Anti-Semitism and the Dark Ages

Religion has not civilized man—man has civilized religion,  Robert Ingersoll


My parents  deserve most of  the credit  for bringing me  up with  almost  no  prejudice against Jews or blacks.  Perhaps that’s why I have puzzled a great deal about the origin of anti-Semitism without coming up with a credible explanation.  Gradually I decided it was the “chosen people of God” designation that led others to think that Jews consider themselves better than the rest of us.  Author Christopher Lasch suggests there may indeed have been an ancient misunderstanding.


                   “When the Jews referred to themselves as the chosen people, they meant that they had agreed to submit to a uniquely demanding set of ethical standards, not that they were destined to rule the world or to enjoy special favors from heaven,” says Lasch in The True and Only Heaven


            Since I came across the Lasch quote recently, I have shown it to a number of friends including Jews and educated clergy.  They all agreed that Lasch had stated the truth.  Have the rest of us been grievously misled in this matter--thus creating anti-Semitism?  Survey your friends.  Christians and Moslems have implicitly, if not explicitly, taken on the mantle of “chosen people” and endured some conflict as a result.  If we don’t like the idea of the Jews being chosen, why do we condone the concept in ourselves?  After all, Christianity was a sect of Judaism until the apostle Paul came along.                           

From the writings of Marco Polo and other early travelers we gain the impression that most of early mankind regarded deities as having geographical and ethnic domains.  The automatic respect that this attitude would engender might increase the probability of travelers with this attitude surviving to report on their travels.  In spite of the probability that the Jews invented the concept of one universal God, did they fail to rise above the atavistic, tribal idea of ethnic and geographical domains for deities?

Modern events show that traditions such as tribalism die very slowly even when such a tradition ceases to be useful. How ironic it is.   Judaism, the earliest of the monotheistic religions, retained some of the territorialism of more primitive predecessors. As a result, the Hebrews viewed the obligations imposed by Jehovah as binding principally on themselves. So they made few demands on outsiders.  Only later when Christianity and Islam branched from the monotheistic root, did the newer faiths put into practice the relentless universalism that had been implicit in monotheism’s logic from the beginning.  For Christians and Moslems it seemed only natural that their creeds were binding on all humanity. Therefore they felt obligated to try to convert everyone they met to their new faiths.  However, the Hebrews prior to influence by the conquering Romans and Christians did proselytize.  King David’s mother was a Moabite; Sampson was a Philistine; Solomon’s mother was a Hittite.  The Biblical prohibition against marrying gentiles did not apply to  female captives in time of war (or to other converts).  Presumably an additional reason for few male converts to Judaism was the inconvenience of adult circumcision.  Ghetto residence for a millenium or so and other persecutions due to anti-Semitism led to the maintaining of Jewish identity by isolation.  Jews displaced to China at the time of the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe retained their identity for only a few hundred years presumably because of assimilation made possible by lack of persecution.  No Chinese even thought of accusing the Jews of killing Confucius.

While I was writing this, a friend pointed out that early Christians were dead set against usury as are orthodox Moslems to this day. Jews did not and do not share this prejudice.  Christian capitalists have long ago put this prejudice behind them for obvious reasons.  So if this had been an original reason for anti-Semitism, it has not been an overt and acknowledged one for a long time.  Is this outmoded tribal tradition also persisting to fuel modern anti-Semitism?

Ten or fifteen years ago I asked myself why the Romans were able to build on the civilization of the Greeks, but we had to wait for the renaissance and the enlightenment to progress appreciably beyond the development of the civilizations of antiquity.  The answer came to me when James Watt, our Secretary of the Interior, said that we don’t have to worry about the environment because Armageddon is coming soon. 

The connection with the early Christians was that they also believed that the end of the world was near, perhaps within the lifetime of living people.  This idea distracted the movers and shakers of society from paying adequate attention to new ideas, a problem that persisted until the renaissance.  So the dark ages are dependent on monotheism and we haven’t come completely out of the dark ages (exhibit A: James Watt’s remark).

This brings us back to Christopher Lasch’s quotation.  Was it apparent to the Hebrews that God would not punish gentiles for not being aware of the laws He had given only to them at Mount Sinai?  The social consciousness of Christians and Moslems compelled them to spread the word.  It is not credible that the Hebrews totally lacked social consciousness.  The more I talk to my friends, and some of them are experts, about the origins of anti-Semitism the more confusing and illogical it seems.* So after considerable effort over some time I remain uncertain of the origin of anti-Semitism.  The bottom line of all this to me is to respect people of other traditions without trying to make them over in my (our) image.

If the Greeks and Romans had been aware of the benefits of the separation of church and state, Western Civilization might have survived Christianity without enduring the Dark Ages.


*Speaking of experts, at a casual social event recently I met a Buddhist expert from a nearby university who apprised me of a book, The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler, Random House 1976.  Arthur Koestler is the author of a number of well-known books of the mid-twentieth century including Darkness at Noon  and The God that Failed.  In  the Thirteenth Tribe he documents quite convincingly that the Khazars, a Turkic speaking tribe living north of the Caucuses with a capital at the mouth of the Volga  on the Caspian Sea  and known to have been converted to Judaism in late antiquity, were dispersed by the Mongols at the end of the first milleneum.  Koestler’s thesis: the Jews of Eastern Europe especially Russia and Poland are almost entirely of Khazar descent.  He even explains how Yiddish, the lingua franca of European Jewry happens to have so much German vocabulary.  The Thirteenth Tribe reads like an interesting PhD thesis and has 20 pages of references.  Since some of my experts didn’t even know of this book, those of us who are less specialized can contribute after probing a topic for a year or two.  Anti-Semitism has a very enigmatic history indeed.  My early confusion is amply confirmed.

John A. Frantz M.D.

December 28, 2002 

Revised November 26, 2004





“Junk” DNA


An unexpected and puzzling fact emerged from the first few genomes to be sequenced: Only a small fraction of the DNA sequences code for genes.   Genes code for particular  proteins destined for a specific function.  The remainder was labeled “junk DNA”. It seemed that genes were not optimally designed.  Early work showed that a great many genes are duplicated, coded at more than one place in the genome, accounting for some of the junk.  It is emerging that this duplication may serve two useful functions.  First, robustness of the genome: if a vital gene is disabled by a random mutation, the duplicate gene may permit survival of the individual organism in which the mutation had occurred.  This fact was documented in yeast within a few years after its DNA sequence was published.  And second, as many random mutations occur in a duplicated but no longer functional gene, a new and useful function might evolve, a possible explanation for biological diversity—even the molecular basis for Steven J. Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” in the fossil record.  Punctuated equilibrium refers to a long period of fossil record with a fairly stable assembly of species, alternating with short periods of much more rapid development of new species.