Canaanites, Philistines, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans all fought the ancient Jews, and no doubt hated them, yet this did not make antisemitism a meaningful issue in those days. Nevertheless, the heritage of ancient and mediaeval hostilities remains. Even now it is argued that a single category of antisemitism is inadequate to describe anti-Jewish sentiment. In Europe, Jews were generally negatively seen as powerful, while in the Middle East they were historically perceived as weak. The empowerment of the Jews after 1948 may have inclined Arab views closer to the traditional European stereotype.
There is also the problem of distinguishing between antisemitism, a hatred of Jews and a desire to do them harm, and anti-Zionism, opposition to Israel's existence and security. Since the vast majority of Jews supports Israel's existence and security, opposition to Israel strikes directly and personally at one-third of all Jews and indirectly at the other two-thirds related to that country by sentiment or family ties. Consequently, there is a real overlap between the two categories of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. The dilemma of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has been to find ways to delegitimize Israel while not being discredited in the West as antisemitic. This has partly been done by calling Zionism a distortion of Judaism, which is then defined only as a religion. The state of Israel itself is portrayed as a creation of Western imperialism rather than a nationalistic expression of the Jews.
The early religious intolerance by Christian communities, affected by cultural conflict and national self-preservation, was exacerbated in the 19th and 20th centuries by a fear of modernization and a hostility to capitalism. Different groups with a wide variety of concerns directed their antagonism against Jewish people, drawing on various stereotypes propagated in anti-Jewish campaigns. Until the 1870s, however, this was not cast in terms of race. The very concept of anti-Semitism was not used. Influenced by the race theories which came fully into the open around 1850, a major change took place during the last decades of the 19th century. The race theories of Comte Gobineau, which for the first time made use of the notion of the Aryan race, was reinforced by social Darwinism, and further cultivated among other places in the Bayreuth circle around Richard Wagner. It was finally translated through ideological writing into action by authors like Houston Chamberlin, who contributed to a consolidation of several strands of anti-Jewish sentiment which by 1870 was defined as anti-Semitism, building on vague assumptions of a biological heritage.
Semantic and intellectual confusion was extensive, to a large extent deliberately so. The notion of anti-Semitism builds on "semitic", which either can refer to language and culture or else to "the descendents of Shem" (derived from the description in the Biblical Genesis, Chapter X). Those two elements do not coincide, but for racists this is not of importance. Assumptions about biological descent, language, culture, social position, and the fear of carriers of modernization which allegedly destroyed national culture and the nation itself -- all of these elements were woven together. Small anti-Semitic political parties emerged in Germany during the end of the 19th century. In France, anti-Semitic sentiment culminated with the Dreyfus affair. By World War I these emotions had to a large extent been diffused, but in Germany the impact of the defeat during the war, together with the subsequent economic dislocation, was to cause a most cruel reappearance of what was called "scientific anti-Semitism" by the Nazis.
Despite its commitment to practice tolerance, the UN General Assembly did not recognize anti-semitism as a form of discrimination until December 1998, namely a half-century after the Holocaust. Within the the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1991 Jews were accused of murdering children to extract their blood to make ritual Passover food, and in 1997 Israel was accused there of infecting Palestinian children with HIV-contaminated blood.
There is a sharp difference in anti-Jewish sentiment between east and west Europe. As a result of detailed surveys in 1991 in the former communist bloc countries, it is know that 61% of those questioned in the former Soviet Union are positively disposed towards Jews as compared to 18% in Austria. Majorities of Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and 44% of Poles view Jews as integral members of society, whereas one-third of Austrians believe that Jews are disliked generally and 19% want no Jews in their country. While 20% of East Germans took the view that Jew are overinfluential, the figure for West Germans was 44%. A 1992 poll of 3,000 Germans reported that 10% of West and 4% of East Germans wholly agreed with the statement : "It's the Jews' own fault that they have been persecuted so often in their history". A further 28 and 27%, respectively, found "a bit of truth" in the statement. Similar surveys in 1982 and 1987 found even higher degrees of anti-Semitism in West Germany. In 1992, 61% of French believed anti-semitism had grown in France in the past decade.