Anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian history and Europe today

A shameful part of early and modern European history, Christianity was historically used to justify antisemitic sentiment and violence.

While there is nothing intrinsically anti-Semitic in Orthodox Christianity or any other Christian communion, I have encountered a surprising and disturbing number of professed Christians over the years who have expressed that they have a strong dislike for Jews. Growing up with many Jewish friends in a very religiously diverse area of Long Island, New York, I have also known many Jews who have developed a very negative opinion of Christianity in general because of their encounter with either 1) the historical reality that many Christian people and rulers throughout history have been responsible for hateful actions, even murder, against Jews, or 2) a Christian person living today who holds anti-Semitic views.

Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I never heard anything in church or read of any doctrines which could be construed as hateful toward Jews, and the same has held true since my conversion to Orthodoxy. I sometimes invite friends to Vigil or the Divine Liturgy if they are interested, and these have included non-religious/agnostic, atheist, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, and Jewish people. Whenever any Jewish friends have attended Vespers or Liturgy with me, they are always struck by and comment on the remarkable similarities between Orthodox chanting and that of Hebrew cantors, especially in the chanting of the Psalter.

The few anti-Semitic individuals I have encountered among Orthodox people I have met are, without exception, Eastern European immigrants who happen to be less educated. As you will sadly find in almost every historically Christian European country, not just the Orthodox ones, such people tend to blame others – often, historically, Jews – for their personal economic woes or the mismanaging of their country’s finances.

This casting of blame where none is due is not because they are Orthodox Christians, but because of any combination of their own ignorance, popular antisemitism in their neighborhood, family upbringing, or local culture, etc. Today, antisemitic opinions (distinct from opinions critical of the policies of the Israeli Government or its Defense Forces) are normative, and rising, throughout Europe. I have found this through research, as well as just talking with many ordinary Europeans in my travels.

One example which comes to mind is from two years ago, when I met a young, educated Russian man here in DC named Vasily, a friend of my Russian godfather Misha. Vasily referred to the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which purports to describe a Zionist attempt to control and undermine all the world’s governments) as if it were a credible book. I had never met someone who, in modern times, actually considered the forged account to be a legitimate plot.

However, among many other Russian immigrants I have met, there is a strong affinity for Jews because both Russian Christians and Jews suffered horrifically at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War, with the Nazis considering both Christian and Jewish Slavs subhuman and targeting them for organized mass-murder.

It is important to realize that anyone who dislikes or hates Jewish people does not feel this way because of his or her Christian faith, though sometimes, and often historically, people have tried to cloak their anti-Semitism in zeal for Christ. This is a huge tragedy and misunderstanding of the core tenets of the Gospel. For centuries, Jews throughout medieval and early modern Europe were subject to random and arbitrary violence often at the hands of the local peasant populations who blamed the local Jews for failed crop harvests, disappearances of children, and even alleged well-poisonings during the Black Death, etc.

Since Christians were forbidden by the Church from lending money at interest (usury), and Jews were forbidden by Christian rulers from inheriting land and passing it on through lineal descent, often the only trades open to them were as money-lenders and traders, leading Christian peasants to label all Jews as cheats and local rulers to intermittently protect and expel them (using local Jews as sources of money, they often then betrayed them when they did not want to pay back their loans, as Edward I of England did in 1290). For more insight into the intermittent persecution Jews faced in early modern Europe, I highly encourage you to read the fascinating Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln (lived 1646-1724) and the Life of Judah, an autobiographical account written by Leon Modena, a leading seventeenth century Venetian rabbi (lived 1571-1648).

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Glückel of Hameln (1646-1724) was a wealthy Jewish businesswoman and diarist, whose account of her family life and financial endeavors to support her children after her first husband’s death provides scholars with an intimate picture of German Jewish communal life in the late-17th-early eighteenth century.

Notorious charges of alleged Jewish child-killing connected to the ‘blood libel’ myth persisted well into the twentieth century in some places, even in the United States with the 1928 Massena case in upstate New York. Blood libel refers to the myth that Jews in their synagogue rituals used the blood of Christian children for their Passover bread, and peasant superstition and antisemitic fervor has led to local hysteria against Jews throughout central and eastern Europe irrespective of the religious establishment of the area.

One Ukrainian Cossack who remains a national Ukrainian folk hero today, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, led his soldiers in massacres of tens of thousands of Jews in Galicia and what is today southern Poland and western Ukraine, devastating the area and causing the subsequent migration of many Ashkenazim Jews to live near mostly Sephardic communities in the Holy Roman Empire’s and Dutch cities.

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Equestrian statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in a main square in Kiev (Ukrainian: Богдан Зиновій Михайлович Хмельницький; Polish: Bohdan Chmielnicki; Russian: Богдан Хмельницкий, tr. Bogdan Khmelnitsky)

At the onset of the First Crusade in 1095, the “People’s Crusade” on their way to the Holy Land, following in the wake of the Christian kings and nobles who traveled by sea, massacred most of the Jews in the Rhineland of what is now eastern France in Alsace-Lorraine and western Germany. Upon their capture of Jerusalem in 1099, the Christians put most of the non-Roman Christians in the city — including Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians — to the sword.

Hatred of Jews existed at the highest echelons of early modern European intellectual society, with the humanist and polymath Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus infamously quipping to his English correspondent Thomas More (later canonized as a martyr in the Roman Catholic Church after his martyrdom at the hands of Henry VIII) that “if to be a good Christian is to hate the Jews, then we are all good Christians here”.

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Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. Erasmus was a classical scholar who wrote in a pure Latin style.

Many Roman Catholic popes and all the Protestant Reformers – very highly educated men– espoused anti-Jewish views in their writings. Martin Luther’s vulgar 1543 diatribe On the Jews and their lies, a 65,000 word treatise, catalyzed popular Protestant German violence against Jews for centuries after his death. At their 1933 celebratory games in Nuremberg the Nazis prominently displayed an original copy of Luther’s treatise, which they marched past in formation.

Incensed when Jews did not convert to his “purified” and “reformed” Christianity, Luther’s treatise urged German Christian princes to treat Jews as a plague and vermin, and burn their scriptures, forbid their rabbis from teaching, seize their property and stores, and expel them from their domains. Does this sound familiar? Luther essentially urged everything short of full-scale Holocaust. The Holy Roman prince-elector who sheltered Luther from Emperor Charles V, for instance, eventually expelled the Jews who lived on his territories at Luther’s urging.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546), father of the classical Protestant Reformation, was formerly a Catholic Augustinian monk and priest, continuing even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church as a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg.

Along with many contemporary European intellectual figures, Luther held often deeply contradictory impressions and opinions about Jews. In his first treatise, Jesus Christ was a Jew (1523) he excoriated the Roman papacy for its harsh treatment of Jews, wondering why any Jew would ever convert to Christianity when he saw Christians failing at practicing the basic elements of their faith. He initially called for Christian rulers and Church leaders to treat the Jews better.

They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life. .  I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.

They will only be frightened further away from it if their Judaism is so utterly rejected that nothing is allowed to remain, and they are treated only with arrogance and scorn. If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them. For even we ourselves are not yet all very far along, not to speak of having arrived.

When we are inclined to boast of our position we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood, the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are, as St. Paul says in Romans 9[:5]. God has also demonstrated this by his acts, for to no nation among the Gentiles has he granted so high an honor as he has to the Jews.

For from among the Gentiles there have been raised up no patriarchs, no apostles, no prophets, indeed, very few genuine Christians either. And although the gospel has been proclaimed to all the world, yet He committed the Holy Scriptures, that is, the law and the prophets, to no nation except the Jews, as Paul says in Romans 3[:2] and Psalm 147[:19-20], “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; nor revealed his ordinances to them.

It is almost impossible to believe that the same man wrote both treatises. Yet tragically, when German Jews did not embrace his reformed Christianity, the acid-tongued Luther turned against them.

In the Russian Empire, contrary to the Western European kingdoms of France, England, Castile, Aragon, and Portugal which had at various points expelled their Jewish populations (France and England in 1182 and 1290, respectively, and the late fifteenth century in the Iberian peninsula, with los reyes catolicos Fernando II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile issuing their edict of expulsion in 1492), Jews were never expelled by official decree. Beginning during Empress Catherine II’s reign, Ashkenazi Jews were, however, required to live in a restricted agricultural zone in what is today Belarus, Moldavia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and western Russia known as the Pale of Settlement.

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Map depicting the area known as the Pale of Settlement in the western lands of the Russian Empire.

As Western European states gradually secularized and democratized in the nineteenth century in the wake of the tragic and complicated French Revolution, giving Jews initially partial and then full rights as citizens (though popular dislike of Jews remained strong in these societies), Jews in Western Europe suffered less direct violence than what they continued to suffer in the officially Orthodox Eastern European provinces and countries under Russian rule. Yet the horrific phenomenon of pogroms against Jews, often spurred on by priests’ preaching during Holy Week which was either emphatically hateful towards them, or misunderstood as such by the mobs who claimed they were killing those they considered “Christ-killers” in the name of Christ, were historically as much a part of Catholic and Protestant Western Europe as they were of the Orthodox East. Without exception, all the pogroms against Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took place in mainly Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) parts of Ukraine.

Even in Eastern European countries with historically high rates of anti-Jewish pogroms and popular sentiment, countries which still show high rates of popular anti-Jewish feeling, there is no real connection between anyone who claims to hate Jews because of their Christian faith, and the actual tenets of Christianity. During the Holocaust, for instance, many European rulers such as Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Queen Mother Helen (Elena) of Romania, and most famously King Christian of Denmark actively intervened to protect Jews from slaughter in whatever ways they could.

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Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark (1896-1982) was the wife of King Carol II of Romania and the mother of King Michael of Romania. She held the title Queen Mother of Romania. . For her efforts to rescue Romanian Jews from the Nazis, she was awarded the status of Righteous Among the Nations and a plaque commemorating her efforts stands at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

One Russian bishop who followed in Metropolitan Anthony’s footsteps, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, was the late Bishop Basil (Rodzianko). He was my godmother’s spiritual father, and, according to her, he often told his parishioners and spiritual children that it is a grave sin to ever hold or act upon an anti-Jewish view or impulse, since Christ Himself, the Mother of God, all the apostles, etc, belonged by blood to the house of Israel. Bishop Basil reposed in 1999, so this shows that the phenomenon of Russian Orthodox hierarchs opposing anti-Jewish sentiment continues.

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His Grace, the late Bishop Basil Rodzianko (May 22, 1915-September 17, 1999).

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3 thoughts on “Anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian history and Europe today

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  2. Pingback: Anti-Semitism is a sin — 1389 Blog - Counterjihad!

  3. Pingback: Cristianismo: El antisemitismo es un pecado « NUEVA EUROPA- Nueva Eurabia

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