Major Challenges to Judaism

Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust

The Jews have faced great challenges, foremost of which are anti-Semitism which led to persecutions like the Holocaust, Zionism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anti-Semitism refers to a negative attitude toward the Jews. In particular, it refers to hatred toward Jews either as a religious or racial group. A person who holds such an attitude is called an anti-Semite. There are many ways in which anti-Semitism is manifested such as social and legal discrimination, verbal attacks, and violent acts against individual Jews or Jewish communities. The attitude of hatred results from certain prejudices or negative beliefs about the Jews. These prejudices can be classified socially, economically, religiously, and racially.

Social prejudice against the Jews sees Jews as “corrupting a’ given culture and attempting to supplant or succeeding in supplanting the preferred culture with a uniform, crude, “Jewish’ culture” (see Harap 1987,76). Religious prejudice against the Jews is directed at the religious views of Judaism. Jews are hated for holding on to Judaism. The reasons for this hatred can involve religious practices such as the practice of no work during the Sabbath day or Jewish actions that have religious implications, like the belief of some previous Christians that it was the Jews who killed Jesus Christ. Economic prejudice against Jews perceives them to be performing activities that are harmful to the economy of the country in which they happen to live. Some think that powerful Jews control the economy of a certain country for the benefit not of the country but of the. Jews, and that Jews are greedy and manipulative and cheat non-Jews in business transactions. Racial prejudice against the Jews, on the other hand, does not concern their religion but their racial or ethnic group. Jews, in this regard, are believed to belong to an inferior race relative to the race of their host country. Racial anti-Semitism culminated in the rise of Nazism in the twentieth century. Finally, political prejudice against the Jews is based on the belief that the Jews would like to dominate the country in which they happen to live, if not the whole world itself. Jews, in this regard, are seen as power seekers. These prejudices led to persecutions of the Jews. Some of the major persecutions were the following.

First, when the Kingdom of Judah or Judea fell under the Seleucid Empire of Babylonia in 167 BCE, the Jews were forced to embrace the Greek gods. Jewish practices such as the observance of the Sabbath day and circumcision were banned and outlawed. Statues of Zeus and other Greek gods were placed in the altar of the Temple of Jerusalem. Possession of Jewish religious writings was considered a capital offense. Any Jew not conforming to these forced laws was persecuted.

Second, thousands of Jews were killed during the series of Crusades: the First Crusade (1096), Second Crusade (1147), and Shepherds’ Crusade (1251-1320). The Crusades were military expeditions organized by Western Christians to recover the Holy Land (Jerusalem) from the Muslims and to prevent the spread of Islam. But in the process, the crusaders killed many Jews in Jerusalem.

Third, hundreds of Jews were killed after being blamed for the Black Death epidemic (mid-fourteenth century). Jews were suspected of poisoning the wells which caused the disease.

Fourth, thousands of Jews were massacred during the political conflicts in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the mid to late seventeenth century. Jews were expelled from their place in Yemen (seventeenth century) to the arid coastal plain of Tihamah (somewhere in southwestern Saudi Arabia), and which became known as the Mawza Exile.

And lastly, millions of Jews were killed by German Nazis during World War II (1939-1945). The systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II has been called the Holocaust.


Because of the diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews outside of Israel) and the many persecutions and acts of discrimination that the Jews suffered as a result of anti-Semitism, they dreamed of someday going back to their promised land, Canaan or Palestine (now Israel), and establish their own state. This dream was translated into a movement called Zionism, after the word “Zion” which refers either to Jerusalem itself or to the mountain on which Jerusalem is built. There were three highlights among the series of events that eventually led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

The first was the publication of the influential book The Jewish State (Der Judensaat) (1896) by Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), an Austrian Jewish journalist. It was in this book that the notion of a Jewish state was envisioned and the need to establish it was justified. The Jews needed a homeland of their own where they would no longer be persecuted by anti-Semites. In August 1897, Herzl organized a world congress of Zionists in Basel, Switzerland and became the first president of the World Zionist Organization.

The second was the Balfour Declaration in 1917 in which the British government, then in control of Palestine (then called the British Mandate of Palestine), supported the notion of a Jewish homeland. As a result, the British allowed a limited immigration of Jews to the territory of Palestine.

The third was the decision of the United Nations (United Nations [UN] Resolution 181) after World War II to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into two states, one for the Jews and the other for the Arab residents of Palestine (who were Muslims). After this decision, the Arab residents of Israel have been called Palestinians, while the Jews have been called Israelis (see Matthews 2010, 261-62 for a discussion of Zionism and the Holocaust).

The Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Jews accepted the UN resolution to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, but the Arab residents (the Palestinians) did not. Moreover, the Arab nations surrounding Israel did not accept the institution of Israel as a Jewish state in Palestine. The result was a series of wars initiated by the Arabs. The major ones included the 1948 War of Independence, 1956 Sinai War, 1967 Six-Day War, and 1973Yom Kippur War. These wars between Palestinians and Israelis have so far been won by the Israelis. While there have also been a series of peace talks, the conflict remains up to this day.