The Threat of Real Anti-Semitism
Text and photos by Ryan Rodrick Beiler
Lent is a time of introspection and confession, and recent experiences have caused me to reflect on a particular fault to confess: During my previous four years of living in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, I have not always taken the threat of real anti-Semitism seriously enough.
I say "real anti-Semitism" because many who have criticized Israel's actions have experienced accusations of anti-Semitism as a way of stifling honest debate. While Palestinian friends point out that they too are a Semitic people, for my purposes here I'm using the term anti-Semitism according to its more typically understood meaning which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, is "the belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews, for instance, or political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them. It may also include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews."
Christians approaching the Easter season and reading its texts need to be mindful of the history in which the core story of our faith has been twisted to incite anti-Semitic violence against Jews. The "Christ-killer" epithet, based in part on Matthew 27:24-25, has been used over the centuries—with the backing of church institutions—to accuse Jews of being collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, who was Jewish.
"Matthew has told the story of the events that led up to Jesus' death in order to make exactly the opposite point," argues New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. Citing the role of Pilate, Judas, religious leaders, and "the crowd" Wright declares: "It was everybody's fault."
"The crowd may indeed have shouted 'his blood be on us, and on our children' (verse 25)—a chilling phrase which has been horribly abused by many so-called Christians who have used it as an excuse to persecute Jewish people, Jesus' own blood relatives," Wright comments. "But Matthew's point is that, though the crowd are indeed complicit, everyone else is, too."
The "deicide" slur was chanted by mobs carrying out pogroms against Jewish communities throughout Europe, culminating in the Holocaust and the murders of more than six million Jews. Unfortunately, such teachings were not officially repudiated by the Catholic Church until Vatican II in the 1960s.
Given that shameful and violent history, it is shocking when such hate speech surfaces in the present day. After recently publishing an article critical of Christian Zionism, I had the following Twitter conversation:
@ameen_faouri: who killed Jesus again??!!
@RRodrickBeiler: the Romans. But still, some of my best friends are Italian.
@ameen_faouri: it's not what most ppl r saying!! But being an Israeli you probably have your own version of truth !
@RRodrickBeiler: what makes u think I'm Israeli? Just cuz I don't tolerate perpetuation of anti-Semitic Christ-killer motif?
@ameen_faouri: no! It's because no one with any sense of justice and good well, will ever support apartheid and occupation
@RRodrickBeiler: maybe you should read some of my articles … I don't think you're understanding my perspective #FreePalestine
@ameen_faouri: anti Semitic and holocaust are words I hear from Zionist to justify their crimes against Palestine,so yes I don't understand
I then tweeted a link about the recent actions of some Norwegian Muslims who, in response to extremist attacks on Jews in Europe, organized a "Ring of Peace" at the only functioning synagogue in Oslo. Because several of the organizers were also outspoken pro-Palestine activists—and ironically accused of being anti-Semitic even as they were organizing an event in solidarity with Jews—some took the chance to clearly declare that it's possible to criticize Israel while defending Jews at the same time.
"I'm a justice activist," said Morad Jarodi, one of the event's organizers. "To support Palestine to be free from occupation and support Jewish minorities is no contradiction."
Part of the problem results from conflating the modern state of Israel with all Jews everywhere. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently did this when he claimed to represent "the entire Jewish people". Many Jews, including Jon Stewart, disagree.
"Maybe when people see that the same people who have such strong opinions about Israel also support Norwegian Jews, then that will make an impact," said Qeaam Ibn Malik, another Ring of Peace organizer. "More will understand that it is a system that we are fighting, not people of another faith."
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is an accusation from which Palestinians and their supporters (even Jewish supporters) must defend themselves again and again.
"Whenever I spoke up about my situation, I was called anti-Semitic," said Munther Isaac, vice academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College, speaking at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which he directs. "I do not hate the Jewish people. It is against my new nature in Christ to hate."
I once had an editor refuse to publish my coverage of a Palm Sunday protest by Palestinian Christians because, according to him, the location and timing of the event created a narrative link between the Israeli occupation and Holy Week, thereby creating a link between the Jewish state and Jesus' crucifixion, thereby invoking the "Christ-killer" trope. I was frustrated. Should Palestinian Christians who are denied entry to Jerusalem during Holy Week refrain from protesting at the Bethlehem checkpoint because their arrests by Israeli soldiers evokes parallels to Jesus' suffering?
Distinctions and nuances sometimes seem irrelevant to those who consider unacceptable any comparison between the Israeli occupation and Christ's suffering. Even carefully intended words can be overwhelmed by fears rooted in a history of persecution.
"Applying these narratives to the Jewish people today and to the State of Israel, [has] consequences and implications that their use in any other present situation does not engender," according to Rabbi Yehiel Poupko. "The continued application of the crucifixion today … perpetuates the worst elements of the Christian teachings of contempt for Judaism and for Jews."
As @ameen_faouri wrote at the end of our Twitter conversation, the Holocaust is often invoked to defend Israel's actions. Would Palestinian Christians be cautioned against identifying their suffering with Jesus' suffering if European Christians had not so mercilessly wielded the "Christ-killer" slander throughout centuries of anti-Jewish violence?
"The rejection and persecution of Jews in Europe is tragic and shameful," says Isaac. "The church has rightly done a lot of soul-searching and revisited its relationship with the Jewish nation. The problem is not in theology. The problem is in our conduct and ethics."
It is only natural that there are theological differences between Christians and Jews—and between Christians as well, for that matter. The problem comes when these natural differences in belief are twisted to inspire hatred or violence. As recent incidents in Europe demonstrate, anti-Jewish violence is not a thing of the past.
We must take the concerns of our Jewish neighbors seriously—and like the Muslim youth in Oslo, take every opportunity to publicly defend them. But also like those youth, we must accept that we cannot satisfy every critic. In this delicate work, having real relationships with Jewish allies is important both for accountability and authenticity. It is not enough to offer the disingenuous platitude that "some of my best friends are Jewish."
The Ring of Peace organizers forged real bonds with their Jewish neighbors despite acknowledged differences on Israel. The following week, the president of Oslo's Jewish community stood in a solidarity ring at a local mosque. The Christ at the Checkpoint conference that Isaac leads welcomes Messianic believers and other Jewish leaders to the stage for honest conversation that necessarily includes a lot of agreeing-to-disagree.
And while a Christian publication refused my first Palm Sunday protest story, in subsequent years Jewish Israeli colleagues at 972 Magazine and the Alternative Information Center encouraged me to publish coverage of similar Palestinian Christian protests. Through these and other relationships, my understandings and sensitivities continue to evolve.
Some critics may scoff at these examples as "unrepresentative, radical left-wing" Israelis or "self-hating" Jews. (All of these friends have excellent self-esteem as far as I can tell.) What such accusations reveal is that the issue may be less about acceptable speech—but more about acceptable politics.
In solidarity with his fellow Jews, Jesus consistently criticized the injustices of the powerful, but nowhere does he offer any justification for collectively blaming an entire religious or ethnic group for the actions of a few. In the modern context of Israel and Palestine, that's a challenge all sides must heed.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance photojournalist who lived Jerusalem and Bethlehem from 2010-2014. He now lives in Oslo, Norway.