Combating Anti-Semitism

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I remember little about my visit as a 12-year-old to Germany’s Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. But I will never forget the silence of my parents and grandfather who visited it with my sister and me. That silence stretched out for what felt to me like hours.

I have observed similar silence during subsequent visits to Holocaust sites such as Germany’s Buchenwald Memorial and Ukraine’s monument to Jews massacred in Babi Yar outside Kiev. I have also heard silence settle over visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Such silence in the face of the Holocaust’s horrors is appropriate. However, silence in the face of the anti-Semitism that triggered that genocide is inexcusable and persistent. Such silence is, in fact, dangerous given that under its protection both hatred and violence, products of anti-Semitism, flourish.

While I was on sabbatical leave, I reviewed the sermons of 12 American Protestant pastors who preached between 1935 and 1946. I wished to learn whether they had preached about the Holocaust as it was unfolding. I hoped to discover that those ministers had publicly preached against its atrocities.

After all, prominent newspapers and radio broadcasts were not silent about the Holocaust. They repeatedly wrote about the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. Even some Christian magazines and newspapers shared reports of the horrors Europe’s Jews were experiencing.

However, very few of the nearly 200 American Protestant sermons I reviewed even mentioned the Holocaust. While a few preachers wrote about that suffering, they said virtually nothing about it in their sermons. This admittedly tiny sample size suggests that American Protestant preachers were largely silent in the face of Jewish persecution.

Of course, it would be an exercise in fantasy to imagine that preachers’ sermons could have stemmed the tide of anti-Semitism that characterized so much of the mid-20th century United States. Many powerful voices clamored to limit the admittance of Jews fleeing Europe, and those voices would have undoubtedly drowned out any that called for love and acceptance of their Jewish neighbors.

But faithfulness to the gospel requires that Christians speak out against all forms of injustice and unrighteousness—even if others ignore or drown out those voices. The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority has for some time run a campaign with the slogan, “If you see something, say something.” It is a call to riders to be vigilant about both real and potential threats to other riders’ well-being.

Those who would combat anti-Semitism might adopt the same slogan: “If you see something, say something.” After all, love for both God and our neighbors compels God’s people to speak up and out when others are harming, threatening, or even attempting to intimidate those neighbors.

Nearly all of us have seen, heard, or read about recent acts of anti-Semitic violence. In the past year attackers have murdered Jews in Pennsylvania and New Jersey simply because they were Jewish. While those attacks have been reported, silence sometimes hangs over other acts of anti-Semitic violence and harassment, such as the use of racial slurs and expressions of racial stereotypes.

Christians can begin to combat such anti-Semitism by keeping ourselves aware of its manifestations. We must pay close attention to media reports of acts of anti-Semitism and not allow ourselves to become desensitized to casual anti-Semitic racism. Not only must Christians maintain awareness of anti-Semitism, we also have the duty to speak out when we read about, hear of, and especially witness it.

We must speak out against those acts with our family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Pastors and other church leaders also are obligated to seek ways to publicly condemn such acts.

At the same time, Christians ought to actively look for ways to cultivate relationships with Jewish people. While we differ on some extremely important tenets of our faith, Jews and Christians share both a conviction of our creation in God’s image and a commitment to the Old Testament’s testimony to God’s covenantal faithfulness.

Of course, while Jewish people are Christians’ neighbors, some of them are not our nearby neighbors. Some Christians don’t live, work, or shop near Jewish people. Even when Christians and Jews are neighbors, we don’t always have much contact with each other.

However, Christians who do have nearby Jewish neighbors can combat anti-Semitism by developing closer relationships with them. I live, work, and worship in a neighborhood in which many Jewish people live and worship. In fact, Jewish people walk past our church and our home on their way to various activities in their synagogues.

Yet since Jews and Christians sometimes silently walk past each other, a local rabbi’s outreach to me as a pastor was a marvelous grace. We have for a few years periodically met to talk about many things. While standing near his son’s playpen in his study in their synagogue, we discussed challenges busy clergy face in trying to be a good spouse and parent.

The rabbi treated me to my first delicious breakfast of a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese. He invited me to a screening of a film about the Holocaust where he proudly introduced me as his friend to members of his synagogue. We have also promised to pray for each other.

Of course, any interfaith activity is always fraught with hazards. The elephant in the room with most of our Jewish neighbors is our radically different understanding of the person and role of Jesus Christ. Since we long for God to make room for our Jewish neighbors in the new creation, we also long for them to receive God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Yet, as we wait and pray for their salvation, we treat Jewish people and their faith with respect. As we cultivate relationships with them, we deliberately view them as people God creates in God’s image. We seek to learn more about their faith and its nuances. We pray and work for Jewish people’s well-being.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan may help to shape our relationships with our Jewish neighbors and fight anti-Semitism. One of Jesus’ contemporaries wishes to identify the neighbors whom God calls him to love. Jesus instead teaches him how to be a neighbor.

In the parable we learn a great deal about Jesus through the Good Samaritan’s sacrificial care for the assaulted traveler representing each of us. Jesus also teaches his followers much about our own care for our “traveling” neighbors. For centuries people have brutalized and left for dead countless “travelers” who are Jewish. Christians have found many reasons to pass them by on the other side of the road.

But Jesus summons his followers to respond to God’s amazing grace not by passing by, but by ministering to them. God invites Christians to respond to anti-Semitism by actively and even self-sacrificially caring for our Jewish neighbors who have been the victims of so much violence.

Jesus’ followers long for our Jewish neighbors to share space with us not only in the body of Christ, but in the new creation. Until that day, we must faithfully respond to God’s call us to love them the way God loves us.

About the Author

Rev. Doug Bratt is a pastor of the Silver Spring Christian Reformed Church in Silver Spring, Md. He has been an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church for nearly 33 years.

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During the second world war, there was little public news about the holocaust until the war was over. The American Army was very surprised when they freed Dachau (where my dad was) to see how many dead there were - and there were no Jews at Dachau).

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