CNEWA Connections: Confronting the Sin of Anti-Semitism

An ancient evil persists today

The world is experiencing a frightening outbreak of anti-Semitism. However, it has taken an alarmingly violent form in the United States. While there has been an increase in anti-Semitic acts in Europe, these are often incidences of desecrations. In the United States, on the other hand, almost every week the news shows footage of a (usually Hasidic/Ultra-Orthodox/Haredi) Jew being attacked or “sucker punched” on the street for no reason whatever other than their faith. Not even women, children and the elderly are spared.

And it has become deadly.

On 27 October 2018, a terrorist entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 worshipers and wounded six others. On 11 December 2019, a kosher delicatessen in Jersey City, New Jersey, was attacked and four people were killed. Most recently there was a domestic terrorist attack on 28 December in Monsey, New York, a suburb of New York City. The attacker entered the house of a Hasidic rabbi, where Jews had gathered to celebrate Hanukkah, and used a machete to attack and stab five people, two of whom are in critical condition.

Horrifying as these attacks are, they are not isolated instances. Anti-Semitic violence has reared its ugly head in many countries in Western Europe where synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. In the United States, there was a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidences in 2017 and in New York City, a city with a large Jewish population and noted for its tolerance, the increase has been 21 percent in 2019.

Of course, each of these attacks has evoked responses from the overall community and from religious leaders. What has struck me about so many of the responses is their “appropriateness.” While not quite at the level of the increasingly hollow-sounding promise of “thoughts and prayers,” there is an odd lack of outrage and passion in the responses. Anti-Semitism is condemned, “tolerance” and vigilance is called for and the appropriate meetings and demonstrations held. Given the history of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany fewer than two generations ago, such seeming lack of urgency is unsettling.

Historically, we Christians are at our best when we recognize when we are at our worst. That recognition is the basis for repentance, a profoundly Christian virtue. It occurred to me the response to anti-Semitism may be uniquely difficult for us Christians. Since Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, every single pope has worked not only to improve relations between Christians and Jews, but also to overcome a tragic past. The decree “Nostra Aetate” of Vatican II “deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, levelled at any time and from any source against Jews” (Par. 4). Pope John Paul II went further, calling anti-Semitism a sin.

That may be the key to my discomfort with the responses to anti-Semitic violence. They do not name anti-Semitism for what it is: a sin. Perhaps therein lies a further explanation. The Catholic Church has struggled to confront anti-Semitism since the Holocaust. As the Catholic Church engaged in dialogue with Jews, we recognized that while the Holocaust was a peculiarly Nazi phenomenon, Christians could not simply wash our hands of the atrocity and blame it solely on “Nazi paganism.” Too many Christians collaborated with the Nazis; too many Christian and Catholic leaders were silent. Those courageous Christians who resisted, often at the cost of their lives, were rare and often unsupported or even condemned by their own local churches. Popes from John XXII on have wrestled with the church’s own history of anti-Semitism and showed great moral courage in dealing with it. Thus, in condemning anti-Semitism as a sin, we have to admit that to some extent it is our sin. That is a very painful thing do. We have to admit that anti-Semitism is not something “out there.” It is in our midst, even in our congregations.

Perhaps that makes things a bit more understandable, although still not justified. The casual observer might believe that, when anti-Semitism is treated merely as something deplorable, unpleasant and embarrassing — but one of many deplorable, unpleasant and embarrassing things that stalk our planet — “it doesn’t really touch me.”

To respond to anti-Semitism demands some very traditional Christian values: honest, even painful, examination of conscience; confession and recognition of guilt; and purpose of amendment — that is, not merely the decision to deplore the sin, but also to eradicate it. It is admittedly very painful to recognize that anti-Semitism does have deep roots in Christian history and theology. The Holy See and other churches such as the Lutherans have recognized this painful fact and have acted courageously for decades to overcome it. Whether the courage and honesty of the Holy See has reached the local and congregational level is another question.

It is also a challenge we can no longer ignore.

Eradicating anti-Semitism is not merely an intellectual endeavor. Indeed, it is often a spiritual, cultural and even political struggle. We Christians have to take a stance. Things such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” have to be unmasked for what they really are — vicious forgeries filled with lies. We must be more aware and disapproving of anti-Semitic stereotypes and memes. We need to be more sensitive to anti-Semitic “dog whistles,” i.e. things insiders understand but outsiders do not. When Jews are described or even obliquely referred to as rapacious, seditious, innately unpatriotic, brutal killers, etc., the Christian response, regardless of the source, should be immediate and condemnatory.

Silence is cowardice and is not acceptable.

The message that the popes since John XXIII have preached needs to be recalled and recalled on a pastoral, congregational level. It cannot be said enough: anti-Semitism is a sin. One cannot hate Jews because they are Jews and still consider oneself to be a good Christian or Catholic. There can be no ambiguity here. Christian leaders and preachers must make believers aware that anti-Semitism is unacceptable — unacceptable not because it is deplorable, much less because it is embarrassing. It is unacceptable because it is a sin and a sin against those “descended from the Patriarchs and from [whose] flesh and blood came Christ” (Romans 9:5).

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