The History of Anti-Semitism and Christianity

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January 31st, 2015
Anti-Semitism / By

The primary reason Jewish people today will not easily consider the possibility that Jesus is the Messiah is because of the historically negative relationship Jewish people have had with Christianity. Growing up in a Jewish home, I was sure of two things: that Christians did not like Jews, and Jesus was not the Messiah… and I knew that the two were intertwined.

Why? For many reasons!

The seeds of anti-Semitism were sown by the antagonism of early Christian leaders toward Jews and the Jewish religion. A famous example is John “Chrysostom” (Golden-Mouth), Archbishop of Constantinople (349-ca. 407), whose 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)

This is one example of anti-Semitism 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. This attitude towards the chosen people reached a high point in Luther’s treatise entitled, The Jews and Their Lies, where he called for the burning of Jewish religious texts and the dismantling of synagogues. In fact, in Mein Kampf, Hitler asserted that he was merely continuing what Luther started!

There is no doubt that anti-Jewish teaching by church leaders – both Catholic and Protestant – contributed greatly to the Crusades, pogroms and finally to the the Holocaust.

This intermingling of the Church’s anti-Jewish teaching and the resultant anti-Semitism it fostered is an almost insurmountable obstacle to Jewish evangelism by Christians today. But this dark cloud can be pierced!

I know this is true because the Lord reached me through faithful and loving Gentile Christians who showed me the difference between what I was raised to believe and what is true of believers who know the truth and have been transformed by the Gospel. As Paul wrote,

“I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.” (Romans 11:11)

We have the opportunity today to show our Jewish friends and neighbors that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah for all – and that His true followers love the Jewish people.

The “Oldest Hatred” Goes Global

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

Based on the latest statistics, anti-Semitism is at the highest level since the Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism started to keep records twenty years ago. Of course, everybody remembers the Toulouse, France massacre of last March 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.

Anti-Semitism is also growing in Spain, the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece and Hungary. We have even started to see the rebirth of political anti-Semitism 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.

Anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism 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.

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

Antisemitic antagonists and indifferent bystanders of yesteryear can be replaced by people who love, support, and defend the Jewish people. 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. Even though blessing the Jewish people [with the Gospel] might become increasingly challenging, 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 anti-Semitism.

Notable Instances of American Anti-Semitism

The first prominent expression of Anti-Semitism occurred during the Civil War, when an order drafted under General Grant expelled 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 Anti-Semitism. 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 Anti-Semitism.

Shortly after World War I, Henry Ford acquired the weekly newspaper The Dearborn Independent, in which he published regular anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitic lie called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which outlined a Jewish plan for world domination.

The Great Depression further fueled Anti-Semitism. Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest, became a prominent voice for this hatred. He created a weekly radio program with an audience as large as twelve million, and his broadcasts 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 Anti-Semitism in America declined in the aftermath of World War II, a few fringe groups still deny the Holocaust, claiming it was a hoax and a Jewish conspiracy. America continues to be refuge for the Jewish people, but hate still exists. The Jewish community needs believers in Messiah to lovingly stand with them and oppose anti-Jewish ideology wherever it rears its head.

Spreading Hatred in the Middle East

A strong hatred of Jews is also found in 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 Anti-Semitism, 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. However, 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.

North America remains a haven for Jews from all over the world, but even North America is not immune to the ailment, even if takes the form of words more frequently than in deeds. 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 Anti-Semitism. 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.

Every generation of Jewish people has faced a new threat. In the 11th century, as the European Crusaders marched to the Holy Land, they tried to wipe out the Jewish communities in their midst, leaving a trail of horror and misery. Afterwards, Jews were blamed for spreading bubonic plague – suspicions that arose in part because the traditional hand-washing before meals protected them from the disease.

In those centuries, a monstrous lie called the “blood libel” accused Jews of requiring Christian blood for their feasts. Because of the libel, any rumor of a child missing or an unusual death brought vicious attacks on local Jewish homes and synagogues. By the 19th century, many Jews had migrated from Western Europe into “the Pale,” countries on the eastern edge of the Russian empire. Then the czars decided to reduce the Jewish population with brutal oppression that drove many to emigrate abroad. All this predates the Holocaust.

Our enemies continually claim that the Jewish people must be destroyed for some intolerable fault. But there is always something inexplicably persistent about this hate. The late Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim – a Holocaust survivor – used to ask, “How is it that the communists accuse us of being capitalists and the capitalists blame us for communism?” Jewish people were scorned for not fighting in previous generations. Today, Israel is charged with having too powerful an army.

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, including devotion to 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.

Yet this truth remains hidden. Consider the Book of Esther: Mordecai and Esther cry out to heaven, fasting and praying until they see the deliverance of Israel and their enemies vanquished. The name of God does not even appear in the book. His Name is hidden, but not His power.

The same power hidden in the book of Esther is behind the “mystery” that Paul speaks of in Romans 11:25 when he reveals that Israel’s divine destiny is not destruction, but salvation that will result in God’s praise.

One after another, the enemies of Israel end up in history’s “Where are they now?” file. Still, the tragedy of anti-Semitism continues today, with voices becoming more strident throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and even South America, where Jews are once again being threatened in the streets and synagogues.

It seems that we are always faced by the same challenge raised by an urgent Mordecai to a young, innocent Esther: “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Sometimes the questions are more important than answers.

What will we do today with our voice and our faith?

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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