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Christians Need to Confront Anti-Semitism

By Andrew Doran, The Wall Street Journal

Anti-Semitism and violence against Jews are on the rise in the U.S. For many Americans this reality has been lost in a two-year-long dystopian fog, but anti-Semitism was resurgent even before the pandemic. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the recent Texas hostage standoff shock us, yet they have become customary.

The pretext of the “new” anti-Semitism is hatred of Israel, which justifies Jew hatred anywhere. Other forms, like the popularity of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” endure. Jews are said to have a plan to dominate the world, spread drugs and venereal diseases, and much else. The crimes of capitalism and communism alike are blamed on Jews. Anti-Semitism is resurgent on the political right, which feels alienated from governing institutions. And the most refined anti-Semitism continues to be taught on university campuses.

By rejecting the right of the Jewish people to exist in political community—that is, the modern state of Israel—campus anti-Semitism implicitly rejects the humanity of Jews everywhere. (Israel would pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, but the Palestinian Authority will never let it, as the Israel Defense Forces remain to protect the authority from Hamas.) Countless dollars have been donated from governments and individuals for not terribly subtle anti-Semitic programs on campus, with little transparency.

Memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, 2018

Anti-Semitism at a more primitive level finds its roots in the scapegoating mechanism, the impulse in humans to seek a culprit for communal ills. As the French historian René Girard (1923-2015) explained, once the mob’s lust for violence is satiated by the sacrificial victim, communal health is restored—an evolutionary adaptation that seems nothing short of diabolical. Girard believed that Christ’s sacrifice should deliver Christians from the scapegoat urge. Yet too many Christians have descended into scapegoating and anti-Semitism over the centuries, and sadly even today. To confront anti-Semitism, the Christian should first confront some unpleasant facts in church history.

It is said that Irish history should be remembered by the British and forgotten by the Irish. The same could be said of Jewish history, but too many Christians show insufficient interest in our part in anti-Semitism. As George Orwell wrote, “it is partly the fear of finding out how widespread anti-Semitism is that prevents it from being seriously investigated.”

I was well into my 20s when a Jewish professor shared with me a piece in First Things magazine by a priest and Jewish convert to Catholicism who wrote about the pain caused by “a one-sided Catholic apologetic that minimizes the injustice done by Christians to Jews in history, or seeks to relegate it to oblivion. I am especially aware of the Jewish sensitivity to topics that Catholics often pass over either too quickly or in silence.” The extent of the church’s institutional anti-Semitism was a painful revelation. Much history continues to be passed over in carelessness and silence—lay and clerical defenders of Nazism, pogroms, centuries of essential dhimmitude, Rome’s Jews forced into a ghetto and humiliated, conspiracy theories, blood libels and scapegoating—all with contemporary consequences.

Some on the left and right question U.S. aid to Israel—though, curiously, I haven’t seen anyone seeking to ban imports of medical technology from Israel. Meanwhile U.S. financial assistance flows to numerous countries that refuse to recognize Israel, although an overwhelming majority of Americans still have favorable views toward the Jewish people and Israel.

A friend who traveled to the Vatican recently left encouraged. “The problems of the Jews are our problems,” a cardinal told him. Those words have been followed by some action, including greater access to Vatican archives to study the Catholic Church’s conduct during the Holocaust. But there still is much more to do. The Vatican has diplomatic relations with numerous states that don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and some that spread anti-Semitic propaganda, and its talented diplomats can use their sway to meet both challenges.

America’s Catholic bishops should instruct Catholics about the church’s unfortunate history of anti-Semitism, including in the U.S. Catholic universities should likewise not simply cave in to anti-Zionism but instead examine the history of anti-Semitism in the early church and Middle Ages, and the Holocaust and rebirth of Israel.

It is often said that anti-Semitism begins with the Jews but never ends with them. There is much evidence for this. Yet Christians shouldn’t be spurred to action only because we might be next but simply because anti-Semitism is evil—not an abstract evil but very much in our midst. The problems of the Jews are Christian problems. The Christian response to this moment should begin with an honest inquiry into Christian anti-Semitism, without any fear of how widespread it may be.

Mr. Doran, a senior research fellow with the Philos Project, served on the policy planning staff at the State Department (2018-21).

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