Religious Disagreements and False Allegations of Anti-Semitism

A few months ago, two articles of mine that have been published on this website were described as the work of an ‘anti-Christian, anti-Semite hate monger’ and a ‘disgusting human being’. The articles in question point out the brutality, war crimes, genocide, and rape to be found in the Old Testament and the Jewish ethnocentricism and anti-Gentile bigotry that is present in the Gospel of Matthew. I am an anti-racist and strong opponent of anti-Semitism in all its forms, so it was somewhat surprising to find myself accused of ‘anti-Semitism’ for writing critically on Jewish religious texts. As I wrote at the time, this accusation was entirely dishonest and was based on the completely incorrect conflation of two separate things – Judaism the religion and Jews as a people. One can be critical of Jewish religious texts and of Judaism while still bearing no ill will towards Jews as people, and the same is true in the case of any other religion. What this highlighted for me was a problem that I have come across before with some religious Jews and Christians of the Dispensationalist variety: the use of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ to silence any criticism of their religious beliefs (we see the same in Islam with the spurious term ‘Islamophobia’). This abuse of the term anti-Semitism is an example of what Jef and Theo Clark, authors of The Skeptic’s Field Guide, refer to as ‘poisoning the well’ with ‘weasel words’, in that it involves ‘link[ing] someone (or an argument) to something that is held in disdain’ and using ‘loaded labels’ to ‘create the emotional impact one wants’.

Another example of this abuse of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ can be seen in the response of some religious Jewish writers and Jewish advocacy organisations to evangelical Christian beliefs and evangelisation to Jews. As we shall see, groups such as the Anti-Defamation League refer to ‘supercessionism’ (the Christian notion that Christianity supercedes Judaism and that Jews should become Christians) as a form of ‘anti-Semitism’ and link Christian evangelism to Jews with ‘anti-Semitism’. The history of Christian anti-Semitism is of course a long and appalling one, but is it really ‘anti-Semitic’ for evangelical Christians to express a belief in Christian exceptionalism and the desire to convert Jews to Christianity?

Evangelical Christians for the most part believe, following texts such as John 14:6, that there is only one way to ‘salvation’ and that is through faith in Jesus. Consequently all other religions are followed in vain and will lead only to Hell. Given this belief, should an evangelical Christian fail to attempt to evangelise Jews, they are effectively condemning those Jews to eternal punishment in the flames of Hell. If I really believed Christianity was the one great truth and that all non-Christians will suffer damnation, would it not in fact be anti-Semitic of me to not offer the truth to Jews as well as all other people?

Some evangelical Christians – especially Stephen Sizer and Colin Chapman – have been causing a stir lately with their cuddling up to Islamists and other extremists in the name of ‘opposing Zionism’ and have managed to open a can of worms in the process. Once again, questions of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism have come back to haunt us. For many commentators, it is enough to condemn the words and actions of these ‘anti-Zionists’ in a purely secular sense. However, the religious dimension is important and complex. For some writers, such as Melanie Phillips, anti-Semitism underlies the religious positions of men like Sizer and Chapman. She writes:

The warped obsession with Israel is fundamental to these evangelicals’ desire to accommodate radical Islamism. Another participant at the All Nations meeting was Colin Chapman, the father of the UK movement against Christian Zionism — and whose animosity is rooted in a theological prejudice against the Jews.

Chapman’s hugely influential book, Whose Promised Land, resurrects the ancient Christian canard of ‘supercessionism’ — the belief that because the Jews denied the divinity of Christ, God transferred His favours to the Christians while the Jews were cast out as the party of the Devil. This doctrine lay behind centuries of Christian anti-Jewish hatred until the Holocaust drove it underground.

In his book, Chapman writes that violence has always been implicit in Zionism and that Jewish self-determination is somehow racist. He also subscribes to the canard of sinister Jewish power. He has written: ‘Six million Jews in the USA have an influence that is out of all proportion to their numbers in the total population of 281 million… It is widely recognised, for example, that no one could ever win the presidential race without the votes and the financial support of substantial sections of the Jewish community.’

It is a sobering fact that such a subscriber to anti-Jewish prejudice should be so influential in the church. And such thinking has many followers, including Stephen Sizer. ‘The covenant between Jews and God,’ he has written, ‘was conditional on their respect for human rights. The reason they were expelled from the land was that they were more interested in money and power and treated the poor and aliens with contempt’.

And he has denied validity to Judaism itself saying: ‘to suggest …that the Jewish people continue to have a special relationship with God, apart from faith in Jesus …is, in the words of [the leading Anglican evangelical] John Stott, “biblically anathema”.’

Looking at Phillips’ arguments, she claims that supercessionism or ‘replacement theology’ is based on a ‘canard’, that it is unacceptable to claim that the ancient Israelites were rebellious and immoral and consequently received divine punishment (even though the Old Testament explicitly states this in numerous places), and that is unacceptable to claim that the coming of Jesus has altered the relationship of God to the Jewish people.

The problem with all three charges is, of course, that they condemn religious positions that are not simply modern anti-Semitic aberrations but beliefs that have been fundamental throughout the history of Christianity, and beliefs that find a wealth of support in the Bible.

Phillips states that supercessionism constitutes an ‘ancient Christian canard’, but does it? To establish that supercessionist ideas are lies, we would need some objective basis upon which to decide this. The fact that ‘[t]his doctrine lay behind centuries of Christian anti-Jewish hatred’ is not in itself enough to dispense with the idea. After all, it is entirely possible, if one accepts the reality of God and the accuracy of the Bible, that these ideas are actually correct, even if they have resulted in great suffering for Jews in Christian lands.

The problem is that these ideas are not based on a rational reading of history but on accepting ancient religious books and their fantastic claims as accurate representations of the nature of reality. Phillips is a religious Jew, so it is only natural that she is unimpressed by Christian claims that the coming of Jesus has changed the relationship God has with the Jewish people, but, again, she seems to be suggesting that even this idea is somehow intrinsically anti-Semitic (‘a theological prejudice against the Jews’). Supercessionist ideas have undoubtedly contributed to a negative approach to Jews in Christian societies throughout the ages, and the idea that Christianity is superior to Judaism because it completes God’s plan for the world can obviously be offensive to religious Jews, but Phillips and others are being disingenuous when they try to dispense with Christian beliefs by using secular notions of anti-Semitism to oppose them, even if these beliefs do bolster the worldview of rabid opponents of Israel.

The question of supercessionism has been an issue in Christianity from its earliest days, as William A. Hartfelder. Jr. explains:

One of the fundamental issues in the Jewish-Christian encounter has been and continues to be primarily a Christian problem. It is the unresolved debate among Christians over the continuing theological integrity and legitimacy of the faith-people Israel. Whereas Judaism has no inherent need to accommodate Christianity in its understanding of itself as the Israel of God, the same is not true for Christianity vis-a-vis Judaism. From the very outset, the continued existence of Jews and Judaism has been a “thorn in the flesh” to Christianity’s claim to be the “new” or “true” Israel. Thus, Christianity’s perception of its relationship to the faith-people Israel has been a crux interpretum for Christian self-definition and proclamation.

[...]

From the Early Church Fathers onward, proponents of a supersessionist theology have had a “double-image” of Jews and Judaism. One image reveres Jews as the historic people of the Bible and the nation to which Jesus belonged. Alongside this historical image, is a theological image of Jews as stubborn adherents to an anachronistic and decadent way of life and faith. Thus, for example, St. John Chrysostom called the synagogue the Devil’s breeding ground. Similarly. St. Augustine interpreted Psalm 59 as God’s sentence upon the Jews to be negative witnesses to the Christian faith.

The question of how Christianity relates to Judaism is not in any sense coherently solved in the New Testament itself, and arguments for and against supercessionism can be drawn from its pages. Certainly, there is much to be found that is far from complementary about the Jewish religious mainstream of the time and certainly Jews who do not accept the significance of Jesus are condemned in very strong language:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?

- Matthew 23:29-33

Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute”, so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.

- Luke 11:47-51

They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?

- John 8:39-46

For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.

- 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

The problem with texts such as these is that they arose in a situation in which a small sect in Judaism – people who believed in Jesus as the Messiah – was in conflict with the mainstream of Judaism that did not accept this. This conflict underlies the vitriol found in writings such as the quotes above. There is nothing ‘anti-Semitic’ here – we are reading the documents of an internal Jewish religious argument. Where these texts started to become a problem was when Christianity mutated from a Jewish sect into a predominantly Gentile religion. These Gentiles inherited writings in the New Testament that condemn the majority of Jews and also inherited the writings they termed the ‘Old Testament’, which are likewise filled with material written by Jews but condemning Jews as unfaithful, disobedient, and so on, and pronouncing divine retribution for the wickedness of the Israelites:

I have winnowed them with a winnowing-fork
in the gates of the land;
I have bereaved them, I have destroyed my people;
they did not turn from their ways.
Their widows became more numerous
than the sand of the seas;
I have brought against the mothers of youths
a destroyer at noonday;
I have made anguish and terror
fall upon her suddenly.
She who bore seven has languished;
she has swooned away;
her sun went down while it was yet day;
she has been shamed and disgraced.
And the rest of them I will give to the sword
before their enemies, says the Lord.

- Jeremiah 15:7-9

I will send famine and wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children; pestilence and bloodshed shall pass through you; and I will bring the sword upon you. I, the Lord, have spoken.

- Ezekiel 5:17

As Paul carried out his mission to the Gentiles he developed a theology in which Christians came to be seen as the ‘new Israel’. Contrasting those who were the children of God by birth – Jews – with those who were children of God through conversion and faith – Gentile Christians – he concluded that ‘it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants’ (Romans 9:8). For Paul, Jews and Gentiles alike were the ‘children of God’ if they believed in Jesus, and the Christian proclamation became that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek … for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). In this view, Christianity removes the division between Jew and Gentile:

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

- Ephesians 2:14-16

Building on this, the early Church Fathers expounded a supercessionist understanding of Christianity in relation to Judaism, as found in the Second and Third Century writings of Justin Martyr and Origen:

If, therefore, God proclaimed a new covenant which was to be instituted, and this for a light of the nations, we see and are persuaded that men approach God, leaving their idols and other unrighteousness, through the name of Him who was crucified, Jesus Christ, and abide by their confession even unto death, and maintain piety. Moreover, by the works and by the attendant miracles, it is possible for all to understand that He is the new law, and the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God. For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ, as shall be demonstrated while we proceed.

- Justin Martyr – Dialogue with Trypho

One fact, then, which proves that Jesus was something divine and sacred, is this, that Jews should have suffered on His account now for a lengthened time calamities of such severity. And we say with confidence that they will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the Saviour of the human race in that city where they offered up to God a worship containing the symbols of mighty mysteries. It accordingly behoved that city where Jesus underwent these sufferings to perish utterly, and the Jewish nation to be overthrown, and the invitation to happiness offered them by God to pass to others,–the Christians, I mean, to whom has come the doctrine of a pure and holy worship, and who have obtained new laws, in harmony with the established constitution in all countries; seeing those which were formerly imposed, as on a single nation which was ruled by princes of its own race and of similar manners, could not now be observed in all their entireness.

- Origen – Contra Celsus, Book 4 Chapter 22

In Origen’s writings, we see the problem of Christian anti-Semitism rearing its head, with the charge of deicide – ‘they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind’ – and Jewish suffering presented as God’s punishment. Later in Christian history, of course, the ‘Christ killer’ notion became a justification for pogroms and the continuing existence of Jews came to be seen as an insult to God, because they continued to reject Christian ideas about Jesus and maintained their adherence to Judaism. The difficulty is assessing where theological notions derived from the Bible end and anti-Semitism begins.

Phillips seems to see supercessionism as a form of anti-Semitism and is appalled that some evangelicals have ‘denied validity to Judaism itself’, but this is an over simplification. Supercessionist ideas are present in the New Testament, ideas that Jews who do not believe in Jesus are children of the Devil, or ‘cast out as the party of the Devil’ as Phillips puts it, are found in the New Testament, and the idea that Judaism has ‘validity’ is of course negated in the New Testament. After all, logically speaking, if Judaism was sufficient in itself, why would Jesus have come at all and why would there be a New Testament and a new covenant? How people make use of these ideas is another question, and they can indeed be used as part of, or help to form, an anti-Semitic worldview, but these are not in themselves anti-Semitic ideas. Phillips seems to be conflating New Testament theology with anti-Semitism, especially by suggesting that there is something unacceptable and sinister about Christians saying Jews are wrong to continue in Judaism and that God’s relationship with the people of Israel has been changed with the coming of Jesus. Phillips may not like these beliefs, but that doesn’t make them morally aberrant. Presenting anti-Semitism as being at work in anything that is critical of Judaism seems dangerously close to being an attempt to shut down the right of people to have critical views of Judaism and to express traditional Christian theological ideas.

The phenomenon of presenting Christian beliefs and those who express them as anti-Semites has been going on for some time now. Take the case of comments made in 1980 by Bailey Smith, then President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Smith stated:

It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray, and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemous.

Time Magazine reported that:

Sensing more anti-Semitism than due respect, “those dear people” decided Smith’s words should not go unnoticed. Last week the American Jewish Committee sent transcripts around the country.

But was this anti-Semitism? Smith was a fundamentalist Baptist, a man whose understanding of reality was shaped by a belief in Christian theological ideas. It was not suggested that Smith had previous espoused ideas that could be understood as anti-Semitic in any social or political sense. He wasn’t threatening the safety of Jews or lobbying against them, he was expressing what he considered to be a Biblically accurate assessment. Smith’s comments are insulting and hurtful to Jews, but they are not hateful (and incidentally, people like him would undoubtedly say the same thing about people of any faith other than Christianity). The New Testament presents the notion that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jesus in John 14:6) and that ‘no one who denies the Son has the Father’ (1 John 2:23). Given the fact that, as non-believers in Jesus, Jews ‘deny the Son’, one could deduce therefore, as Smith did, that their prayers fall on deaf ears. It was a stupid statement to make, but it wasn’t anti-Semitic.

More recently, there was the case of the American right-wing columnist Ann Coulter whose comments on Judaism caused a stir. In a 2007 interview on Donny Deutsch’s CNBC show ‘The Big Idea’, Coulter expressed her belief that everyone should become a Christian:

DEUTSCH: Christian — so we should be Christian? It would be better if we were all Christian?

COULTER: Yes.

DEUTSCH: We should all be Christian?

COULTER: Yes. Would you like to come to church with me, Donny?

DEUTSCH: So I should not be a Jew, I should be a Christian, and this would be a better place?

[...]

DEUTSCH: We should just throw Judaism away and we should all be Christians, then, or —

COULTER: Yeah.

In addition to this, Coulter stated that she considered Christians to be ‘perfected Jews’.

Again, as with Smith, Coulter hardly chose her words carefully, but what she was saying was mainstream New Testament Christianity. She believes Christianity is true, not in some relativistic sense of ‘true for her’, but literally the truth. The New Testament is very clear that those who reject Jesus will spend an eternity in punishment and be cut off from God forever. It is very clear that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus. So, when Coulter stated that Deutsch, a Jew, should give up on Judaism and come to Christianity she was simply being honest about what her religion has always taught and what her ‘holy book’ tells her. This was not a case of anti-Semitism – i.e. hatred of Jews. Nonetheless, the fallout was predictable:

The American Jewish Committee issued a statement declaring that it is “outraged” by Coulter’s assertion on Donny Deutsch’s CNBC show “The Big Idea” that Jews require “perfecting” by becoming Christians.

“Ms. Coulter’s assertion that Jews are somehow religiously imperfect smacks of the most odious anti-Jewish sentiment,” said AJC President Richard Sideman.

[...]

“One would think she would know better than to utter such intolerant words,” Sideman said.

The National Jewish Democratic Council is going even farther, demanding the media stop interviewing the bestselling author because of her statements on the television program.

The council called on “mainstream media outlets” to stop inviting Coulter as a guest commentator and pundit and strongly condemned her comments that in a perfect world all would be Christians.

[...]

The Anti-Defamation League also issued a statement saying it “strongly condemns” Coulter for “her anti-Semitic comment.”

“Ann Coulter may be a political pundit but she clearly knows very little about religious theology and interfaith issues,” the ADL said in a statement. “Coulter’s remarks are outrageous, offensive and a throwback to the centuries-old teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism.

“The notion that Jews are religiously inferior or imperfect because they do not accept Christian beliefs was the basis for 2,000 years of church-based anti-Semitism. While she is entitled to her beliefs, using mainstream media to espouse the idea that Judaism needs to be replaced with Christianity and that each individual Jew is somehow deficient and needs to be ‘perfected,’ is rank Christian supersessionism and has been rejected by the Catholic Church and the vast majority of mainstream Christian denominations.”

Here again we see the argument that because supercessionism was historically used as a justification for anti-Semitism that means, therefore, that supercessionist ideas are intrinsically anti-Semitic, which is simply untrue. There is a key difference between a theological belief and how that influences real life events, and there is also the question of interpretation. As noted earlier, Christianity is intrinsically supercessionist insofar as it makes the claim that something extra – Jesus – was needed to ‘complete’ Judaism. Coulter’s remarks were ‘out-dated’ in the sense that most major denominations now shy away from such statements about the need for everyone to convert to Christianity, but they were not ‘anti-Jewish’ or malicious.

Supercessionism can form part of the basis for anti-Semitism, but expressing the belief that Christianity updates or completes Judaism is far from being an incitement to violence or discrimination against Jews. The danger of supercessionism is that it can separate Christianity from its Jewish roots and lead to Jews being seen as an unrelated ‘Other’. An obvious sign of this is the way Jesus and his disciples came to be seen as essentially non-Jewish figures, to the extent that even Hitler could try to claim Jesus for his anti-Jewish project:

My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by only a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned me to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love, as a Christian and as a man, I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord rose at last in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was the fight for the world against the Jewish poison.

The point is, though, that Hitler clearly embraced all manner of anti-Semitic ideas which are unrelated to Christianity, with his belief in racial pseudo-science and nonsense about ‘Aryans’. He was able to make use of the history of Christian animosity towards Jews, but to claim that this animosity is entirely rooted in supercessionist ideas is utterly false. Christian societies have used supercessionism to justify anti-Semitic views and policies, but it is not as though anti-Semitism suddenly sprung into existence with the rise of Christianity, for there are plenty of examples in the ancient world of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was already widespread, and supercessionism was simply added into the mix.

The claim that expressing a religious view that is not complimentary of Judaism is always a sign of anti-Semitism is a claim too far. To state that believing that Christianity supercedes Judaism is anti-Semitic is as false as claiming that the notion of Jewish ‘chosenness’ is intrinsically supremacist. Anti-Semites can twist supercessionism to support a hateful ideology in just the same way as Rabbi Yaacov Perrin twisted the idea of God having a special relationship with the Jewish people when he claimed that ‘one million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail’.

Anti-Semitism always and everywhere must be exposed, condemned, and opposed. All forms of bigotry and hatred justified on religious grounds must be treated likewise. But when we are dealing with claims of anti-Semitism we must be very clear about what we mean. Theological ideas regarding Judaism can indeed be used to justify or to mask anti-Semitic sentiment, but it is simply not right to immediately assume that hatred and animosity towards Jews as human beings lies behind any statement that is not entirely complementary of Jewish religious belief, or that the Christian claim that Jesus is the ultimate truth automatically equates with denigration of the Jewish people. When men like Sizer associate with a rogue’s gallery of extremists, they should be condemned. When they make assertions about the superiority of Christianity, they should be challenged, but throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism is not the way to do it.

Edmund Standing holds a BA in Theology & Religious Studies and an MA in Critical & Cultural Theory. He writes regularly for Butterflies & Wheels and also blogs at Harry’s Place.

Comments are closed.