IN THE GOSPEL
Jewish theologians and historians have long pointed out that there are a plethora of negative references to and themes regarding Jews in the New Testament that have directly contributed to the historic oppression, persecution, and massacres of the Jewish People. Some of note:
(1) that Jews are (collectively) guilty of crucifying Jesus, known as the antisemitic conspiracy of “deicide.” This is ahistorical for numerous reasons. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one. For more on this, see my post NO, THE JEWS DID NOT KILL JESUS.
Historically, Biblical “justification” for the conspiracy of deicide has been Matthew 27:24–25: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’
All the [Jewish] people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’”
(2) that the trials and tribulations of Jews historically are G-d’s punishment for killing Jesus.
(3) Christianity emphasizes love, whereas Judaism emphasizes legality and the wrath of G-d.
(4) the Christian interpretation of the Tanakh (the “Hebrew Bible,” which Christians call the Old Testament) portrays Jews as stubborn and disloyal to G-d.
THE EARLY CHURCH
The Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 313 CE. While Jewish-Roman relations in the first century were certainly antagonistic, culminating in the three revolts, the situation for Jews exponentially worsened upon the Romans’ adoption of Christianity. The Romans fully leaned into the charge of Jewish deicide, as they would not blame themselves for the death of their savior.
The persecution of Jews increased, with periodic pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) and religious and political repression. In the fourth century, intermarriage between Jews and Christians was formally prohibited. Christians were also forbidden from celebrating Passover with the Jews or keeping Shabbat. Conversion to Judaism was outlawed, and Jewish culture was heavily regulated. Jews were only allowed to enter Jerusalem on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple.
In the fifth century, conditions became even worse. Jews were barred from various professions, participating in civil service, and joining the military. Synagogues were confiscated and transformed into churches.
At one point, Jews accounted for about 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. Had our ancestors not been massacred, some historians calculate there would be some 200 million Jews today. Instead, our population stands at about 15 million.
The Crusades were a series of military campaigns led by the Catholic Church to “liberate” the Holy Land and recover Jerusalem from Islamic rule. After a 5 week siege, Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099, which the Crusaders “celebrated” by going on a murderous rampage, slaughtering Muslims and Jews. When the Jews tried to defend their quarter in Jerusalem, virtually all were either burnt alive or sold into slavery, ending millennia of continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Unlike Jews, Samaritans were generally spared because they were depicted positively in the Bible. The Crusaders maintained control over Palestine for 200 years, during which the region was officially known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Kingdom of Jerusalem is one of the first examples of settler colonialism (the metropole, or “mother country” being the Vatican, which sponsored the Crusades), which differs from regular colonialism because instead of exploiting the Indigenous population, settler colonialism seeks to eliminate the Indigenous population.
Though far from Jerusalem, the Jews in Europe were not spared from the antisemitic violence of the Crusades. Crusaders en route to Palestine massacred entire Jewish communities, particularly in the German region of the Rhineland, prompting many to flee eastward toward Eastern Europe. Soon, local peasants and preachers joined in on the violence. Some Jews were baptized under duress, while most chose death over conversion to Christianity. Some 2000-5000 Jews were killed in the Rhineland in 1096 alone.
The antisemitic conspiracy theory of blood libel asserts that Jews murder Christian (and later, Muslim) children for ritual purposes. Along with the conspiracy of Jewish deicide, blood libel was a common theme in the history of Christian (and later, Muslim) persecution of Jews.
In the earliest blood libels, Jews were accused of trying to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus. Later, the claim was that Jews required the blood of Christian children to bake matzah, the unleavened bread we eat during Passover.
Oftentimes, Jews were accused of blood libel to account for the unexplained disappearances of Christian children. Many of these children have become Christian martyrs and/or were canonized by various churches, such as Gabriel of Bialystok, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1144, the Jews in Norwich, England were accused of the ritual murder of a child, William of Norwich. More and more blood libels sprouted in England over the next century and a half, resulting in massacres and, finally, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. Jews were barred from England until 1657.
Blood libels are hardly a thing of the faraway past. In 1946, just some months after the Holocaust, a blood libel led to the massacre of 38-42 Jewish refugees in Kielce, Poland. The earliest recorded mention of "blood libel" in Muslim territories dates back to 1553; to this day, blood libels are common in the Arab world.
THE SPANISH INQUISITION
Officially known as the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 as part of the Reconquista, the campaign during which Spain recovered the territories in the Iberian Peninsula ruled by Muslims. The purpose of the Inquisition was to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in Spanish territories.
In the beginning, the Inquisition was supposed to merely identify heretics among those who’d converted from Judaism or Islam to Catholicism. In 1492, Jews and Muslims were faced with the choice of expulsion, conversion to Catholicism, or death. Some 200,000 Jews converted to Catholicism under duress. Another 40,000-100,000 were expelled from Spain. In 1497, Portugal followed suit, also expelling its Jews.
The Spanish Inquisition was not formally disbanded until 1834. Over the course of the Inquisition, it’s estimated that some 32,000 people were executed. One of the methods of execution was burning at the stake.
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
The Protestant Reformation was a movement during the sixteenth century that marked a split between the Catholic Church and what is now known as Protestantism. Some examples of Protestant denominations today include the Baptist Church, the Reformed (Calvinist) Church, the Methodist Church, and more. Evangelicalism falls under Protestantism as well.
The Protestant Reformation was led by Martin Luther, who published a thesis critical of the Catholic Church in 1517 and was formally excommunicated in 1521. Early in his career, Luther expressed sympathy and concern for the plight of the Jews, but when he failed to convert them to Christianity, he grew into a virulent antisemite.
Most infamously, Martin Luther utilized the printing press to publish virulently antisemitic texts. Most significant was a 65,000 word antisemitic proclamation called “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Luther’s antisemitic works deeply influenced the development of “modern” antisemitism in Germany, so much so that many historians argue that his work influenced Nazism. In fact, nearly every antisemitic book published during the Third Reich included references and quotations attributed to Luther.
THE HOLOCAUST: CATHOLIC CHURCH
Two popes headed the Catholic Church during the period of the Holocaust: Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958). Jews regard Pius XI as better than Pius XII, who was, by all accounts, a virulent antisemite. Nevertheless, records indicate that Pius XI placed the blame of the spread of Nazism on Jews.
Though in the early days the Vatican was critical of Nazism, it very quickly shifted to a policy of appeasement, likely out of a combination of self-interest and deep-seeded antisemitism. Pope Pius XII committed to a position of “neutrality.” While the Vatican was critical of other issues related to Nazism, it refused to condemn Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Vatican condemnation would’ve undoubtedly been influential; after all, it was the Vatican that convinced the Nazis to temporarily stop their “euthanasia program” (the Nazi euphemism for eugenics).
Recent declassified documents demonstrate that Pius XII had prior knowledge of the Nazi plans for the extermination of Jews.
That is not to say that the Church did not take steps to help Jews. Countless Jewish children were hidden in Catholic orphanages, monasteries, with Catholic families, and more. In some countries, the Catholic clergy was deeply involved with the resistance.
There was a caveat, though: in 2020, previously confidential records in France confirmed that, after the war, the Church had secretly told clerics to refuse to return Jewish children to their closest surviving relatives, despite a court order demanding that they do so. The Church claimed that because the children’s parents had been murdered, this was a sign from the Holy Father that the children should remain Catholic. Many children who’d been hidden in monasteries and orphanages at a young age grew up Catholic without ever learning of their Jewish heritage.
After the war, members of the Catholic Church actively helped prominent Nazi war criminals escape Europe — and justice — through an underground system known as “ratlines.”
THE HOLOCAUST: PROTESTANT CHURCH
Unlike Catholics, who were united under a single church, Germany’s 45 million Protestants belonged to different denominations, such as the Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches. As such, the attitude and behavior toward Jews during the Holocaust varied from church to church. Most called themselves “neutral,” while others loudly supported Nazism. Almost none opposed Hitler.
The Nazis supported the German Christian movement, an Evangelical Christian movement that sought to combine Christianity and Nazism and unite all Protestant churches under a centralized, national church. The German Christian movement quickly amended various facets of their belief system to fall in line with Nazi ideology; for instance, the church began classifying people by “racial heritage” rather than by faith. As such, Christians whose parents or grandparents had converted from Judaism were suddenly considered Jews.
While some Protestants expressed opposition to the German Christian movement, stating “let the church remain the church,” almost none expressed opposition to Nazism or sympathy for the plight of the Jews.
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