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Antisemitism, politics and the church

With violence against Jews on the rise, Christians should untangle the antisemitism that is deeply rooted in the history of the church, writes Elana Keppel Levy.

About six years ago, I was walking home in the courtyard leading to my apartment. I looked to the right and my stomach seized. There, on a short brick wall, was a swastika spray painted in white, not 15 feet from the apartment. My first and last names are Jewish since my father is Jewish. My features are typical for Ashkenazi Jews. Was this directed at me? Was I in danger? Was it kids playing around with a symbol whose terror they couldn’t begin to understand? I had no way of knowing.

A few days later, I went to an interfaith clergy luncheon hosted at a local temple. I told the story with some anxiety and nervous energy. Someone made a dismissive comment — of course, I wasn’t in real danger. Within moments almost the whole room was laughing. It wasn’t a threat to them; it wasn’t real to them; it didn’t matter. My only solace was my spouse beside me and a momentary shared glance with the rabbi.

Hate speech and violence against Jews are on the rise. Prominent figures with lofty platforms are casually normalizing antisemitic speech. It’s time for us to stop laughing. So many political figures trade on their Christian faith, and more and more are peppering in antisemitic nods. This hatred, this prejudice is deeply rooted in the history and teachings of the church. I have encountered a lot of people in the church who are broadly unaware of the historic persecution of the Jews – the ghettos, the inquisition, the pogroms – but that ignorance does not change the historical reality. Neither does it undo the impact of so much generational trauma.

What we think we know about Judaism often comes from interpretive assumptions made by our preachers and teachers that were never based on historical research.

One of the most politically powerful things that we can do is to learn more about the Jewish faith so that we can preach and teach more honestly. What we think we know about Judaism often comes from interpretive assumptions made by our preachers and teachers that were never based on historical research. For example, the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan are often considered to have passed by the suffering man because they were more concerned about ritual purification than human life. Yet, the Scripture explicitly states that they were going down from Jerusalem (i.e. away from it). They had no need to be ritually pure. Nowhere is ritual purity mentioned in the passage. Still, that reading is part of our understanding.

Our theological assumptions and our vocabulary can lead us to inaccurate and bigoted stances. For example, we often decry certain theologies as “legalistic” or “pharisaic.” Both terms stem from anti-Jewish Christian beliefs. The notion that Judaism consisted of mindless obedience to meaningless minutiae and Christ came to save us from that is an inaccurate and offensive portrayal of Judaism. The notion that “the Law” is an impossible burden and meaningless for Christians is absurd. “Torah,” translated law, simply means “teaching.” This teaching is made up of decrees, covenants and instruction. It was because of steadfast love and grace that God cared enough about us to teach us. Deuteronomy 30:11-14 reminds us that it is possible for us to do what God commands. And the Hebrew Bible is filled with grace and miracles. Deuteronomy 7:7-9 teaches us that God chose our Jewish cousins in faith — not because they were a great and powerful nation, but because God is loving.

Another common mistake that Christian teachers make is to assume that all Jews, then and now, believe the same thing. In the Bible itself, we see the range of viewpoints changing over time. In the Gospels, Jesus spends most of his time preaching and ministering to Jews. In each encounter, we find a wide variety of reactions to Jesus (for, against, and indifferent). If you want to know what Jewish practice and belief was in the time of Christ or what it is now — go and ask. Learn and share what you have learned.

It often happens that Christian preachers and teachers want to elevate Jesus. To do this, they cast Jews as a negative foil to him. For example, they might essentially say, “it’s profound that Jesus was so pro-woman because Jews were so anti-woman.” Or perhaps, “Jesus is incredible for engaging those on the margins because Jews hated those outside the center.” This habit can be tricky to get away from, but it is important to realize that these claims are often made without reference to actual historical data.

As the mainline church has moved away from explicitly endorsing antisemitic interpretations of Scripture, many are unaware of the church’s long history of weaponizing New Testament scripture against Jews. For example, in Matthew 27:25, a Jewish crowd responds to Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children.” In John 8:44a, Jesus tells the Jews he is debating, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, Paul describes, “the Jews,” as those, “who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone.” Do we ever ask ourselves if there might be antisemitism in the Scripture itself? If no, how do we explain these verses? If yes, how do we read the Bible as a whole to respond to it? It’s difficult to ask these questions. We may prefer to be ignorant about these verses, but those fomenting antisemitism are paying attention to them. If we would stand against antisemitism, it is our responsibility to study these verses; to wrestle with them; to discuss them; to challenge them.

This is not a problem of the left or the right; it’s not a problem of a single denomination. It takes work to unlearn our basic assumptions and gain a deeper understanding of Jewish faith and practice.

This is not a problem of the left or the right; it’s not a problem of a single denomination. It takes work to unlearn our basic assumptions and gain a deeper understanding of Jewish faith and practice. I’ll tell you — it’s worth it. Not only can we speak nearer to the truth in our teaching, but we can uplift our Jewish family in faith and challenge the hate and danger that is growing. Many forms of hate are gaining power and it is our calling as followers of Jesus to do what we can to stand strong against them.

If you want to learn more about first-century Palestinian Judaism (i.e. Second Temple Judaism), I recommend works by Amy-Jill Levine, Shaye J.D. Cohen and E.P. Sanders.

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