New incarnations of an ancient hatred

Israel must recognize that even in post-Christian Europe, replacement theology remains influential.

Anti Semitism 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Anti Semitism 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
The recommendation by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly that its 47 member states impose unspecified restrictions on circumcision is just the latest onslaught against Jewish life in Europe. Other recent examples include Poland’s ban on kosher slaughter, which joins existing bans Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden (though the latter, bizarrely, permits the Muslim equivalent, halal slaughter); the near-passage of similar legislation in Holland; and a German court’s ruling that circumcision is illegal (though Berlin, to its credit, subsequently passed legislation reasserting circumcision’s legality).
Nowadays, attempts to ban Jewish praxis are usually justified in the name of human rights: Circumcision “violates the child’s bodily integrity;” kosher slaughter “is cruel to animals.” Yet while the pretext has changed, the targets have remained eerily constant for over 2,000 years: In previous centuries, Jewish praxis was targeted in the name of Christianity, and earlier still, under the Greeks and Romans, in the name of pagan religions. As far back as 167 BCE, Greek efforts to outlaw distinctive Jewish practices like the prohibitions on idol worship and eating pork sparked the Maccabean revolt.
The continuity of this behavior across more than two millennia explains why most Jews (and many non-Jews) don’t buy the pious protestations that there’s nothing anti-Semitic about such proposed bans on Jewish life. It also underscores the degree to which the modern-day human rights movement, like Christianity before it and paganism before that, has become a religion, one that brooks no competitors and tolerates no dissent from its precepts.
But beyond that, this anti-Jewish onslaught reveals something that is fundamental to understanding European attitudes toward Israel. To see why, it’s worth considering a seemingly unrelated story: that of Mansuk Song, the founder of Korean Christians for Shalom Israel.
The Western missionaries who brought Christianity to Korea imbued their converts with their theology. Frequently, this included replacement theology – the belief that God rejected the Jews after the Jews rejected Jesus, and Christians replaced them as the chosen people. Replacement theology was propagated by most European denominations, including Catholicism (most of southern Europe, including France, Spain, Italy and Portugal), Lutheranism (much of northern Europe, including Germany and Scandinavia) and Calvinism (Switzerland).
That is the theology Song was raised on in Seoul, and in which he devoutly believed – until one day, a Christian friend returned from visiting Israel and asserted that Israel’s very existence refutes the claim that God rejected the Jews: Their return to their ancient land, just as God promised in the Bible, proves that His covenant with them still stands.
Song’s initial reaction was sheer fury at this theological heresy. But then, unwillingly, his mathematician’s mind began considering the evidence. And he was forced to conclude that his friend was right: The flourishing modern state of Israel, to which Jews have returned from all four corners of the earth just like the prophets promised, is incompatible with replacement theology. Hence his conversion into a Christian Zionist: As another Christian Zionist recently explained, a Christian who believes God’s covenant with the Jews remains in force will naturally tend to support the physical expression of that covenant, the reborn Jewish state.
One might ask what theology has to do with modern-day Europe, where Christian belief has plummeted, and Christianity’s influence along with it. The answer is that cultural attitudes tend to linger long after the beliefs that gave rise to them have disappeared. That’s true for all religions: In a recent poll of American Jews, for instance, 56% of respondents termed “working for justice/equality” important to their Jewish identity and 49% said the same of intellectual curiosity, though only 19% attached importance to Jewish law, the original source of both traditions.
But as the recent continent-wide push to eliminate Jewish praxis shows, one cultural attitude that has lingered in Europe is a profound discomfort with Judaism’s continued existence – a discomfort whose roots lie in replacement theology’s contention that since the Jews were rejected by God, allowing them to practice their religion in comfort, safety and pride is deeply offensive to God, and hence to His Christian subjects. This same cultural attitude underlies Europe’s profound discomfort with Israel, which goes way beyond the professed pretexts of “human rights” and “international law.”
Neither of these pretexts can explain why, for instance, Europe recently imposed financial sanctions on activity in “Israeli-occupied territory” even as it continues to fund activity in Turkish-occupied Cyprus or Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara: If “human rights” and “international law” actually mandated eschewing support for activity in occupied territory, these dictates would apply to all occupations.
But the double standard makes perfect sense once you factor in the lingering cultural attitudes of replacement theology. Neither Turkey’s occupation of Cyprus nor Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara poses any problem for Christian theology. In contrast, as Song’s experience shows, Israel’s very existence is a profound challenge to replacement theology, and even more so its post-1967 return to its ancient heartland of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria – aka “the occupation.”
Faced with this insoluble contradiction between his theology and the fact of Israel’s existence, Song chose to scrap his theology. But some Christians would prefer to eliminate the inconvenient fact. That’s why certain Christian organizations – especially in Europe (see, for instance, the Church of Scotland), but also some American denominations (like Presbyterianism) – are deeply involved in anti-Israel activity.
And that’s also why many Europeans who have long since abandoned Christianity still feel, in their heart of hearts, that there’s something profoundly wrong about Israel’s very existence, and especially its post-1967 expansion: They are the products of a cultural milieu whose attitudes they have inherited even if they no longer remember the source of those attitudes – which many don’t.
The lesson for Israel is that trying to make Europe love us is and always was a hopeless cause. It’s important to keep relations with such a major trading partner from deteriorating too far, but we shouldn’t waste time and energy trying to achieve anything beyond that. Our limited resources would be better spent seeking allies where we’re more likely to find them: among countries without a 2,000-year-old tradition of viewing our very existence as an offense against God.