The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Antisemitism

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What just happened?

On Saturday Robert Bowers entered a Pittsburgh synagogue armed with four weapons, killing eleven people and injuring six others.

A federal criminal complaint said Bowers made statements “evincing an animus towards people of Jewish faith.” Bowers told one law enforcement officer, “They’re committed genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” According to the complaint, Bowers repeated his antisemitic comments regarding genocide, his desire to kill Jewish people, and that Jewish people needed to die.

What is antisemitism?

Antisemitism is defined as hostility toward or prejudice against Jews as a religious or racial group.

Should it be spelled anti-Semitism or antisemitism?

Both ways are grammatically correct, though many Jewish groups prefer the non-hyphenated spelling. In 2015, a group of scholars issued a statement explaining why the term should be spelled without the hyphen:

[T]he hyphenated spelling allows for the possibility of something called “Semitism,” which not only legitimizes a form of pseudo- scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology, but also divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews.

The philological term “Semitic” referred to a family of languages originating in the Middle East whose descendant languages today are spoken by millions of people mostly across Western Asia and North Africa. Following this semantic logic, the conjunction of the prefix “anti” with “Semitism” indicates antisemitism as referring to all people who speak Semitic languages or to all those classified as “Semites.” The term has, however, since its inception referred to prejudice against Jews alone.

Where did the term antisemitism originate?

The German journalist Wilhelm Marr, founder of the Antisemiten-Liga (Anti-Semitic League), coined the term “anti-Semitism” in an 1879 pamphlet opposing the influence of Jews on German culture. Marr was an instigator of anti-Jewish sentiment in 19th-century Germany who came to regret his animus. Toward the end of his life, he published another pamphlet, Testament of an Antisemite, renounced his own hatred of the Jewish people, and expressed concern that antisemitism in Germany was becoming entangled with mysticism and nationalism.

What constitutes antisemitism?

While there is no universally agreed upon standard for what constitutes antisemitic prejudice or behavior, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by 31 countries, defines it in terms of 11 key areas:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
  • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective—such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government, or other societal institutions.
  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers), or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

How pervasive a problem is antisemitism?

Antisemitism has increasingly become a problem in Europe. A report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found the main perpetrators of antisemitic incidents are “Islamists” and radicalized young Muslims, including schoolchildren, as well as neo-Nazis and sympathizers of extreme-right and extreme-left groups.

But antisemitic attitudes are also mainstream in some European countries. For example, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey on religious belief and national belonging in Central and Eastern Europe asked its respondents in the general population whether they would be willing to accept Jews as members of their families, and found that 53 percent of respondents in Greece and in Romania, 48 percent of respondents in Lithuania, 37 percent in the Czech Republic, 32 percent in Bulgaria, 30 percent in Poland, and 26 percent in Hungary answered negatively.

In America, Jews make up only 2 percent of the population but are, according to the FBI, annually subject to the most hate crimes of any religious group. For example, of the 1,340 victims of an anti-religious hate crime in 2012 62.4 percent were victims of an offender’s anti-Jewish bias.

Is antisemitism a uniquely modern problem?

No. While the term did not originate until the 19th century, the animus toward Jews conveyed by the term dates back at least to the dates back to the fifth-century B.C., when Haman “sought to destroy all the Jews . . . throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus [i.e., the kingdom of Persia]” (Est. 3:6).

Other pagans throughout ancient times similarly persecuted Jews because they were exclusively monotheistic. As Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “Pagans saw Jews’ principled refusal to worship emperors as gods as a sign of disloyalty.”

After the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the exile of Jews from Palestine in AD 70, some Christians interpreted the event as punishment for Jewish culpability in the death of Jesus (using Matt. 27:25 as their justification). This led to a virulent strain of Christian antisemitism that has plagued both the church and also the Jewish people from the first century until today.

What is Christian antisemitism?

Christian antisemitism is antisemitic attitudes that are derived from or based on theological reasons. (For the sake of clarity, it should generally be distinguished from similar antisemitism of people who may call themselves Christians but are antisemitic because of cultural, ethnic, or nationalistic reasons.)

The road to the Holocaust was paved by centuries of antisemitism, and crosses through a large swath of the history of Christianity. It was Christian antisemites, for instance, who originated such destructive concepts as blood libel. Even after the scandal of Shoah (i.e., the Holocaust) it took until the end of the 20th century for the Christian community to finally and forcefully repudiate antisemitism and repent of sinful disdain, prejudice, and hatred toward the Jewish people.

Such is the only proper response, since at its core Christian antisemitism is inherently anti-Christian. As Russell Moore says,

As Christians, we should have a clear message of rejection of every kind of bigotry and hatred, but we should especially note what anti-Semitism means for people who are followers of Jesus Christ. We should say clearly to anyone who would claim the name “Christian” the following truth: If you hate Jews, you hate Jesus.

Anti-Semitism is, by definition, a repudiation of Christianity as well as of Judaism. This ought to be obvious, but world history, even church history, shows us this is not the case. Christians reject anti-Semitism because we love Jesus.

Was Martin Luther antisemitic?

Yes. And as Bernard N. Howard says, Luther’s antisemitism should be acknowledged without qualification.

The great reformer wrote at least two treatises—The Jews and Their Lies and On the Ineffable Name—that are antisemitic. His open animus toward the Jews at the end of his life has made Luther one of the most notorious purveyors of Christian antisemitism.

“Luther is to me both hero and anti-hero; both liberator and oppressor,” says Howard, an Anglican pastor and a Jewish believer in Jesus. “Spiritually speaking, he has been my teacher, but in relation to my family he has acted as persecutor.”

What is “blood libel”?

As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains, “blood libel” refers to a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians—especially Christian children—to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread).

In the 12th century a myth began to circulate that each year, Jewish leaders around the world met to choose a country and a town from which a Christian would be apprehended and murdered. This myth persisted and expanded throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. As ADL notes:

When a Christian child went missing, it was not uncommon for local Jews to be blamed. Even when there was no evidence that any Jew had anything to do with the missing child, Jews were tortured until they confessed to heinous crimes. Some Christians believed that the four cups of wine that Jews drink at the Passover Seder celebrations were actually blood, or that Jews mixed blood into hamantaschen, sweet pastries eaten on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Others claimed that Jews used Christian blood as a medicine or even as an aphrodisiac. Scholars have documented about 100 blood libels that took place from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. Many of them resulted in massacres of Jews.

What can Christians do about antisemitism?

While we may not be able to directly stop the violence and harassment ourselves, Christians can, as a community of believers, calm some of the concerns of Jewish Americans by showing we are in solidarity with them.

We can say, as the Southern Baptist Convention did in 2003, that we “denounce all forms of anti-Semitism as contrary to the teachings of our Messiah and an assault on the revelation of Holy Scripture” and that “we affirm to Jewish people around the world that we stand with them against any harassment that violates our historic commitments to religious liberty and human dignity.” We can send them the message that we Americans who worship the King of the Jews will no longer tolerate antisemitism in our country.

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