The history of antisemitism

November 14, 2023

Antisemitic crimes are at an all-time high in American culture, and antisemitic remarks permeate social discourse with an unfortunate frequency. Further, the Israel-Hamas war has brought the issue to the forefront of conversation. In attempting to offer a defense of Hamas’ actions in Israel, groups like the Harvard Palestinian Solidarity Group use rhetoric and language that is antisemitic. These shocking sentiments are not formed in a vacuum. Particularly within the American context, they originate within an unfortunate history of antisemitism. Throughout my studies in the Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Society for Professional Ethics, I learned how these actions and remarks are intertwined and intimately connected to the evolution of antisemitism in America. 

Antisemitism historically 

The roots of antisemitism begin long before the Holocaust or attacks against synagogues in America. For example, in Matthew 27:25, the Jews said “his blood be on us, and on our children,” when Pilate declared himself innocent of the death of Jesus. Commonly known as the “blood curse,” some early Christians used this verse to justify the claim that Jesus’ death was the responsibility of Jews, not the Roman Empire which organized his arrest, trial, and execution. The early Catholic Church officially taught this in its doctrine, elevating what had been a largely grassroots belief to be a sentiment shared on a large scale.

Antisemitism was not limited to the early Church, or even the Catholic Church. Later in life, Martin Luther, the architect of the Protestant Reformation, frequently attacked Jewish individuals because he was angered by their refusal to convert. In response to his frustrations with the Jewish people, Luther advocated for the burning of synagogues as well as the pillaging and destruction of their homes. 

Attacks on Jews in Europe were not even always religious. Various groups from the Greco-Roman period up to the Nazis in the 20th century blamed the Jews for the intentional spread of disease. Because Jewish people were not sick as frequently and lived longer, they were blamed for causing or spreading diseases. In reality, their daily practices of mikveh (bathing regularly for religious reasons) likely helped prevent sickness among their community. 

Additionally, a new theory began to percolate at the turn of the 20th century: the Jewish people were working together to assume power and control the world. Supposedly, they would do so through spending the money they had amassed to buy off unassuming and kind Christians. Propagated through the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a fake document containing this secret plan—this view has continued to achieve mass acceptance.

Antisemitism in America

The publication of The Protocols helped increase antisemitic sentiment in the United States. Before The Protocols, antisemitic ideology in America existed, as in the lynching of Leo Frank or the rise of antisemitic remarks during the Civil War, but they were less prominent than other racial biases. 

In 1920, Henry Ford, the car manufacturer and known antisemitic, began a four-year-long tirade against the Jewish people in his weekly newspaper. By 1924, his conspiracy-laced publications had reached an audience of more than 700,000 people, earning the praise of perhaps the most notable antisemitic, Adolf Hitler. Beyond Ford, Father Charles Coughlin, a popular Catholic priest with a radio show that reached 15 million listeners each week, spewed antisemitic theology and theories for his listeners to ingest. On the eve of the Holocaust and World War II, in part thanks to people like Ford and Coughlin, antisemitism was socially acceptable. 

As America entered WWII, notions of antisemitism only increased on the home front. Coughlin began and operated a periodical laced with antisemitic writings that reached a readership of over one million between 1940 and 1942. Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator, asserted to millions of Americans that the control by the Jewish people of “our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government” was one of the largest threats Americans faced. 

Based on the regular and prolific antisemitism Americans encountered on a daily basis, it should be unsurprising that a 1939 poll noted that more than 60% of Americans did not believe that the Jewish people should be treated equally to every other race. Congress, mirroring the will of the people, crafted legislation that reflected this attitude. Rather than opening its immigration numbers to allow persecuted Jewish people to flee the Holocaust, America kept its doors shut

After WWII, antisemitic statements and attacks began to subside, in part because of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s which extended civil rights to Jewish Americans as well as African Americans. Still, antisemitism lingered in certain parts of American culture, as the creation and persistence of the American Nazi Party attests. However, the strides society took in the acceptance and embrace of the equality of Jewish people are to be welcomed. 

Rates of antisemitic crimes and violence have generally trended down, according to statistics released by the FBI which began tracking them in the late 1970s, but this trend was broken in the mid-2010s:

These crimes are not abstract statistics. They affect real communities and people. For example, the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre claimed 11 lives. The same is true for the mass shooting that happened at the JC Kosher Supermarket in New Jersey, where two assailants killed three people and wounded another three before being stopped by the police. And in recent days, threats of violence and intimidation against Jewish people because of the Israel-Hamas war have increased. Recent violence highlights that there is still much work left to be done in rooting out the evil of antisemitism. 

How should Christians respond?  

While we can grasp the grim reality of how antisemitic remarks developed, what should Christians do when they hear or see malice toward the Jewish people? Jordan Wooten wrote an explainer about the state of antisemitism in America today and addressed practical steps Christians can take to combat antisemitism within the culture. In addition to his suggestions, Christians can push against antisemitism in two ways:

1. The Christian must contend for the dignity of Jewish peoples based on the doctrine of the imago Dei. Genesis 1:21 states that God made man and woman in his image. The same doctrine that animates our advocacy on behalf of the unborn should guide our advocacy on behalf of our Jewish neighbors. Both are made in the image of God, and we should prevent violence against either. 

2. The Christian must contend for the free practice of Judaism within the public square. While religious freedom is not exclusively Christian, it is a Southern Baptist particular. When many attacks on our Jewish neighbors are rooted in attacks on their faith, Southern Baptists should be compelled to speak up and defend their right to worship freely. This will include a renewed commitment to security and protection of Jewish people in the face of violence against places of religious worship, but also a rejection of religious ideologies that try to erase or stamp out Judaism, which is an adoption of the spirit of Satan who has repeatedly attempted to eradicate the Jewish people.

A comprehensive biblical ethic does not allow us to stop at just knowing about injustice, but requires that we take action to end it where possible. Scripture demands that we do more than profess belief; we must act on those beliefs and do the good works that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:8-10). As Christians, we must commit ourselves to not only knowing the history of antisemitism, but working to remove it from society. As Corrie Ten Boom wrote in The Hiding Place regarding clear and aggressive antisemitism, “silence is consent.” May we not let not her statement indict us today. 

Jackson McNeece

Jackson McNeece is a Master of Divinity student from Oklahoma City, OK. In May of 2020, Jackson graduated from Baylor University with a degree in Medical Humanities. Throughout his studies at Baylor, he developed an intense curiosity for medical ethics, particularly within a health care setting. While studying at Duke … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24