Jews and Non-Jews in Modernity

Jews and their neighbors have always co-existed, sometimes in harmony, and other times striving for it.

More than ever before, modernity brought extensive contact between western Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. Though Jews gained equality under the law in most of the places where they lived, cultural and social harmony with the majority population did not necessarily follow.

As Europe’s agrarian economy transitioned to capitalism, Jews became targets for those who feared changes from the social norms of the past. The growing presence of Jews in the larger urban centers, their rapid social ascent, their visibility in the liberal professions, in the press, in the arts, and particularly in the world of finance, made it appear that Jews succeeded where others struggled.

Though religious discrimination against Jews was not a new phenomenon, anti-Jewish activity in modern, liberal society had some new, distinct features. It even earned a new name: anti-Semitism. German politician Wilhelm Marr coined the term in 1873, to connote a broad kind of anti-Judaism that goes beyond religious distinctions to include Jews’ alleged racial, ethnic, and national differences.

The following are some of the most famous incidents of modern anti-Semitism in this period.

In France: At the end of the 19th century, the birthplace of European Jewish emancipation had an espionage scandal in which an assimilated Jewish army captain had his “loyalty” to the state thrown into question. The anti-Semitism that characterized the arrest, trial, and retrial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus shocked world Jewry. The fact that the public, including nobles and members of the clergy, saw Dreyfus as an outsider suggested that assimilation was no longer a defense against anti-Semitism.

In Russia:
At the same time that Dreyfus was charged with being part of an “international Jewish conspiracy,” the most famous anti-Semitic document, which describes the details of this supposed conspiracy, emerged in Russia. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion chronicles the meetings of Jews planning their control of the world. Repeatedly exposed as a forgery, the Protocols is (remarkably) still cited as proof of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

In America: The land of liberty was not immune to anti-Semitism. In 1862, in the heat of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant initiated the most blatant official episode of anti-Semitism in 19th-century America: General Order No. 11, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. This order, motivated by the incorrect perception that the black market cotton trade was organized mostly by profiteering Jews, was rescinded by Lincoln just a few days later.

Other anti-Semitic episodes in America were not resolved as quickly or effectively. Just more than 50 years after Grant’s Order was rescinded, in 1913, Leo Frank, a Georgian Jew, was falsely accused of murdering a girl, kidnapped from prison, and killed by a mob.

Anti-Semitism in America and abroad helped to galvanize the American Jewish community. The Damascus Blood Libel of 1840–started after the mysterious disappearance of a Catholic monk in Syria–reawakened the medieval anti-Jewish blood libel and was a turning point for the leadership of the American Jewish community. In response, the first centralized, secular organization to speak and defend American Jews–the Board of Delegates of American Israelites–emerged.

The Jewish community in the United States continued to organize and reorganize, largely in response to anti-Semitism. The American Jewish Committee was formed in 1906 to address the need to defend Jewish civil rights in the United States and throughout the world. Over time, the Committee expanded its mission to the defense of the rights of all Americans, regardless of race, creed, or religion. Since then, a host of American Jewish organizations have joined in the effort to promote tolerance and liberty.

Discover More

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

Your Guide to the Best Elul and High Holidays Classes and Events

Prepare for the Jewish year 5781 with these unique classes from dozens of other Jewish organizations and synagogues.

How to Say the Shehechiyanu Blessing

This blessing is traditionally recited upon doing something for the first time.