In the days following the Tree of Life shooting, anti-Semitism arrived at the forefront of the American public psyche. With this tragedy in mind, I felt compelled to more deeply explore the historical roots of anti-Semitism. I wanted to know how this ancient and unique hatred has morphed and transformed in pivotal moments throughout history to become a modern reality in both the United States and abroad.
Each year on Veterans Day (as well as other American holidays), I consider my dual roles as an American citizen and as a Jew. This year, for Veterans Day, I was able to combine my national and religious identities through researching and presenting a seminar at my school called “The Jewish Experience During and After WWI,” alongside my Co-President of our school’s Jewish Culture Club.
Anti-Semitism has quickly become a partisan issue in the U.S., with both sides of the political spectrum blaming the other for its rise. Through exploring the historical context and sharing it with other students and faculty, I hoped to spread awareness of the 20th-century roots of anti-Semitism.
WWI was a pivotal moment for world Jewry and the future of the global Jewish experience. From the ashes of the deadly conflict emerged a European Jewish population in disarray, as well as new anti-Jewish sentiments and the rise of fascism and Nazi Germany. Previously connected European Jewish communities became fragmented by new, post-war borders, and the demand for a Jewish state increased. As I worked toward a more thorough understanding of Jewish life during WWI, and the devastating years thereafter, I gained valuable historical context which helps me to understand modern anti-Semitism.
Through research over the course of several weeks before the seminar, I discovered that over a million Jews, mostly in the United States, Germany and Russia, fought for their mother nations during WWI. Their experiences, as well as their civilian brethren in varying countries, set the stage for the global Jewry in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Jewish experience in WWI in Germany adds important context to the future of global anti-Semitism. Over 100,000 Jewish Germans fought in the conflict, with many young men volunteering to join the war effort.
This use of Jews as a scapegoat in post-WWI Germany mirrors many anti-Semitic movements of today.
Despite this evident loyalty to Germany, many Jews and other minorities were later blamed for the war’s devastation, which left the country in economic and physical ruin. German military officials often directed blame at Jews and other minority groups for the country’s woes. This use of Jews as a scapegoat in post-WWI Germany mirrors many anti-Semitic movements of today, which charge Jews with a range of grievances, including orchestrating world political systems for their own benefit.
The widespread public misery in Germany in the aftermath of the war led to the propagation of several popular myths, including that foreign Jews intentionally hurt Germany during peace negotiations, and that Jews controlled the system of German reparations for costs incurred in the war. These myths, along with Hitler’s promises of a united Germany, would contribute to the rise of the Nazi party’s popularity. Just as in the Nazi era, many anti-Semites of today spread fictitious information about Jewish control of financial institutions.
At the end of WWI, a fear of German territorial revanchism led the Allied victors of the war to restrict German militarization. This resulted in the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed numerous regulations on Germany. Many scholars attribute the treaty to the later rise of Nazism in the desperate nation, in addition to other factors.
Meanwhile, in the Russian Empire during WWI, prominent figures in the Bolshevik Revolution, which dismantled the Tsar’s government and led to the rise of the Soviet Union, included several figures with Jewish backgrounds. This led to a widespread association of Jews with communist tendencies in post-WWI Europe, which fit into another mythical proposition that Jewish leftists were orchestrating WWI for their own revolutionary benefit. Today still, many fringe right-wing groups accuse Jews of hostile communist sympathies, mirroring the WWII Nazi association of Jews with communists.
Another important historical impact of WWI was the rising movement and support for the creation of a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration, which was the British declaration of intent to create a “national home for the Jewish people,” was a precursor to the eventual establishment of Israel in 1948.
The creation of the State of Israel opened an entirely new type of global anti-Semitism, which associated Israeli politics with the Jewish community as a whole. This correlation between ethnic group and foreign policy has caused some modern anti-Semitic activity, especially for those who did not agree with Israeli politics and believe that Israel’s complex international relations are synonymous with the sentiments of all Jewish people.
Due to the numerous factors in rising anti-Semitism during the early 20th century, an understanding of the Jewish experience in WWI and its aftermath are thus critical to better grasp how modern anti-Semitic tendencies developed.
As we bear witness to the rise of anti-Jewish sentiments and attacks (like the Tree of Life shooting) on our own soil, looking to history can give important context. Hopefully, through educating ourselves and others about the history of anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience, we can spread awareness and resistance to anti-Semitism through knowledge.
Jacob Strier is a senior at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.