Anti-Semitism is not only alive and well, but increasing in unlikely places—Europe, the Middle East, and even China and Africa. You might think Europe and the Middle East are places where anti-Semitism should be expected. But not if you know their history.
If you take a closer look at European anti-Semitism, you will conclude, as did Alain Finkielkraut, “Hitler…has dishonored anti-Semitism.”1 Whereas anti-Semitism used to be found in the fabric of European society, after the Shoah the last vestiges of anti-Semitism were more and more excluded from public life. However, according to European Union demographics, anti-Semitism has increased sharply since 2003.2
The Middle East has no long-standing history of anti-Semitism, as any casual perusal of Arab-Jewish, Turkish-Jewish or North African-Jewish history demonstrates. Jews have often flourished under Moorish or near-Eastern rule. How is it then that these countries are exploding with anti-Semitic sentiment in the educational systems, in the idiomatic vocabulary and as regular discourse in political platforms and media?
Anti-Semitism might seem a far-removed issue whose origin and reason eludes you. Studying anti-Semitism reveals a history closely associated to your Christian heritage and theological development. Moreover, anti-Semitism is and should be a concern for Christians.
Antagonism in Antiquity
Anti-Semitism threatens the foundations of the Christian faith and undermines the saving message of the gospel.* This is why anti-Semitism is not merely a Jewish issue, nor is it something that should concern non-Jews simply out of a sense of humanity or compassion. Rather, it is something that threatens the spiritual and material well-being of all people. Let me share some examples of anti-Semitism throughout history—some unique and others recurrent—that will help uncover the ulterior motive behind the anti-Semitic slur.
There are two obscure but compelling passages that illustrate this point in antiquity, before the Common Era.
As a theocentric ethnicity, Jewish monotheism was in opposition to the pantheon of Roman gods. The very existence of the Jewish people was a counter-cultural story that there are not many gods, but only one. Ancient Romans viewed the Jews as threatening the cohesion of Pax Romana and a destabilizing factor in society.3 This set the stage for the later repeated attack, “The problem in the world is the Jews.” Jews were identified publically and financially. The Emperor Vespasian introduced a “Jew tax” that obliged Jewish people to pay an additional tribute. This tribute went specifically to support the Temple of Jupiter. The threat was thus neutralized and the reversal complete. Not only did Fiscus Judaicus undermine and discriminate against Jews, but it also more specifically discriminated against their belief in one God. Through the payment of the tax, Jews who stood for the true God of Israel were obligated to support and uphold pagan rite and ritual. This was an inversion (or perversion) of faith meant to transform the world for good and for God. Here we have a very clear anti-Semitic example undermining not only Israelites, but the faith and the God of Israelites.
The second example is ludicrous considering how far removed our society is from pagan values of antiquity. Tacitus, for example, complains how “sensitive” the Jews are because they consider the murder of a single child—for no matter what reason—as abominable!4 Considering the sanctity of life as is governed by law and societal mores today, it is hard to understand the pagan view. We are just as much removed from the following (albeit less revolting) example.
Not only were the Jews in ancient Egypt called hyoskos (foreigners, those shunned as lepers), but they were also criticized as being a lazy people. In this ancient society that valued slavery and the exploitation of the lower classes in favor of the aggrandizement of Egyptian economy, the Jews were a threat. Why were the Jews considered lazy? Because they insisted on keeping the Sabbath! Resting one day per week was considered a fault in civil responsibility, a detriment to society. 5 Today it is well established that a balanced, flourishing society needs time off to enhance productivity and civil tranquility. The Sabbath rest, a revolutionary concept not valued in modern times until the twentieth century, has transformed our world.
From these first examples, a pattern emerges. Anti-Semitism identifies positive elements for social development in thought, cultural change and spiritual amelioration and then perverts it. It convinces ignorant masses that that source of the development is a threat and an ill rather than a blessing. This is just a foretaste of what is to come in the Christian or Common Era.
The Blood Libel
Nothing is more distasteful or incendiary among anti-Semitic deliria as the infamous “blood libel.” The blood libel is the phantasmagorical and superstitious accusation that Jews take blood from the child of a non-Jew (or Christian) child and mix into the meal used to make matzah** for the Passover. This invention was used throughout the Middle Ages to stir up persecutions and pogroms and is echoed in the Middle East today. One can still visit Lincoln Cathedral in Great Britain and discover the final resting place of Little Saint John Hugh, the alleged subject of such treatment in the 1200s.
When first-century Jewish believers in Jesus celebrated the Passover, they saw the matzah not only as “the bread of affliction our ancestors ate…” (as stated in the Haggadah), but also as the apogee of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus celebrated the seder and said “This matzah is my body which is broken for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24). Jewish believers saw the sacrifice of the Passover lamb as a symbol of the redemption in Jesus’ death and resurrection that sets all people free. 6
The blood libel transformed a ceremony that has given hope for generations, to Jews and non-Jews alike, into a macabre motivation to bring suffering to Jewish people from whom that hope has come.
Deicide and the Gospel
This naturally leads to the ultimate anti-Semitic accusation, one that has been bandied about by Christian and non-Christian alike: the appellation “deicide-people,” as coined in the Catholic evening prayer on Good Friday. Or, as many school children have heard it, “Christ-killers.”
This accusation has caused the Jewish people so much tsuris throughout the years. The famous Rabbi Josel of Rosheim, a Jew of Alsatian origin, tried procuring safe passage for Jews in Saxony. He appealed to Martin Luther. Luther had much influence at the time with the German princes of Protestant lands. Luther responded to Rosheim, “I am not so naïve as to fall into your trap. Just as you killed the Lord Jesus Christ, I know you will use this to bring destruction upon Christians.”7 Luther’s contribution to Christianity and to free religious thought is incontrovertible. While his early writings were appreciative of the Jewish people and their destiny in God’s plan, lamentably his later anti-Semitic writings undermine the foundation upon which the Reformation began: the gospel message.
Jesus said, “ For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18)
Jesus declared in no uncertain terms that he knowingly gave his life. According to the gospel, Jesus, just as God, is omniscient and omnipotent (knows all and can do all). If we are responsible for his death, then the plan of Jesus’ death does not begin as John Milton would have it in Paradise Lost:
Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly dye8
Milton knew that the Scriptures long foretold of the Messiah, whose life as the Son of God has value in the eyes of God enough to redeem all of mankind from the sins that separated humanity from Him.
If then God and Jesus as the “eternally begotten Son” decided together to give his life for the Jewish people and for all people, and then he was raised from the dead as the gospel claims, how is it possible for the Jews to be responsible? Unless the gospel is somehow wrong. If the anti-Semite is right, then Jesus’ death would be just another senseless and tragic death, one among thousands of Jews crucified by the Roman Empire’s infamously cruel punitive system.9
According to the Bible, Christ’s death and resurrection were divinely inspired. This is repeated by the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament. Paul, a first-century follower of Jesus, insists on the scriptural basis for the redemption of the world through Jesus’ death and resurrection: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Indignation should be the reaction of every Christian who hears of any anti-Semitism—but the lie of “Christ killer” above all, because in this is the subversion of everything that makes anyone a Christian. Or to put it simply, as did Susan Perlman in her open letter to Mel Gibson, “How can anyone be blamed for the death of a person who is in fact alive?”10
The Passover Haggadah records an ancient song, “V’hi She’amda.”11 This song speaks of the longstanding divine pledge that despite every attempt in every generation to destroy the Jewish people, God will sustain them. Jewish tradition therefore recognizes the spiritual aspect of anti-Semitism. Ruth Gottlieb, resistance fighter, partisan and Auschwitz survivor, has said that anti-Semitism comes from Satan.12 If this is so, then there is a spiritual war going on over the well-being of the Jewish people, with Satan seeking to thwart God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
This is why every anti-Semitic slur is the exact opposite of the truth. Luther said, “The scourge on the world is the Jews”13 This oft-repeated epithet is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ affirmation of the Jewish people. To a Samaritan woman who grew up in a culture of Jew hatred, Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
If you love Jesus, you will love the Jews. If you care about the salvation of the world, you will defend your local Jewish community. Please speak out against anti-Semitism in public forums, write letters in support of the local synagogue and, most importantly, pray for the salvation of the Jewish people and all people.
*Important to the thesis of this article and for those of you who do not identify as Christians or understand what is meant by the “message of the gospel,” here is an abstract: Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and of his own free will died in place of those guilty of sin. God approved this sacrifice and raised Jesus from the dead according to the Torah. All those who believe in this and ask God to forgive them in Jesus’ name will have their life wrapped up in eternity with God.
**Matzah is the Hebrew word for unleavened bread.
- Alain Finkielkraut, Au nom de l’Autre (Paris, France: Editions Gallimard, 2003), p. 1.
- There are many reports concerning the rise of anti-Semitism across European Union member states. For the most recent, see ECRII. FRA, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Discrimination and Hate Crime against Jews in EU Member States (Luxemburg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2013).
- Ernest L. Abel, The Roots of Anti-Semitism (London, England: Associated University Presses, 1975), pp. 91-96.
- Leon Poliakov, History of Anti-Semitism: I (Paris, France: Calmann-Lévy, 1981), p. 21.
- Jules Isaac, Genèse de l’Anti-Sémitisme, (Paris, France: Calmann-Lévy, 1956), p. 81. Also a similar accusation in Roman times by Senecus, who said that the Sabbath is a waste of a seventh of one’s life, p.111.
- At different episodes in Roman history, the Jewish people were free to observe their own religion as a religio licita. However, non-Jews were required to observe Roman rites and rituals. When Jewish believers brought non-Jews to faith in Jesus, these “righteous gentiles” observed the feasts alongside those Jewish believers in Jesus, thus incurring the wrath of the empire and giving anti-Semites full release of their hate. See Abel, op. cit., p. 140.
- Rough translation of Luther’s correspondence on display in the Lutheran Church, Leoben, Austria.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III, vv. 236-240.
- Many Jews were crucified by the Romans—at one point as many as 2,000 at once. See Abel and Poliakov, op. cit.
- Susan Perlman, “An Open Letter to Mel Gibson from a Jew for Jesus.”
- Haggadah, “V’hi She’amda.”
- For more on Ruth Gottlieb, see the DVD, Ruth Gottlieb: A Poignant Life.
- Celebrated Israeli author and Holocaust survivor, Aharon Appelfeld (who in this person’s opinion is probably the greatest writer in the last century), has stated that it is folly to try to understand the Shoah in sociological, political or even theological terms. He goes so far as to say that “Satan in person” fell upon the Jewish people. Aharon Appelfeld, Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth (Fromm International Publishers, New York, 1994), p. 10.
- Rough translation of Luther’s correspondence on display in the Lutheran Church, Leoben, Austria.