2016-06-30
This column was originally published in December, 2000, after the outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

Amid the disheartening reversal of the peace process between Israel and its neighbors, the broad-scale re-emergence of anti-Semitism is a particularly disturbing phenomenon. Anti-Semitism, deeply rooted in religious factors, sheds light on the moral state and responsibilities of three religions--Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It is time for some soul-searching and account-taking in all three faiths.

The term anti-Semitism is not a synonym for a particular ethnic hatred: Rather, it describes a historical phenomenon with two levels.

Level 1: Hostility to all Jews, everywhere. One might argue that the Palestinians are enraged at the Israelis for conquering and ruling them, and the other Arab nations are angry because Israel defeated them in war. But Arab leadership has repeatedly excoriated and threatened not just Israelis, but all Jews.

Violent attacks by Muslims have struck synagogues worldwide. On October 13, the day after the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, a sermon by the former acting rector of the Islamic University of Gaza was broadcast over the official television channel of the Palestinian Authority. He declared: "Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them...."

Level 2: Hatred of the very existence of the Jews. Anti-Semitism typically has been expressed not in limited contexts but in ultimate terms. Eliminating the Jews gets rid of the "enemies of God" (according to Luther), or paves the way for final perfection (according to Hitler).

Anti-Semitism is rooted in religions that claim to have made Judaism obsolete and therefore extinguishable. Thus the truth of Christianity (later, of Islam) was predicated on the supposition that it (and its new covenant) had supplanted the "original"--the old--covenant, Judaism (just as Islam sees itself as the true, final, fully revealed Abrahamic faith). The anti-Semite then moves from the claim that Judaism has no right to exist to denial of the people's right to exist. In Raul Hilberg's classic words, the sequence is: "You have no right to live among us as Jews... You have no right to live among us... You have no right to live."

To its credit, Christianity never made the final step. But its recurrent portrayal of Jews as repulsive--Christ killers, ritual murderers, etc.--created ugly stereotypes at the heart of Western culture. With those caricatures entrenched, a secular or racial "religion"--Nazism--could exploit them to make the final leap of hatred and the consequent final solution.

The key to the virulence of anti-Semitism lies in the absolute claims of the persecutors, whether they be Hellenistic pagans or monotheistic Christians. For this reason, I was convinced that democracy, with its emphasis on pluralism and self-restraint, would undercut the absolutes that sustained anti-Semitism. The steady drop in American anti-Semitism, climaxing with acceptance of a Jewish candidate for vice president, led me to believe that the same trend would triumph wherever democracy ruled (and it was spreading dramatically--witness the collapse of dictatorship since 1989).

But during the present Palestinian conflict, I visited Europe and was truly shocked.

In France, 80 separate anti-Semitic incidents were reported as the conflict in Israel heated up, and a wave of attacks took place on synagogues, schools, and other Jewish institutions in England. In Belgium, where I stayed, I was not prepared for the surly, threatening tone in the air directed at Jews, nor the blatant media partisanship in hatefully portraying Israel's role in the Intifada. The television images of the little Palestinian boy, cowering in fear with his father and then shot, were played for weeks and weeks with no context--no clarification that the Israeli soldiers shooting could not see him or hear his cries.

The video of the lynching of the Israeli soldiers was hardly shown on European television. Scandalously, the official Italian television authority, which broadcast the murder and its aftermath on tape, apologized to the Palestinians for showing the lynching at all. The Italian delegate's official speech at the United Nations--declaring that the Israelis sent the soldiers to be lynched to win sympathy--speaks for itself.

When the European democracies voted for totally one-sided U.N. resolutions condemning and delegitimizing Israel, I had to look again at the depth and tenacity of Western anti-Semitism. Criticism or rejection of Israeli policy is legitimate, but the hate-mongering, the scapegoating, the placing of Israel beyond the pale, is a reflection of persisting European anti-Semitism.

 

My conclusion is that Christianity has an unpaid debt to Judaism for its two-millennia-long defamation. I have been active in the Jewish/Christian dialogue and heartened by the remarkable revision of Christianity's teachings on Judaism, such as the rejection of supercessionism--the idea that Christianity took the place of Judaism-- by many American Protestant churches, as well as the incredible confession by French Catholic bishops of Catholic sin and failure vis-à-vis the Jews, and the more limited confession in the Vatican's "We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah."

But what I failed to see previously is that, in the words of Shakespeare, "the evil that men do lives after them." Given the historic injection of hatred deep into the veins of European culture, the residue of Christian poisoning of the attitude toward the Jews will not evaporate quickly.

Jewish law rules that when it comes to sins that damage fellow human beings, stopping the criminal behavior or even apologizing for it is not enough. One must make restitution, designed to make the victim whole again.

This places a great moral responsibility on Christianity to confront anti-Semitism wherever it persists and to defend Israel and the Jews in an ongoing way. Otherwise, its repentance is hollow. Many Christian clergy have indeed taken this step, such as the broad spectrum of French clergy who denounced anti-Semitic violence in that country. But undoing the stereotypes will take detailed confrontation with media representatives of Israel and Jews. I would challenge many other Christians to follow the French bishops and help blot out the terrible stain of anti-Semitism that has led Jews across the globe to fear for their safety the past couple months.

As to Islam, the situation is even more worrisome. For the past few decades, the Arab world has been a hotbed of anti-Semitic canards. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"--a virulently anti-Jewish 19th-century screed posing as nonfiction but unmasked in the West as a forgery--are published officially and taken seriously in many corners of the Muslim world.

Blatantly anti-Jewish caricatures are commonplace in the Arabic-language newspapers in the Middle East, even in Egypt, the first Arab nation to recognize and sign a peace treaty with Israel. Linked to the as-yet-unaccepted State of Israel and "justified" by Palestinian suffering, anti-Semitism has increasingly taken the form of validating murder and the threat of genocide against Jews.

Muslims, especially in the West, are forced to counter prevailing stereotypes of Islam as a violent religion that breeds terrorism. We all have a responsibility to help counter and obliterate these insidious stereotypes. But Muslims, too, must forcefully speak out against those who kill in the name of their religion.

For decades now, there has not been a serious condemnation by leading Islamic clerics of terrorism or of this climate of hatred. Not even the mutilation of the Israeli soldiers after death has been denounced. Indeed, attempts to mitigate the Arab-Jewish conflict have run into fierce opposition from religious authorities.

Nor is Judaism off the hook by this measure. The fact is that traditional Orthodox Jews have been disproportionately opposed to the peace process and even to improving Arab conditions in Israel.

Too many Orthodox Jews validate hostile and dehumanizing images of Christians and Moslems. In Israel's case, secular forces have been more dominant, but as in the Moslem world, the religion has played a large role in combating peace efforts.

Having seen the deadly effects of anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians and Muslims, Jewish theologians should be doubly motivated to confront the hateful imagery of non-Jews before it spreads. Hillel taught that the great principle of Judaism is: "What is hateful for you do not do unto others." By this standard, the Jewish religious authorities have failed the test.

The record of all three religions should arouse shame, guilt, and repentance in all people who consider themselves religious.

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