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5 ways your church can address anti-Semitism

Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer

February 12, 2020

The list of American localities that are now associated with horrific attacks against our Jewish neighbors continues to grow (and includes Pittsburgh, Poway, Brooklyn, Jersey City, and most recently, Monsey). In this last incident, a rabbi’s home was attacked during Chanukah by an anti-Semitic man with a machete.

In 2019, anti-Semitic incidents in New York City alone have risen dramatically and represented more than half of the documented hate crimes received by the police in that city. Nationally, a 2018 FBI report revealed that 57.8% of hate crimes in the United States were directed against Jewish individuals or the Jewish community – 4 times more than against Muslims (14.5%). Social media has played a significant role in spreading anti-Semitic hate; an ADL Study (May 2018) reported that on Twitter, over 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets were posted over the course of just a single year.

How can we address this distressing upsurge in anti-Semitic prejudice and violence? Here are 5 practical ways for churches and individuals to make a difference.

1 – Reach Out in Genuine Friendship

Perhaps the most effective strategy to break down barriers between diverse communities is to intentionally develop authentic friendships. It is difficult to sustain stereotypes and prejudice when we experience actual relationships with people from other faiths and cultural backgrounds.

Beyond individual friendships, churches might consider reaching out to synagogues and other Jewish institutions with offers of relationally-positive events and constructive conversations. In undertaking such initiatives, it is particularly helpful to remember that intentional and open-minded listening should precede sharing one’s own perspectives or solutions on how to address such longstanding historical problems, such as anti-Semitic prejudice.

2 – Express Compassion and Sacrificial Solidarity

Authentic friendships with fellow neighbors who are experiencing prejudice and harm should evoke compassion in our souls and a sincere desire to express solidarity in substantial ways. To have credibility, our support should cost us something. In Christian theological terms, as Jesus’ followers our walking alongside those in harm’s way calls us to “take up our cross daily” by embracing sacrificial activities.

We might manifest compassion and solidarity by joining coalitions of religious people promoting healthy co-existence between different groups in our multi-cultural society, donating to various organizations that are on the front lines of specifically combatting anti-Semitism, or joining in public demonstrations intended to express opposition to the expanding threat of anti-Semitism in the United States and throughout the world.

On January 5, major Jewish organizations held a march to raise awareness about anti-Semitism inviting members of other faith communities to join them. The demonstration assembled in Foley Square in Manhattan, and a crowd of some 25,000 people crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and congregated in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza Park. Among the dozens of organizations that sponsored and attended the “No Hate, No Fear” demonstration, only a few Christian organizations were listed (Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens and St. Mary’s Church in Manhattanville). At least two Christian leaders voiced support (one Catholic, the other Orthodox). A few interfaith organizations lent their support, as well as Buddhist, Druze, and Sikh groups.

No doubt there were also Christians (like me) marching as individuals, but just imagine the powerful statement of solidarity Christian churches could have made by sending identifiable groups of members to the demonstration? I am convinced that the Jewish community would have taken notice and responded in an appreciative way to such a witness.

3 – Reflect on the Presence of Anti-Semitism within Our Own Tradition

Despite much scholarship demonstrating how various Christian traditions have contributed to anti-Semitism throughout the past two thousand years, many church attendees are not well-informed about this embarrassing aspect of our past. Mark Galli’s recent article for Christianity Today serves as a good starting point for serious reflection and discussion (even though I may not agree with all of his arguments).

There are many issues related to anti-Semitism and the church, such as controversial New Testament texts, the original Gentile-Jew split within the Jesus movement, the sordid history of Christendom’s treatment of the Jews throughout Europe (including the Crusades), and of course, the Holocaust. The existence of contemporary Israel and Christianity’s understanding of its ongoing historical-religious significance is also worthy of serious reflection and study.

4 – Speaking Out of Core Convictions

Although actions do speak louder than words (hence, my placement of points 1 and 2), words do indeed matter. Christian silence concerning anti-Semitism implicitly validates it. Churches, denominations and organizations can and should express their rejection of all manifestations of anti-Semitism, based on Christian core convictions.

Congregational clergy can preach against anti-Semitism and teach positive and constructive ways of interpreting Gospel texts that have historically be misinterpreted as justifications for anti-Semitic attitudes and actions. Lent is an excellent time to address these issues. Clergy can encourage their denominational leaders to take a stand.

Denominational judicatories and their leadership, as representatives of the church on an extra-local level, may act to reject anti-Semitism and point to a better way through pastoral letters, statements of concern and even formal resolutions. They can encourage local churches to find the courage to reach out to their Jewish neighbors and establish friendships.

5 – Personal and Corporate Repentance

It took the German Baptist movement 4 decades to publicly repent of their lack of response to the destruction of Jewry during the Nazi era. It is not easy to recognize and confess our deepest sins.

Perhaps engaging in opposition to anti-Semitism within our society may evoke uneasy feelings of shame within us (individually and corporately). Let us not be tempted by prideful denial, but instead let’s recognize anti-Semitic attitudes we consciously or unconsciously may have embraced, and through God’s grace confess and receive grace. Such inner transformation is a profoundly spiritual and honest way to address and help to eradicate anti-Semitism.

Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer is affiliate professor of Church History at Northern Seminary, Lisle, Illinois, having retired as General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA at the end of 2019. First published January 7, 2020 on the Northern Seminary blog. Used by permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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