Where does religious discrimination, antisemitism come from? - review

Two views on how to dissect and confront global discrimination and antisemitism.

 CONFLICT DURING the January 6, 2021, riots at US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, included white Christian supremacists.  (photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
CONFLICT DURING the January 6, 2021, riots at US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, included white Christian supremacists.
(photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

For thousands of years, religion has generated apostles and apostates; humility and hubris; pacifists, crusaders and jihadists; victims and victimizers. Since about 80% of people in the world affirm their faith in religion, and the proportion of the non-religious is likely to shrink from 17% to 13% by 2050, a compelling case can be made that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The two books under review examine religious victims and victimizers, past and present, and document the persistence of antisemitism, racism, and genocidal violence against religious minorities.

In Christian Supremacy, Magda Teter, the author of, among other books Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth, traces the roots of claims about the inferiority and “perpetual servitude” of Jews to leaders of Christianity, when that religion was a relatively new and insecure sect. Teter, a professor of history and Judaic studies at Fordham University, demonstrates how, in the ensuing centuries, these concepts were applied as well to indigenous peoples and Blacks and were embedded in theology, law, politics, and culture.

By the early 1700s, as white Christian supremacy took hold, baptism did not result in the emancipation of Black slaves in the American colonies. Opposition to equality and citizenship for Blacks endured among white Christians in the United States long after the abolition of slavery. In Europe, belief in the inferiority of Jews remained widespread, even after limited citizenship was granted to them, albeit grudgingly.

While some Christians used biblical texts to justify the persecution of Jews and defend race-based slavery, others among their co-religionists cited the New Testament in order to protect Jews and decry the practice of human bondage.

 ETHNIC UYGHUR demonstrators scuffle with riot police during a sit-in protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last year regarding China’s treatment of their ethnic group. (credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS)
ETHNIC UYGHUR demonstrators scuffle with riot police during a sit-in protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last year regarding China’s treatment of their ethnic group. (credit: DILARA SENKAYA/REUTERS)

Steeped in primary sources, Christian supremacy is informative and provocative. Perhaps inevitably, however, in a book that covers so much ground, Teter does not adequately address some relevant issues. 

Why, for example, did Protestant denominations so readily embrace dehumanizing claims about Jews and Blacks? How did Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants to the United States become “white”? Why did Jews become viewed more as a “nation” of unassimilable and dangerous “Semites” than a religious group? Do several high-profile episodes of “tourist antisemitism” exaggerate the discrimination Jews faced in the United States before the influx of millions of “new immigrants” at the turn of the 20th century?

Moreover, although Teter establishes connections between early Christians’ subjection of Jews to perpetual servitude, and subsequent justifications of the capture and enslavement of African people, her thesis about links between antisemitism and anti-Black racism (beyond a shared stamp of inferiority) subsequently made by white Christians seems less compelling.

That said, Teter does provide an illuminating account of the contest between champions of equal rights and white Christian ideology. In France, she points out, Ashkenazi Jews were not granted the status of “active citizens” until two years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens in France banned discrimination on the basis of religion. 

In England, a bill providing political rights for Jews failed to pass in Parliament in 1830. Twelve more attempts were unsuccessful until 1858, when a piecemeal strategy removed the last impediments. In The Victory of Judaism over Germandom, published in 1879, Wilhelm Marr called for a movement to counter the domination of Jewish “business realism” over “everything idealistic.”

IN 1790, president George Washington signed a naturalization law that provided a pathway to citizenship for “any alien, other than an enemy alien, being a free white person.” Several states in the Union denied free Blacks basic rights of citizenship and banned them from moving there. In the late 19th century, the US Supreme Court declared that Asian immigrants – regardless of their education, language, religion or skin color – “were clearly of a race which is not Caucasian” and could not become naturalized citizens.

The years following World War II, Teter reminds us, have been marked by progress against white Christian power, followed by a backlash and a partial retreat. In Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, white supremacy was “unambiguously on display,” with rioters carrying Confederate flags and wearing antisemitic T-shirts, one of which bore the words “Camp Auschwitz.”

Although their meanings change over time, Teter concludes that concepts, thoughts, and feelings “are difficult to uproot.” Nonetheless, she states, “uprooted, or at least weakened, they must be.”

Religicide: Saving minority religious groups from extinction

IN THEIR book Religicide, human rights activists Georgette Bennett and Jerry White deliver an urgent plea to end the extinction of minority religious groups. Given the absence of an official name, revised international laws, and a willingness to take decisive action against perpetrators of violence, the authors point out, religicide “continues unabated, unrecognized and unprosecuted.” Seventy percent of the world’s population live in countries that restrict free and unfettered expressions of faith. Atrocities against religious minorities and their cultural heritage are the fastest-growing type of violence in the 21st century.

Following brief discussions of the Holocaust and the genocide against Armenians, Bennett and White provide chapter-long descriptions of the extermination of indigenous peoples in America in the 19th century, and current existential threats facing Yazidis in Iraq, Rohingya in Myanmar, Uyghurs in China, and Tibetan Buddhists.

Although the authors do not make a persuasive case that using the term “religicide” would have a substantive impact on policy, they do demonstrate that because of the limited authority of the United Nations and because of nation-states’ sovereignty over their own internal affairs, international human rights organizations (established in the wake of the Holocaust) have failed to curtail the persecution of religious minorities.

China, for example, can veto any resolution supporting humanitarian assistance or intervention in the UN Security Council. Although China has breached essential principles of the UN Genocide Convention (which, it’s worth noting, already specifies religious, as well as racial, ethnic, and national groups), the regime has justified persecuting, imprisoning, and punishing more than a million Uyghurs by labeling them terrorists. 

None of the religicidal countries featured in this book – China, Iraq, Myanmar, Turkey and the United States – voted to ratify the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, which also criminalizes religious persecution but can only try individuals, not states, organizations, or groups. In addition, blatant violations of religious freedom by its members have undermined the credibility of the UN Human Rights Council.

Bennett and White support fixes to gaps in international laws and organizations, a top- down mobilization of government and corporate policymakers, and a middle-out engagement of faith-based organizations and civil societies that can train and deploy violence interrupters and outreach workers to enlist local leaders and residents.

However, the authors believe that bottom-up, on-the-ground efforts “may prove to be the most critical for durable systemic impact.” Conflict transformation, they maintain, will come when oppressors and the oppressed pledge allegiance to an Interreligious Global Covenant, with an “affirmative values-infused vision” of religious freedom and a commitment to protect members of religious groups who do not threaten violence against others, and when victims and victimizers “confront each other on the level playing field of a truth and reconciliation commission.” Governments and international organization might then be invited to sign the Covenant as well.

Intervening, interrupting, and stopping religicide “can be done,” Bennett and White insist. “If only we would heed the obvious signs and symptoms of impending violence; uncompromising language, previous intergroup violence and organized killing, systematic human-rights abuse, escalating oppression, stockpiling of weapons, and worsening economic conditions.”

Readers of Religicide will find it difficult not to admire the authors’ idealism. They will find it even more difficult to avoid recognizing that “if” is the largest and longest word in the English language. 

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Christian SupremacyBy Magda TeterPrinceton University Press392 pages; $35

Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious ViolenceBy Georgette Bennett and Jerry WhitePost Hill Press329 pages; $28