The word ‘antisemitism’ is relatively new. It was coined in 1879 by journalist Wilhelm Marr and was adopted as the official ideology first of the German Christian Social Workers Party and then of the Anti-Semitic League. Use of the word soon spread to Austria, Hungary, France and Russia. It later came into general use as a term referring to most forms of anti-Jewish hostility throughout history.

That history is a long one. Pagan antisemitism in the Greek and Roman world objected to Jewish exclusiveness. The rise of Christianity added a dangerous new and false accusation: that collectively, the Jews were responsibile for crucifying Jesus. The early Christian Church developed the notion that the Jews were therefore a people rejected by God: children of the devil. (See John 8:44.) With the political victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire, these theological views were translated into social reality. With few rights and without honour, the Jews were to be preserved as a people to witness the triumph and ‘truth’ of the Church.

Demonisation of Jews by the Church and their resulting inferior social and political status were carried over into medieval Europe. The conspicuous success of Jews as money-lenders (a profession forbidden to Christians) became a further factor in the growth of popular antisemitism. During the Crusades this antisemitism broke out into mob violence (‘pogroms’), which entailed the massacre of Jews and looting of their property. New anti-Jewish myths were developed: the ritual slaughter of Christian children, the desecration of the sacred Host and the poisoning of wells. These were slanders which persisted powerfully, especially in Eastern Europe, until this century.

Jews were forbidden to enter trades or professions or own land. Frequently they had to wear a badge or a distinguishing garment such as a distinctive hat. They had to live in ghettos, which were sections of a town or city where Jews were segregated from the general population, and which they were forbidden to leave on pain of death. They were subjected to inordinate taxation, denigrating legislation, inquisition, censorship, forced baptism, compulsory attendance at church, frequent property confiscation and even expulsion. “Attacks and explusions of Jews were a staple of medieval history, so extensive that by the mid-1500s Christians had forcibly emptied most of western Europe of Jews.” (Goldhagen, 1996)

The French Revolution and the emancipation of French Jews in 1791 seemed to promise a fresh beginning. But the liberalism of capitalist society in the nineteenth century prompted a backlash against the Jews. Conservatives denounced them as the “grave diggers of Christian society”; peasants and artisans, threatened by the growth of industry, feared them as “capitalist exploiters and rapacious financiers”. The new, pseudo-scientific doctrine of racial antisemitism drew on all these stereotypes and formulated a view of history as the struggle for racial supremacy between Jews and “Aryans”.

From here it was a short step to the paranoid belief in a Jewish world conspiracy which aimed to undermine societies, overthrow governments and seize power throughout the world. This was the claim of a document forged by a Russian secret policeman at the end of the 19th century and published between 1903 and 1905 as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hitler found the Protocols “enormously instructive”. They served both as a primer for Nazi politics and as (false) documentary ‘proof’ of a Jewish world conspiracy. Two years after the Nazis came to power the Protocols became required reading in German schools.

As historian Raul Hilberg explains, “From the earliest days, from the fourth century, the sixth century, the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews: ‘You may not live among us as Jews.’ The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages then decided: ‘You may not live among us,’ and the Nazis finally decreed: ‘You may not live.’”


The Australian Jewish community is very much part of mainstream Australia, as it has been for most of the modern period. The facts that two of Australia’s Governors-General have been Jewish, that Jews have been able to participate in the political process from very early times and that military and public figures such as General Sir John Monash are important public icons, gives Australian Jewry a real sense of belonging and creates obstacles to those antisemitic organisations which would seek to present Jews as being in some way un-Australian.

There is no evidence to suggest that Australians in general think of Jews in negative terms. Unlike many other societies, Australia does not have a past to which antisemites can look to with nostalgia. However, this does not mean that anti-Jewish prejudice is absent. From the earliest days of European settlement there have been elements within the community who have sought to delegitimise Jews as part of the mainstream of Australian society. For some, the only true Australian has been a Christian. For others, Jews have represented an “other” which is excluded from full participation in society and treated in a manner befitting an “un-Australian” force.

Antisemitism in Australia goes beyond simple contempt, hatred or discrimination based on the fact that a Jewish person is in some way different. For some, there is anti-Jewish prejudice which equates to, for example, anti-Asian, anti-Aborigine, anti-Arab or anti-African prejudice, expressing itself in terms of racial superiority. Far more sinister, however, is prejudice which seeks to contribute particular characteristics, motives or agendas to Jewish Australians, portraying them as not only different but threatening to the well-being of Australian society.


In Australia, vilification of Jews is present to varying degrees throughout the media and at many different levels of society. In areas as diverse and unlikely as sport and gardening, commentators invoked imagery of Jewish people as unethical stingy or otherwise uncharitable. Anti-Jewish humour in social contexts also often revolves around such stereotypes.

The impact of the racism debate was felt throughout the community, including in schools and the workplace. On the factory floor, in shopping centres and in educational institutions, members of the Jewish community reported hearing a dramatic increase in anti-Jewish stereotyping and verbal expressions of belief that Jews are part of an anti-Christian conspiracy whenever far-right wing groups receive uncritical publicity.


There are a number of types of prejudice and vilification which are specific to Jews. A common thread in these is that Jews represent an existential threat to non-Jews and have enormous power and drive to achieve their aim of world control. Extremist organisations actively propagate the myth that there is a plot by some or all Jews, acting alone or in collusion with other “elites”, to control international finance, media and politics. The importance of the “Jewish conspiracy” allegation is that it becomes the rationalisation for taking extreme, violent action, allegedly in “self-defence” against the conspirators. By their very nature, conspiracy theories dehumanise the “conspirators”, who are indelibly marked as targets for “revenge”.


Virtually all Australian antisemitic organisations either advocate Holocaust denial or argue that Holocaust deniers have a right to be taken seriously. In the majority of cases Holocaust denial appears as a central plank in the antisemitic organisations’ platforms, even though the less sophisticated of these groups simultaneously espouse admiration of Adolf Hitler’s policies towards Jews.


The Australian Jewish community experiences hundreds of incidents each year of harassment, intimidation, vandalism or other acts which can be described as racist violence. While it is difficult to prove the causal connection between individual instances of antisemitic vilification and physical actions motivated by anti-Jewish hatred or prejudice, it is not at all difficult to draw the nexus between hateful language and acts motivated by hate.


A range of responses are necessary if a society is serious about limiting, if not eliminating, antisemitism. The victims of attacks need to have legal recourse. Political and moral leadership is vital, especially when it is framed in a way to define antisemitism as an issue to be dealt with by the society as a whole, not just the antisemites’ targets. Education to combat prejudice, informally and formally, provides a basis for a society equipped to respond to what antisemitism may be imported or develop.

Researched and written by Jeremy Jones AM
Director of International and Community Affairs of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and Honorary LIfe Member, Executive Council of Australian Jewry