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.