There has been a sudden increase in attention being paid to what’s being referred to as “a new anti-semitism” since the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. Yesterday’s New York Times carries an opinion piece by Bari Weiss, titled “Europe’s Jew Hatred, and Ours,” in which the depressingly familiar statistics and reports of vandalism and personal attacks on Jews are once again revisited. Particularly disheartening are the polls showing that a third of young Europeans have never heard of the Holocaust.
I have been reading Weimar history for the past several months, and have gradually moved into the Hitler years. I grew up in a German-speaking family with a ferociously proud German Lutheran grandmother, and joined the Lutheran Church myself while in college. I didn’t stay long, and wrote to have my name removed from the membership list after a few years, once I admitted to myself that I simply couldn’t buy into the folk lore any longer, Jonah living in the belly of the whale, Noah and his ark, Mary and her lifelong virginity, Christ and his ability to return to life after death and get his friends to poke their fingers in the holes in his side to prove he was the real thing.
But religion has its way of hanging on. The doctrine may fall away of its own weight, but the culture in which a religious belief system thrives is a separate phenomenon. To be Lutheran means you are likely to be familiar with Bach. You can get rid of Leviticus but still hang on to the Psalms just as the backsliding children of Baptists and Pentecostalists may keep a little space in their heads for “that ol’ time religion.” Well, Amazing Grace, anyway. Episcopalians may find the debate over the meaning of the Eucharist to be no longer relevant to their lives, but still feel a bit of nostalgia over the Elizabethan language of the Book of Common Prayer. What’s not to love, even by an ardent agnostic, about “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us…”
I’ll never forget the time I discovered what a vicious anti-Semite Martin Luther was. Nobody told me in my young years about his treatise “On the Jews and their Lies.” About his advocacy of burning down Jewish schools and synagogues, and not allowing Jews to live among Christians. Forbidding their rabbis to preach and taking away their religious writings entirely. And, just to twist the knife, Luther urged that Jews be given no protection while traveling.
Luther was never considered a prophet, like Jesus or Mohammed, so there’s no reason for Lutherans to reject his insistence that they should stop listening to the church hierarchy and read the Bible for themselves for instruction on how to be a Christian. He was mortal and he made some bad mistakes. One can reject his anti-Semitism as one rejects his own failure to follow the Gospel message he preached that one should recognize that all men and women are equals in the eyes of God, and still be a Lutheran.
Much more difficult to pull apart, however, is Luther’s practice of dividing up the world into a realm of religion and a realm of earthly authority. Luther had to deal with German princes and we’re all familiar with his way of settling real and potential conflict between German regions governed by princes who chose to follow his teaching and those governed by princes who remained loyal to the pope. Cuius regio, eius religio the policy is called – “whose reign, his religion,” a solution to religious conflict which came with the assumption that the princes’ authority was in each case divinely established.
Which caused a problem, some four centuries later, when Hitler came to power. Almost immediately, pastors began joining the Nazi party, believing that Hitler would bring back the German discipline and rid Germany of the decadence of the Weimar era. The “reawakening” of the nation would be matched by a reawakening in the church. Hitler would pick up where Luther had left off. One of Hitler’s first acts was to unite the twenty-eight regional Protestant churches into a single “reich church” and bring the newly united church back under control of the state. Just two months after taking power on January 30, 1933, Hitler instituted the Enabling Act, which allowed him to bypass the legislature and impose laws of his own making. Two weeks after that, on April 7, he created the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (Berufsbeamtengesetz), whose first Article banned Jews from state employment. Later that month he appointed Ludwig Müller, an enthusiastic Nazi as head of the new Reich Church. Müller was supported by about 2000 of the 18,000 evangelical pastors of the time who organized themselves as The German Christians (Die deutschen Christen). The church was initially exempted from this article, known as “the Aryan paragraph,” but pressure soon began to get with the drill, a move the gung-ho Nazi German Christians enthusiastically supported. What the Nazis were demanding was that church officials effectively excommunicate believing Christians simply on the grounds they were Jewish, thus prioritizing race over faith. The church protested, although not on moral grounds, but on jurisdictional grounds – what they didn’t like was the government dictating how the church should be run. Maintaining the distinction since Luther’s day of separating church authority from princely (now governmental) authority, even when Jewish shops and synagogues were burned and smashed on Kristallnacht, the German church took on the attitude that they should mind their own business.
The German Christians were not satisfied with merely removing Jews from church membership; they wanted to remove all traces of Judaism from the faith, as well. That included downplaying, even removing the Old Testament, and substituting for the image of Christ as a gentle soul one in which he is more “manly” – a heroic Aryan warrior on the order of the stormtroopers. The swastika was imposed on the cross symbol and services took on a military flavor. In a biography of Martin Niemöller, the pastor credited, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, with taking the lead in holding on to the authentic Lutheran Church, which came to be called “The Confessing Church,” Matthew D. Hockenos writes
At no point during the twelve years of Nazi rule, much less in 1933, would German Protestants publicly condemn anti-Semitism in stark terms. It is telling that, while American liberal Protestants were planning demonstrations against Nazism, German Protestants were fighting over how much influence to give Hitler in church affairs. The schism that took place in German Protestantism was primarily over church autonomy – not Nazi politics and racial policy. (Hockenos, p. 83)
Since the war, there has been a thorough repudiation of wartime official Lutheran policies during the Hitler period (See, for example, the Lutheran World Federation publication, available online here ) and Lutheran-bashing is unwarranted, considering especially the efforts of the Confessing Church to separate themselves from anti-Semitism during the war years. But what are we to do with those seeking to defend Luther’s chilling anti-Semitism and the many Lutherans who followed his anti-Jewish sentiments down through the years, people who insist that Luther’s view of Jews was not based on their physical identity but on the simple fact that they resisted conversion. Even such notables as Niemöller and Bonhoeffer were known to have espoused this “theological anti-Semitism” in their early years. We can argue today that to the average outsider to the faith this looks like hair-splitting. And it’s probably true that theological anti-Semitism works as an enabler of the more bigoted and dangerous racial kind. It’s just that upon closer inspection, it is no different from any claim by orthodox religionists that they have the right views on God and religion while the rest of the world lives in error. Clerical Roman Catholicism and traditional Islam rise and fall on such claims, as do all other authoritarian religious organizations.
Making such distinctions is not an idle pastime. How are we to distinguish between Israel as a dream come true for millions of persecuted Jews and the policies of the current Israeli government which has led to pushing Palestinians off their land and creating, in Gaza, what has been called the largest outdoor prison in the world, and in the many camps where Palestinians have lived as refugees for some 70 years now? A lack of nuanced thinking is at the heart of all bigoted ideology, and will not go away overnight.
Germany, once the headquarters of the most vicious form of anti-Semitism on the planet is today a refuge for Jews, Over 33,000 Israelis have taken German citizenship since 2000, while in France Jews are leaving in great numbers. The fact that this may be due in large part to the presence of Muslims, who outnumber Protestants in France and often carry the prejudices of their countries of origin, where anti-Zionism is official policy, doesn’t lessen the insecurity Jews now feel in France.
Anti-semitism shares with racism, sexism and homophobia the human tendency to act tribally, to separate “us” from “them” and create a hierarchical structure, putting “them” at a level beneath “us.” And tribal cultural values depend on the habit of creating labels for these arbitrary categories and assuming a complex individual can be placed in them. We fail to distinguish Jews from Israelis, religious Jews from cultural Jews, American Jews with their own particular history (see Stephen Weisman’s The Chosen Wars) from Jews in Europe and elsewhere. It doesn’t help that we have a president at the moment who keeps trying to exclude “Muslims,” rather than distinguish between militant Salafists and peaceful Muslims – or secular Muslims, for that matter. And who once insisted a judge be barred from judging a case on the grounds of his parents’ Mexican origin. Standing up to over-generalizations and inappropriate labelling is a full-time job.
Look on the bright side. At least we never tried to put Jesus of Nazareth into a stormtrooper’s uniform or replace the Torah with Mein Kampf. We may have the likes of Michelle Malkin, whom I once heard address an audience at the University of California on the importance of bringing back the concentration camps of World War II where we locked up Japanese-Americans, only using them this time for locking up Muslim-Americans. But we also have - speaking of complexity - the 2013 survey conducted in the United States by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, which found the intermarriage rate to be 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews.
Of course, that fact sets off an alarm. Many Jews (Alan Dershowitz is one – see his The Vanishing American Jew) argue that intermarriage means the end of Judaism, ultimately, since it’s difficult to maintain Jewish identity in a mixed-marriage home. The irony is that the pogroms of Russia and the Holocaust led ultimately to the foundation of Israel and an increasingly vibrant Jewish identity, while loving Jews enough to want to marry them may lead to their destruction as a self-identified racial/ethnic group. Anti-Semitism, following that line of thinking, would become irrelevant.
Not too many people (pace Dershowitz), as far as I can tell, take these speculations seriously. Jews, I hope, will be around for a very long time. We need to find more ways to raise the consciousness of the general public to the point where we can stop madmen from translating the current Trump administration xenophobia into such things as American anti-Semitism. To stop the non-nuanced thinking that Jews are necessarily anti-Muslim (and anti-Semitism is therefore justified) at the same time we stop the non-nuanced thinking that Muslims are anti-Jewish, anti-Western or anti-modern.
We might start with a more discerning look at America’s role in invading the Muslim world and at how the mujahideen and the Taliban came to be. And what it means to the Arab world to have us join with Saudi Arabia to starve Yemen and overlook the Khashoggi murder instead of recognizing Saudi Arabia as the generator of jihadist Wahhabis around the world. As well as recognize how deep-seated anti-Semitism is in Western Culture, and how tied it is to our primal tribal identities.
Theological anti-Semitism may explain the origin of anti-Semitism, but it doesn’t justify it and it doesn’t explain what keeps it going. It’s tribalism that does that.
The rise of nationalist movements around the world, Trumps “Make America Great” movement by all means included, is just an expanded form of tribalism. Working on that may be a good place to start.
Hockenos, Matthew D., Then They Came For Me, Basic Books, NY: 2018
Hockenos, Matthew D., Then They Came For Me, Basic Books, NY: 2018