and antisemitism failed. This deep-seated pathology, however, continued to seethe beneath the surface and spread like wildfire to most of the societies into which the Jewish people were eventually dispersed.

The chronicle of Esther and Mordecai and their brave actions to prevent the genocide of the Jews during the height of the Persian Empire is a lesson not only for Jews but also for all human beings of conscience. Christians especially should take a fresh look at interpreting the Book of Esther with a view toward its parallels with the Holocaust. Drawing on these parallels, Emil Fackenheim identifies the state of Israel as “a new Mordecai for a new age in the history of Judaism, guarding the Jewish remnant.”[31] Moshe Aberbach says that “the story of Esther … gives the same cathartic message—that Jews can escape genocide” when “in some cases human intervention may be necessary, though the invisible hand of God is in the background.”[32] Bruce Zuckerman and Zev Garber maintain that the Book of Esther serves as an example “in which human protagonists must face and overcome a genocidal threat to the future of the Jewish people posed by an irresponsible Gentile government.”[33] On a more personal level, Deborah Prescott suggests poignantly that the Book of Esther may well “serve as a paradigm for Shoah autobiographies as a ‘new Bible.’”[34]

The Many Guises of Haman: Shapeshifting Antisemitism

While Haman epitomized antisemitism as no other person in history except for Adolph Hitler, antisemitism has many guises. Indeed, it is almost like the reptilian shapeshifters of science fiction lore who could change their physical appearance at will. Antisemitism manifests itself in myriads of ways and to varying degrees; however, in any form, it is insidious. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin rightly report that “hatred for the Jew has been humanity’s greatest hatred. While hatred of other groups has always existed, no hatred has been as universal, as deep, or as permanent as antisemitism.”[35] Although antisemitism has emerged from various situations and has had many manifestations, its underlying cause has always been the pagan heart’s hatred of Israel’s God, an antipathy which has been directed against the Jewish people because they represent God in the earth. This pathology seethes in the subconscious recesses of the Gentile mind and is ready to leap forth at any time and in any place, only to be excused by a plethora excuses for mistrusting and despising Jews. For this reason alone, Jews for thousands of years have held the opinion that antisemitism is “religious and particularist.”[36]

Proof that the underlying cause of antisemitism is hatred for Jews as symbols of God can be found in the first record of antisemitism outside of Jewish literature. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, significant numbers of Greeks and Jews immigrated to Alexandria, bringing with them cultures far different from that of the indigenous Egyptian people. There was no sociological reason for the Egyptians to resent and hate the Jews more than the Greeks; however, they did. Why? Prager and Telushkin point out that “the Egyptians found the Jews’ religious culture and traditions offensive,” as was clearly the case with the Egyptian priest Manetho, who, “annoyed by the Jews’ liturgy and Bible with its depictions of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, decided to rewrite that event, saying that the Jews had been expelled from Egypt because they were lepers.”[37]

While these scholars offer various secular explanations for antisemitism, such as resentment of the “higher quality of Jewish life,” their first and foremost reason for antisemitism is “hatred of Judaism and ethical monotheism, followed closely by ‘the Chosen People idea.’”[38] What they point out is true: “[T]oday, Jew-hatred is generally attributed to factors having little to do with Jews and Judaism; rather, its causes are generally held to be economic, political … ethnic prejudice, and the psychopathology of hate—all of which dejudaize antisemitism.”[39] At bottom, however, an insidious force of the evil inclination in the human heart resents and hates the Jewish people because they represent a God who is foreign to their thinking—or lack thereof. Prager and Telushkin ultimately argue that “the causes of antisemitism are neither ethnic nor racial nor rooted in economic envy or religious bigotry, but that antisemitism is a response to Jews and their way of life, based upon its very foundations—God, Torah, and Peoplehood.”[40]

The words of Haman’s diabolical indictment of the Jewish people in Persia must continue to echo across the corridors of time so people of conscience can immediately recognize the subtlety of the newest guise of antisemitism and make an unequivocal stand against it. Red lights must flash and sirens must scream whenever and wherever words like these are heard: “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.”[41] Increasingly, this kind of rhetoric is becoming postmodernity’s indictment against those who stand on the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, whether they be Jews or Christians.

Believers in the God of Israel must always be on guard against antisemitism and especially the ever new guises that it takes in order to deceive the ignorant and gullible into taking up invectives and arms against God’s chosen people, the Jews. The words of divine promse to Abraham should echo in the ears of both Jews and Gentiles: “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse the one who curses you” (Genesis 12:3). And God is just as serious today as he was four thousand years ago when he made this eternal declaration. Ever new Hamans will slither from under their rocks, rear their ugly heads, and spew their venom into the atmosphere, infecting those who are susceptible to their invectives. The wise will hear and stand up in defense of God’s Chosen People.

[1] The term antisemitism comes from the German word antisemitisch, which was coined in 1860 by the Austrian Jewish scholar Mortiz Steinschneider and used in the phrase antisemitische Vorurteile (antisemitic prejudices) to attack the French philosopher Ernest Renan and his postulation that “Semitic races” were inferior to “Aryan races.” Alex Bein, The Jewish Question: Biography of a World Problem (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990), p. 594; and Avner Falk, Anti-semitism: A History and Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Hatred (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), p. 21.

[2] Alice L. Eckardt and A. Roy Eckardt, Long Night’s Journey into Day: A Revised Retrospective on the Holocaust (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1982), p. 58. The Eckardts said, “The phenomenon of antisemitism is incomparable. There are no parallels to it. There simply is no historical analogue to antisemitism. … Whether we speak of space or of time, the two primordial dimensions of human existence, no prejudice comes anywhere near antisemitism. No prejudice can approach antisemitism for either geopolitical pervasiveness or temporal enduringness.”

[3] Antisemitism is the term that specifically means hatred of the Jews. Since the Holocaust, many scholars have suggested the replacement of the nineteenth-century form anti-Semitism with the more modern antisemitism. Jewish philosopher and Holocaust scholar Emil Fackenheim has argued that “the spelling ought to be antisemitism without the hyphen, dispelling the notion that there is an entity ‘Semitism’ which ‘anti-Semitism’ opposes.” Emil L. Fackenheim, “Post-Holocaust Anti-Jewishness, Jewish Identity and the Centrality of Israel,” in World Jewry and the State of Israel, Moshe Davis, ed. (New York: Arno Press, 1977), p. 11, n. 2.

[4] Daniel 6:5, NIV.

[5] Xerxes I was actually the grandson of Cyrus through his daughter Atossa’s marriage to Darius the Great.

[6] The term Shushan described both the city and the palace of Xerxes (Esther 9:12–15).

[7] In most translations of Scripture, Xerxes is called Ahasuerus, which is a Latinized form of the transliteration of the Hebrew Akhashverosh. Both Ahasuerus and Xerxes ultimately are transliterated or approximated forms of the Persian Xsayarsa.

[8] Esther 1:4, NIV.

[9] There are various interpretations as to why Vashti refused her husband’s bidding. Some suggest that it was because she would have been paraded in the nude before the male nobles in the midst of a drunken orgy. See Mark Mangano, The College Press NIV Commentary: Esther & Daniel (Goshen, IN: College Press Publishing Co., 2001), p. 44. Some commentators have even suggested that she was to wear only her royal crown. See Walter A. Elwell and Philip W. Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), vol. 4, p. 800. Others argue that the requirement for nudity is an interpolation into the text of Esther that has no substance. See Howard D. Wilcox, Divine Providence (Bloomington, IN: Life Way Publishers, 2011), p. 84.

[10] The reason given for Vashti’s deposal was that her refusal would foment the rebellion of women throughout the realm against their husbands.

[11] The commandment in Exodus 20:5 not to bow to other gods was extrapolated to include men. Obeisance was to be done to no one but God.

[12] Esther 3:6, NIV.

[13] Esther 3:7. Literally, the text says, “It is not worthwhile for the king to let them rest.”

[14] Esther 3:8–9, NIV.

[15] Haman’s intention was to contribute this sum to the royal treasury from the booty seized from the Jews during their slaughter. Interestingly, this sum was approximately 60% of the annual income of the Persian government at that time. See Michael D. Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 1417.

[16] Specific commandments that prompted, if not assured, Israelite separation from the idolatry of the Gentile world included the laws concerning circumcision, Sabbath, hair and dress, and dietary regulations.

[17] Esther 3:11.

[18] Esther 3:13, NIV.

[19] Esther 4:13–14a, NIV.

[20] Esther 4:14b, NIV.

[21] Esther 4:16, NIV.

[22] Esther 5:3, NIV.

[23] Esther 5:12–13, NIV.

[24] Esther 6:14, NIV.

[25] Esther 6:13, NIV.

[26] Esther 7:4, NIV.

[27] Esther 8:17.

[28] Esther 9:1, NIV.

[29] The Hebrew word Purim means “lots,” a term which refers to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for his planned massacre of the Jews. Jeffrey M. Cohen, Prayer and Penitence: A Commentary on the High Holy Day Machzor (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1994), p. 136.

[30] Esther 9:20–26.

[31] Emil L. Fackenheim, The Jewish Bible after the Holocaust: A Re-reading (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 95.

[32] Moshe Aberbach, Jewish Education and History: Continuity, Crisis and Change (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2009), p. 80.

[33] Bruce Zuckerman and Zev Garber, The Impact of the Holocaust in America (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2008), p. 172.

[34] Deborah Lee Prescott, Imagery from Genesis in Holocaust Memoirs: A Critical Study (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishers, 2010), p. 25.

[35] Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews?: The Reason for Antisemitism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 3.

[36] Prager and Telushkin, Why the Jews?, p. 56.

[37] Prager and Telushkin, Why the Jews?, pp. 68–69.

[38] Prager and Telushkin, Why the Jews?, p. vi, Contents.

[39] Prager and Telushkin, Why the Jews?, p. 56.

[40] Prager and Telushkin, Why the Jews?, p. 8.

[41] Esther 3:7.

About the Author
John D. Garr, Ph.D.
President & CEO