American Antisemitism & Philosemitism

on November 15, 2018

Recently I’ve encountered two antisemites making the rounds at Christian public policy events in Washington.

One is a Catholic woman of pronounced paleoconservative views. Among numerous recent places where I’ve seen her, she’s attended two IRD events, drinking heavily, commenting negatively about our work, and asking outspoken questions of speakers. At a Catholic event about Israel she asked why America supports Israel when “those people” are corrupting America at home. In 30 years of attending DC events I had never heard any public comment so openly antisemitic.

The other is an Evangelical man whom I encountered twice within 24 hours at two separate Christian events, and he asked questions at both. He approached me and others with a book that had “changed his life” about Zionism. I later learned it denied the Holocaust. He also is a 9-11 truther, who believes the Twin Towers were deliberately felled by “controlled demolitions.” When he approached me with his theory I said “that’s crazy” and walked away. Hopefully he’s accustomed to hearing that response, but if so, he’s undaunted.

There are always crazies, and hopefully these two nut jobs are isolated and don’t represent a trend. Sadly, new FBI statistics reveal a sharp rise in antisemitic crimes. The murderous assault on the Pittsburgh synagogue by a rabid antisemite is the most horrible recent example. It has long been assumed and hoped that America is not as susceptible to antisemitism as many European countries have been experiencing. But is that hope justified?

Of course America has always had prejudice against Jewish people, exemplified in past times by housing covenants, exclusion from country clubs, quotas in private schools, among other sad examples. But ideological antisemitism, especially compared to Europe, has typically been rare. One reason is America’s core commitment to religious freedom, so powerfully articulated at the start by President George Washington’s inspirational assurance to the Rhode Island synagogue.

Another is the philosemitism characterizing so much of America’s history and character, starting with but not limited to the Puritans. Both Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin thought America’s great seal should portray the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. America self-understanding as a called out people with a special covenant has long identified with ancient Israel.

In this vein, John Adams was adamant about civilization’s debt to the Jews:

I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations …  They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.

Such appreciation for Judaism animates much of American spiritual and political discourse. Presidents as early as McKinley and Wilson were Zionists. Truman of course ensured America was first to recognize modern Israel. Recently I heard Israel’s ambassador to America lament that FDR unlike his friend Churchill was not Zionist. I disagree. FDR was politically cautious, often allowing different persons of contradictory views to believe he agreed with them. But the arch of his political career pointed toward Zionism, concluding with his personal but unsuccessful appeal to the Saudi king. Both FDR and Churchill, unlike many others in their social class, enjoyed many Jewish friendships and associates.

America’s DNA is blessedly biased against if not fully inoculated against antisemitism and is more often philosemitic than not. But poisonous roots can sprout even in unfriendly soil. America’s republican institutions and psyche are deeply shaped by the Bible and the people whom it chronicles. Antisemitism is often worse than other hatreds because it disdains not just the Jews but ultimately also their God, who is Creator of us all.

All bigotry is wicked and unAmerican. But antisemitism is a particular rejection of America’s identity that is politically and spiritually suicidal. May the two antisemitic crazies I’ve recently encountered recede. And may God protect us from their more murderous kindred spirits.

  1. Comment by David McKay on November 15, 2018 at 10:45 am

    You point out that America’s historical rejection of antisemitism has been deeply rooted in our particular religious culture. Is it any wonder that the unraveling of that culture would begin to end that rejection? I fear we should expect to see more of it as we become increasingly diverse in our theologies (or lack thereof).

  2. Comment by Judith Mendelsohn Rood on November 15, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    As we move away from the Bible as a culture, and as evangelicals embrace Reform theology, we will be a nation built on moralism and popular notions of the Common Good rather than the fear of the Lord. Allegory is a snare, tempting us to leave our biblical roots. Too many evangelicals mock premillennialism dispensationalist, but that philosophy of history reawakened Christians to unfulfilled prophecy and the reality of a world that was growing progressively darker as Modernism swept through the mainline churches. With post-modernism we at least have the opportunity to argue for a biblical metanarrative with a generous theology of history. That means our witness as Christians to the Jewish people should be of unconditional love, a love that may point them to our savior, who is, Himself, live. What will our witness be? Let it not be said that we are ashamed of the gospel.

  3. Comment by Judith Mendelsohn Rood on November 15, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    Two typos *premillenialism

    *love, not live.

  4. Comment by Victor Styrsky on November 15, 2018 at 11:08 pm

    Absolutely excellent as always my friend.
    I too run into (and over) folks like those you’ve mentioned and it is always temporarily jarring to my soul. What keeps me awake at night however is not these sorts of ‘Christians” amongst us. With the nation’s hatred collapsing upon the tiny Middle Eastern splinter of land and people connected to it, our Jewish brothers and sisters who are not afraid to keep their eyes open are afraid right now. The Jewish people need a friend.

    I am most troubled by the vast number of people within our Christian faith community who boast of a love for Israel and the Jewish people – yet confess they do not know a single Jew.

  5. Comment by David on November 18, 2018 at 7:13 am

    Freedom for Jews in this country long predates the United States: “The Law of Love, Peace, and Liberty extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians as they are considered the sonnes of Adam” —The Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of the Towne of Vlishing [Flushing, NY], 27 December 1657.

    Today, Flushing and the surroundings areas are considered the most ethnically and religiously diverse places on earth. It might be noted that Jews here have more religious freedom than in Israel where the orthodox government sponsored religious authorities deny the branches of Judaism other than their own. States founded on religion almost invariably fall into bigotry.

    While it is far too late to change matters, had European refugees been content to live in a multiethnic, Arabic speaking Palestine, there may have been less hostility from the native population. However, matters have become a blood feud that will never end in our lifetimes. Americans should avoid being drawn into this conflict with specious religious arguments.

  6. Comment by Richard S Bell on November 19, 2018 at 11:55 pm

    Does Mr Tooley confuse antisemitism with antizionism?

  7. Comment by Charlie on December 5, 2018 at 6:18 am

    David, Israel is multi ethnic and Arab speaking. And European Jews were content to live in such a “Palestine”, going so far as to accepting a UN proposal which would have ceded them far less land than they have today and which would have internationalised Jerusalem. The native population was hostile to the Jews (or some of them – the majority wasn’t) because they were Jews and nothing else. And I think the point of Mark’s piece is that we should love the Jews (unlike so many Muslims in the Middle East and even at home in the United States).

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