White nationalists have wasted no time in finding ways to channel the fear and anxiety of our current moment. At the anti-lockdown rally in in Ohio earlier this month, protesters held signs depicting a rat wearing a kippah and referring to Jews as “the Real Plague.” The president has blamed “globalists” — an anti-Semitic slur — for the economic disruption. The worldview that Jews are an untrustworthy threat is a centuries-old myth rooted in Christian Europe that white nationalists rely upon to advance their political project.
At the same time, centrist and progressive figures can unwittingly play into the same narratives. This week, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio unfairly singled out members of the Orthodox Jewish community for failing to observe social distancing practices. As a Jew living in Portland, Maine, I am terrified. The question is not if, but when, this rhetoric will inspire horrific violence targeting my people. And when that happens, how will progressive Christians react?
There’s no easy way to say this, but I’ve mostly seen Christians respond to anti-Semitic violence by emphasizing the innocence of Christianity. Following the Hanukkah attacks in the New York City area this past December, I saw friends on my social network feed sharing Pastor David Hansen’s admonition that “anti-Semitism is un-Christian.” Earlier, in 2019, when a member of the Portland City Council offered a clear condemnation of an anti-Semitic, racist, and anti-immigrant article about the upcoming mayoral race, folks in my area applauded the condemnation while commenting that far-right evangelicals are not “real” Christians. These responses compounded my sense of vulnerability with a feeling of isolation and invisibility.
Since moving to Portland from New York City just over two years ago, I’ve increasingly felt my Jewishness seen through Christian eyes. I am identifiable as a Jew because I wear a kippah in public and, before the pandemic, not a month would go by without someone approaching me to tell me their ideas about Jews. A new doctor shuddered when I explained the meaning and origin of my son’s Hebrew name, responding: “I get chills whenever I hear Hebrew spoken … it transports me to such an ancient time.” A man came up to me at a gas station and asserted that, “Jews and Catholics both believe that the more you suffer, the closer to G!d you are.” And at a pharmacy, someone behind me in line asked me if my wife was Jewish and, when I told him she was, he replied, “we need more Jews in the world.”
Writer and activist Paul Kivel explains that this erasure is part of “Christian hegemony” — the notion that Christian values and ideas dominate every aspect of American life. In his book, Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony , Kivel argues that this domination operates through common ideas rooted in Christian thought, through the personal power of individual members of the clergy, and through networks of churches and church affiliates. This concept names the erasure that I’ve felt often in my life: I vividly remember running home crying from an assembly in sixth grade, when classes ended early so that the entire student body could sing carols in advance of Christmas break.
I feel similarly invisible when Christians react to white nationalist violence by denying the Christianity of the perpetrators. In this context, the use of the word “Christian” seems to be a euphemism for “good.” The claim that white nationalists are un-Christian, then, just reinforces the idea that the church is the sole arbiter of good and evil. Insisting on Christian virtue also implies that non-Christians are suspect or deficient. As theologian Jeannine Hill Fletcher argues in The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America, this notion of a “sliding scale of humanity” has long provided a fundamentally theological basis for the white supremacy that justified black enslavement and Native American genocide.
Christian belief in a “sliding scale of humanity” is also foundational to anti-Semitism. For nearly a thousand years, ecclesiastical leaders consolidated and legitimated church authority by mythologizing Jews as a perpetual “other” threatening what they imagined as the well-ordered Christian society. The rise of industrial capitalism disrupted this Christian order. Europe saw the emergence of communist and socialist movements as well as a far-right nationalist ideology, which asserted that states should unify around national bonds of blood and language. Amid this period of political unrest, reactionary church officials and lay leaders used the power of the pulpit to revive centuries-old anti-Semitic narratives, blaming “the Jew” for the turmoil of modernity and the decline of Christendom. Contemporary white nationalists have picked up these same themes, today blaming Jews for so-called “white genocide.”
This history can be difficult to stomach. No one likes being told that, despite their best intentions, they may have inadvertently caused harm. But remember: None of this is about whether progressive Christians are “good” people. Our binary conception of good and evil, rooted in Christian teachings about sin and salvation, is not terribly helpful when addressing systemic and generational harms. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
The Jewish communities I affiliate with are looking for Christian allies who will help us resist Christian dominance. That requires leaders who deeply understand the Church’s historic role in fomenting anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, patriarchy, and colonialism. It also requires Christian activists who commit themselves to doing the difficult and often uncomfortable day-to-day work of challenging Christian supremacy in our movements, schools, governments, workplaces, and social circles. And when the unthinkable happens, Christian activists must respond in a way that centers, rather than silences, the victims.