Article Sep 26, 2016

Six reasons why Christians should reject anti-Semitism

The vote in was 418 to zero in the U.S. House of Representatives. Last year, in an age of hyperpolarized American politics, what could possibly have attracted this kind of bipartisan agreement? Almost 70 years after the Nuremberg trials—which, in part, adjudicated the Holocaust and other atrocities—a House resolution declared “anti-Semitic rhetoric and acts, including violent attacks on people and places of faith, have increased in frequency, variety, and severity in many countries in Europe.”

A survey by the Pew Forum reported harassment of Jews worldwide reached a seven-year high in 2013. Murderous attacks in recent years include shootings at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, the Jewish Museum of Belgium, and a kosher supermarket in Paris. Thus, it may not come as a surprise that many Jews are reconsidering their presence in Europe.

In a survey of almost 6,000 self-identified Jews across eight nations of the European Union, this question was asked, “In the past five years, have you considered emigrating from [this country] because you don’t feel safe living there as a Jew?” The average response across the European Union was 29 percent answering yes. In France and Hungary, respectively, 46 percent and 48 percent said they had considered emigrating in the face of their anti-Semitic experiences.

Ira Forman serves as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. Department of State. Mr. Forman says there is a “shocking” complexity to anti-Semitism around the globe and that it reveals itself in multiple forms. There is the “classic” xenophobic/nationalist anti-Semitism; there is a kind of leftist variety that is sometimes evident in anti-globalization, anti-colonial movements. Of course there is the anti-Semitism often on seen in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, among others. And there is a populist anti-Semitism evident in some soccer hooliganism. According to Forman’s observations all four forms are evident, at some level in all European nations.

Lest we think this is only a European problem, violent anti-Semitic assaults in the U.S. saw an increase of over 50 percent in 2015. Anti-Semitic incidents on American college campuses alone doubled in 2015. Those numbers eclipse 2014, which was already a disturbingly high year for such incidents. That was the year the FBI reported that 56 percent of all anti-religious hate crimes were anti-Semitic in nature, though Jews make up a mere 1.8 percent of the population. That year also included the murder of three people by a white-supremacist gunman who opened fire at two Jewish institutions in Kansas, a day before Passover.

We might also be tempted to view anti-Semitism as a problem only for Jews. But a theologically diverse roster of witnesses tells a different story. Protestants joined friends in Catholic and Islamic communities to denounce anti-Semitism. As we’ll soon see, anti-Semitism is a problem for every person of every faith and of no faith. Anti-Semitism is an enemy of peaceful pluralism and of civil democracy around the world.

Six observations follow about anti-Semitism that give ample reasons for American Christians to vocally reject anti-Semitism wherever it may be found, be it in their own communities or as a factor in U.S. foreign policy.

1. Anti-Semitism is hatred of the Jewish people

A human rights agency of the European Union once attempted to craft a working definition of anti-Semitism:

“[Anti-Semitism] is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”[1]

This working definition was later pulled, possibly due political pressure and accusations that it limited critique of the state of Israel. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of State continue to cite this definition on its own fact sheet. Though we may continue to quibble with a definition that will sustain global agreement, the exercise remains worthwhile in identifying what we are and are not discussing.

In honing a definition, we can rule out what we are not talking about. We are not talking about critiquing policies of Israel’s government. As people who affirm free speech and democratic government, we can affirm that disagreements with and criticism of particular policies of a sovereign nation are fair game. Thus, one can critique a policy decision of the nation of Israel without being anti-Semitic. This is not what we speak of when we speak of anti-Semitism. Further, we can recognize that a definition of anti-Semitism does not require overt calls for genocide or other mass atrocities. After all, expressions of hatred occur at a personal or community level and need not invoke mass terror to be rooted in a hatred of the Jews.

With a rough definition and these parameters in hand, we can consider why Christians—particularly those of us in the United States and in foreign policy circles—have an interest in actively denouncing anti-Semitic rhetoric and actors.

2. Anti-Semitism is contrary to Imago Dei

As confessing Christians, we learn from the very beginning of the biblical narrative that anti-Semitism is contrary to the biblical teachings of the Imago Dei. Specifically, Genesis 1:27 tells us, “God created man in His own image, He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.” “In the image of God.” This is a distinction given only to humanity amidst a vast and diverse creation. It is not merely that humans are at the top of a creation hierarchy. It is that we are in a different category altogether.

To speak, therefore, of any fellow human being as equivalent to—or lesser than—an animal is anti-human and, ultimately, unbiblical. Yet this is exactly what we find in anti-Semitism: the dehumanizing of human beings. Along with other forms of racism and xenophobia, anti-Semitism dehumanizes a very special member of God’s creation, a creature who bears the Imago Dei.

3. Anti-Semitism is an indicator of ethnic and religious intolerance

Where anti-Semitism is found, we also find intolerance of and persecution of other ethnic and religious groups. Anti-Semitic attitudes, rhetoric and actions mark the least free and most oppressive societies on our globe. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power observed that anti-Semitism “is often the canary in the coal mine for the degradation of human rights more broadly. When the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Jews are repressed, the rights and freedoms of other minorities and other sectors are often not far behind.”

An account by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, (USCIRF) shows clear evidence anti-Semitism often corresponds with persecution and targeting of other minority groups. For example:

  • In Egypt, where the media and government authorities permit anti-Semitism to run rampant, we see persecution of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’is, among others.
  • In Iran, where leaders have a history of denying the Holocaust, and calling for the destruction of the state of Israel, we witness imprisonment and torture of converts to Christianity, and other faiths like Baha'i and minority expressions of the Muslim faith.
  • Where anti-Semitism persists in Belarus, other minority faiths are denied registration and Baptist churches are raided by the government.[2]

That is but a glimpse of the data, but the point is clear. Where anti-Semitism remains unchecked, persecution of other ethnic and religious groups also persists. Anti-Semitism is a problem for all human beings, not just Jews. It warns of other existing or future human rights abuses. Anti-Semitism is a worldview of thugs and despots.

4. Anti-Semitism is contrary to the behavior of a civilized people

Anti-Semitism is contrary to the behavior of a civilized people. By any measure, the countries mentioned above are not healthy, thriving societies. Instead, their governments aggressively antagonize and persecute their own citizens. Their governments collude with non-state actors to blame the Jewish people for their own self-imposed poverty, violence, and instability. Or, the government looks the other way and permits social hostilities to abuse Jews. A nation marked by rampant anti-Semitism is not a country entitled to normalized relations with the United States. Those complicit in either propagating or excusing anti-Semitism are no friends of freedom and, therefore, no friends of the United States of America.

5. Anti-Semitism is contrary to God’s gifts of freedom of thought and religion

Jewish identity is not limited to religious expression, of course. But to the extent religious expression is part of what it means to be Jewish, hatred of the Jews qualifies as hatred of a religious people and their beliefs. Thus, anti-Semitism is contrary to God’s gift[3] of freedom of thought and religion. God created humans as autonomous creatures. His instructions in the Garden gave us the responsibility of choosing our eternal allegiance. Even God did not pre-program us to blindly believe in and worship him. If the Creator granted individuals with a responsibility and freedom for belief, certainly it is wholly inappropriate for another human or temporal institution to persecute another on the basis of religious belief.

6. A lesson from history

Protestant Christianity learned our lesson on anti-Semitism the hard way in the 20th Century. As historian Timothy George accounts, aside from the Barmen Declaration of 1934 there was little in the way of protest from the organized church in Germany and Europe during the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. Instead, following the Holocaust that slaughtered 6 million Jews, the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Baptist Union of Germany could do nothing but issue statements of remorse, confessing they themselves shared in the guilt through their own “omission and silence.”

Regrettably, our own Convention was not exempt from this guilt. In 1936, Southern Baptist leaders visited Berlin to attend the Baptist World Alliance Congress:

“They met under the banner of the swastika, received greetings from Hitler, and returned to America with glowing reports on the great things happening in Germany. They specifically minimized the totalitarianism and glaring anti-Semitism which was obvious even in 1936.”[4]

Those who either fostered or ignored anti-Semitic attitudes were not merely on the wrong side of history. They were, as Russell Moore might put it, on the wrong side of Christ. Millions of our fellow human beings paid for our indifferent attitudes with their lives. Therefore, Southern Baptists have since resolved to no longer stand idly by when anti-Semitism rears its evil head. As we continue to witness new and virulent forms of anti-Semitism here and around the globe, Southern Baptists will–with God’s grace, and hopefully the broad spectrum of evangelical Christianity–stand up and yell, “stop” on behalf of Jewish people.

Notwithstanding the above dark history, Southern Baptists have otherwise commonly expressed solidarity with either the Jewish people or the state of Israel for nearly 100 years. A 1919 resolution called on the U.S. government to provide relief for displaced Jews. A resolution in 1947 called for the U.S. to admit 400,000 displaced Europeans in the aftermath of World War II, including Jewish populations. In this spirit, the following are excerpts from the Southern Baptist Convention’s most recent Resolution On Anti-Semitism, worth quoting at length:

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists deplore all forms of hatred or bigotry toward any person or people group; and

WHEREAS, Scripture speaks of God’s love for the Jewish people, through whom God has blessed the world with His Word and with His Messiah, our Lord Jesus; and

WHEREAS, There is a rising tide of anti-Semitism across the globe, which manifests itself in despicable acts of violence and harassment against the Jewish people; and ...

WHEREAS, Populist expressions of anti-Semitism are becoming widespread in some     European countries to a degree that has not been seen since World War II; and

WHEREAS, The bloody history of the twentieth century reminds us of the unspeakably evil legacy of anti-Semitism; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention… denounce all forms of anti-Semitism as contrary to the teachings of our Messiah and an assault on the revelation of Holy Scripture; and be it further

RESOLVED, 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; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we call on governmental and religious leaders across the world to stand against all forms of bigotry, hatred, or persecution.

Christians of course disagree with our Jewish friends a great deal on issues of theology, including the nature of eternal salvation and the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet we share status as creatures formed in the image of God. We share a great deal in our understandings of human flourishing, morality and ethics. We have shared in persecution for conscience sake. Domestically, Christian and Jewish parents increasingly share in the pressures of educating our children: the pervasiveness of the sexual revolution in public schools and the rising costs of private religious education.

Today we share our full opposition to anti-Semitism in any and every form. It is not merely a Jewish problem. It is a threat to all human beings, of any faith or no faith, in every corner of the globe.