Warning Christians about Antisemitism
By: Dr. Susan Michael, ICEJ USA Director
Many Christians involved in support of Israel may fail to recognize the amazing moment in history they are privileged to be a part of today. Only those who know the history of Jewish-Christian relations can appreciate the miraculous turnaround that has occurred in the last century. They will also understand the importance of learning from that past and guarding against the evil influences of antisemitism active in our day.
Antisemitism in Church History
Persecution and animosity toward Jews began early in their history, long before Christianity. Pharaoh, Haman, and Antiochus Epiphanes are only a few examples of evil men who tried to destroy God’s chosen people. But while the Jews have had many enemies throughout history, Christians should be concerned about the part some of our forbearers played in this disturbing drama. The fact that persecution of the Jews rose from within our ranks is a tragedy and a shame the Christian community must deal with.
Jews and Christians had a tumultuous relationship in the first 100 years after the life and death of Jesus. At first it was an internal squabble between Jews who believed in His messiahship and Jews who did not. But religion in the Roman Empire had political ramifications. Judaism was legal, as was Christianity, when it was seen as a sect of the Jewish faith. But Christianity brought troubles to the Jewish community due to its allegiance to a King other than Caesar, so it was shunned and sometimes persecuted. Conversely, after the Jewish wars with Rome, it became dangerous for Christians to be associated with Judaism.
Another factor in the growing rift between the two faiths was the result of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. Jewish believers in Jesus had fled the city because Jesus had warned them to do so, as recorded in Matthew 24. But when they later returned to Jerusalem, they were resented and accused of being traitors.
Then in AD 132, when the mainstream Jewish community looked for someone to lead a rebellion against the Romans, many joined Simon Bar Kokhba, proclaiming him as Messiah. But the Jews who believed in Jesus refused to join this rebellion, saying they already were following the Messiah. As a result, some were slaughtered as traitors during the fighting. This schism tore the two communities apart, marking the official split between the church and the synagogue.
At the same time, the church was becoming predominantly gentile. It was made up of pagans who had converted to Christianity with no knowledge of nor appreciation for the Jewish roots of the faith—or the Jewish people themselves. Several gentile church fathers began to distinguish Christianity by preaching against Judaism and warning their followers to stay away from it.
The teaching of Replacement Theology (also called “supersessionism”) began to take root. Replacement Theology teaches that the Jews are cursed by God because of their rejection of Jesus’ messianic credentials, and the church has thus replaced the Jews in the plans and purposes of God. This theology led to a teaching of contempt for the Jews as “Christ-killers” and sanctioned their maltreatment.
Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the church became a tool of the monarch and lost its spiritual integrity. Anti-Jewish theology paved the way for anti-Jewish legislation by the ruling powers, which included discrimination, persecution, forced conversions, ghettos, and expulsions.
Centuries of this type of religiously motivated and state empowered antisemitism prepared the way for the Nazi Holocaust. To paraphrase Raul Hillberg in The Destruction of the European Jews, the early church declared, “You have no right to live amongst us as Jews.” The secular rulers who followed that era expelled Jews from their lands or confined them to ghettos as though to say: “You have no right to live amongst us.” Then Hitler later decreed, “You have no right to live.”
This is the deadly progression of antisemitism down through the ages. The fact that the Christian church had a role to play in this tragedy is a shame and something we all must come to terms with as Christians.
Today we are privileged to be part of a tectonic shift within Christianity away from that antisemitic past. There are three reasons for this change, the first dating back 400 years: the translation of the Bible into the common languages and its widespread availability through the printing press. For most of church history, ordinary Christians did not have access to the Bible to know what it taught, and tragically, some teachings about the Jewish people were not grounded in Scripture. Replacement Theology and the teaching of contempt for the Jewish people resulted and were the fertile ground for antisemitism that led to the persecution, expulsion, and even murder of Jews.
However, as soon as Christians could read Scripture for themselves, many discovered the error of their ways. They realized that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity had been born out of Judaism. They also read the many promises of God to one day regather the Jewish people back to their ancient homeland. Preachers began to teach about that return, and they prayed for and supported it as an act of justice for a people who had suffered persecution for centuries.
Some of the greatest and most respected Evangelicals in history were what we would call Christian Zionists today: John and Charles Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Bishop Ryle of Liverpool, Professor Jacob Janeway of the Scottish National Church, and many others. The only difference between them and today’s Christian Zionists is that they looked forward in hope to a future event; today’s Christian Zionists have witnessed the return of the Jews to their homeland and actively support a current reality.
Replacement Theology still exists, but the church has come a long way in its relations with the Jewish people.
In addition to the wide availability of the Scriptures, two other events over the last century brought about a significant change in Jewish-Christian relations. The first was the Holocaust, which shook the historic churches predominant in Europe. The Catholic Church reevaluated its theology and liturgy. In fact, some of the most beautiful words ever written about Christian repentance toward the Jewish people were authored by Catholic bishops of Europe. The Lutheran church disavowed the antisemitic writings of its founder.
A second event, however, had more impact on the Evangelical world—the birth of the State of Israel. Since then, millions of Christians have visited Israel to “walk where Jesus walked,” and while there, many met a Jewish person for the first time. They witnessed a vibrant Jewish faith and recognized the modern state as a miraculous fulfillment of prophecy. It is no coincidence that as Christian tourism to Israel has mushroomed over the past four decades, Jewish-Christian relations have also.
Evangelicals emphasize the authority of Scripture and are a more Bible-based faith. They are now reading their Bible with a new worldview—the Jewish people have been gathered from the north, south, east, and west, returning to their homeland in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and confirmed by the Hebrew prophets. Christians are no longer looking down on the Jewish people and heaping condemnation on them. Instead, they are loving, comforting, and blessing them.
More and more Christians are honoring and exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity to learn more about their own faith. The fact that God is faithful and is fulfilling His promises to the Jewish people is an encouragement to Christians that we serve a faithful God who is true to His Word. As a result, the fastest growing segment of Christianity—Bible-based Evangelicalism—is largely pro-Israel.
The ICEJ Making History
With this history in mind, it’s easy to understand why the birth of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) in 1980 was such a historic, groundbreaking moment. It was the first time Christians voiced support for Israel on an international scale and from the heart of the newborn State of Israel. While some segments of the Jewish community were understandably skeptical, the ICEJ has now become a proven friend after four decades of acts of support and compassion.
We cannot change 2,000 years of history overnight. But the ICEJ has had the privilege of confronting this history and establishing a new relationship with the Jewish people. The ICEJ’s partnership with Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center) is proof of this new relationship. The Christian Friends of Yad Vashem is taking Holocaust awareness to Christian churches around the world, teaching them about antisemitism in our day—and how to stand against it.
Most Christians today would never condone the religious antisemitism that fueled centuries of discrimination, persecution, ghettos, and exiles in the heart of Christian Europe, nor the racial antisemitism Hitler embraced that led to the horrific genocide campaign known as the Holocaust. There is no turning back.
However, there is a reason why historian Robert Wistrich calls antisemitism “the longest hatred.” This evil pursuit of the Jewish people has continued for millennia, and every time it seems to be dying out, it reinvents itself with a different look and name. The goal, however, is always the same: to rid the world of the Jewish people.
The New Antisemitism
The new form of antisemitism challenging our world is political antisemitism. Since a Jewish nation-state is antithetical to the ruling philosophies of our day—globalism and secularism—this modern form of political antisemitism is finding large-scale acceptance today. It is directed not at individual Jews but against the Jewish state and is called anti-Zionism.
Religious antisemitism still exists, but this time, it is found throughout the Muslim world and is responsible for the genocidal rhetoric emanating from jihadist groups and the clerical regime in Iran. Muslim antisemitism, however, is tolerated by anti-Zionist Western leaders who blame its spread on Israeli policies.
Not all criticism of Israel can be considered antisemitic. However, criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic when it:
- Delegitimizes the State and questions its right to exist
- Uses anti-Jewish rhetoric and stereotypes
- Judges Israel by a different standard than any other nation
- Becomes an excuse to attack local Jewish individuals and institutions
This new antisemitism, while rife in the Middle East and Europe, is seeping into America—including Christian churches. Some mainline denominations in America have passed anti-Israel resolutions based on lies of the delegitimization campaign. Denominations that previously denounced classical antisemitism have failed to recognize that the anti-Zionist campaign demonizing Israel is also antisemitic.
One cannot demonize a nation without demonizing the people, and the Israeli people are a subset of the Jewish world. As a result, anti-Zionism endangers Jews in other parts of the world. For example, Jews in Paris or New York have been attacked in the streets when Israel takes defensive actions in Gaza.
Within Evangelical ranks, there are attempts to “correct” the pro-Israel movement within Evangelical Christianity by entertaining an anti-Israel narrative under the banner of “love and peace” for all! One such attempt used the motto “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace, and pro-justice.” What does it mean for an Evangelical to be pro-Palestine? The Palestinian Authority is a corrupt government that discriminates against Christians, jails and tortures Muslim converts to Christianity, honors terrorists, restricts freedom of speech, and fosters incitement in the public square based on lies about Israel. Is this really what the pro-Palestine Evangelicals are supporting?
In 2011 two ethics professors from leading Christian universities issued a scathing “Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists” in which they accused Christian Zionists of sin for supporting Israel and encouraging Israel’s sinful policies. They went so far as to say that should “some nation” become “inflamed with resentment” at Israel and “make their land desolate” (noting what sounded like a “nuclear attack”), Christian Zionists would bear part of the responsibility.
The ICEJ issued a strong response, and because of the growing influence of these voices, we built an educational website to defend Israel—and Christian support of Israel—www.IsraelAnswers.com. The purpose of IsraelAnswers.com is to equip Christians to articulate a defense of Israel and Christian Zionism as well as understand modern forms of antisemitism.
But more than respond, we need to close the door to antisemitism altogether. Disturbingly, the Christian church in America has left two doors open to this deadly influence.
Rise in Replacement Theology
Replacement Theology is gaining traction in Christian circles today under various names and guises, one of which is Fulfillment Theology. Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. However, Fulfillment Theology maintains that Jesus did abolish the law and, with it, God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. It also teaches that all the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus and the church; thus, they are no longer valid regarding modern Israel. Fulfillment Theology winds up in the same place as Replacement Theology—namely, that God is finished with Israel.
It is important to clarify that just because someone holds a form of Replacement or Fulfillment Theology does not mean they are antisemitic. Many pastors hold replacement views as a theological assumption based on the lack of teaching in seminaries on Israel and the Jewish people. They begin ministry believing Israel and the Jewish people are irrelevant—God is only working through the church today. I call this “default Replacement Theology” because they were simply not taught otherwise. They would never condone the type of antisemitic preaching of the past that called for the persecution and demonization of the Jews.
Nevertheless, this theology does make one vulnerable. If you believe the Jews were so bad they lost their standing with God, you might believe the antisemitic tropes of your day. Replacement Theology is the theological foundation from which historical Christian antisemitism sprouted. Many scholars agree that the Holocaust could never have happened had it not been for the centuries of Christian antisemitism rooted in this theology. We must therefore be deeply concerned about its growth and learn to refute it.
Growing Biblical Illiteracy in America
Another open door leaving the church vulnerable to antisemitic teachings is the loss of biblical literacy in America. Some mainline denominations have denied the authority of the Bible altogether. They use it more as a devotional resource with wisdom for everyday life and not as absolute truth. These denominations are in rapid decline because they practice a religion that is not faithful to its founding truths.
A core tenet of Evangelicalism is its belief in “Scripture alone” as the infallible source of doctrinal truth. While Evangelical Christianity, and its inherent support for Israel, is mushrooming in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it has plateaued in the United States (and Europe) and is losing its momentum. This is evident in the growing biblical illiteracy in society, not to mention prominent Evangelical voices challenging core biblical tenets—including the definition of marriage, the nature of human sexuality, and the sanctity of life.
Across America, pastors and ministers are confronted by a widening chasm of biblical illiteracy, contributing to the societal and moral breakdown engulfing families in their churches. They struggle to know how to instill a conviction of the Bible’s truth and power to a biblically illiterate generation.
Israel is the greatest single antidote to biblical illiteracy. It is, in many ways, the “answer key” that helps the rest of Scripture make sense in its proper context. We have found that once a Christian understands the biblical significance of Israel and the Jewish people, they “get” the entire Bible. Thus, the ministry of the ICEJ exists not just to bless Israel but help the worldwide body of Christ come to a greater understanding of this unique land and people and, through them, the very Scriptures themselves.
Goals of Antisemitism
You and I are part of a historic shift in Christianity. The largest segment of the Christian world, the Catholic Church, has embraced the validity of the Jewish faith. The Evangelical world—the second largest segment of Christianity projected to one day be the largest based on current growth rates—has embraced not only the Jewish people but also the State of Israel. I am hopeful that the bulk of Christianity will never return to its antisemitic past.
However, we must understand how vulnerable we are and learn to recognize and stand against the antisemitism of our day. The current political form, anti-Zionism, seeks to rid the world of the influence of the Jewish people by challenging their right to be a nation. At its worst, this new brand of antisemitism condones the mass annihilation of Jews in their restored homeland.
Antisemitism’s goal in the modern Christian world is to rob Christians of the root that sustains our faith. The return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland promised to Abraham demonstrates the truth of the Bible and God’s faithfulness to keep His word. As the apostle Paul said, the Jewish faith is the root that supports us. To be separated from that root means spiritual death.
Therefore, the battle against this evil ideology is our battle. It behooves us to do everything we can to help churches recognize it for what it is and stand against it.
Get your copy of “Antisemitism: What Every Christian Needs to Know and How to Stop It” today on Amazon.