On the impossibility of failing to condemn anti-Semitism

This note responds to a reply to an earlierand too brief, and in its brevity perhaps a bit carelesscomment of mine decrying our president’s response to a question about rising threats of anti-Semitic violence. So here I want to say something a little more carefully. I am grateful to anyone who reads my posts, and especially to anyone who take the trouble to object to anything I say. I am grateful for objections, because I assume that it is always possible for me to be wrong, and because in my view taking the risk and going to the trouble of raising such an objection is a valuable expression of friendship; and also because there’s a pretty good chance that if one person expresses an objection others will have registered a similar objection without expressing it. If the things I say never bothered anyone, I would probably be wasting my time, but I want to bother people by saying things that are true but uncomfortable, not things that are uncomfortable because false or badly expressed.

From the time when Judaism and Christianity—two outgrowths from the faith of Israel—first parted ways until the present, anti-Semitism has been a recurrent sickness on the Christian side. In the pre-Constantinian period, some Christian writers, setting out to defend their new faith, found it necessary both to claim the antiquity of Jewish faith as their own and also, in asserting the legitimacy of the mostly gentile Jesus-following stream of this faith, to deny the ongoing legitimacy of the ethnically Jewish non-Jesus-following stream. Their writings can be described as anti-Judaic but not necessarily as anti-Semitic. In the post-Constantinian period, with the conversion of the emperors, the Christianization (at least superficially) of the imperial power structures, and the imperialization (i.e., conferring of delegated imperial power) on the bishops of the church, the dynamics changed. Clothed with definitely Roman and Western political power, Christian bishops had greater scope to veer from (theological) anti-Judaism into (racial, social, and political) anti-Semitism. Certain writings of St. John Chrysostom are routinely cited as examples of early Christian anti-Semitism.

I am not an expert on the Jewish history between late antiquity and today, and so I am going to just skate very quickly here. I assume most people know of some episodes of gross mistreatment of Jews by Christians. Some happened during the Crusades. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 is notorious. Some of the really viciously hateful things that Martin Luther wrote about Jews in the early 1500s are also pretty well known. Most people remember how the Jew Shylock is portrayed in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Words like “ghetto” and “pogrom” evoke a whole history of wretched doings across Europe through the course of centuries. If these words don’t evoke anything for you—well, I’m wondering actually how conscious the average American citizen these days is of these things. Probably we all need a refresher course, and maybe one of my friends will suggest a good basic book. My own impression is that Christian anti-Semitism has been like bubonic plague—always present and scurrying around underground and in the sewers and ready to break out pretty much anywhere, given the right conditions, with always painful and too often horrific consequences for the Jews (and in a different, much less acute way, for everyone). This history culminates, as I hope we all know even if we know nothing else, in Nazi Germany, where the Christian population at large served, as one recent historian’s book title has phrased it, “Hitler’s willing executioners.” We have often been told that the majority of the German people did not know what was going on. Daniel Goldhagen (author of the book just referenced) argues that they did in fact know and were OK with it. What began with routine mistreatment, and escalated with a campaign of vandalism, culminated in the imprisonment, torture, and execution of 6 million Jewish human beings. This happened in Germany only a few decades ago.

Now, here is my concern: the whole wretched history of two millennia of Western anti-Semitism, including its culmination under the Nazi regime, was perpetrated by people who were at least of Christian heritage and all too often considered themselves to be, and were considered by all around them—God knows what they were in God’s reckoning, that is not for me to say—Christians in good standing. In Germany the Protestant church was split. The “German-Christian movement” (hence my reference to “German Christians”) swallowed the nationalist-racialist-Christian poison. This was not a fringe phenomenon. Hundreds or thousands (I don’t know) of pastors as well as numerous well-known theologians and biblical scholars believed that the desire to “make Germany great again” warranted the mingling of Christian faith with the national-socialist agenda of an initially ludicrous, but soon formidable, fomenter of xenophobia, murderous hatred, and rabid nationalism—“Deutschland über Alles!”which might fairly be translated “Germany First!” Dissenting steadfastly from the German-Christian movement was a minority movement usually referred to as the “Confessing Church”—represented by the Theological Declaration of Barmen (authored largely by Karl Barth—the text is readily available in English translation on the internet). Probably the best-known representative of the Confessing Church was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The thing that American Christians have to hear, and hear well, is this—every substantial Christian theologian and biblical scholar known to me knows this well, but I don’t think it is much on the minds of ordinary pastors and Christians: It is morally impermissible for Christians anywhere in the world after the Holocaust to forget the Holocaust, to forget this stupendous fratricidal-genocidal crime; or to rest comfortably in the assurance that it was not our nation but the Germans, or that it was not our generation but a past generation, or that the perpetrators of this horror were not really Christians, or at least were not Christians like ourselves; or to assure ourselves and others glibly, without attending carefully, critically, and recurrently not only to what these German Christians did then but also to what we and our friends and fellow-citizens and leaders are saying and doing today, that we are certainly not anti-Semitic and could never descend to the depths to which they so precipitously descended, as though we are somehow made of better stuff than they.

It is not permissible for us to fail to recall the depths to which anti-Semitism so recently, under the Nazi regime, descended, precisely because their descent demonstrates infallibly that it is in fact possible to make such a descent. We must remember that any and every time anti-Semitism rears its ugly head even just a little bit. Christians in Germany today, and other Germans of good will, know this very well. So it is absolutely incumbent upon us to ask ourselves whether or not we are Christians like them: Christians who might be willing not to know what we do not want to know, but should know, about things being said and done in our own country in our own day; Christians who might be willing (here I am thinking of Barmen) to acknowledge other proclamations, events, or powers than the one Word of God, or to place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of the desires, purposes, and plans of current political leaders, parties, or forces.

It is vitally important for us to accept the responsibility of remembering, of meditating on this memory, of examining ourselves carefully, because there are in fact anti-Semitic elements scurrying about in the netherworld of American culture, and because they are feeling emboldened and encouraged these days. In terms of the bubonic-plague analogy above: the infected rats have been climbing out of the sewers and have been spotted scampering down the gutters. And while there is (let us be clear about this!) absolutely no reason to say that our new president is some kind of new Hitler—no reason to imagine that he is concocting some new scheme for driving Jews from our society, or registering them, or forcing them into ghettos, or eliminating them in pogroms—it nevertheless appears to be from among his supporters, and not from among his opponents, that these elements are venturing out, and painting their emblems and slogans in public places, and issuing threats to synagogues. And they are emboldened because of his appointments, especially his “alt-right” (a euphemism for nationalist-racialist ideologies) White House chief of staff, and because of certain things he himself has said and other things he has not said.

So, in this climate, when our new president holds a news conference, and for the first time at such a conference an Orthodox Jewish reporter for a new Jewish magazine, complete with yarmulke and sidelocks, stands up to ask a carefully prepared question; and when he begins by stating explicitly that no one in his community accuses either the president or anyone on his staff of being anti-Semitic, and then goes on to raise a matter that is a quite rightly a vivid concern for his community, namely, the increasing frequency of threats of violence against Jewish centers and other anti-Semitic words and actions, the appropriate response on the part of the president would have been to listen respectfully, and then to say something like the following:

“Thank you for your question. I hear and understand the concern, and it is a concern that I share. Let me assure you, in the most emphatic terms possible, that this administration will not condone bomb threats or any other threats of violence against Jews. Our federal agencies will cooperate with the appropriate state and local authorities to ensure that any such threats against Jewish centers will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted. And let me add that if, as we have been hearing—though I hope it is not true—elements among my own supporters engage in disparagement of Jews in either racial or religious terms, my word to them is: Stop it. I reject your hateful speech, I repudiate you, and I will do everything in my power to force your nasty thoughts and words back into the sewers from which they emerge. The United States of America is predicated upon respect for people of every race and religion, definitely including people of Jewish race and religion, and I as your president intend to model and fully uphold that value. OK, next question?”

But he said no such thing. This is a shocking and momentous failure. Instead, our president (1) took the opportunity to inform us that he himself is not anti-Semitic (which was not the question—why did he feel the need to make this a question about himself?) and (2) yes—he told the only man in the room wearing a yarmulke and sidelocks that his question was disrespectful and that he must sit down and shut up. That’s what he said and did. And what is the message conveyed to the scum out there who are saying and doing these anti-Semitic things? The message is quite simply this: the president of the United States has no time for anyone who might complain about you.

And around the same time, Pat Robertson—whom on the basis of his plentiful earlier ignorant pronouncements I regard as a gross embarrassment to Pentecostals, evangelicals, and Christians everywhere, but whom many thousands of American Christians honor and revere as some kind of prophet—has the gall to stand up and pronounce that anyone who opposes our current president is opposing God’s own plan for America.

In light of all of the forgoing, I suggest that:

It is not permissible for confessing Christians in the United States today to sit back and say nothing in the face of intimations of the rise of a nationalist-racialist ideology, or of a species of political religion under which it might be said that to oppose the president is to oppose God.

It is not permissible for confessing Christians in the United States to be silent when Jews are receiving bomb threats, or when swastikas are spray-painted in public places, or when anti-Jewish rhetoric is increasing even in slight tor scattered ways, or to write such things off as the insignificant doings of a few fringe nuts, especially when our president has rudely refused to hear and respond appropriately to a question about these threats.

It is not permissible for a Christian in the United States today to participate in or condone any American-Christian movement that drapes the Stars and Stripes over the cross or pronounces a different or higher benediction upon our nation than upon any and every other nation of the world.

These things are not impermissible because Trump is Hitler. Anyone who says that is engaging a wretched and dangerous slander. I think people fall into this slander because there are in fact reasons for concern that our president is in certain ways recapitulating political moves that have been used by several totalitarian dictators in recent world history and is even echoing specific slogans of the Nazi regime; but there is large and significant difference between pointing out these parallels and calling him Hitler (or Mussolini, or Lenin, or Stalin). Pointing out the parallels is not a hysterical overreaction, but going beyond that either to call our president a new Hitler (the rhetorical move that I have previously labeled as the reductio ad Hitlerum) or to say that those who carefully point out the parallels are calling him Hitler (a rhetorical move that we might call reductio ad reductionem ad Hitlerum) is to fall into something like the fallacy that a great twentieth-century scholar of biblical languages called “illegitimate totality transfer” and is also, as I said before, an unwise and dangerous slander. It is logically sloppy, rhetorically counterproductive, and morally wrong.

So these things are impermissible not because Trump is Hitler but because we as a people are not inherently and indefectibly any better than the German Christians of the mid-twentieth century, or the Spanish Christian leadership in the late 15th century. We are not necessarily immune from infestation by the demons that drove them or others of our Christian forebears to their foul anti-Semitic deeds. And there are little signs here and there of the rise of racialist-nationalist ideology, and there is an increase in racist actions and expressions, and we have a new president who thus far is showing himself unable or unwilling to assert the strong moral leadership that is needed to nip such things in the bud and to the contrary through his words and actions—cluelessly rather than deliberately, one can only hope—is giving aid and comfort to the racists and anti-Semites.

As for whether my harping on these things is a “hobby,” and that I need a new one—well, to the former I can say no more than I said in my earlier note (My Strangely Unedifying Facebook Posts): I do not enjoy writing these little pieces and am more sickened than satisfied by them. To the latter, I probably do need one, but I don’t have time these days (though I did have a pretty nice bike ride in this afternoon’s sunshine.)

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