Background to The Jewish Problem: Our discussion has covered much territory over the past six months and a pause might be useful for revue, and to prepare the way towards our next major area, the Holocaust itself. Certainly the Final Solution failed in its purpose, to murder each and every Jew, everywhere. Was the Final Solution a unique event, as many historians maintain, or does it fit a pattern, pose threat also for the future? Was it a German phenomenon or was Germany merely providing leadership? And what role did the United States play before, during and following the Holocaust? These are some of the question which will be addressed in the weeks and months to come.
Over the past six months we have been exchanging ideas regarding the nature of the Jewish Problem. Hitler’s Germany provided leadership in seeking its Final Solution, but clearly the idea of such a “problem” demanding a final solution is not simply the product of a single imagination, no matter how charismatic. How convince, how organize so massive a project that Himmler could dismiss so cavalierly: “we''re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, Ha! A small matter." In fact Jews have been persecuted in Christendom for nearly two thousand years. What drives this continuing threat to Jewish survival?
Historians dealing with the Holocaust, if they mention it at all, provide a nod to the role of Christianity as foundation, scant mention of the continuing persecution of the Jews over a two thousand year period. The Holocaust is often treated as if the product of the socio-economic condition facing Germany after the First World War. As explanation for Hitler’s rise to power perhaps sufficient; as explanation of how he entered the chancellery with a ready agenda to murder each and every Jew within reach, little or no explanation.
Degree of societal stress may suffice to explain the intensity of antisemitism; it does nothing to explain Why the Jews!
Our project is to approach, if not achieve, such an explanation: Why antisemitism exists; Why a Jewish Problem targeting the Jews for victimization over two millennia; for extermination?
1. Christianity and the Jewish Problem: We recently completed a discussion of the roots of antisemitism in Christian anti-Judaism. In it I used two gospels as touchstones, Matthew and John. These represent the clearest of the four gospels as sources for anti-Judaism. Matthew, 27:25 graphically describes a supposed dialogue between Pontius Pilate and “the Jews” in which the Roman governor is actually portrayed as “washing his hands” of the Jewish mob’s insistence that Jesus be crucified. Once Pilate gives in and sentences Jesus, Matthew presents the mob as accepting condemnation not just for themselves, but for all future generations:
“The Gospel says the crowd shouted back: "His blood be on us and on our children," a phrase taken by Christians for centuries to indicate that the Jewish people as a whole and for perpetuity bore direct responsibility for the crucifixion and were therefore fair game for persecution and extermination.”
The John gospel uses the term, “the Jews” more times that the three synoptic gospels combined. For our purposes this gospel’s greatest import is in marrying “the Jews” to Satan, described by John as their “father”:
“One of the most volatile passages in the New Testament is the moment at which Jesus turns to some of His Jewish audience and declares point-blank, "You are of your father, the devil" (Jn 8:44).”
Two thousand years later Julius Streicher would use this passage as justification for the Holocaust:
"If the danger of the reproduction of that curse of God in the Jewish blood is finally to come to an end, then there is only one way ― the extermination of that people whose father is the devil..."
John then goes on to describe the Jews as the antichrist, in league to destroy Christianity. During the highly superstitious Middle Ages the Jews were seen as agents of the devil, a direct risk to individual Christians. This was the period of blood libel and desecration of the host, the biscuit said to represent Jesus’ body. Many of these stereotypes are present today.
Christian theologians have seemed almost in competition to expand on "Jewish perfidy."
John Chrysostum: “But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts.
Augustine, is remembered as the theologian who provided Jews a place in Christian society, so ensured at least some would survive. And while the Church accepted his reasoning in City of God, and “the Jews” did survive, they were to do so destitute and homeless, as example to the faithful of the beneficence of Christ. Augustine more directly displays less tolerance in his Confessions:
“Judaism, since Christ, is a corruption; indeed, Judas is the image of the Jewish people: their understanding of Scripture is carnal; they bear the guilt for the death of the Savior, for through their fathers they have killed Christ.”
“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud (Vom Schem Hamphoras [Of the Unknowable Name…])
Luther: The “Great Reformer” reproached the Church as obstructing the conversion of “the Jews” by use of coercion. He believed “the Jews” would welcome Christianity through his silk glove welcome. Disappointed, he reverted to an even more radical solution:
“What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews?... First, their synagogues should be set on fire… Secondly, their homes…Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more...”
This then is a brief description of an attitude that has permeated Christianity, scripture and theology, for seventeen hundred years. This is Christianity’s Jewish Problem.
2. The Enlightenment, the social revolution from theocratic to secular governance in the West, may be roughly dated to the year 1700. Anti-Jewish animus from the 1st to the 18th century I classify “anti-Judaism; from 1700 forward, antisemitism. Actions we would certainly call antisemitic existed previous to the secular revolution, and religious intolerance called anti-Judaism continues to present. The terms are not writ in stone.
While the West was no less inheritor of anti-Jewish animus after 1700, rebelling against religion in the Age of Reason meant that in order to explain the antipathy, “the Jews” had to fit into the categories of secularism. And so “the Jews” were now a "nation," the same as the French, Germans and English. Except these others had a geographic locale: the Jews were a nation apart. The Philosophes apparently struggled with the place of Jews in secular society, Voltaire devoting no less that thirty of one-hundred-eighteen articles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique to the “the Jews.” But prejudice is difficult to just ignore and many of this rationalist’s writings certainly sound antisemitic:
In his Treatise on Toleration Voltaire describes “the Jews” as, “the most detestable [nation] ever to have sullied the earth...” in his Dictionnaire,“the most imbecile people on the face of the earth, enemies of mankind…” In his Letter of Memmius to Cicero, ‘I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race…” And, a year later, “You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.''''
An 1806 French print depicts Napoleon Bonaparte emancipating the Jews. (Wikipedia)
Napoleon is heralded the Great Liberator of the Jews but as with Augustine and early Luther before him, “liberation” was camoufalge for a non-lethal solution to the Jewish Problem.
“Napoleon''s outward tolerance and fairness toward Jews was actually based upon his grand plan to have them disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion." (Napoleon, quoted in Poliakov’s, The History of Anti-Semitism, volume III, p.226)
“I do not intend to rescue that race, which seems to have been the only one excluded from redemption, from the curse with which it is smitten, but I would like to put it in a position where it is unable to propagate the evil.”
Still, Jews were emancipated wherever Napoleon’s armies were victorious. And wherever Jews were emancipated, once Napoleon’s armies withdrew there quickly followed the "reaction."
At first efforts were disorganized and limited to moderating or reversing Jewish “emancipation.” Soon Jews in society became a preoccupation for some and unorganized resistance gave way to political parties based on and devoted to a program of antisemitism. Hitler’s National Socialism emerged from several generations of such political parties.
Recent writings in this Series: