On February 21, 2017 the Washington Post printed this caption under a photograph of overturned headstones in a St Louis cemetery:
Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, on Feb. 21, 2017.
The accompanying article by Post editor Kayla Epstein went on to observe:
For Jews, the act of desecrating cemeteries recalls a dark history of prejudice and intimidation against Jewish communities.
In the 19th century there was an outburst of pogroms against Jews under the Russian empire. “One of the aspects of these pogroms, these violent outbursts against the Jewish community, is targeting Jewish property. A very common target is a synagogue or a Jewish store, but also Jewish cemeteries,” explained Michael Meng, associate professor of history at Clemson University.
During World War II, under the Nazi regime, many Jewish cemeteries were damaged across Europe, including in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Poland, Germany and Greece. During Kristallnacht in November 1938, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, along with businesses and synagogues, by anti-Semitic mobs throughout the Reich.
David Leonhardt of the New York Times said on Feb 23rd, “social media was filled with anti-Semitism last year: Journalists who said they had never been subject to bigotry before came to expect it, usually from Trump supporters.” The event came on the heels of the Trump statement of January 27 commemorating the Holocaust which came under criticism because it omitted any mention of Jews or anti Semitism.
The sudden spate of anti-Semitic hostility is widely understood to be part of the resurgence of white supremacist attitudes prevalent among certain sectors of the American population who supported Donald Trump. Trump has been accused of having sympathy for such views, in part because of the prominent place he assigned in both his campaign staff and then as national security advisor to Steve Bannon, whose editorial policy at Breibart News was believed by many to support white supremacy. But also Trump’s derogatory statements about Muslims, his distrust of refugees, his claims about the immoral behavior of Mexican immigrants, his disparaging characterizations of African American neighborhoods, confirm for many that the attitudes attributed to Bannon and the views of Mr. Trump are one and the same. The unmistakable similarity of skin color among the groups that Mr. Trump denigrates has led some to label these attitudes a thinly veiled racism.
The traditional association of anti-Semitism with white supremacy is well known from recent history, and so its emergence in the current context is not surprising. But there are certain anomalies that beg for an explanation. One is that Trump himself is not anti-Semitic; he never criticized Jews in his speeches; his son-in-law is Jewish and his daughter converted to Judaism. Also Trump is pro-Zionist to an extreme. He has even reversed the traditional American preference for a “two state solution” concurring with the Israeli right wing. Even though his delay in condemning these attacks on Jews suggests he is aware that they are being carried out by people who support him, their occurrence can hardly be laid at his feet. But if he did not call them forth, what did? The Jews, stereo-typically speaking, have nothing in common with the other groups that Trump has identified as a threat to America’s “greatness.” American Jews are citizens; they are considered educated, successful, wealthy and white. So how do they end up in the doghouse with poor and marginated third world people?
To ask it in a different way: what does hatred of the Jews have in common with hatred of Muslims, blacks, and brown skinned Latinos? Why does racism elicit anti-Semitism? This shifts the issue away from Donald Trump and to his followers, where I believe it belongs. It suggests that there is a pool of negative attitudes that are shared by the people he appeals to. When he stimulates the loyalties of this sector of the population, what emerges is not just what he explicitly and intentionally calls forth but other elements which no one suspected were whole cloth with it.
Fear and hatred of the unbaptized
I believe what we are dealing with here are ancient Christian attitudes that continue to reside embedded in the emotional subconscious of large sectors of the American population whose ethnic heritage has passed them on. I claim there is a structural logic stemming from the ancient traditional Christian view of the world which gives rise to a visceral abhorrence for the non-baptized. What Jews have in common with those other groups is that they were all at some point in time identified by Christians as heathen. The non-baptized are pariahs in the traditional view; they are slated for eternal punishment because “God’s” wrath, directed at all the children of Adam, is assuaged only by individual incorporation into the Christian Church by baptism. You have to realize: this has nothing to do with current crimes or immoral acts. It’s due to the insult of “Original Sin” at the time of creation. “God” hates the non-baptized because of what Adam did, not because of what they did. If he is so angry as to punish these people after death who have done nothing wrong, what wouldn’t he do to them during life, and their “Christian” neighbors with them, as collateral damage.
Jews in particular were destined to suffer as a public display of their inherited guilt. That theory was given a compelling articulation by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century; it was accepted without challenge as the dominant worldview for all of Western Europe for the next 1500 years. Its theological justification — “Original Sin” and the damnation of the non-baptized — is still taught by the Vatican Catechism of 1992. The fear and hatred that Christians bore the non-baptized took concrete form in the specific identification of Jews, Muslims, “heretics” and primitive, pre-civilized natives of Africa and the Americas as “enemies of ‘God.’” The key point is that the presence of the non-baptized — the Jews, for example — in any locality was believed to be a magnet for divine punishment in the form of earthquakes, plagues, famines, droughts, foreign conquest and other calamities. I claim that, once identified, the non-rational feelings of fear and loathing remained attached to these ethnic and religious groups long after the theological justifications were forgotten.
The violence perpetrated against Jews during the black plague in Europe in the 1350’s is a case in point. The Jews were blamed for the plague. Whole communities, men women and children were locked in their synagogues and burnt alive, among other forms of slaughter. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis and the silent complicity of all of Europe in the genocidal Holocaust that was responsible for the mass murder of six million Jews is another example. Hatred and punishment of Jews was indisputably a traditional Christian phenomenon; when the Nazis, who claimed to be stone atheists, picked up the baton of anti Semitism they did not have to produce one shred of justification. The ground had already been prepared. The imputation of “evil” to the Jews was an unquestioned assumption of all Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike. The hatred was so deeply embedded that the Nazis didn’t need to be Christian themselves to be energized by the millennia of animosity they had inherited from their Christian forebears.
I claim this is what is functioning in the perplexing emergence of anti-Semitism at this point in time and in response to Donald Trump’s evocation of enmity against the Muslims, Mexicans, refugees and American blacks. The phenomenon is worth dwelling on. For it serves as an object-lesson of how these motivations continue on in irrational sub-conscious feelings long after the original logical reasons are gone and forgotten. I doubt that Trump’s current followers are worried that the presence of Jews in their communities will call down the “wrath of ‘God.’” The grave-vandals probably couldn’t even articulate, if questioned, what created such anger in their hearts. They are blind to the archaic roots of their emotions.
The Reform of sociopathic Christianity — everybody’s responsibility
They may be blind, but we shouldn’t be. The point of this exercise is to enjoin everyone, not only Christians, to bring these sick mis-perceptions to light and challenge the validity of their origins. There is no other way to rob them of their power to do harm. Because of the mythic nature of the sources of these culturally inherited feelings, just becoming aware is usually enough to quell them. Who still believes that “God” hates the Jews and will punish their neighbors along with them for the “murder” of Christ?
Who, indeed! But, in this case, we are dealing with a strange twist. The Catholic / Christian doctrine of “Original Sin,” the source of these feelings, has never been repudiated or denied by the Christian Churches despite a universal consensus that the Genesis story of the sin of Adam was a fable written to encourage moral compliance, not an account of literal events. The Vatican Catechism, however, published under direct Papal auspices in 1992, continues to promote as “infallible truth” the doctrine that those who die without baptism are the object of “God’s” wrath and deserving of eternal damnation unless baptized into Christ’s saving death. Why else would the Catechism say that in the case of infants who die unbaptized, if “God” does not punish them it is “a mystery of his mercy.” (Vatican Catechism 1261 & 1283)
Many claim “Original Sin” is archaic doctrine and that no one takes it seriously anymore. Excuse me. It’s still “on the books” and there is nothing to stop some future Christian zealot from resurrecting the dogma and following through on its logical implications.
It’s time that the people take responsibility for this ideological insanity that continues in our midst to be perpetrated on a daily basis in the name of “freedom of religion.” Christians have a moral obligation to the rest of society to reform their archaic dysfunctional religion. A religion that espouses the superiority of one belief system over another and on that basis tacitly justifies the kinds of anti-Semitic attacks that we see emerging in our society, undermines the very basis of the American Constitution: the equality of all human beings regardless of religion or ethnic origin.
In the 1950’s the contradiction of giving freedom of speech to groups that espoused the violent overthrow of the US government, was duly noted. In the case of Communists the courts acknowledged that the Constitution respected even those who would speak about revolution, but it would not tolerate actions directed to that end.
I believe we are at a similar place with Catholicism and other forms of Christian fundamentalism. The same law that will punish the cemetery vandals for toppling the gravestones in St Louis will permit the mediaeval Catholic magisterium to make the absurd claim that Jews, Muslims, and unbaptized infants are the special object of divine wrath. But by the same token the law permits the rest of us to raise our voices against the stupidity and potential violence caused by obsolete religious claptrap.
Extreme sociopathic attitudes should be denounced as anti-human no matter who displays them. Freedom of speech cuts both ways.