Antisemitism, one of the world’s earliest and most enduring conspiracy theories, is again rearing its ugly head. With origins in ancient Greece, antisemitism became a hallmark of Christian-Jewish relations across the centuries. It is with us yet.
Writing in the fourth century, Augustine declared that “Judaism, since Christ, is a corruption; indeed, Judas is the image of the Jewish people: their understanding of Scripture is carnal; they bear the guilt for the death of the Savior, for through their fathers they have killed Christ.”
By the 16th century, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther entered the fray with a vicious 1543 treatise titled “The Jews and their Lies,” written only three years before his death.
Its harsh rhetoric includes the following:
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. … With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames.
Luther then urged German leaders and Christian people:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools.
Second, I advise that their houses be razed or destroyed.
Third, I advise that their prayer books and Talmudic writings … be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.
Seventh I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle in the hands of the young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3).
My essay, I hope, will furnish a Christian (who in any case has no desire to become a Jew), with enough material not only to defend against these blind, venomous Jews, but also to become the foe of Jews malice, lying, and cursing, and to understand not only that their belief is false, but that they are surely possessed by all devils. May Christ our Dear Lord convert them mercifully and preserve us steadfast and immovably in the knowledge of him, which is eternal life. Amen
In his classic biography, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, historian Roland Bainton wrote, “One could wish that Luther had died before ever this tract was written.” Bainton tried to preserve Luther’s reputation by observing: “His position was entirely religious and in no respect racial. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Christ.”
This has led others to suggest that Luther was anti-Jewish, not antisemitic, an academic distinction at best, especially given the use of Luther’s treatise by the Nazis in supporting their own horrific antisemitism. Following the infamous Kristallnacht event, Nov. 10, 1938, (Luther’s birthday) when Jews were murdered, their shop windows broken, and synagogues burned, Lutheran Bishop Martin Sasse urged Germans to review Luther’s The Jews and their Lies, since he was the “greatest anti-Semite of this time, the warner of his people against the Jews.”
In 1943, Walter C. Langer, Harvard trained psychoanalyst and professor, provided a much-cited psychological profile of Adolf Hitler for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA). In words that apply to Hitler’s lies about and terrible “final solution” against the Jews, Langer wrote:
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
That method and resulting antisemitism did not end with the defeat of Hitler. In a Nov. 8, 2022, New York Times article on “the surging stream of antisemitism,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “When systems fail, whether it’s the government or the markets or anything else, leaders often look for someone to blame. Jews have historically played that role.”
Antisemitic-related assaults and harassments in the U.S. nearly tripled from 2015 to 2021.
Antisemitic-related assaults and harassments in the U.S. nearly tripled from 2015 to 2021, the ADL contends, with 2022 mirroring 2021. One in four American Jews attests to antisemitic encounters during the past year.
Those experiences were punctuated recently with the diatribes against Jews disseminated by entertainer Kanye West (aka Ye), actions that prompted others to go public with similar public screeds declaring, “Kanye is right about the Jews.”
Politics-based antisemitism often seems rampant. Texas state Rep. Joe Straus, who is Jewish, served as speaker of the Texas House from 2009 to 2019, the longest term of a Republican in that office. Yet in 2015, John Cook, a state Republican Executive Committee member, sent an email to a colleague suggesting: “We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it.” When the email went public, Cook denied he was antisemitic but preferred leaders who reflected the views of the House’s Christian majority, a Lone Star form of Christian nationalism.
Jewish leaders also note that anti-Israel political views espoused by persons on the left have recently morphed into antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric. While conservative evangelicals offer staunch support for Israel, Jews often wonder if that support relates more to the role of Israel in millennial speculations than to Jews themselves.
Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank recently published a column titled “American Jews Start to Think the Unthinkable,” citing his rabbi’s sermon on Kol Nidre, the holiest day of the Jewish year, noting that some families are considering leaving the country due to threats against democracy and themselves.
The rabbi quoted Jewish scholar Michael Holzman: “For American Jews, the disappearance of liberal democracy would be a disaster. … We have flourished under the shelter of the principles behind the First Amendment, and we have been protected by the absolute belief in the rule of law. Without these, Jews, start packing suitcases.”
Those words recall the efforts of Jews to escape Germany in the late 1930s as National Socialism gained momentum.
Milbank ends with the assertion that he and his family will not leave, agreeing with his rabbi that, “If there is a Jewish message for our time, it is to support our great experiment with every fiber of our being,” He then adds his own conclusion, “If it isn’t safe here, it won’t be safe anywhere.”
Responding to these dangers, on Nov. 10 the ADL sponsored the “Never is Now” conference, “The World’s Annual Summit of Antisemitism and Hate.” Speakers included Pfizer executive Albert Bourla, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Vanderbilt professor and preacher Michael Eric Dyson, and actor David Schwimmer.
“American Christians and their churches must unite in forthright opposition to antisemitic rhetoric wherever it appears.”
American Christians and their churches must unite in forthright opposition to antisemitic rhetoric wherever it appears even as they deplore violence against Jewish individuals and synagogues. Last week, the FBI cautioned New Jersey synagogues of a “broad threat” of violence against them, invoking the memory of previous shootings in 2019 at synagogues in Poway, Calif., and Pittsburgh.
As perhaps no other time since the 1930s, Christians must speak out against antisemitism wherever and with whomever it rears its ugly head. The oft-repeated words of German pastor — Martin Niemöller who, after early support for the Nazis, came to oppose them so vigorously that he was imprisoned from 1937 to 1945 — provide both a warning and a challenge here and now.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. Studies show.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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