Religious, social, and political antisemitism has a long history. Even many well-known historic Christian leaders were antisemitic. St. Augustine (354 – 430), the Bishop of Hippo who gave us the belief in Original Sin, argued that Jewish people should be left alive and suffering as a perpetual reminder of their murder of Jesus Christ. Augustine’s anti-Jewish teacher, St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – 397, described Jewish people as a special subset of those people damned to hell. 

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was also fiercely antisemitic. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Luther recommended in his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses, he said, should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, Luther said that rabbis should be forbidden to teach “on pain of loss of life and limb.”

Much antisemitism has continued because people who could do something about it either simply ignored it or refused to take action against it.

Over the past ten years, there has been considerable criticism of Pope Pius XII (1876 – 1958) and his stance on Nazi antisemitism and Jewish genocide. In 2019, Pope Francis ordered the archives of Pope Pius XII opened, saying “The church is not afraid of history.” Pius XII was pope from from March 2, 1939, until his death on October 9, 1958, thus throughout the duration of WWII.

Since, the Vatican opened its sealed archives on Pope Pius XII’s pontificate in March 2020, research about Pius XII’s role during World War II has intensified. Most recently, according to Nicole Winfield the Vatican correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, reporting on September 16, 2023, newly discovered correspondence in Vatican archives suggests that Pius XII actually had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were being gassed each day in German occupied Poland. The letter from the priest, Lothar Koenig, to Pius XII’s secretary, a fellow German Jesuit named Robert Leiber, is dated 14 December 1942. 

This revelation undercuts the Holy See’s earlier-stated position that it could not denounce Nazi atrocities when Pius XII was pope because it couldn’t verify any diplomatic reports of Nazi atrocities during his papacy.

It should also come as no surprise that procedures leading up to Pius XII’s canonization have now been halted. There will be more very serious study about Pius XII for sure, but right now we need to confront contemporary antisemitism.

Antisemitism, the hatred of Jews as a group or a concept, has existed in different forms throughout history. During the Middle Ages, antisemitism was religion-based and centered on inaccurate myths about Jews and Judaism. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this hatred evolved into a non-religious form, as the world became obsessed with nationalism and perceived racial differences. During the Holocaust, Jews were persecuted and murdered because of Nazi ideology about racial superiority.

I grew up in a community where people used the word “jew” to mean cheap, stingy, and a cheater. But antisemitism continues to persist to this day. 

Antisemitism in the United States:

Over the past five years antisemitic violence has greatly increased in the United States, and there has been a sharp rise in harassment, vandalism, and assaults aimed at Jewish men, women and children.

  • The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on October 27, 2018, was an antisemitic terrorist attack in the form of a mass shooting, which took place at the Tree of Life synagogue. The perpetrator killed eleven people and wounded six, including several Holocaust survivors. It was the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States.
  • The Poway synagogue shooting occurred on April 27, 2019, at Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California on the last day of the Jewish Passover holiday. Armed with an AR-15 style rifle, the shooter fatally shot one woman and injured three other persons, including the synagogue’s rabbi.
  • On December 10, 2019, a shooting took place at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey. Three people were killed at the store by two assailants,
  • On the night of December 28, 2019, the seventh night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, a masked man wielding a large knife invaded the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York and began stabbing the guests.
  • On January 15, 2022, a 44-year-old British Pakistani armed with a pistol, took four people as hostages in the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. 
  • In February 2023, two Jewish men were shot when they were leaving religious services at two separate synagogues in the same predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. 
  • Most recently, as reported by Media Matters for America (September 12, 2023), since Elon Musk, took over the company in 2023, X Corp — formerly known as Twitter — has placed numerous advertisements on pro-Hitler, Holocaust denial, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi accounts. X Corp advertisements have also appeared next to unhinged conspiracy theories that Jewish people were responsible for 9/11. [Media Matters for America is a nonprofit liberal organization and media watchdog group.]

The number of antisemitic incidents in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League, increased by more than 35% in 2022, from 2,721 in 2021 to 3,697. Antisemitic hate crimes rose in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, homes to the country’s three largest Jewish populations.

What to do about antisemitism:

We need to combat religious antisemitism by clearing-up problematic and incorrect biblical interpretations. 

  • For far too long too many Christians have promoted a false understanding of God in the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament”) as a God of wrath, stressing that the “correct” understanding of God in the New Testament is the Christian God of love.
  • Our biblical translations and religious language need, as well, a corrective and thorough updating. This is particularly important when we realize how New Testament mistranslations have supported antisemitism. In most New Testament translations there is still a major translation problem. The historical Jesus, “Yeshua” as he was known, belonged to the Hebrew religious tradition. He was a Galilean from Nazareth. His home territory, Galilee, was part of the province of Judaea. 
  • There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. The word “Jew” came into existence centuries after Jesus. The inscription on Jesus’ cross, often abbreviated as “INRI,” stood for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. It meant “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans.” NOT “King of the Jews.” Pontius Pilate, responsible for the jeering inscription, was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judea.
  • The Gospel of Matthew has been interpreted, in many Christian traditions, in an antisemitic way because the Greek and Latin words ioudaios and iudaeus have not been translated as “Judean” but incorrectly as “Jew.” The Gospel of Matthew has often been regarded as a great contributor to the development of antisemitism, particularly because of the charge of Matthew 27:25. This so-called “blood guilt” text has been interpreted to mean that the Hebrew people of Jesus’ time and afterwards the “Jewish” people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus. 
  • I clearly remember the Roman Catholic Good Friday prayer, as it existed before 1959: “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews, that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” [A note regarding the spelling of Iesus and Iudaeorum, the letter “J” did not exist until the sixteenth century.]

Recent popes and the Second Vatican Council held October 11, 1962 – December 8, 1965) have endeavored to improve Jewish-Christian relations. In 1964, Pope Paul VI (pope from 1963 to 1978) became the first pope to visit Israel, and in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the Latin document “Nostra Aetate,” (“In Our Times”) which denounced antisemitism and said Jewish people could not collectively be blamed for the death of Jesus. The promulgation, on October 28, 1965, of Nostra Aetate may be the most important moment is post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian relations. Memorable lines are these: “Since Christians and Jews have such a common spiritual heritage, this sacred council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation. This can be achieved, especially, by way of biblical and theological enquiry and through friendly discussions. Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion.”

We need to combat religious antisemitism by denouncing faulty history and improving historical education. 

There is, for example, considerable falsehood being taught about the Holocaust.

One of the newer forms of antisemitism is the denial of the Holocaust by revisionist historians and neo-Nazis. Austin App (1902-1984) professor of medieval English literature who taught at the University of Scranton and La Salle University is considered the first major U.S. American Holocaust denier. App wrote extensively in newspapers and periodicals, and he also wrote a couple of books which detailed his defense of Nazi Germany and Holocaust denial. App’s work inspired the Institute for Historical Review, a California center which was founded in 1978 with the sole purpose of denying the Holocaust. 

On September 16, 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany announced the release of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey. In the survey, one in ten young U.S. Americans believed that the Holocaust never happened, while 23 per cent thought it’s a myth or that the number of those killed has been exaggerated. Nationally, 63 % of the survey respondents did not know that six million Jews were murdered, and 36 % thought that “two million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust. Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 48 percent of national survey respondents could not name a single one.

Unlike many other bigotries, antisemitism is not merely a social prejudice. It is a dangerous conspiracy theory about how the world operates. 

People who embrace conspiracy theories to explain their problems lose the ability to rationally solve them. And so, Jews, who make up just 0.2 % of the world’s population, become the scapegoats with people believing that “the Jews” run the banks, that “the Jews” dominate business, and that “the Jews” dominate politics and are threat to the world security.

Scapegoats of course get used and abused. As early as August 1920, Adolf Hitler blamed “the Jews” for everything that was wrong with the world. Germany was weak and in decline due to the “’Jewish influence.” According to Hitler, “the Jews” were after world dominance. And they would not hesitate to use all possible means. In this way, Hitler took advantage of the existing prejudice that linked Jewish people to monetary power and financial gain.

Well, we can learn a lot from our understanding of contemporary and historic realities…


10 thoughts on “Antisemitism Yesterday and Today

  1. Bravo. I’m saving it because there is so much good info together in one place. Thank you, Jack

  2. Pius XII isn’t the only modern long serving pope whose canonization appears to have been rushed, without considering the full history of his papacy!!

  3. Dear Jack,
    This piece reads like the syllabus for a full course of study. In so many ways it sheds light on how and why we today have somewhat muddled views of our Biblical roots. My first reaction was, “Wow! So much for being the Chosen People of God! I’m glad my family is Lithuanian!!” We call ourselves Judeo-Christians but have demonstrated a tepid connection with our Old Testament heritage. If Jesus came to redeem us all and was the Lamb of God led to his death for mankind’s failings, how can Jews be blamed for being “Jesus killers?” Why not Italians since Romans allowed it to happen? Or is it simply that we humans are hardwired to be tribal and need to be better than “those” people? Thanks for making my head hurt, Jack! 🙂

  4. Thank you for this recent blog. It is certainly complex but is also very timely. For quite some time it has been known that the bible has been “modified” and translated from one language to another to fit the authors viewpoint. It has been the basis for many as the one and only true word of God, regardless of what version you’re referring to.
    To quote from your blog “Much antisemitism has continued because people who could do something about it simply ignored it or refused to take action against it.” “We need to combat antisemitism by denouncing faulty history and improving historical education.”
    People are leaving their churches because they discovered the “faulty history ” of what they’ve been taught. By providing a factual “historical education”, antisemitism could be a thing of the past.
    Kathy Digman

  5. My answer to anti-semitic comments involves a classic Socratic syllogism. I adapt it to fit the comments made but it is based on this:
    All Jews are bad and deserve punishment (of X, Y or Z)
    Jesus was a Jew
    Therefore, Jesus deserves X Y or Z
    No-one has yet had an answer.
    I take your points about Jesus/Yeshua being Judean rather than Jewish and so on, but find this fits into the current common understanding of Catholic communities around here.

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