Anti-Semitism is the hatred of the Jewish people. The term was first used by a German in 1879, William Marr, who founded the "League for Anti-Semitism." Marr advanced the view that Jews constituted a distinct racial group which was both physically and morally inferior. According to Marr, there was indisputable scientific evidence that the Jews were predisposed to be a "slave race" while the "Aryans" which included the Teutonic and Nordic peoples, were the "Master Race."
Although the term "anti-Semitism" is thus relatively modern, documented prejudice, social and economic isolation, persecution and violence against the Jews predates Marr and his supporters by more than 2,300 years. In what is acknowledged to be the first historical reference to an anti-Semitic act, the Biblical account of the Purim story (the Book of Esther) recounts how the Jewish people narrowly escaped destruction in Persia in the 5th century B.C.E. All Jews in the kingdom were targeted for annihilation because one Jewish official refused to bow to the top aide of the king. Only as a result of the intervention of the queen, a Jew, who pleaded for saving her people, were the Jews saved from mass murder.
Classical anti-Semitism in the pre-Christian world followed along the same lines as the Purim story. For most of recorded history, the Jewish people had been the subjects of conquerors, such as the Persians, Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Romans. Most Jews refused to convert to the religion of their hosts and instead maintained their own religion, rituals and customs, often at great personal sacrifice.
The Jewish religion forbids Jews to bow down to any person or god other than the Creator. In the story of Purim, the failure of Mordecai, the Jewish, Persian official, to bow down to Haman, the top aide to the king, created conflict. This conflict between observing the Jewish religion and being sensitive to local customs was the basis for much of the anti-Semitism the Jewish people endured.
Examples are the following:
Jews observed strict dietary laws. Thus they could not, according to their law, share a meal in their neighbors' homes.
Jews also could not, according to their law, work on the seventh day. Christians observed Sunday as their Sabbath, and Moslems observed Friday as their Sabbath. As a result, Jews were often "out of step."
People who observed minority religions were, for the most part, quite willing to make sacrifices to the gods of their host countries, even as they worshipped their own gods. With only few exceptions, Jews refused to do so.
Also according to their law, Jews were not supposed to marry outside their faith, and most did not. Intergroup marriages often served as a bond in ancient times to promote intergroup harmony. This refusal also retarded any assimilation which would have narrowed the differences between the Jews and their host communities.
Enlightened ancient political leaders often granted privileges and exemptions to Jews because of knowledge about their religious conflicts. Those who were not granted these privileges and exemptions often resented this special treatment.
Jews maintained their traditional dress and continued to wear beards and earlocks even when styles changed among their hosts. The result was that Jews became more easily identified as a stereotyped culture which had ramifications beyond religious differences.
Evidence of anti-Semitism has been found in the writings of those who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 4th century, B.C.E. In the first century C.E., Apion, a writer from Alexandria, wrote the "History of Egypt" which was the source for many of the false accusations about Jewish religious rituals which have plagued Jews throughout later history.
Isolated incidents of persecution against the Jews were recorded in the first century. As many as 4,000 Jews were deported to the island of Sardinia during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The first recorded pogrom took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Caligula in 38 C.E.
Classical Roman writers such as Cicero and Ovid wrote about the differences between Jewish observances and those of the Romans in less than flattering terms.