Antisemitism has taken many forms throughout its long career. It’s a frustrating rejoinder to those who believe that there is such a thing as social progress analogous to technological development.
Many of us think of Christian antisemitism, forged in the struggle of the early Christians with the Roman Empire, as the seminal form from which later Jew-hatreds sprang. There’s some truth to this.
The recent film (from the book by James Carroll) “Constantine’s Sword” comes down quite hard on the Catholic Church:
In Carroll’s telling, Catholic hostility to Jews goes back at least to the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine conquered Rome, carrying a sword fashioned as a cross. At the time, he says in the film, there were roughly the same number of Jews as Christians in the world.
In subsequent centuries, the Church’s attitudes toward Jews ranged from cold tolerance to frenzied orgies of religiously inspired mass murder. Among the highlights of this tortured history is the total destruction of centers of Jewish life situated along the Rhine river in 1096. As the Crusaders journeyed to the Holy Land to make war on the Muslims — armed with shields bearing signs of the cross and with priests in the lead — they warmed up for the battles to come by wiping out the Jewish settlements in their path. — Ben Harris (JTA)
There is no question that it was bad for Jews in the Christian world long after the middle ages. Discrimination, pogroms, even mass expulsions were their lot in Europe for hundreds of years. My own grandparents fled the Pale of Settlement almost exactly 100 years ago to escape violent persecution by the locals, who used Christianity as an excuse for their actions.
In the mid-20th century the anti-Christian Nazis and the atheist Stalin cynically used Christian themes to buttress their own antisemitic programs, and the Jews suffered mightily. And there were also Catholic voices raised against the Jews, even here in America (see Charles Coughlin). But a funny thing happened, in part as a reaction to the massive evil of this time:
The Church grew up.
In one of the most important documents of the modern Church, Nostra Aetate (1965 – read it!), Pope Paul VI does not dilute what he sees as the fundamental principle of Christianity — that there is only one way to salvation — but calls upon Catholics to understand and appreciate the truths (albeit partial, in his view) found in other religions. Most importantly, he demands that the Church treat adherents of other religions with respect and tolerance, specifically denouncing antisemitism.
Unfortunately, at just about the same time that the traditional host of the antisemitism virus began to reject it, a new one appeared. During the 1960’s, the Arab-Israeli conflict had taken the form of a proxy struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets taking the side of the Arabs. This led to such absurdities as fascist Arab regimes like that of Syria declaring themselves to be ‘socialists’, but also to the international Left — which if not pro-Soviet was at least anti-American — taking a strong anti-Israel position as well.
Although not all anti-Zionism is antisemitic, there is a natural progression which has been followed here, and today the extreme Left has outstripped the neo-Nazi Right as a reservoir of antisemitic expression.
But the greatest outpouring of Jew-hatred today comes from the Muslim world:
Muslim anti-Semitism is growing in scope and extremism, to the point that it has become a credible strategic threat for Israel, according to a 180-page report produced for Israeli policymakers by the semi-official Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC)…
Among the report’s most worrying findings is the growth over the past three decades of uniquely Muslim roots to older European versions of anti-Semitism. Without discounting classical Christian Europe’s canards regarding secret Jewish conspiracies, the ritual slaughter of non-Jewish children and other allegations of Jewish evil, anti-Semitism in the Muslim world increasingly finds its own, Islamic reasons for anti-Jewish hatred through new interpretations of Islamic history and scripture.
From the Koranic story of a Jewess who poisoned Muhammad, to the troubled relations between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of Arabia, radical Islamist groups and thinkers have been using extreme anti-Semitic rhetoric that has grown increasingly popular with the Muslim public, particularly in Iran and the Arab states. Using well-known Koranic texts, these groups have been mapping out the Jews’ “innate negative attributes” and teaching a paradigm of permanent struggle between Muslims and Jews.
The goal of this “Islamified” anti-Semitism, according to the report, is to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a national territorial contest which could be resolved through compromise to a “historic, cultural and existential struggle for the supremacy of Islam.” — Jerusalem Post
The report goes on to describe how — instead of European antisemitic literature being imported to the Middle East, it is now exported to Europe, where it influences Muslim segments of the population there. And in the Middle East, antisemitism has government approval in many countries which are allegedly at peace with Israel — like Egypt, where you can buy Arabic translations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on many street corners.
The most worrisome thing in the report is that antisemitism as an instrument of national policy, last seen in Nazi Germany, has returned:
At the heart of this surge in Muslim anti-Semitism lies Iran, with the regime’s support for Holocaust denial and hosting of anti-Semites from around the world, along with formal calls for Israel’s destruction by many of the country’s leaders.
“Iran is the first example of its kind since Nazi Germany in which a state officially adopts an active policy of anti-Semitism as a means to further its national interests,” the report notes.
It goes on to say that while Iran does not deny that Jews were massacred during WWII, the current regime seeks to minimize the scale of the Holocaust in order to reduce support for Israel’s very existence in the West, which it believes comes from feelings of guilt over the world’s inaction while Jews were murdered during WWII.
So one can understand, in the face of all this, my unconcern about Pope Benedict XVI’s promulgation of a Latin Good Friday prayer that calls for Catholics to pray for the Jews to accept Jesus as savior — something which does not contradict Nostra Aetate, although it is perhaps uncomfortable for some Jews, and although liberal Catholics may wish that the Church had moved further along the road to ecumenicism than it actually did.
Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate that other organizations, like the UN, have not followed the lead of the Church in this area. If the world has learned anything from the history of the mid-20th century one would expect firm condemnations — and real sanctions — of governments like those of Egypt and especially Iran, which today exemplify the racist philosophy that should have been buried with Adolf Hitler.