Alvin Rosenfeld holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University and is the Director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. In this essay he argues that while no one factor is responsible for the alarming resurgence of antisemitism in the US today, the Christian dimensions of the oldest hatred loom large, in both its populist-reactionary and ecclesial-progressive forms. Covid prevented a version of this essay being presented to the 2022 inaugural conference of the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. Alvin subsequently presented the themes of the paper by Zoom and the video can be watched here.
America is a large and prosperous country currently beset by intense social and political disputes, deepening economic troubles, widespread violence, a massive and destructive drug scene, and other sources of divisive and debilitating behavior. Ongoing, angry debates about racial, gender, and class privilege and oppression fuel the country’s acrimonious culture wars and prevent the development of anything remotely like social harmony and national cohesion. All this turmoil is radically destabilising and contributes to an overwrought condition of almost tribal hostility. It is a natural breeding ground for the open release of passionate hatreds, including hatred of Jews. Until recently, most American Jews have felt relatively immune from antisemitism. That is no longer so.
To illustrate, I begin with a seemingly trivial incident. On a snowy Shabbat morning in late January 2022, Donny Larmann, a snowplow operator in Lakewood, New Jersey, saw two Orthodox Jews walking on the road in front of him. He lowered his vehicle’s plow blades and intentionally covered them with snow. A film clip of the incident he posted on Facebook shows Mr. Larmann laughing at what he had just done to his Jewish victims and calling out triumphantly, ‘This one’s for you JC.’[i]
If, as is likely, ‘JC’ signifies Jesus Christ, burying two Jews in snow is but a tiny entry in the vast historical ledger of Christian retribution for the Jews’ alleged involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus. As payback, far worse has happened to the Jews over the centuries, but the fact that this incident occurred at all in present-day America and was gleefully showcased on Facebook is telling. What does it tell? Despite our wishes to the contrary, some ancient motives for Jew-hatred are by no means past but remain a threatening presence among us. How large a threat? I’ll venture some answers shortly. For now, consider another seemingly minor, but no less telling, example of contemporary Jew-hatred, this one in the form of graffiti.
It reads, simply but clearly, ‘The Jews Are Guilty.’
Surrounded by crudely drawn swastikas, these words were prominently spray-painted on the wall of the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida in May 2021.[ii] Similar graffiti have appeared time and again on synagogues, Jewish schools, and other Holocaust monuments and memorials. Their purpose is clear: intimidate Jews by defacing their most emblematic institutions with hostile markings. This one, ‘The Jews Are Guilty,’ is an expression of contempt that originates centuries ago in Christian teachings about Jews as agents of evil; in one form or another, it is alive still today.[iii] Versions of it, always accusatory and damning, are part of the contemporary rhetoric of anti-Jewish vilification.
The question needs to be asked: Of what precisely are the Jews guilty? Answers vary, but to antisemites of all kinds, Jews, and increasingly the Jewish state, are denounced as being eternally at fault for causing whatever is bad, wrong, or evil in the world. Just how this notion of ingrained Jewish malevolence plays out in today’s America will be the focus of what follows. Anti-Jewish hostility in America is multi-causal, as it is elsewhere. No one factor is responsible for its resurgence in our own day. In this paper, I will emphasise some of the Christian dimensions of this hostility largely because they appear to have a persistence and special potency within the United States. Most West-European countries seem to be in a post-Christian phase, but within America’s social and political life, Christianity continues to have a significant presence. Multi-denominational, the religion has a wide variety of confessional, doctrinal, and institutional forms. On the positive side, the Jewish people and the Jewish state can count on the support of many non-Jewish friends. In fact, as a 2019 Pew poll reveals, Americans like Jews more than any other religious group.[iv] At the same time, Christian adversaries exist and are sometimes in active opposition to the interests of American Jews and the safety and security of the Jewish state.[v]
CHRISTIAN ANTISEMITISM, PAST AND PRESENT
On the most vulgar level, demonisation of the Jew is perpetuated through ready-at-hand associations of Jews with Satan or the devil, a connection that originates in New Testament passages about Jews and ‘the synagogue of Satan’ (Revelation 2:9, 3:9). Long ago, the appellation of the Jews as the devil’s own people (John 8:44), evil incarnate, took on a life of its own and became a popular antisemitic catchphrase.[vi] It circulates widely. The Goyim Defense League, a small but aggressive neo-Nazi hate-group, for instance, regularly invokes these New Testament references to Satanic Jews on large banners it displays on the highways of major American cities. Others who similarly call on Satan as justification for harming Jews may know nothing of the scriptural provenance of such vilification or be regular churchgoers, and yet they have absorbed the widespread image of devilish Jews and sometimes act upon it to assault Jews.
On the higher level of religious discourse, hard-core Christian replacement theology posits that God’s ancient promises to the Jews were nullified or superseded with the coming of Christ. Jews refuse to see themselves in these terms – they would not be Jews at all if they did so – and are consequently liable to be scorned as a ‘cursed’ and ‘apostate people’ (Romans 10:21, Galatians 3:10-14 and 3:21). To those who embrace such thinking, God’s assignment of the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants is negated, a religio-political view that encourages aggressive forms of anti-Zionism that demonise the Jewish state as an evil and delegitimise its right to exist. By no means do all churches hold to these views, but among those that do, the obsolescence of the Jews is a given, as is the guilt of the Jewish state.
To put the problem in context: America has never been altogether free of antisemitism, but most American Jews have not had to contend with ongoing hostility of a seriously threatening kind. Social prejudice of an antisemitic nature has long been a fact of American life, and there have been instances of episodic violence directed against Jews, synagogues, Jewish schools, and other communal institutions. Compared to the experiences of Jews in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, though, most American Jews have not lived with serious concerns about chronic persecution and lethal attacks. Especially in the decades following World War II, they have felt largely safe and at home in America.
This sense of security and relative normality can no longer be taken for granted. Hostility to Jews, in both word and deed, is now a growing presence within the public sphere and has been moving from the fringes, where it has long existed, into the mainstream. Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey are the sites of recent and particularly deadly attacks, but in less dramatic and often underreported ways, assaults against Jews in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and elsewhere have become commonplace. According to recent surveys, in fact, the numbers of attacks against American Jews and Jewish institutions appear to be increasing year by year.[vii] No one can say for sure just how bad such hostility may become, but downplaying the destructive potential of Jew-hatred is always a mistake. In whatever forms it takes, antisemitism is meant to be punitive and to cause harm, sometimes fatally so. As Jean Améry, the Austrian-Jewish author and Holocaust survivor, learned the hard way, in an age of impassioned and pervasive antisemitism, ‘Every Jew is a dead man on leave.’[viii]
Are we living in such an age? Not yet. But any knowledgeable observer of today’s antisemitism recognises that acts of overt antagonism towards Jews, both verbal and physical, are multiplying day by day and are now at the highest level they have been in decades. The upsurge of assaults is frequently noted in Jewish sources but has gained far too little serious attention in mainstream media. When the latter bother to cover outbreaks of anti-Jewish hostility, the accounts are often thin or faulty. For instance, when a gunman flew in from Great Britain and took four Jews hostage in a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue in January 2022, the incident gained public attention for a few days, although in some odd ways. In its initial coverage of the incident, for instance, the New York Times relegated the story to one of its back pages.[ix] A prominent FBI spokesman failed to label the event as one ‘specifically related to the Jewish community,’ a statement later recanted.[x] Most mainstream media sources were also reluctant to identify the gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, as an Islamist terrorist and simply identified him as ‘deranged.’ Given some of his delusional views about Jewish power – he evidently believed that President Biden does the bidding of Jewish influencers – derangement no doubt figured in, but that’s often the case among hard-core antisemites. The Jews they go after are imaginary figures: all-powerful, threatening, the incarnation of evil forces, often allied with Satan or the devil himself.[xi]
DEMONOLOGICAL ANTISEMITISM TODAY
The reference to diabolical Jews sounds archaic, I realise, but it has a significant contemporary resonance that needs to be noted by anyone seeking to understand how anti-Jewish hostility is proliferating in today’s America. The origins of such hatred are various – social, cultural, economic, political, and religious – but demonological antisemitism is one of these causes.
Consider the following:
In November 2020, attorney Georgette Kaufman was murdered and her husband was shot and seriously wounded at their home in El Paso, Texas by Joseph Alvarez, who, in his own words, was aiming to ‘execute and exterminate pro-choice Jewish Satan worshippers.’ Alvarez did not know the Kaufmans, but he was convinced they belonged to what he called the ‘Jewish Satanist Party’ and were involved in performing abortions by ‘magic’ in a park near their house. Regarding abortion as a form of ‘Jewish child sacrifice,’ he felt it his duty to execute people he regarded as ‘Jewish Satanists.’[xii]
Alvarez is clearly delusional, and yet it would be a mistake to dismiss his case as just another instance of personal derangement. For, in its quasi-religious underpinnings, his story resembles numerous others of a similar kind.
The following episode is by now widely familiar, so I’ll mention it only briefly. On October 27, 2018, Robert Bowers, previously unknown, stormed into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and shot 17 people, killing 11 of them. It was the deadliest attack against Jews in American history. An ardent nationalist and white supremacist, Bowers regards Jews as ‘the enemy of white people.’ He claimed they are actively at ‘war against White People.’ Determined to slaughter them, he entered the Pittsburgh synagogue at 10 a.m. on a Shabbat morning, calling out ‘all Jews must die’” and gunned down a group of elderly Jewish worshippers. Seized by policemen who had rushed to the scene, Bowers told one of the arresting officers, ‘They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.’ Why was he so enraged against Jews? He had numerous reasons but, prominent among them, as he wrote in one of his social media postings, was that Jews are ‘the children of Satan.’[xiii]
News of his bloody crime came as a shock to most people, but not to all. Exactly six months later to the day, on 27 April 2019, John Earnest, also previously unknown, followed Robert Bowers’ murderous example and entered the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California on the last day of Passover. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle and shouting, ‘Jews are ruining the world,’ he killed one person and wounded three others, including the rabbi. After the shooting, he declared, ‘I feel no remorse. I only wish I killed more. I am honored to be the one to send these vile anti-humans into the pit where they shall remain for eternity.’[xiv]
John Earnest credited Bowers, along with Brenton Tarrant, the Australian white supremacist who killed over 50 people in the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque massacres, for inspiring him to kill Jews in the Poway synagogue. Until he carried out his deadly shooting, Earnest would have seemed an unlikely person to plan such a crime. Just nineteen years old at the time, he grew up in a stable family (his father is a science teacher), had been a nursing student, claimed to have lots of friends, played piano for many years, and regularly attended his parents’ Orthodox Presbyterian Church. For 18 months prior to the shooting in Poway, however, he led an active life on the internet and was an avid poster on 8chan’s/pol/Board, a gathering site for white nationalists, antisemites, and neo-Nazis.[xv]
Just before the Poway shootings, Earnest posted a 4,300 word ‘open letter,’ or manifesto, on that site. Earnest presented himself as a martyr prepared to sacrifice himself on behalf of his ‘race’ and in defense of Christianity. White Christians, he was convinced, were under attack by Jews, whom he charges with responsibility for the death of Jesus and early Christian saints. Addressing himself ‘to my brothers in Christ,’ he claimed Jews were ‘inspired by demons and Satan [and] will attempt to corrupt your soul with sin and perversion.’[xvi] A believing Christian, he assured his readers that they are ‘secure in Christ.’ He added, ‘One cannot love God without hating Satan.’ His way of hating Satan was to go after the Jews, the devil’s very own people. Among their other evil deeds, Jews, in his view, fund ‘politicians and organizations who use mass immigration to displace the European race.’[xvii] An ardent white supremacist, he is sure that ‘there are brave White men alive who have the willpower and courage it takes to say, “Fuck my life – I’m willing to sacrifice everything for the benefit of my race.”’ In this spirit, he writes that he is personally prepared to ‘willingly sacrifice my future … for the sake of my people. OUR people. I would die a thousand times over to prevent the doomed fate that the Jews have planned for my race.’[xviii]
CHRISTIAN ANTISEMITISM IS MELDING WITH MILITANT WHITE NATIONALISM
As these and similar sentiments reveal, Earnest’s thinking combines traditional Christian antisemitism and militant white nationalism. This amalgam of two deeply hostile, anti-Jewish ideologies is growing on the American far right today, where Nazi insignia at times mingle with large, hand-held crucifixes in angry street demonstrations. Both were on display at the Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C. on 6 January 2021 and elsewhere, including at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event in May 2019 in a small Arkansas town, interrupted by white supremacist protestors carrying Nazi flags, crosses, and pictures of Jesus, and signs saying ‘The Holocaust never happened, but it should have.’ [xix]
Such activities are fed by several sources, including a small but passionate Christian Identity movement that dates to the 19th century and is today undergoing a revival on the populist and nativist right, where it combines white aspirations for racial purity with a return of familiar medieval Christian accusations against Jews. Joseph Alvarez, Robert Bowers, and John Earnest are only a few among numerous others motivated by a racially and religiously inspired white supremacist, Christian neo-nationalism.[xx] It was ostentatiously on display at the large Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, where shouts of ‘Jews will not replace us’ rang out from people wearing Nazis symbols and carrying signs that read ‘Jews are Satan’s children.’ The internet sites that many in this crowd frequent make clear that Jews are an evil, threatening, conspiratorial cabal and need to be dealt with. These people are angry; they are armed; and they are determined to kill Jews. Some of them are doing just that.
On 10 December 2019, David Anderson and Francine Graham stormed their way, guns blazing, into a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City and killed four people. In the assailants’ car, police later found a bomb intended to blow up a synagogue in a nearby town. In some of their Facebook postings, they referred to Jews as ‘Nazis’ and adherents of ‘the Synagogue of Satan.’[xxi]
That same month, on the 7th night of Chanukah, 2019, Grafton Thomas entered a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, and stabbed and slashed five people with a machete. One of them, an elderly rabbi, lay unconscious in a hospital for several months before dying of his wounds. After Mr. Thomas was captured, an investigation of his phone showed he had been searching for ‘Zionist Temples’ within the area. He was also looking for answers to the question, ‘Why did Hitler hate the Jews?’ A fellow Jew-hater, he no doubt was seeking justification for what he was about to do with his machete once he made his way into a ‘Zionist Temple.’ Unable to force his way into the synagogue adjacent to the rabbi’s house, he entered the house itself and went on a stabbing spree.[xxii]
One cannot generalise about the motives of all these people, for they are hardly alike: Bowers and Earnest are radical white supremacists; Anderson and Graham subscribed to an extreme version of the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement, a militant religious sect that regards Jews as imposters and Satanic; and Grafton Thomas evidently identified as a Muslim, but in his journals he also sympathized with the Black Hebrew Israelite denunciation of Jews as ‘devils’ and ‘demons.’ What these people have in common, though, is clear: they all despise Jews, hold them responsible for most of the world’s problems, refer to them as the children of Satan and the incarnation of evil, and have no inhibitions against murdering as many of them as they can.
The brutality being sketched here is not an isolated phenomenon but part of an upsurge of violence against American Jews and Jewish institutions. What enrages these people and inspires them to assault Jews varies, but always it stems from a passionate conviction that Jews are guilty. Guilty of what? According to these people, everything that is morally reprehensible, threatening, dangerous, and even diabolical. These notions of an inherent Jewish wickedness are widely disseminated on the internet and on the street and are now so common as to be almost folkloric. In short, they are part of a popular parlance of Jew-hatred that is flourishing, requires no intellectual or moral justification, and bonds together people who despise and aim to harm Jews.
THE CHURCHES: FROM DEMONOLOGICAL ANTISEMITISM TO DEMONOLOGICAL ‘ANTI-ZIONISM’
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Violent people of the kind I have been describing adopt and often act on the hatreds that the culture at large offers to them. Well beyond the street level, where Jew-hatred gets enacted physically, the sources for such antagonism have a well-developed theological basis that dates to the beginnings of Christian anti-Judaism. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, some churches have recognised the presence of hostile views on Judaism and the Jews within their teachings and preaching and have sought to moderate them, but such sentiments are alive and even resurgent within other churches, including the small Orthodox Presbyterian Church in which John Earnest’s family are prominent members. Among other things to be found on that church’s website are the following beliefs:
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church uses the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. In Chapter 19, paragraph 3 we confess that beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
In other words, we believe that Old Testament Israel was the Church before Christ came. Paragraph 4 adds, ‘To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.’
In other words, the nation of Israel, as it existed as the people of God in the Old Testament is no more. Galatians 6:16 informs us that the Church is now the Israel of God. In the Old Testament the church, called the nation of Israel, consisted of the blood descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But in the New Testament the Church now consists of all those who believe God’s promise like and along with Abraham (See Romans 4:1-12 and Galatians 3:13-14). We who trust in Christ are now the nation of Israel!
Therefore, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church holds that the political/geographical entity known as Israel is not significant in and of itself. We pray for the blood descendants of Abraham, the Jews, that they might also believe in Jesus (see Romans 9-10).[xxiii]
It is not possible to conclude that the religious doctrines of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which are grounded in supersessionist thinking and replacement theology, directly incited John Earnest to want to murder Jews. As already mentioned, other factors were involved. Nevertheless, his church’s belief that God’s original covenant with Israel has been rendered obsolete and that Christians and the Church have replaced Jews and Israel in God’s design fundamentally questions the ongoing validity of Jewish life and Israel’s right to exist.
Earnest’s church is hardly alone in advancing a Christian-inspired denigration of the status of Jews and the Jewish state. Consider the following as just a few examples among many that could be cited.
Bishop Gayle Harris and the Episcopal Church
At a major Episcopal Church General Convention in mid-July 2018, Bishop Suffragen Gayle Harris, the second leading officer in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, testified in support of a resolution that condemned Israel for alleged human rights abuses against Palestinian children. I quote from her testimony of July 13:
We do know that there are both sides [that] share a story and there are different sides within each story. But this story is about the power of a state over an oppressed people and while Palestinians may throw rocks and burn tires and have graffiti, the Israeli government has used consistently weapons that are militaristic and are violent.
I was there a couple of years ago on the Temple Mount. A three-year-old little boy, a Palestinian with his mother, was bouncing a rubber ball. The ball happened to sort of roll away from him and go over the side down to the Western Wall otherwise known as the Wailing Wall. And immediately, Israeli soldiers came up to the Temple Mount and attempted to put handcuffs on a three-year-old little boy — for bouncing a rubber ball.
I have been there when a teenager, I think he was 15, was walking down the street and asked a military vehicle, the Israeli government, a question and because that question was that was not one of the liking of those soldiers, he began to run as they threatened him and they shot him in the back four times, he fell on the ground and they shot him another six. Violence on both sides is deplorable, but those who have greater power and technology have a greater responsibility for re-constraint (sic).[xxiv]
As convincingly demonstrated by Dexter Van Zile and other scholars, the charges made in Bishop Harris’s testimony were altogether false.[xxv] Not only were her stories against Israel unsubstantiated and unverifiable, but they evidently were made up. The incidents of Israeli military atrocity that she reported seeing never happened. When challenged to substantiate her claims of having personally witnessed such savage behavior – recall that in her testimony she twice proclaimed, ‘I was there’ – Bishop Harris admitted she, in fact, saw nothing of the kind but merely reported what she had heard from others. Who were the others? She never identified them. Her supposed eye-witness testimony, in short, was no more than hearsay, had no validity, and was nothing more than an exercise in anti-Israel propaganda, harmfully set forth by a major Episcopal Bishop at her church’s national convention. The head Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts persuaded her on the need to apologize. She did so, although only a month later, adding that, while she could not verify the truth of her testimony, she offered it out of sincere ‘passion for justice for all people.’[xxvi]
J. Herbert Nelson and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)
Jews, and in this case the Jewish state, evidently fall outside the circle of Bishop Harris’ passion for justice. They do so as well among other prominent American church leaders, who are similarly given to making passionate ‘justice-driven’ accusations against alleged Israeli perfidy. On Martin Luther King Day last year (2021), for instance, J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA, gave a sermon in which he accused Israel of responsibility for carrying out nothing less than ‘21st century slavery.’ He also called on American Jews to use their power to influence the US government to end what he denounced as Israel’s cruel treatment of the Palestinian people.[xxvii]
The Stated Clerk is the highest-ranking position in the Presbyterian Church after the Moderator, or chairman. Responsible for the Office of the General Assembly, which conducts the ecclesiastical work of the church, he is someone to be listened to. That is particularly so when Dr Nelson, the first African American elected to the office he holds, chooses Martin Luther King Day to excoriate Israel for what he called its ‘immoral enslavement’ of Palestinians.
Such charges are outrageous, but the Reverend Nelson went well beyond them in a video he made and posted on his church’s website shortly thereafter. The video, entitled ‘This Is Not What God Intended,’ is devoted entirely to vilifying Israel and its American Jewish supporters. Here are some lines from the video:
We must deal with this issue of Israel-Palestine and do it in a way that is effective. We must begin to look at the community here in the United States of Jewish individuals who have come throughout and are supporting this particular, these particular activities that are going on.
And we must hold accountable our government over and over again, to do what is right.
Somehow or another we have forgotten. We have forgotten that money and power and all these things that we hold on to are not necessarily permanent.
There’s something about our soul. There’s something about our life that ought [to] matter and there’s something about at the end of life, whatever that is that we believe, it somehow or another will be a just reward that we ought to work toward that.
What I witnessed in my visit to Israel was in fact evil. It was evil. And it remains evil. And the Church of Jesus Christ must call it just that. And we must call the current regime to step down and we must call our President and our Congress to denounce what is taking place in Palestine-Israel.
It is 20th century slavery and some of the worst atrocities that the world has ever seen. And our handprint is all over it – through all that we see in that particular region.
Particularly with the surveillance and everything else, we have found a way to help surveil that as well as taking an opportunity to support them with armaments to kill and maim and to, in all things, shame individuals who they see as less than.
That’s not the world God intended.[xxviii]
Embracing almost 9,000 congregations, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) is an influential Protestant church in America. A divided body, it does not speak with a single voice about Jews, Judaism, and Israel, but the Reverend Nelson’s sentiments are representative of a long and adversarial history within the PCUSA of demonising Israel and, in this instance, also attacking American Jews for using their ‘money’ and ‘power’ in support of Israel’s ‘evil’ policies. The charges are scurrilous, but that hardly matters to those within the PCUSA who, in the name of “peace” and “justice,” are committed to advancing a theologically-driven Christian call to arms against Israel.
That call was strongly set forth in January 2014 with the release of the booklet Zionism Unsettled, produced by the Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network. The authors set out to refute Zionism as ‘a false theology’ and a ‘heretical doctrine’ and went so far as to claim that Zionism is a ‘pathology’ that ‘promotes death rather than life’ and is responsible for ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘cultural genocide.’ An openly hateful polemic against Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist, Zionism Unsettled provoked a heated debate within the PCUSA. An activist group within the church, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, sharply criticised the booklet and called for the Church to cease distributing it, but it is still available for purchase on the Church’s website.[xxix]
The denomination’s ardently professed anti-Zionism was reinforced on 27 June 2022, at the PCUSA’s latest General Assembly, where numerous anti-Israel resolutions were passed, some denouncing Israel for ‘the crime of apartheid,’ others criticising the ‘heightened Zionist-Jewish identity’ of Jerusalem and opposing anti-BDS resolutions adopted by government and institutional bodies. Officially labeling Israel an ‘apartheid state’ and denouncing Christian Zionism as idolatrous and heretical, the PCUSA passed a recommendation that designated 15 May, within the period marking Israel’s Independence, as a date to be observed annually in Presbyterian churches as ‘Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Day.’[xxx] At previous assemblies, the Presbyterian Church USA spoke out for divestments from major firms doing business in Israel, objected to moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and called on the US Congress to reject the Abraham Accords, describing the peace deal normalising relations between Israel and Arab states as ‘dangerous.’[xxxi]
In sum, a deep and long-standing hostility to Israel resides politically and doctrinally within the PCUSA. The anti-Zionist movement within this church, raised to the level of political theology, is well established and well-funded and has its counterparts in some other American Protestant churches as well.
Dr. Jerry Pillay and the World Council of Churches
Such biased thinking against the Jewish state will now be greatly enhanced through the recent appointment of the Reverend Dr. Jerry Pillay to become the general secretary of the World Council of Churches.[xxxii] A Presbyterian minister and academic dean at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, Dr. Pillay is on record supporting movements to boycott Israel and comparing what he calls ‘the exclusionary and violent character of the Israeli Zionist project’ to South Africa’s racial apartheid regime. Indeed, following a visit to ‘the Holy Land,’ in which he confesses he found nothing ‘holy,’ he reports that he and his fellow black South Africans discovered a situation there that was ‘worse than they had seen or experienced in South Africa.’ He has accused Israel of subjugating ‘the indigenous people of the land’ and urged Christians to ‘resist the empirical ambition of Israeli Jews.’ Other comments of his about Jews and Israel are in line with these, including that ‘Jewish leadership’ [helped] ‘influence European nationalism and colonization with a common desire to establish the state of Israel on the land of Palestine.’[xxxiii]
The World Council of Churches is a large organization representing an estimated 500 million Christians around the world. Never an Israel-friendly body, it is likely to become even less so under the Reverend Dr. Pillay’s leadership.
I began by referring to the defacement of a Holocaust Museum in Florida with swastikas and the words, ‘The Jews Are Guilty.’ The list of sins for which Jews are said to be guilty is long and growing. Also growing are the hostile passions that trigger heated accusations of Jewish malevolence. These passions are today widespread and intense and provoke a growing number of attacks on individual Jews, Jewish communal institutions, and Israel. In his early book on antisemitism, Jean Paul Sartre recognized the aims of such hatred: ‘What the antisemite wishes for, and prepares for,’ he wrote, ‘is the death of the Jew.’[xxxiv] We can add, ‘What the anti-Zionist wishes for, and prepares for, is the death of the Jewish State.’
To lend religious sanction to such wishes is obscene, but such obscenities, sometimes on open display, at other times dressed up in the language of religious piety, are now regularly and brutally directed at Jews and Israel. They are dangerous and must be vigorously and effectively opposed.
[i] Dion J. Pierre, ‘NJ Snowplow Operator Suspended After Intentionally Spraying Orthodox Jews with Snow,’ The Algemeiner, 31 January 2022.
[ii] Kathryn Varn. ‘Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg vandalized with painted swastika.’ Tampa Bay Times. 27 May 2021. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.tampabay.com/news/breaking-news/2021/05/27/florida-holocaust-museum-in-st-petersburg-vandalized-with-painted-swastikas/
[iii] The Anti-Jewish strains of Christian thought that I refer to in these pages are specifically located within some present-day Protestant denominations. For an examination of Catholic thinking about these matters, see John T. Pawlikowski, ‘Has Antisemitism been Uprooted from Christianity? A Catholic Response’ in Antisemitism Studies, Volume 6, Number 2, Fall 2022. See as well the articles written in response to Pawlikowski’s article in the same number of this journal. There are six of them, collected under the title, ‘Scholars Forum.’
[iv] Pew Research Center, ‘What Americans Know About Religion,’ Pew Research Center, 23 July 2019.
[v] An excellent, up-to-date, and admirably comprehensive study of this phenomenon is Peace and Faith: Christian Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, edited by Cary Nelson and Michael C. Gizzi (2021).
[vi] Jerome, Augustine’s teacher, referred to the synagogue as ‘the devil’s refuge’ and ‘Satan’s fortress.’ Many others have spoken and written in similar terms. For a comprehensive study of this subject, see Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (1943).
[vii] Incidents reported in all 50 states; Attacks against synagogues and JCCs increased 61 per cent in 2021. Anti-Defamation League. ‘ADL Audit Finds Antisemitic Incidents in United States Reached All-Time High in 2021.’ 25 April 2022. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-audit-finds-antisemitic-incidents-in-united-states-reached-all-time-high-in
[viii] Essays on Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism, and the Left, edited by Marlene Gallner (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2022), p. 12.
[ix] Guilia Heyward, Azi Paybarah and Eileen Sullivan. ‘11 Hours of Fear, Negotiation and Finally, Relief.’ The New York Times. 17 January 2022. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/16/us/malik-faisal-akram-texas-synagogue-hostage.html?searchResultPosition=1
[x] Lahav Harkov. ‘Yes, the Colleyville synagogue attack was “specifically” targeting Jews – analysis.’ The Jerusalem Post. 16 January 2022. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-692661
[xi] The Jew-as-devil equation exists in certain strains of Muslim thinking as well. Recall that Kobili Traoré shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and “I killed the sheitan,” the Arabic word for Satan, as he tortured and murdered Sarah Halimi in Paris in April 2017.
[xii] Daniel Borunda and Aaron Martinez. ‘Affidavit: Suspect in lawyer’s killing believe Memorial Park used in satanic abortions.’ El Paso Times. 9 September 2021. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/crime/2021/09/09/el-paso-police-arrest-joseph-alvarez-murder-georgette-kaufmann/8261841002/
[xiii] Julie Turkewitz and Kevin Roose. ‘Who is Robert Bowers, the Suspect in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting?’ The New York Times. 27 October 2018. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/robert-bowers-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooter.html
[xiv] Tricia Miller, ‘Fertile Soil: Replacement Theology and Anti-Semitism… by Tricia Miller,’ The Jerusalem Journal.Net
[xv] Robert Evans, ‘Ignore the Poway Synagogue Shooter’s Manifesto: Pay Attention To 8chan’s /pol/Board,’ bellingcat, 28 April 2019.
[xvi] Dr. Stephen Smith, ‘A Christian Killer in Poway,’ Jewish Journal, 30 April 2019.
[xvii] David Walsh, ‘The Bloody History of America’s Christian Identity Movement,’ Tablet, 13 May 2019.
[xviii] Tom Cleary, ‘John Earnest: Five Facts You Need to Know,’ heavy., 29 April 2019.
[xix] Laura E. Adkins, ‘Arkansas Holocaust commemoration interrupted by white supremacists with Nazi flags,’ Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 9 May 2019.
[xx] As an example of the political expression of American Christian nationalism, see https://www.jpost.com/american-politics/article-713128?_ga=2.191980079.460748932.1658582455-1229034299.1617710680&utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Is+the+opening+of+Saudi+airspace+a+sign+of+normalization+with+Israel%3F&utm_campaign=July+27%2C+2022. See also Emily Mikkelsen, ‘Marjorie Taylor Greene Calls Herself a “Christian Nationalist.” What Does That Mean?’ Christian nationalism: Marjorie Taylor Greene doubles down on label amid controversy (myfox8.com). For a recent scholarly study of the subject, see Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2020).
[xxi] Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). ‘Jersey City kosher store shooters had bomb and planned to target Jews.’ Jewish News UK. 16 January 2020. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.jewishnews.co.uk/jersey-city-kosher-store-shooters-had-bomb-and-planned-to-target-jews/ All of these references to Jews as ‘the children of Satan’ and worshipers at the ‘synagogue of Satan’ are examples of proof-texting, the practice of citing biblical texts selectively and out of context to prove a theological, doctrinal, or political point. While frequently done, it is a kind of hermeneutical sin and not a legitimate exegetical tool.
[xxii] ‘Monsey stabbing: Journals of attacker “referenced Jews”’’. BBC. 30 December 2019. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50952441
[xxiii] The OPC and national Israel Q&A: What is your denomination’s position regarding Israel? Do you agree with the PC(USA) that requires divesting funds from Israel? The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. 1 January 2012. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://opc.org/qa.html?question_id=466
[xxiv] ‘Bishop Gayle Harris Tells Atrocity Story at Episcopal Church’s General Convention.’ CAMERAorg. 9 August 2018. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMRl4py7KFo
[xxv] See Dexter Van Zile, ‘Episcopal Bishop Gayle Harris Said “I Was There” When She Wasn’t,’ Camera, 9 August 2018.
[xxvi] Statement from Bishop Gayle E. Harris. Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. 17 August 2018. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.diomass.org/news/diocesan-news/bishops-issue-statement-apology
[xxvii] Ron Kampeas. ‘Top Presbyterian official slammed for equating Israeli occupation with slavery.’ The Time of Israel. 21 January 2022. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-presbyterian-official-slammed-for-equating-israeli-occupation-with-slavery/
[xxviii] Dexter Van Zile, ‘Presbyterian Leader Targets American Jews,’ Camera, 27 January 2022.
[xxix] See Cary Nelson, ‘A Critical Reading of Zionism Unsettled, Its Antecedents, and Its Legacy,’ in Peace and Faith, pp. 364-421.
[xxx] Scott O’Neill. ‘Israel and Palestine dominate the attention of the International Engagement Committee.’ Presbyterian Church USA. June 28, 2022. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.pcusa.org/news/2022/6/28/israel-and-palestine-dominate-attention-internatio/
[xxxi] Resolution on Israel and Palestine: End the Occupation Now. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, 215th General Assembly. Presbyterian Church USA. 2003. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.pcusa.org/resource/resolution-israel-palestine-end-occupation-now/
[xxxii] Jewish News Syndicate (JNS). ‘Presbyterian reverend who compares Zionism to apartheid named to key WCC post.’ Israel Hayom. 22 June 2022. Accessed 8 September 2022. https://www.israelhayom.com/2022/06/22/presbyterian-reverend-who-compares-zionism-to-apartheid-named-to-key-wcc-post/
[xxxiii] Rev. Dr. Jerry Pillay, ‘Apartheid in the Holy Land,’ HTS, 18 November 2016.
[xxxiv] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew. New York: Schocken Books, 1965, p. 49.