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Navigating Antisemitic Encounters: A Learning Guide

Purpose of the Guide and Article Summaries

Antisemitism is an ages-old and highly complex phenomenon that crosses oceans and cultures and wears many faces. It is a sad reality of Jewish life that affects Jews as a group and as individuals. It is hurtful in its mildest forms and deadly at its worst. It has been exhaustively analyzed and it has been written about from the vantages of history, sociology, psychology and theology. It seems not to go away no matter how much it is exposed. There may be antidotes, but no cure has ever been found.

The Focus On section in the Fall, 2004 edition of Reform Judaism explores not so much the fact of anti-Jewish sentiments and how it is expressed as the individual’s response in different settings. The articles provide learning opportunities for synagogue study groups, religious schools, youth groups, home study gatherings, individuals and families. This guide suggests the highlights of the articles and the issues they confront, provides background information that places the articles in a context for deeper consideration and suggests discussion topics and other learning opportunities. Religious school teachers will need to select age-appropriate topics from the range of suggestions and tailor presentations suitably for various grade levels.

. Look for these salient features as you read each of the articles.

  1. Tongue Tiedby Leslie Snow. Remarks that deprecate Jews turn up at most inopportune times, like business dinners. The comments are hurtful. Stomachs churn. Confrontation in these circumstances seems not to alter behavior.
  2. Angryby LawrenceD. Gibson. The moral dilemmas that Antisemitism creates engender anger over being forced to choose between reacting to the slight and remaining silent. However, ignoring early warning signs may to fuel the dilemma incrementally.
  3. Defenderby Rebecca Snyder. Incorrect ideas about Jews and Judaism abound, especially – but not only - in communities where Jews are a tiny minority. Antisemitism should be countered by asserting pride in self and providing facts that set the record straight.
  4. Pride & Prejudiceby Sander L. Gillman. Antisemitism thrives on stereotyping; both are always dangerous. Negative statements about Jewish individuals, on the other hand, may be just that rather than expressions of Jew-hatred. Such claims should be clarified. Jews are more assertive now than in the past in confronting antisemitism. Some Jews may internalize an affront, unprotected even by good Jewish educations. Jewish pride requires that we respond to slurs. The act of responding might even help strengthen Jewish self-awareness.
  5. Confrontation on Campusby Josh Hamerman. A low-key approach to the incident will help determine whether the remark stems from ignorance, or hostility. The latter should be reported to authorities; the former might require raising sensitivity. Criticism of Israel may be veiled antisemitism (always unacceptable) or disagreement with Israeli policies (may be legitimate criticism). Both kinds of statements should be countered with facts channeled through mobilized Jewish resources.
  6. Their Story Is Not Oursby Harold M. Schulweis. The charge that Jews killed Jesus causes uninformed Jews to question their Jewishness. To defend against the deicide charge imposes a Christian agenda on Jews. The proper response is dialogue that establishes the sanctity of sacred story for both religions.

Issues Discussions

Leo Pinsker (1821-1891), physician and early Zionist leader, believed that “Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary; as a disease transmitted for two thousand years, it is incurable.” (Auto-Emancipation, 1882) Theodor Herzl saw antisemitism “as an outgrowth of the emancipation of the Jews…we emerged from the ghetto a prodigious rival to the middle class.” (The Jewish State, 1896) Edward H. Flannery (The Anguish of the Jews, Macmillan, 1965) places the earliest antisemitism as we know it in 3 rd century Alexandria. “From this point, the themes of leprous origins and misanthropy were rarely absent from the litanies of pre-Christian anti-Semitism.” (p. 8) Flannery continues:

…Greco-Roman anti-Semitism was a reaction against Jewish separatism,and thus anti-Judaic, since this separatism was part and parcel of Jewish religion and mores. It was not truly theological, however. The pagan world was tolerant and condescending toward alien theologies and cults in its midst.

Nor was ancient pagan anti-Semitism economic, as anti-Semites would have it in this-and every other-era. Economic factors were prominent in the anti-Semitism of Alexandria, the seaports, and the Greek cities, but they could not be considered sufficient to characterize it.

Ancient anti-Semitism, though tardy and somewhat milder than its successors, was real and formed an original capital upon which anti-Semites of later ages could generously draw. It stands as an example of reaction against Jewish separatism in the absence of rival religious claims. (pp. 23-24)

Think about

1. How does a belief that Jews are “different” and that they prefer to keep to themselves influence modern antisemitism?

2. To what extent is the assertion, “Jews are different,” true? How so? How not?

3. Does it matter whether the charge of “different” is factually correct? Why? Why not?

4. How might you respond to the statement that Jews are different (or, separate from) other people?

While psychic aberration, middle-class rivalry, or Jewish separatism may have framed the earliest antisemitism, the schism between the synagogue and the emergent church in ensuing centuries reflected Jewish animosity to nascent Christianity and Christianity’s vigorous response.

By the end of the fourth century, the Jew’s civil status was precarious, and his image had greatly deteriorated. At the close of the previous century, he was no more than a special type of unbeliever; at the end of the fourth, he was a semi-satanic figure, cursed by God, and marked off by the state.

As paganism died and the Christian heresies waned, these defenders of the Church looked more and more upon Judaism as a threat to the faith and the final roadblock to unity. They turned upon the Synagogue with the greatest vigor. (Flannery, pp. 45-46)

Think about

1. To what extent are synagogue-church rivalry and animosity things of the past?

2. What are the religious institutions in your community doing about antisemitism? Is it enough?

3. What can you do through your synagogue to promote better group understanding and relations?

The church’s hatred of Jews was a phase of the struggle between Jews and early Christians for the soul of the pagan world.

The disastrous action carne later, when the Church was faced, not with Jews, but with the educated, sophisticated and sceptical Hellenistic world. It was in the line it chose for its approach to this world that the terrible seeds of all subsequent antisemitism lay buried. For that which differentiates antisemitism from other group prejudices…is that group prejudice is normally related to something contemporary, something which actually happened, even if it be wrongly or distortedly interpreted; whereas antisemitism has almost no relationship to the actual world, and rests on a figment of the imagination… (James Parkes, Anti-Semitism , Quadrangle, 1963. p. 62)

Think about

1. What “figments of the imagination” prompt modern antisemitism? For example, how might you respond to charges that Jews own all the banks, media, etc.?

2. Is group prejudice, because it rests on a contemporary event, more acceptable than antisemitism? Explain.

3. What do you think of Gilman’s suggestion for dealing with “the global fantasy of the Jew?”

Such “global fantasies” about Jews frequently undergird antisemitic remarks and actions. Parkes indicates that the false ideas have ancient roots.

We accept today that the Old Testament reveals the early history both of Judaism and of Christianity, but it would have been strange to either Jew or Christian in the Roman empire to agree to such a statement…Neither Christian nor Jew of that day would have been willing to admit that they shared the great collection of Scriptures…To either side, possession of it by themselves was a denial of it to the other.

` Perhaps it would not have mattered if the Church had claimed the whole of the Old Testament…But the spokesmen of the Church did not do so. They claimed only all the heroes and virtuous characters of the Scriptures…And to the Jews they allotted only all the villains and idolators, only all the threats and denunciations…this was done by men who believed that every word…was God’s own description of the Jewish people…It is no wonder that ordinary Christians came at last to believe that Jews were children of the Devil vowed to their destruction, and to act on that belief. (Parkes, pp. 62-63)

Jules Isaac called this the teaching of contempt.

In this manner was established a kind of so-called Christian teaching which is more accurately called the Teaching of Contempt, and which I have shown to be the most formidable and pernicious weapon ever used against Judaism or the Jews…theological myths which overreach everywhere the bounds of historical and even of scriptural accuracy. (The Teaching of Contempt, Holt/Rinehart/Winston, 1964, p. 34)

Modern antisemitism thus reflects a long history of Jewish apartness, difference and, paradoxically, trying to “fit in.” The calumnies are not necessarily consistent. For example: Jews are clannish (separatist); Jews are pushy (assimilationist). Jews control all the wealth (capitalist); Jews want to destroy the system (socialist/communist).

Think about

1. What counter measures to antisemitism might be most effective if global fantasies and figments of the imagination, spawned by centuries of Christianity’s selective reading of scripture, lie at the root?

2. Gilman suggests that humor, public Jewish identity and education are powerful tools for standing up to antisemitism. Do you agree? Explain.

3. Do you believe you could respond to antisemitism with humor? Explain.

4. How do you feel when called upon to display your Jewishness publicly? Why?

5. Gilman says it is often difficult to distinguish between intended taunts and unknowing use of antisemitic vocabulary. How can you tell the difference? Is it necessary to know the difference? Why?

6. Which types of insult did Snyder experience? Would you – could you – have responded as she did? Explain.

7. Did Gibson’s experience demonstrate intention to do harm, or ignorance? Would a distinction have mattered to him at that point in his life? Would it matter to you? Explain.

8. Gibson is writing about an event that occurred in 1957 during a period when corporate antisemitism was common, as was discrimination in college admission and real estate. How might you respond to his experience?

The faces of antisemitism transform with time and place. Vorspan and Saperstein demonstrated the need for vigilance as circumstances were changing drastically in the 1990s.

Quite unexpectedly, the bright sky of Jewish security in America has dimmed…casting shadows we Jews had not experienced for decades. Perhaps no shadow was more ominous than the appearance…of a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan [David Duke]…whose entire career has consisted of exploiting racial fears and hatred…He cleverly pressed the hot buttons of affirmative action, welfare spending, and increased taxes. At a time of economic distress, he played on racial fears, blaming “them” for all the ills of society (e.g, crime, drugs, AIDS, welfare, and unemployment).

Duke ran for the United States Senate…winning 40 percent of the total vote and more than 60 percent of the white vote…In 1992, he ran for United States president but was eclipsed by another right-wing candidate, Patrick Buchanan, whose bigoted views on Jews, Blacks, women, and gays did not prevent him from attracting a large number of protest votes in many state primaries.

That a majority of white Christians in an American state would bestow their votes on Duke…is a cause for distress and alarm. That Buchanan’s bigotry did not seem to hurt him with the electorate at large added to our anxiety. If we add…incidents such as Crown Heights [a confrontation, with anti-Semitic overtones, between Jews and blacks in Brooklyn, N.Y.], ominous race-baiting and anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the widespread economic suffering in America, it seems that anti-Semitism in America is no longer a relic of the past. This evil needs watching; it compels a higher priority; and it is everybody’s business. (Albert Vorspan & David Saperstein, Tough Choices , UAHC, 1992, pp. 143-144)

Think about

1.Gilman identifies new, Arab-language manifestations of antisemitism. What can you do about these, by yourself or with others, inasmuch as you are not likely to confront them first hand?

2. Snyder confronts current manifestations of antisemitism. Have you, or has someone you know, recently encountered either these, or other manifestations? What Jewish responses ensued? Were the rejoinders appropriate and adequate? Explain.

The authors of the Focus On articles agree that antisemitic slurs should not go unanswered.

  • Gilman prescribes analysis of the slight followed by low-key dialogue.
  • Snyder recommends direct confrontation that includes education.
  • Gibson learned that anger turns inward unless we act on principle.
  • Hamerman advocates analysis, communal response and education in the special setting of the college campus.
  • Snow regrets her inability to respond and lives with hurt feelings – and hopes to recapture the courage to speak out.
  • Schulweis calls for Jewish Christian dialogue to achieve mutual respect for the two traditions.

Think about

1. Familiarize yourself with the Respond! sidebar to Gilman’s article. Talk with others about how you might be able to implement the recommendations when on your own.

2. Compare Gilman’s discussion of “avoidance” prior to the 1950s with his reference to “ethnic pride” today. Which approach is most comfortable for you? Why?

3. Hamerman reports that “standing up” works if many people are mobilized. What resources are available so that you do not have to act alone in the community?

4. Sample the Reform Responses in the sidebar to Hamerman’s article. Which responses do you find helpful for community action? For personal use? Explain.

Deicide – A special case

The article by Schulweis needs special attention because the charge of deicide is more than just another face of antisemitism. Many, like Jules Isaac, argue that it is at the core of Jew hatred.

First of all there is the violence, the persistence of an accusation born…in the unfortunate climate of Judeo-Christian polemics which became increasingly prevalent between the first and the fourth centuries…From this background emerged the recurring theme of murder-of Israel as Cain, as Judas, as a murderous people, a “deicide” people –an epithet at once indelible and absurd, singled out to be an abomination to the Christian world.

By one flourish of the magic wand of theology, old Israel is transformed from a crucified into a crucifying people. All the insults, all the final torments-the flagellation, the nailing of Jesus to the cross-become the work of the Jews alone. Gone is the Roman Pontius Pilate, the all-powerful Procurator of Judea; gone are the Roman soldiers, the executioners; gone is all historical reality. (Jules Isaac, op cit , pp 110-111)

And Flannery.

Another source of anti-Semitism may be seen in distortions of Christian teachings…the Church’s belief that Judaism, unfaithful to its calling and rejected as a vessel of universal salvation, was, by selective and figurative use of the Scriptures, converted into the belief that the Jews were always a wicked and despicable people, rejected by God from the beginning and prepared as if by compulsion for the murder of Christ. The denunciations of Israel by the ancient prophets-their loving solicitude ignored-were brought to bear, particularly by the apologists of the fourth century, upon contemporary Jewry without discrimination…the ancient chastisement of the Jews in a religious context was visited…upon Jews as a people. The denigrating of the Jews as an ethnic group thus became part of a particular type of apologetics…

The most ominous development for the history of anti-Semitism in Christian antiquity was without question the definitive elaboration of the theme of a divine curse or punishment upon the Jews for their role in the crucifixion of Christ. (Edward Flannery, op cit, pp.61-62 )

Mel Gibson’s recent movie, The Passion of the Christ, did not help matters. Nevertheless, it reflected Church teaching into modern times. Snyder encountered the charge recently at her school lunch table. The deicide charge fueled the deadly excesses of the Middle Ages, the Inquisition and the Crusades. It provided fertile soil for Nazi teaching and the Holocaust. Dundes has shown that it is also godfather to the blood libel charge against Jews that began in the twelfth century in connection with Jewish preparations for Passover.

The classical ritual murder accusation consists in the kidnapping and ritual slaughter of a Christian boy and the use of the drained-off blood for the preparation of matzah. An important vicissitude of the crucifixion theme is the injury inflicted upon the Eucharist, the Charity of Christ, i.e., the transubstantiated wafer or Host, and the bleeding of this martyred or crucified miniature matzah by the Jews…

One may assume that the bleeding of Christ on the cross was only an accessory to the crucifixion, but the predominant place that it occupies in the ritual murder accusation contradicts this assumption. The crucifixion can be left out and the bleeding can be made that much more significant…(Alan Dundes, Ed., The Blood Libel Legend, University of Wisconsin, 1991, pp. 316, 317)

Think about

1. Schulweis suggests that we counter the charge of deicide, and its deadly spin-off faces, by knowing more and understanding more about Judaism. Specifically,

  • God is not a person
  • no person is divine
  • God cannot be killed
  • God rejects human sacrifice
  • you are not born with a priori sin; you acquire it
  • atonement comes through your deeds, not vicariously
  • hell is metaphor for the kind of world that results from human misdeeds
  • Judaism is interested in saving lives, not souls

2. How can having such knowledge help you counter the deicide charge?

3. What can the knowledge achieve if the accuser is not interested in dialogue?

4. What other purpose does such knowledge serve? Explain.

5. Talk with your synagogue clergy, educator and librarian about exploring these Jewish teachings in greater depth by yourself and in study groups.

There are some fresh winds.

How fine it would be if Pope John Paul II would read from his balcony on Easter Sunday and other Sundays what he had said to Tad Szulc, the American author and journalist, about Jews and Christians. “The attitude of the Church toward the people of God’s Old Testament – the Jews – can only be that they are our elder brothers in faith,“ the Pope said. “I have been convinced of that from my youngest years in my native town of Wadowice.” (A. M. Rosenthal, The New York Times , April 1, 1994)

The Pope’s sentiment was an important part of NOSTRA AETATE , a declaration by Pope Paul VI on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions, October 28, 1965.

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.

Think about

1. Find the phrases Schulweis might call part of “their story.” Do these abet or hinder the “continued dialogue” Schulweis wants us to pursue? Explain.

2. Compare the Pope’s statement with Snyder’s reply to the deicide charge. Which is more effective? Explain.

The Zionist Mask

The article by Hamerman adds an important dimension to the discussion.

Think about

1. Hamerman offers two criteria by which to differentiate antisemitism from reasoned criticism of Israeli policies: The speaker must acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, and Israel must not be held to different or higher standards than other nations. Why are these important benchmarks? What would you add?

2. Apply the criteria to arguments against Israel’s defensive wall. See “Israel’s Fence: Fortification or Folly,” Reform Judaism , Summer 2004, and its on-line discussion guide at http://urj.org/rjmag/04summer.

3. Does the recent fence ruling by the International Court of Justice meet the tests? Explain.

Anti-Zionism has been a veil for antisemitism since Israel’s rebirth in 1948. It was a particularly ugly mask in 1975 when the United Nations declared Zionism to be “a form of racism.” (The resolution was repealed in 1991.) In June of this year, for the first time in its nearly sixty-year history, the UN convened a conference on antisemitism. Not once in all those decades “has it adopted a resolution dealing specifically with antisemitism” or “published a report on anti-Jewish racism or incitement.” (Jeff Jacoby, The Boston Globe syndicated columnist, in Cleveland Jewish News , July 2, 2004)

Think about

1. Does the United Nations, generally, satisfy both, one, or neither of Hamerman’s criteria? Explain.

2. Does the Palestinian Authority meet the criteria? Explain.

3. Hamerman’s discussion emphasizes the importance of facts in countering anti-Zionist forms of antisemitism – as well as in defending Israel appropriately. Use the resources in the article and in the “Reform Resources” sidebar regularly to stay on top of latest developments.

4. Share what you learn from these, or other resources, with others.

5. Join one or more of the listed action groups, or other action groups, to lend your weight to organized efforts to combat antisemitism.


While antisemitism may be waning a bit here, the opposite is true in other parts of the world. The World Jewish Congress reports a 70% increase in the number of incidents in Austria, where 24% of the population prefer to live in a country without Jews. Germany records a 69% increase in antisemitic episodes over several years. A 500% increase in France recently prompted Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to invite all French Jews to move to Israel. Denmark has a publicly funded Nazi radio station. Spanish Jews are advised not to wear external evidence of Jewishness. Other countries are experiencing increased anti-Jewish rhetoric in the media and on the streets.

Think about

1. Global communication carries the messages of foreign antisemitism to our shores, making us truly responsible for one another. How can you help combat antisemitism wherever it exists?

2. Entire Jewish communities were rescued from antisemitism in Arab lands in the 1950s and were resettled in Israel. What do you think of Sharon’s advice to French Jews?

Navigating antisemitic encounters is an old challenge, with roots two-millennia deep. Maurice Samuel, eighty years ago, brilliantly and prophetically prescribed the path to take.

It would have been a happier task for me if I had been able to write this book, with sincerity, in another tone; if I had been able to record a struggle of two ideals and types which was never compromised and obscured by physical lusts and cruelties. But rather than utter the old, untruthful courtesies, tempering resentment with caution and tact, it would have been better not to write at all, and I was driven to write. I believe that though I may have erred here and there, I have been mainly right: and I console myself with the thought that if this book offends by its assertiveness, God knows that the infinite tactfulness of thousands of other Jews seems to have offended no less. Whatever we do we are damned-and I would rather be damned standing up than lying down. (Maurice Samuel, You Gentiles , Harcourt, Brace, 1924, p.221)

Think about

1. Do you concur that Jews are damned whatever they do? Explain.

2. The Focus On articles universally prescribe standing up in the face of antisemitism. Would you do so when confronted? Why? Why not? How can you best prepare yourself?