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The History of Antisemitism in the Church

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January 31st, 2015
  

The long history of antisemitism in the Church has affected where the Jewish people are today. If antisemitism is the hatred of Jews, how could it exist in the Church at all?

Growing up in a Jewish home, I was sure of two things. That Christians did not like Jews, and that Jesus was not the Messiah… And I knew that the two were intertwined. Why? For many reasons!

Early Christian Antisemitism

The antagonism of early Christian leaders toward Jews and the Jewish religion planted the seeds of antisemitism. As early as 130 AD Justin Martyr and Origen taught hatred against the Jewish people.

A famous example of this seed of Antisemitism can be found among the writings of the Church Father, John Chrysostom (Golden-Mouth). He was the Archbishop of Constantinople (349-ca. 407). His stirring sermons moved many listeners. But when he turned to Jews and Judaism, his mouth was anything but golden.

He vented his ire against members of his own flock, whom he accused of “Judaizing” because they were visiting synagogues. And some were trying to keep the Jewish feasts. Underlying his pastoral concerns was a deep disdain for the Jewish people. He wrote,

Do you not see that you are condemned by the testimony of what Christ and the prophets predicted and which the facts have proved? But why should this surprise me? That is the kind of people you are. From the beginning you have been shameless and obstinate, ready to fight at all times against obvious facts. (Homily V, XII, 1)

That “golden mouth” turned into an open grave in his work, First Homily Against the Jews. He wrote, “The synagogue is worse than a brothel and a drinking shop; it is a den of scoundrels, a temple of demons, the cavern of devils, a criminal assembly of the assassins of Christ… I hate the Jews… It is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.”

The Antisemitic Church of Reformation

This is one example of antisemitism on the part of a “Church Father” – and there is much more! From Origen to Augustine to Luther and Calvin, harsh and negative rhetoric was often used against the Jewish people by Christian leaders.

Martin Luther courageously penned the 95 Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation. However, he had a painful blind spot that ultimately set the stage for millions of people to lose their lives: His hatred toward the Jewish people.

This attitude towards the chosen people reached a high point in his treatise entitled, On the Jews and Their Lies. In it, he called for the burning of Jewish religious texts and more:

“Their private houses must be destroyed and devastated, they could be lodged in stables. Let the magistrates burn their synagogues… Let them be forced to work… We will be compelled to expel them like dogs in order not to expose ourselves to incurring divine wrath and eternal damnation from the Jews and their lies… We are at fault in not slaying them.”

This rabid sentiment gave credence to Nazi ideology and its propagandistic war on the Jews. The Nazis used to promulgate their genocidal incitements with the very same words from Luther’s writings. The predominate silence of the German Church during the Holocaust, a church heavily influenced by Luther, proved to be deadly.

In fact, in Mein Kampf, Hitler asserted that he was merely continuing what Luther started! There is no doubt that Christian antisemitism of church leaders – both Catholic and Protestant – contributed greatly to the Crusades, pogroms and finally to the the Holocaust.

bibles and books beside the western wall

The “Oldest Hatred” went Global

For as long as the Jewish people have existed, antisemitism, the world’s “oldest hatred”, punctuated their history. It comes in different forms: from academic boycotts to cemetery desecration to physical violence. Not to mention Holocaust denial and even murder.

The latest statistics suggest that antisemitism is at the highest level since the Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism started keeping records twenty years ago. Of course, everybody remembers the Toulouse, France massacre that claimed the lives of a rabbi, three students and three soldiers. There are parts of France where Jews do not dare to go out wearing a yarmulke or any visible Jewish symbol.

Antisemitism is also growing in Spain, the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece and Hungary. We have even started to see the rebirth of political antisemitism with Neo-Nazi parties in Greece and Hungary. Europe is rapidly losing its Jewish communities who, for safety reasons, are immigrating to Canada, the United States and, of course, Israel.

Christian Antisemitism in the “Golden Land”

From the late 19th into the early 20th century, approximately three million Jewish people fled persecution in Europe for the United States. Which was known as the Goldina Medina, or “Golden Land.”

The 1986 animated film An American Tail depicts this journey, as Fievel Mouskewitz, a Jewish mouse, and his family flee from ferocious cats in Russia. These cats represent the Cossacks who carried out pogroms, or violent riots, against Jewish villages in Russia and Eastern Europe. The Mouskewitz family believed that living in America would alleviate their problems. But when they arrived, they discovered that cats live here too.

Even so, for the most part, America has treated the Jewish community better than any other nation in history. George Washington established a strong relationship between the United States and its Jewish citizens. Since the first American colonies, the United States has provided a place where the Jewish people have flourished.

Yet while America remains the Goldina Medina, the existence of antissemitism must not be overlooked. Just as the Mouskewitz family discovered “cats” in America, Jewish immigrants to the United States have faced notable instances of prejudice. Typically, these experiences were subtle and less pervasive than in Europe, but at times this hatred has become more overt and venomous.

American Antisemitism before World Wars

The first prominent expression of antisemitism, likely Christian, occurred during the Civil War. General Grant drafted an order expelling the Jewish people from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. Fortunately, President Lincoln quickly revoked this order.

As Jewish immigration to America swelled at the turn of the 20th century, so did incidents of antisemitism. This discrimination led to the exclusion of Jewish people from social clubs, employment, and owning certain real estate.

Around this time, a young Jewish man named Leo Frank moved from Brooklyn to work as an engineer and superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta. In April 1913, Frank faced false accusations of strangling a thirteen-year-old girl at the factory.

During his trial, the people portrayed Frank as part of the northern Jewish aristocracy who perpetually take advantage of the vulnerable and underprivileged. Crowds celebrated his conviction and used his caricature as a means of calling for the reestablishment of the Klu Klux Klan in 1915. An angry mob abducted Frank, hung him, and then beat his body into disfigurement.

As a result, the Jewish community founded the Anti-Defamation League to fight antisemitism.

Antisemitism in Modern Day America

Shortly after World War I, Henry Ford acquired the weekly newspaper The Dearborn Independent, in which he published regular antisemitic rants. For example, he accused Jewish people of instigating the war for profit.

He blamed “German-Jewish bankers” for the war and believed that “the Jew is a threat.” Ford also perpetuated an antisemitic lie called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which outlined a Jewish plan for world domination.

The Great Depression further fueled antisemitism in the Church. Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest, became a prominent voice for this hatred. His weekly radio program with an audience of twelve million accused Jewish bankers of causing both the Depression and the Russian Revolution. He also publicly sympathized with Nazi Germany and Hitler’s policies.

Although instances of antisemitism in America declined in the aftermath of World War II, a few fringe groups still deny the Holocaust. They claim it was a hoax and a Jewish conspiracy. America continues to be refuge for the Jewish people, but hate still exists.

an ally in the shadows

Antisemitic Hatred Around the World

A strong hatred of Jews spread through the Middle East region, as illustrated by the Arab-Israeli conflict of the last 65 years. If it were not for the global rebirth of antisemitism, the world would have become rather immune to the xenophobic agenda of radical Islam in the Middle East. But the weed of hatred is spreading.

Nevertheless, Israel might still be the safest place for Jewish people to live, as the country is always well-prepared to defend its people against the daily threat of terrorism.

Universities all over America are promoting yearly anti-Israel conferences under the banner of “Israeli Apartheid Week” on a myriad of campuses. Other organizations prefer to support the BDS movement (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel.

South America seems to have a growing Jewish community despite existing concerns about antisemitism. Venezuela remains a major problem, where the “oldest hatred” is state-sponsored.

A people of survival must cope with endless questions, stories of survival and tragedies of loss. One wonders how Israel has outlasted an endless parade of tyrants and despots, from ancient Haman to the modern-day Hamas.

Does the Bible warn of Christian Antisemitism?

The Psalmist described it all long ago. “They have taken crafty counsel against Your people, and consulted together against Your sheltered ones. They have said, ‘Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.'” (Psalm 83:3-4 – see also Psalm 74:8).

Behind these sinister acts is the hand of ungodly forces. An ancient rabbi, the Apostle Paul, warns us: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood. But against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Here is the ultimate tragedy of Israel’s persecution. Through Abraham’s descendants, God continues to fulfill His first covenant promise with humanity. “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). To attempt to destroy God’s people is to attack the promise of God’s covenant faithfulness.

I have read many explanations for the survival of the Jewish people. That includes devotion to the Torah and brotherhood through the blood of Abraham. But if spiritual powers are against us, only One can save us. God has called Israel to be a light to the nations, and He will not let the light go out.

One after another, the enemies of Israel end up in history’s “Where are they now?” file. Still, the tragedy of antisemitism continues today. Hateful voices become more strident throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and even South America. Antisemitism threatens the Jews once again in the streets and synagogues everywhere.

The Church Fighting Antisemitism

What will we do today with our voice and our faith? The Jewish community needs believers in Messiah to lovingly stand with them. The Church has a role to play against Antisemitism. And to oppose anti-Jewish ideology wherever it rears its head.

Today, followers of Yeshua have a unique opportunity to reach out to the Jewish community wherever they are. We need to express Messiah’s love and compassion for the “apple of His eye” (Zechariah 2:8).

People who love, support, and defend the Jewish people can replace the antisemitic antagonists and indifferent bystanders of yesteryear. As one of the villagers said in Le Chambon, France, where the whole town saved over 5,000 Jews during World War II: “It was the most natural thing to do.”

Loving Israel and the Jewish people should be the most natural thing to do for Christian believers who understand the biblical mandate of Genesis 12:3.

Blessing the Jewish people [with the Gospel] might become increasingly challenging. Yet, genuine disciples of Yeshua are among the few remaining friends of Israel in a world of many foes. As such, we have no choice but to combat antisemitism.

Transform Lives in Israel

Are you wanting to help break the cycle of Antisemitism in the Church? One way to do that is to actively contribute to what God is doing in Israel today, through His Body.

The Tribe is a passionate and faithful group of monthly donors on a mission to transform lives in Israel through the love of Jesus. Join The Tribe today: www.firmisrael.org/thetribe

Mitch Glaser
MITCH GLASER (Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary, M.Div., Talbot Theological Seminary) serves as president of Chosen People Ministries with his wife, Zhava, who is their director of publications. Together they work to share Jesus with Jewish people, not only in New York City, but around the world. They are co-author of The Fall Feasts of Israel. The Glasers reside in Brooklyn, New York with their two daughters.
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