Thursday, November 17, 2005

One Among Many: Defending Jews in the New Age of Anti-Semitism

In a new age of rampant anti-Semitism, it is important that we try to get again and again at what is fueling this hatred of Jews that refuses to die. There are plenty of Jewish apologists on the Web who do excellent work at documenting anti-Semitic terrorist activities…I won’t even attempt that. Instead, I’ll offer a brief framework for why I think Jews have always been objects of hatred.

Christians should remember that Jews did something no one was willing to do for hundreds of years BC: be monotheists in a polytheistic world. In a world where the Roman emperor was worshiped like a god, where pagans were offering blood sacrifices to their many gods, when superstition often trumped the religious language of the day, Jews defended their belief in one god at great cost. Their god (YHWH) was (and still is!) a jealous god, one who did not want to be shared with any other gods, and the tradition of Abraham, Moses, Noah, the Exile, the prophets, and on and on, all spoke to the sovereignty of this one god, which they knew would bring ridicule and persecution. Of course, the first commandment of the Law (which all other commandments repeat in varying ways) is to have no other gods, to love this one god above all other things. We have forgotten how controversial this claim of monotheism must have been for a polytheistic world, much less, that these Jews were the chosen people of such a god.

So these monotheists went on to develop “funny” customs and rituals that set them apart from everyone else. Their God demanded them, but also their situation demanded them. Because they were a people of slavery and exile, people without a home who needed a way to reiterate their monotheistic identity, they bonded together through certain rituals, eating certain foods, obeying the Sabbath, etc. When people are in exile, they need reminders of what it is to be in community with one another, so Jews developed very “religious” customs that came to annoy the secular world.

For this, they have often been outsiders, and have been resented. But this is only the beginning. Because no one else thought money lending at interest was respectable, Jews volunteered for this, already being kept on the margins of society. Over time, they became very good at it and amassed wealth. Certainly they weren’t the only people who lent out money, but my understanding is that it wasn’t an uncommon occupation for them to hold. Princes and politicians throughout the centuries befriended these Jews, borrowing money from them in return for protection. For this, Jews became real objects of scorn; not only were they different in custom, but they were rich, and were “in” with the politicians,

All of this culminates in a rise in anti-Semitism in the “Dark Ages,” and more and more public disdain for Jews. Many point to my own hero, Martin Luther, as one of the worst anti-Semites of the time. His essay, “On the Jews and Their Lies” has recently received notoriety for its visceral attacks on Jews. (Too many forget his earlier efforts, however, to convert the Jews with his essay, “That Jesus was Born a Jew,” a rare show of concern for Jews at the time.) Given Luther’s worldview that the world would be ending soon and the final judgment would come with it, he thought it in the best interest of Jews not only to convert to Christianity but to refrain from converting Christians to Judaism. It’s impossible to single him out as the only anti-Semite out there; most people at the time were antagonistic towards Jews; he was, however, especially skilled at verbalizing it, which he did with great frequency against anyone who opposed him, especially Turks and Papists.

What happens next is centuries of persecution for Jews, the European Holocaust, American creation of Israel through power to protect Jews from another such holocaust, and Islamo-fascism as one result of such a display of power. And now we’re back to square one, seemingly everyone hating Jews.

But if we can get back to what has always made Jews outsiders, we can gain significant wisdom. Jews have historically been outsiders for all the right reasons: they stood up for their belief in one God, and God’s unique relationship for his people. It was out of this ethos and theology that a savior could come, and it was only through martyrdom and sheer will that this ethos and theology could be preserved.

I argue we have now come full circle: we live again in a polytheistic world. Except our gods are not small idols, and often have no proper name; they are anything that keeps us from God, and there is no shortage of such distractions. So we recall those people who have stood firm in the faith in the past, those who insisted on one God in the face of many others. We recall the way they were hated then, and are hated now. Perhaps Christians can see more clearly the need to defend Jews in such a context.

Why bother stating the obvious? Many Christians (especially members of the National Council of Churches) see Israel as more of a terrorist state than Palestine, Iran or Syria. Jews have few sympathizers at high levels in many Mainline Protestant churches, and MPs withhold sympathy at the risk of forgetting the strength it has taken for these Jews to be monotheists in a polytheistic world. As a Christian, I am suggesting resurgence in Jewish support is vital to remembering our own bold monotheism, Trinitarian though it may be.

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