When I wrote recently about the need for Christians to oppose the growing antisemitic violence in the U.S. and elsewhere, I did not imagine I was saying anything especially controversial. It seemed to me a given that Christians should condemn the rising hatred of Jews and the violence accompanying it, whatever the source of that hatred: Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And so I was deeply, perhaps naively, shocked at the responses from some Christian (and some non-Christian) friends. Yes, they said, the increase in antisemitic violence in our country is regrettable. But then they hastened to add that it’s also understandable, given what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. I could hear the subtext: We aren’t going to worry much about hatred against Jews, these friends seemed to be saying, because we empathize with the perpetrators’ anger. Maybe they weren’t saying it outright but the implication was there: The Jews have only themselves to blame. When I mentioned the rabbi stabbed in Boston last month, one friend told me we must try to understand the feelings of downtrodden pro-Palestinians who are attacking Jews here and around the world. Feel with them their misery, their frustration, she said, quite sincerely.
In fact, I do feel their misery. I also feel the fear and anger of Jews under attack solely because they are Jewish. I desire peace for the Palestinians, and for the Israelis also: a stable region; a better life for all. It’s a good thing to try to understand the other. But no explanation for misery and frustration can be an excuse for violence against a particular ethno-religious group. My friend’s response appeared to favor understanding the motivations and background of antisemitic perpetrators rather than condemning their violence. We must ask: Does empathy for pro-Palestinians validate their attempts to murder or injure Jewish human beings, our fellow citizens, in Boston, New York, Los Angeles? Is violence now an acceptable form of public discourse–one may stab those he hates, and society should embrace the pain that “caused” his acts of violence? My friend would insist that she opposes violence. But declining to defend the Jewish victim and expressing concern only for the perpetrator’s feelings is arguably a form of tacit approval. Refusing to condemn violence lends support to the perpetrators. Silence speaks loudly.
If you refrain from condemning violence against Jews because you hold strong negative beliefs about Israel, imagine that someone is committing violence against you because your political or religious beliefs enrage them. Would Christians who stand silent in the face of antisemitic violence remain sanguine if we were the ones being physically injured? What if Jews were randomly beating up Palestinians on U.S. streets? Would we excuse it by saying that well, yes, American Jews really shouldn’t stab Arabs, but look at all those rockets Palestinians fired at Israel in May! I hope not. Defending violence against any group of people engenders chaos in society. Moreover, for Christians, defending such violence violates biblical teaching that each human being is made in God’s image, of infinite value. This means at the very least that our empathy should extend to Jewish Americans and Israelis as well as to Palestinians. Defending Jew-hating violence also completely ignores the biblical teaching that the Jews are God’s beloved people. We Jesus-followers should regard an attack on Jews as an attack on our spiritual cousins. Many Christians around the world do in fact appreciate the Jewish roots of their faith and are quick to protest antisemitic violence; one of my friends read what I had written and immediately asked what he could do to help Jews. His response was not the norm, however. Too many of those who call themselves Christian are not defending our Jewish neighbors.
Regrettably, this is not the first time Christians have failed to stand with Jews. The responses of some of my friends rather disturbingly reminded me of a research project analyzing Protestant sermons from Nazi Germany. William Skiles examined sermons from 95 Protestant Confessing Church pastors in Germany from 1933-1939. Of the 80-some sermons which specifically discussed Jews, 40 sermons portrayed Jews as Christ-killers under the punishment of God. These anti-Judaic sermons explained that the Jews deserved the persecution they were then experiencing in Germany because, the sermons argued, Jews had killed Jesus. One German pastor in 1935 said the reason for the Jews’ 2,000-year-long “punishment”–including the Jews’ ongoing expulsion from German society and becoming targets of violence by the Nazi regime–was not hard to understand because “the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross.” In short, they had it coming to them.
It is true that the specific attacks on Jews under discussion in my previous article were not Christian in nature, although synagogue attacks have been carried out by perpetrators who allied themselves with Christianity. I am responding to the manner in which current violence against Jews is being excused by some Christians and also many non-Christians: to me it sounds horrifyingly similar to past Christian attitudes: The Jews have done something to deserve the harm being inflicted on them. This is pernicious evil and the worst sort of racism. Jews vary in their politics and opinions, like anyone else. Not all Jews in the world or in the U.S. are Zionists. The Jews who are Zionists have widely differing opinions on how Israel should negotiate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israelis themselves disagree about the best way forward in an untenable situation they as individuals did not create. Some progressive millennial and Gen Z Jewish Americans do not support Israel. Some do. Collectively condemning Jewish people is immoral and intolerant, no matter where you or they fall on the political spectrum. If such condemnation involves physical violence, the violence is always wrong. A Jewish man in Toronto this week reported being slammed to the ground and cursed while out for a Sunday stroll with his dog. Sam Brody said his attacker yelled: “xxx you, you Jew–you’ll never take Israel–free Palestine!” Making excuses for antisemitic violence, shrugging it off as “regrettable but understandable” is a dangerous argument. Christians should denounce all such violence against Jews without any conditional caveats.
How then should we react? If God tells us to love our neighbor, and love begins by understanding our neighbor, shouldn’t we encourage empathy with Palestinians? Another friend told me she thought that because many Christian young people side with the Palestinians, they find it easy to label the other side as a monolithic evil [Israel, and by extension, Jewish people]. It seems that too many American Christians believe that they gain moral purity by uncritically supporting Palestinians and reflexively despising Israel. Yet it is possible to empathize with the trauma of Palestinians without suggesting that Israel is solely responsible for their plight. Blaming only Israel is a narrow position which exhibits a destructive lack of historical knowledge, ignores geopolitical complexities and does nothing to actually improve the lives of Palestinians. Instead, Christians who are committed to truly extending love to Palestinians should adopt constructive goals. In a 2018 article in The Jewish Week, Eugene Korn urged churches to take actions that would concretely help Palestinians by investing in the Palestinian economy and ensuring that the funds are used for the welfare of Palestinians, rather than disappearing to corruption and terrorism. Christians also can try to help Palestinians build strong transparent democratic institutions and strengthen moderate Palestinian voices willing to engage constructively with Israelis, he said.
Demonizing Israel does nothing to improve matters, but the tendency to blame Jews for the world’s ills is not new. If Israel ceased to exist tomorrow, antisemites still would hate Jews. My violence-excusing Christian friends do not seem to grasp the longevity and pervasive nature of this hatred, nor its deadly potential. What should Christians do in the face of an avalanche of vicious Jew-hatred? Perhaps we should recall the words commonly attributed to anti-Nazi dissident and German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”