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Variations on the Teaching of Contempt

The festival of Purim presents us in the Book of Esther (Megillah) with an early expression of Judeophobia. The Jews are depicted as conspiratorial outsiders, whose practices do not conform to the norms of the land, and who are worthy of extermination. Even though the Megillah is a historical novella set in 5th century BCE Persia, its theme reflects and anticipates a recurrent motif, with varying manifestations in different lands and times. The Passover Haggadah will soon remind us, “For in every generation they have risen against us.” Let us consider how anti-Judaism, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism have evolved and mutated, especially over the last two millennia.

To understand modern antisemitism, we need to reckon with the heritage of religious anti-Judaism that Jules Isaac called, “The Teaching of Contempt”. Post-Holocaust theologian, Clark Williamson (informed by Michel Foucault’s, The Archeology of Knowledge), describes the Church’s thinking and discourse on Judaism in terms of three categories:  “antithesis,” “scapegoating,” and “prologue.”

  1. First, Judaism is the “antithesis” of Christianity:  “Justice (Jewish) vs Love (Christian),” “Judgment (Jewish) vs Promise (Christian),” and “Law (Jewish) vs. Grace (Christian)”. These opposites are meant to express the spiritual superiority of Christianity over its antithesis, Judaism.
  2. The second category is “scapegoating.” Jews and Judaism are the perpetrators of “deicide.” Guilty of “killing God” and whatever evil the church chooses to lay at their door, Israel is rejected and replaced by the Gentile church as the sole legitimate inheritor of God’s covenant.
  3.  Thirdly, this theology of replacement leads to the notion of Israel as “prologue”.  Judaism is the set-up act for the church. The “Old Testament (Covenant)” is a relic of ancient times. The early church characterizes Judaism as Vetustas (old/passé) and Jews as carnal, legalistic, ethnocentric, in contrast to the “New” Israel (the Church), that is spiritual, grace filled, and universal.

Beyond conveying Jesus’ teachings of love and reconciliation, the Gospels are a polemical literature hostile to the Pharisees (early teachers of Judaism) and the Jews, reaching fullest expression in the Gospel of John. The Church Fathers build upon this tradition.

Medieval Christian art sums up the attitude towards Jews and Judaism in the ECCLESIA and SYNAGOGA images present in many a medieval European church:  Ecclesia stands tall, staff in hand, holding a triumphant globe, looking across to dejected Synagoga, bowed, blindfolded, staff broken and tablets of the law falling from her hand. The Church victorious; synagogue vanquished.

The first expression of racial anti-Judaism comes from the Spanish Inquisition’s doctrine of “Limpieza de Sangre” (Purity of Blood). The problem with new Jewish “Conversos” was not that they did not “believe” the right way, but that they put at risk the purity of Iberian Christian blood.

The term “antisemitism” was coined by Wilhelm Marr in his pamphlet “The Victory of Judaism over Germanism” (1873-1879). Concurrently, Eugene Deuring’s, The Jewish Question (1881), presented Jews as the lowest variant of Semites.  Intermarriage with them (already prohibited by medieval Church canons) would lead to the Judaization of German blood. Church law informed much of Nazi legislation and made possible the progression that Raoul Hilberg identified as: “You have no right to live among us as Jews; you have no right to live among us; you have no right to live.”

Anti-Judaism began, then, as religious prejudice. It evolved from religious to racial hatred, culminating in the lethal antisemitism of Nazi Ideology. More recently, antisemitism has mutated into anti-Zionism. The themes of antithesis, scapegoating, and prologue are picked up in modern anti-Zionism through disinformation, demonization, and delegitimation of the State of Israel.

A contemporary “religious” anti-Israel document, “Kairos Palestine”, voices this theology of displacement. Israel has lost its right to the land; Palestinians are the true inheritors. A current slogan in many progressive churches is some variant of “We worship a Palestinian man of color murdered by the ‘keepers of the law.’” This is a problematic statement at many levels, geographic, historic, and theological.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a late 19th century forgery describing a Jewish takeover of the world order, is popular in translation in the Arabic speaking world, where anti-Zionism often mimics themes of Western antisemitism.

The Israeli journalist, Ben Dror Yemini, (Industry of Lies) writes: “Criticism of Israel is not [of itself] anti-Semitism. A post-national or anti-national stance is not anti-Semitism, on one condition: that it is applied to all nations. But when we deny the right to self-determination to only one people (…the Jewish people) … when [we] engage in the demonization, dehumanization and delegitimation of Jews, or Israel, alone, it’s anti-Semitism.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often conflated with American racial politics, astonishingly presenting Israel, a nation of ethnic, racial and religious diversity, as a “white supremacist, apartheid, colonialist” state. This is not only lies; it is antisemitism.

Recently, Indiana University was shaken by posts in the Greek Rant website proclaiming: “get them off our campus”.  “…[they] are about: money, greed, and sexually assaulting women. [With] …their huge noses, afros, and smelliness….  These are dangerous humans.” These images are not new; they echo medieval anti-Judaism’s tropes and themes.

As a Jew, I do not speak of “original sin.” But, as racism is a foundational flaw of American society, antisemitism is a fault line of western civilization. We need to respond to quakes of hatred with reinforcements of respect and honor to uphold our edifices from the rumbles that threaten to shatter our common humanity.

Are we hopeless prisoners of this inheritance? I hope not. But we cannot ignore it.  The Catholic Church and several Protestant denominations have, since the Second Vatican Council (1965), repented and rejected many of these offensive teachings. But they still are heard from some fundamentalist circles and even in proclamations from mainline denominations. A recent statement by a high official of the Presbyterian Church USA accused Israel of “enslavement” of Palestinians and held US Jews “accountable”. It was denounced by many rank and file pastors.

We began with Purim and Passover, both of which are celebrations of joy and hope about the triumph of goodness and redemption. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr observed that “Religion makes good people better and bad people worse.”  May the best teachings of our faith traditions, coupled with the promise of democracy and law, model healing and hope for a nation and world that yearn for peace, harmony, and redemption.

Adapted from a presentation at the “Inaugural Conference on Antisemitism and the Law” at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law: Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, March 14, 2022.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana.
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