Magazine article The Christian Century

Anti-Semitism or Anti-Judaism?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Anti-Semitism or Anti-Judaism?

Article excerpt

WHEN PEOPLE SPEAK loosely of anti-Semitism, do they have in mind a religiously derived separation from Judaism on the part of Christians historically, or a pernicious racialist theory? Twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that these are two distinct theories. Anti-Semitism is a modern racialist theory that promotes the view that the Jewish people are what the National Socialists in Germany called "subhuman." The Nazis drew on all sorts of "scientific data" to back this up, and many top scholars in Germany signed on in this effort.

Anti-Judaism, by contrast, means "'against" or "rivaling" in the Latin sense of "anti." The anti-imperialist, for example, scorns imperialism. The antinomian holds that faith alone--absent obedience to the moral law--suffices for salvation. Anti-Judaism in this sense emerged out of the struggles between early Christian "Judaizers," who insisted that in order to be Christian one must first become Jewish and observe practices such as circumcision, and "universalizers," who insisted that the fledgling faith was open to everyone: one needn't be a member of the Jewish community to become a catechumen within "the body of Christ on earthly pilgrimage."

In their struggle for recognition, early Christians needed to define their faith against something else: No, we aren't them, although there may be similarities; we are us, and here's why. Anti-Judaism in this early form emerged from the dynamic of Christians distinguishing themselves from their closest brothers and sisters, the Jewish people.

The danger with such distinction-malting is that over time differences may harden into destructive divisions. I say "maybe" because it isn't clear to me that this must happen in every case. It did happen between Christians and Jews in ninny times and many places, including hideous equations of Jews with the Antichrist. This malign anti-Judaism remains different from the racial doctrines of modern anti-Semitism, but easily segues into it.

Arendt, who was speaking philosophically when she said there is no necessary, link between the two, overstated her case. Anti-Judaism, to the extent that it led to destructive division between Christians and Jews, made those who adhered to this form of anti-Judaism more receptive to modern race theories.

However, those who claim that Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic either fail to make any distinctions between anti-Judaism and race-based anti-Semitism, or collapse them into one another. The film has nothing to do with modern anti-Semitism even if critics believe that it contains negative images of the Jewish leadership in Roman-controlled Palestine. …

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