Trying to understand anti-Jewish legacy — a great contradiction

An image of two church steeples. The closer one has the star of David, the further one has a cross. CREDIT: KARAGRUBIS
There is absolutely no debate whatsoever that by "your neighbour," Christ meant everyone — even, maybe even especially, people who one does not think likeable.

In 1939 a ship, the MS St. Louis, left Hamburg, Germany with 937 Jewish passengers hoping to find a haven from Nazi persecution. They sailed to Havana, Cuba. The Cubans did not want them.

But neither did Canadians. The ship was denied entry into the port of Halifax even though Christian clergymen and academics appealed to officials in Ottawa to allow it in.

In 2018 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for this action. He acknowledged that it was the Liberal government of the day that was “unmoved by the plight of these refugees.”

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Why unmoved? Canadians no doubt had concerns about the financial burden that a shipload of incoming passengers might bring, or about them taking away jobs from others during a time when people were still coping with the effects of the Great Depression. There would also have been ignorance about (or a refusal to see) the abilities of the Jewish community in fields such as business, law and scientific research.

But a large part of the reason for refusing to allow the ship entry has to have been the feeling of Antisemitism found in Canada and the rest of the Western World. The now infamous phrase, “None is too many,” characterized the Canadian government’s response to the question, “How many Jews should Canada permit to enter?” This attitude stood side by side with the vision of Canada as a strong, white, Protestant (non-Catholic) nation.

But this meant that Canada was living a great contradiction. The West at that time thought itself a collection of Christian nation states, Canada a junior member among them. There were, as there are today, church buildings on virtually every street corner. A church building dominated every village-scape in Europe — and in Canada. And note: The Christian church is supposed to take with extreme seriousness the command of Jesus Christ to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is absolutely no debate whatsoever that by “your neighbour,” Christ meant everyone — even, maybe even especially, people who one does not think likeable.

The sense of contradiction deepens when one considers that in making that statement, Jesus was quoting Jewish Scriptures. He himself was a Jew and nearly all of his first followers were Jews.

In fact, as I often like to point out, the movement that became known as Christianity was a Jewish movement. This is immediately evident to anyone who reads the four accounts of the life of Christ, written by, or attributed to, “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke,” and “John.” In all of them, especially in Matthew, it is stated over and over again that Jesus said this or performed that as an express fulfilment of a clearly specified hope, event, core theme, secondary theme, statement or dream found in the Jewish Scriptures. It is not in the least an exaggeration to say that all of the biblical documents concerning the life, teaching, and aftermath of what Christ did are Jewish documents. They are written by Jews, for Jews (and non-Jews) about a Jew.

How then did anti-Jewish feelings arise in the Western world? You can be forgiven if you think it is futile to try to answer this question in just the remaining space.

Some of the answer lies in the events recorded in the story of Jesus and his earliest followers, a quite large number of people. The Jewish authorities took issue with them. They ensured that Jesus and his followers were persecuted for trying to take the Jewish faith and community in a direction they themselves saw as a betrayal of that faith. This was decidedly an ominous start. But it was not the only time within the broader Jewish community around the first century A. D. that hostilities between Jewish factions flared up.

During the next few centuries, Christians continued to be persecuted from time to time. Even when they were not, the threat was always there. However, the oppressors were less and less Jewish. Increasingly it was the authorities of the Roman Empire that harassed them.

Then in 313, Christianity was recognized by a new emperor as legitimate. This resulted in the evolution of Christianity as the state-sponsored faith, and the state as the church-sponsored government of the people. That evolution is rich with bright moments, but it is also convoluted and freighted with tragedy. Notably it is tainted with catastrophic betrayals of Jesus Christ and his explicit teaching on responding to the “neighbour.”

During the many centuries following 313, how did the Jewish communities fare since they were clearly minorities? Historian, Tom Holland, writes (in Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, 2019, Chapter 10), that by the 13th Century, Pope Innocent III put it this way. Although the Jews were guilty of willful refusal to accept the truth of the Christian faith, they “are not to be severely oppressed by the faithful [Christian authorities].” Jews would, after all, so it was thought, come to faith when Jesus Christ returned to set all things right.

In the meantime, Christian scholars and theologians more and more saw the Jewish Scriptures and faith as inferior to their own. Judaism was “superseded” by Christianity. In some situations there seemed to be a “live and let live” attitude. But all too often the European authorities persecuted Jews. By the late 1200s England and France were forcing Jews out of their borders.

And yet, Holland points out, Christians remained fascinated with Jews. Jewish administrators managed the pope’s household. The famous Medieval Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas revered their scholarship. One of the students of the equally famous Peter Abelard stated, “A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons would put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law — and not only his sons, but his daughters.”

Perhaps if such considerations had had a stronger influence, the contradictory legacy of Antisemitism would not be what it became.

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