Some three centuries after the apostle Paul, Augustine, arguably the most important founder of modern Christianity, would play a dominant role in the development of Christian Europe, its philosophy, sociopolitical structures and art. Often regarded as the “father of the Roman Catholic Church,” he also greatly inspired Reformation founders, Luther and Calvin.
Augustine posited that Jews survived because they were destined to be dispersed to serve as “eternal witness” due to their “folly” of rejecting Jesus as the messiah and to be a reminder of Christianity’s triumph.
This meant that Jews could “exist” in Europe but never be welcomed or settled. Instead they were to be wanderers, impoverished and regarded as outcasts, despite having lived in Europe almost a thousand years before Europeans embraced Christianity. The Jewish Diaspora was a punishment and their mourned kingdom would continue until the end of days.
This “right to exist” has become a catchphrase in post-Shoah Europe. It also applies to Israel.
While Augustine forced Jews to live under Church protection, the European Enlightenment – three hundred years after Luther – heralded some changes. New scientific discoveries advocated more personal freedoms.
Following the French Revolution, Napoleon emancipated the Jews and accorded them civic rights.
Other countries followed suit – Austria in 1867, Germany 1871, Spain 1910, Romania 1923. By 1935 Germany reversed the emancipation of Jews and decided that Jews had no “right to exist.” The Shoah ensued with the active or passive collaboration of Europe, the churches and the Roosevelt administration.
Despite conditional Jewish emancipation proposed by French revolutionary leaders such as Count Clermont-Tonnerre, European culture nevertheless retained its anti-Jewish animus. The Hep-Hep riots of 1819 that started in Bavaria, the Edgardo Mortara Affair of 1858, the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, and the Nazis of 1933, all occurred in post-Enlightenment Europe.
Augustine’s “eternal witness” has never been truly discarded, despite the Enlightenment. Some 50 percent of Jews in Austria and Germany converted for acceptance and opportunities. Jews as “eternal witness” became entrenched in European culture with Wagner, T.S. Eliot, Grimm, Agatha Christie, Degas and even Beatrix Potter. The Shoah was the culmination of theologically-based hatred of the Jews.
If Jews were to be condemned as “eternal witness” never to find a welcoming home, the emergence of the thriving, OECD member Jewish State of Israel has presented a fundamental problem, turning Augustine’s dictum on its head.
This anomaly has resulted in resentment and envy by the European countries. Europe has been cold toward Israel. It seldom votes with Israel in the UN.
This was the case before the Six Day War, and exacerbated since then. Europe would never quite relinquish Augustine’s “eternal witness.” In 1964, Pope Paul VI visited then divided Jerusalem, but refused to shake the hand of Israeli president Zalman Shazar, or even greet him. This was consistent with his predecessor Pius IX in 1904 invoking the “eternal witness” concept, bluntly telling Theodor Herzl that the Jewish people could never have a home due to their rejection of Christ.
In 1967, Israel found itself abandoned by post-Shoah Europe, as the Arab countries prepared for their war of annihilation against Israel. In 1970, German chancellor Willy Brandt knelt at the Warsaw Ghetto in contrition. The same Willy Brandt in 1973 refused landing rights to US planes bringing essential supplies to an embattled Israel fighting for its very existence in the Yom Kippur War. Jews as individuals and the Jewish State of Israel to this day continue to be differentiated in the minds of most Europeans. In this manner, Europeans have resolved the cognitive dissonance of the wandering Jew and the State of Israel.
It has little to do with “occupied territories” per se, as the pope in 1964 made clear. While the Vatican finally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 – one hundred years after Dreyfus, and 46 years after Israel’s founding – Israel is often referred to as “the holy land” rather than by its name that implies sovereignty. In addition, European countries and church organizations such as the Lutheran “Brot fuer die Welt” and the Catholic “Misereor” fund anti-Israel NGOs that undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. They are major donors to hostile NGO’s such as B’Tselem, Adalah and Zochrot whose aim is to undermine or overthrow the Jewish state in some way. NGO Monitor has exposed this in detail.
Some European leaders such as well-meaning German chancellor Angela Merkel maintain that Israel has “a right to exist.” This basic form of acknowledgment differs from “sovereignty.” It would be bizarre for her to reassure France or Poland that they have “a right to exist.” This phrase does not apply to any other country. Nor does the term “Jewish homeland” as some leaders refer to Israel, reflect sovereignty.
When President Barack Obama (and French President Francois Hollande – later retracted) refused to address the Knesset, it was a rejection of the very symbol of Jewish sovereignty. Their reassurances of “security guarantees” in exchange for suicidal Israeli policies are reminiscent of early Church guarantees of protection of Jews. Given their history and current inability/ motivation to protect Jewish citizens in European countries, such guarantees ring hollow. Other pressures such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and the demonizing or delegitimizing of Israel, are examples of Augustine’s legacy.
A variant of the “eternal witness” epithet is UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The United Nations has two refugee agencies: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for all the world’s refugees, except Palestinians, and UNRWA, founded after Israel’s independence and which has its own definition of “refugee.” UNRWA has developed into an organization that vilifies the State of Israel. Moreover, UNRWA has become a bloated industry that perpetuates the Israel-Arab problem rather than solving it. Ironically, the almost one million Jewish refugees from Arab countries fell under the UNHCR. Palestinian refugees, originally numbering less than the Jewish refugees, are growing in number, since with UNRWA, refugee status is inherited.
” or “catastrophe” as Israel’s existence is called by Palestinians, is central to the UNRWA narrative and raison d’etre. While the UNHCR has some 8,000 employees for the whole world, UNRWA has over 30,000 for the Palestinians alone. UNRWA’s donors are mostly the USA, European Commission and European countries. There are no other “nakba
” countries, nor has any other country been vilified by the UNHCR as a pariah, i.e. “eternal witness” state.
It is clear that Europe and the established churches still harbor a Jewish problem. Apart from Israel’s sovereignty, Jewish customs such as circumcision and shechita (not to be confused with Muslim halal customs) are ongoing controversial issues. Some European countries have banned kosher slaughter. This is the same Europe that supports bull fighting as “cultural.”
With increasing anti-Semitic incidents, it would seem that inter-faith activities after 1945 have had limited success. The customary klezmer music (reminiscent of the wandering shtetl Jew) and kosher suppers have often been feel-good events, rather than resolving fundamentals. While there has been some progress since Vatican II, more needs to be done.
Established churches and leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu continue to promote boycotts of Israel.
It is time to go beyond “more police protection” at synagogues as a “solution.” The root causes should be examined.
A point of departure could be a conference entitled “Enlightenment 2,” attended by leading clergy, politicians and academics. Formally repudiating Augustine’s “eternal witness,” reassessing education, historical revisionism and resolving the unfinished business of the European Enlightenment would be a first step that sees cultural change as the goal, rather than more ineffectual stop-gap measures. Anti-Semitism is theologically based. It needs to be theologically resolved.
Without serious commitment to such changes, European’s future and purported symbiotic relationship with its Jews and the Jewish state is in doubt. The author is a musician, psychologist and writer. Born in South Africa, he is based in Melbourne and Berlin and is an activist in Jewish, Israel and interfaith affairs. He has been a guest speaker at Limmud, seminars and radio.
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