This Day in Jewish History, 1882

The Notion That Jews Are Evil by Nature Takes Wing

The Anti-Jewish Congress was a change in pace: rather than hating Jews on socio-economic or religious grounds, they could be hated just because.

Reuters

On September 11, 1882, the two-day First International Anti-Jewish Congress opened in Dresden, bringing together like-minded people from Germany, Hungary and Austria. Aside from its multi-national character, the congress was significant in that it exemplified the emergence of a new, racialist strain of anti-Semitism in a Europe that previously had based most of its hatred of Jews on religious arguments and social-economic resentment. Now, an especially virulent argument that attributed a congenital evil to the Jews entered the public discussion.

The congress was just one of a large number of expressions of Jew-hatred taking place in Central and Western Europe at this time – not to mention the government-sponsored pogroms that began in czarist Russia beginning in 1881.

In a general sense, all were a reaction to a century of Enlightenment, in which Jews in the Continent were offered, to varying degrees, the opportunity to become citizens of their respective lands. More specifically, the Dresden congress was held in the immediate aftermath of a blood-libel trial in the Hungarian town of Tizsaeszlar. The case ended in the acquittal of the Jews accused of a ritual murder of a missing girl -- whose body was never found -- but gave rise to a wave of anti-Semitism that persists in that country to this day.

Defending 'Christian society'

The Dresden conference drew more than 300 participants, among them titled men from their respective countries, and three members of the Hungarian parliament. They met in the presence of a large photograph of Eszter Solymosi, the supposed victim of the Tizsaeszlar case.

The stated objective of the meeting was to debate, in confidence, “the next objectives of the anti-Jewish movement as well as ways for more effective international countermeasures against the Jewish position in big finance and trade, in politics and municipal affairs, and in the press and the arts and sciences.”

The discussions that took place in Dresden led to the publication of a manifesto summarizing the threat constituted by the Jews and proposing measures to be taken to defend “Christian society” from them.

Then a judge founded the Anti-Semites Party

The manifesto’s principal author was Gyozo Istoczy, a Hungarian judge and member of parliament who the following year founded a movement baldly called the Anti-Semites Party, the first political party to embrace a purely anti-Jewish agenda.

The document outlined the ways in which the Jews – a “foreign race” -- endangered no less than “the culture, civilization, prosperity, and future of the European Christian peoples.” What it described was a parasitic nation whose members regarded the rest of humanity as existing “solely to serve them.”

The Jews' exploitation was most egregious in economic matters, said the manifesto, and was best personified in the Rothschild family, which was “at the tip of this financial and economic pyramid,” and at whose bidding most of the Continent’s wars were being fought.

On the practical level, the manifesto, and an accompanying motion, written by Baron Karl von Thüngen-Rossbach and Baron Carl von Fechenbach-Laudenbach, called for a series of measures to put the Jew back in his place, including: banning Jewish immigration from the East, reforming laissez-faire economics to the benefit of “the productive classes,” limiting the civil rights of Jews, so long as they “persist in their isolation and form a nation within a nation,” and prohibiting them from participating in military service - while levying on them a special tax in lieu of such service.

There’s no evidence that the First International Congress was followed by subsequent meetings of the same body. But as a bellwether of the Zeitgeist, the congress was indicative of a widespread backlash to the privileges granted to Jews in the 19th century Emancipation.

During the 1880s and the following decade, anti-Semitic parties came into existence not only in Hungary, but also in France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Russia.  In that sense, the participants in the congress can be said to have taken to heart the exhortation that ended the manifesto: “And now, let’s get to work, Christian brothers!”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen