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Anti-Semitism: Where Does It Begin...and End?

June 2002

The call came from Mr. Greenberg at the beginning of December. His son was part of the middle school choir, which had started rehearsals for the school's "winter festival." As Mr. Greenberg listened to the usual mixture of seasonal songs while his son practiced, he heard his son sing an original piece by the school's music director, glorifying "Christ as the message of peace." His son was as uncomfortable singing the words as Mr. Greenberg was hearing them.

Mr. Greenberg's first call was to the principal. The principal thought the musical piece was fine. Mr. Greenberg's next call was to the school superintendent. He agreed with Mr. Greenberg, and called the principal to see what could be done. The principal cancelled the winter festival. A group of irate parents called a meeting with the principal and the superintendent to insist on holding the winter festival.

Over 150 parents showed up. Accusations were made. When Mr. Greenberg got up to explain how and why all of this got started, he was booed. A parent stood up and said, "When are you people going to finally get it? This is a Christian country and we have a right to teach our kids to love Christ. If you don't like it, then why don't you leave?" Dozens applauded in approval. Upon arriving home from the meeting, Mr. Greenberg checked his email and read an anonymous message with just two words, "Christ Killer!"

Mrs. Greenberg, a practicing Catholic, was initially embarrassed by her husband's actions. After reading the email, she was angry.

How does a song intended to teach peace cause such passion to boil? Why does a father's attempt to make his son comfortable with both his faith and his school result in name calling? How does a mother go from embarrassment to anger?

Some people describe this incident as ignorance. Others, prejudice. Still others, understandable bias. Most Jews would call this anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is real in our world today. One only needs to look towards Europe to see its ugly specter. Why does anti-Semitism occur? Perhaps it is fear of the unknown. Perhaps it is a desire to blame another for one's own problems. Perhaps it is learned from one's parents.

The disease of anti-Semitism can be quick to spread. It is not anti-Semitic when a partner asks, "What is wrong with a Christmas tree?" or "Do you have something against my holiday?" or "What do you mean we can't do an Easter egg hunt with the children? Do you hate little bunnies?" These are just matters of sensitivity and negotiation within families. But taken to just the next level—that of a winter festival song mentioning Christ...and anti-Semitism begins to arise.

For Jews, the history of Christianity is replete with anti-Semitism, of attempts to control, convert, and exterminate Jews. From the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the pogroms of Russia, to the Holocaust, Jews see historic Christianity as one long anti-Semitic play, broken into innumerable scenes.

For Christians, the history of Christianity is filled with noble stories of communities and churches and priests and theologians seeking to bring the message of Jesus to the world, a message of hope, of love, of concern for all creatures. It is an uplifting history, replete with wondrous tales of sacrifice and sanctity.

And it is across this divide—of history seen from two very different perspectives—that interfaith families need to find ways to build bridges of understanding, supporting both sets of beliefs...yet making sure that one doesn't suffer at the expense of the other.

For non-Jewish partners, the biggest challenge in this regard is to understand what one's Jewish partner sees as anti-Semitic. The bombing of a synagogue in France is easy. But what about a comment about big Jewish noses? Or is it a statement that the Israelis don't have a right to Israel? Is it an invocation at a community event that calls upon all gathered to accept this prayer, "in Jesus' name?" Or is it when a Jewish person is invited to "just leave?" (And Jews have to be careful not to make their relatives and friends of other faith traditions feel like outsiders, as well. Remember, prejudice cuts many ways!)

Both partners serve their relationship best when they sensitize themselves to what hurts the other, whether that hurt is physical or not. When interfaith couples stand together, strong in their affirmation of each other's beliefs, confronting both small and large moments of anti-Semitism with a single voice, they strengthen their own relationship and demonstrate that prejudice and hatred are never acceptable.

There is no corollary to anti-Semitism for a Christian. Thus, it is important for a Jewish family member to share deep-seated fears and historical memories, so that the entire family can be supportive in fighting this virulent form of prejudice.

What begins as a benign act of faith for one can turn into a cancerous upheaval for a community. Interfaith families—all families—must be vigilant in eradicating this terrible disease.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.

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