The leaders of the Third Reich defined millions of Jews out of humanity. They viewed Jews as their mortal enemies and on that basis justified their systematic mass killing, no matter what any individual Jew said, did, or believed.
Who were these Jews who so bedevilled and frightened them?
The word ‘Jew’ is derived from the name Judah, who is identified in the Hebrew Bible as one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob. Judah (or in its Greek variant, Judea) was also the name of a political entity that existed in the eastern Mediterranean region from perhaps a thousand years before the birth of Jesus to more than a century thereafter. At times Judea was a fully independent country; at other times it was a province of a foreign empire (Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman). Its boundaries varied, but its centre was in the hill country south of Jerusalem between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan River. Originally the word ‘Jew’ was used to designate what might be called today a citizen of Judea - someone whose right to reside in that country was inalienable and could be passed on from generation to generation. It was, in other words, primarily a political term.
Already in ancient times, though, the name was employed in other senses as well. As early as the sixth century BCE Jews had settled outside Judea, and by the Hellenistic era (roughly the late fourth through the first centuries BCE) they had established communities throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean area. These Judean emigrants and their descendants continued often to be referred to as Jews, on the grounds that initially they or their ancestors had come from Judea; their communities came to be referred to collectively as a ‘diaspora’ - a word of Greek origin meaning ‘scattering’. By the first century CE the diaspora accounted for the majority of Jews in the world. As a result, the word ‘Jew’ came to be used more and more as what might be called an ethnic designation. Jews were widely perceived as a distinct group, set off from others by their own history, presumed ancestry, and cultural heritage.
Such usage was facilitated by the fact that Jews in the diaspora generally continued to observe a set of laws that they believed their God - whom they called the one true sovereign of the universe - had revealed to their ancestors long ago and that was binding upon Jews alone. Their continued observance of these laws in addition to local laws made differences between them and the peoples in whose midst they lived especially visible, even though in ancient times, for the most part, they spoke, dressed, and groomed themselves like their non-Jewish neighbours. Besides their monotheistic belief, four features of their particular laws made them stand out especially: they made no images of their God; they observed a day of rest every seventh day, on which they refrained scrupulously from any activity associated with productive labour; they ate only certain animal foods prepared according to stringent procedures; and Jewish males bore a circumcised foreskin, a distinguishing anatomical mark inscribed upon them in infancy. Because Jews believed that those laws came from God, the term ‘Jew’ acquired religious associations in addition to political and ethnic ones.
Jews and others in the ancient world
During the centuries in which the political, ethnic, and religious associations attached to the word ‘Jew’ crystallised, it was not unusual for states, provinces, or ethnic groups to have their own particular religions. Religion and ethnicity, in other words, were not easily separated in ancient times. However, during the Hellenistic era a tendency emerged among members of various ethnic groups to develop a common religious core that transcended ethnic origins. This movement was reinforced with the appearance of Christianity, which claimed the status of a universal monotheistic religion, one that all people could accept and practice no matter to which group or country they belonged. Jews, however, remained by and large an exception to this trend. The polytheistic peoples of the ancient world were often open to blending different religious customs largely because each people perceived basic similarities between its gods and those of its neighbours. By contrast, most Jews believed that their God was the sole omnipotent lord of the entire universe, who demanded that the Jewish people serve that God and that God alone. Hence they could not join other peoples in any religious endeavour that would require them to acknowledge the reality of other gods or to compromise the manner in which they carried out their God-given law. Moreover, their law imposed limits on social interaction with non-Jews: for example, the law enjoined Jews from sharing a meal with non-Jews unless it was prepared according to Jewish standards. Although some Jews disagreed with this approach, an internal struggle in the middle of the second century BCE effectively put an end to efforts to openly incorporate others’ religious practices into their own.
Nevertheless, even with the limits their religion imposed upon certain types of contact with their neighbours, Jews appear more often than not to
The Jews 13 have participated actively in the political, economic, and intellectual life of the Graeco-Roman world. In the Roman Empire they suffered no notable legal barriers to their ability to do so. In fact, judging by contemporary accounts that speak of numerous converts, and also of pagans who refrained from eating pork and who prayed in synagogues, features of their way of life may have appealed to many non-Jews seeking an alternative to the dominant cults. On the other hand, Jewish involvement in general politics seems occasionally to have brought them into conflict with some of their neighbours, as at Alexandria in 38 CE, when the intricate entanglements among the city’s different ethnic communities and the Roman rulers resulted in deadly violence against Jews.
In clashes like this, the Jews’ adversaries sometimes produced propaganda casting aspersions upon Jewish integrity. That propaganda drew heavily upon Jews’ ongoing unwillingness to be merged into a universal religion, to participate in the religious rites of other peoples, and to adopt many of their neighbours’ social habits. That disposition made Jews an object of curiosity in the ancient world - a feeling that easily bred suspicion in times of social unrest and interethnic tension. Thus some Graeco-Roman writings depicted Jewish practices as reflections of unbounded contempt for other humans. Jews, wrote the Roman historian Tacitus in the early second century CE, ‘confront the rest of the world with a hatred reserved for enemies’. He called many Jewish practices ‘sinister and revolting’: ‘everything that we hold sacred is regarded as sacrilegious [by the Jews]’, whereas ‘they allow things which we consider immoral’ (Tacitus, 2009: 246-247).
It is hard to tell how widespread those depictions were, how consistently their purveyors employed them, how deep was their impact, and how they affected Jews’ own day-to-day experience. It is clear, however, that the ancient world produced a reservoir of hostile portrayals of Jews that could easily be tapped in later times, whenever people with complaints about a Jewish individual or a single set of Jews sought to advance their cause by tarring Jews as a whole. But it also appears that Jews’ religious particularism helped them preserve their identity as a distinct people after the Romans eliminated Judea as a political entity in the year 135.