Anti-Semitism, Holocaust Denial, Hurt Feelings: The Bible’s Prophetic Tradition

Rob Kall, the editor in chief of OpEdNews (OEN) recently published a provocative edition of a weekly Zoom call among editors and contributors to his website. It was provocative because the remarks of one of the participants about fascism and the Jewish holocaust caused several other attendees to take offense and vehemently accuse him of holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. The discussion that ensued led Rob to wisely recommend caution in approaching such sensitive topics.

In my capacity as a theologian of the specifically Judeo-Christian Tradition, the conversation made me realize that the type of criticism that offended so many on the OEN call was entirely biblical. It was consonant with the tradition of Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus of Nazareth who because they denounced the rich and powerful among their countrymen, were roundly accused of being self-hating Jews.

My hope is that summarizing the offending remarks on the one hand along with the outraged responses to them on the other, might highlight the value of the biblical tradition in helping us transcend national and institutional loyalties that prevent frank self-criticism and acceptance of historical fact.

Offending Remarks

Begin by considering the provocative remarks in question. In paraphrase, they ran as follows:

“I never use the word ‘fascist,’” the provocateur said. “I never use the word ‘holocaust’ either. That’s because the simple use of those words implies that one accepts the assumptions of Zionists and right-wing Jews. I refuse to do that, because the words suggest that in the 1930s, the German Jews were entirely innocent, when they weren’t – not by a long shot.

“I mean, no one hates any person or group without reason. For instance, the Shylock character in the “Merchant of Venice” wasn’t simply a product of Shakespeare’s imagination. Shylock had a foundation in reality – in people’s experience.  And like Shylock, elite Jews in Germany gave Germans plenty of reason for hating them. In turn, Hitler used that legitimate animosity towards the few to tar all Jews – even the poorest and most exploited – with the same well-justified brush.

“Let me explain.

“The fact is that the period from the end of the 19th century to WWI was a very prosperous time. Working class expectations for social mobility were on the rise. However, to move up the social ladder – to become an attorney, for instance — one had to belong to certain clubs (like guilds) in order to get clients. Wealthy Jews who were the bankers, attorneys and physicians, controlled the clubs in question; and they wouldn’t let working class people in. That created a lot of bitterness towards Jews in general.

“Before that, under feudalism and until the end of the First World War, the people who owned the land were the nobles, the clergy, the burghers and yes, the Jews. Wealthy Jews were not peasants. They had privileges. For instance, they could carry weapons. They also bought leases to the estates of the nobles (sometimes the size of entire counties). They managed those estates for a profit.

“In other words, wealthy Jews were the interface between the peasants and the nobles.

“At the same time, the nobles mistrusted the Jews I’m describing because (again) they were the bankers, attorneys, and physicians. The nobles resented having to trust the Jews for all those essential services. For their part, the peasants mistrusted the Jews just referenced because they were always in debt to them as their landlords.

“Then following the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany experienced tremendous inflation that drastically devalued the German mark. The Jews were blamed for that too because they controlled banking. The fact is that Jewish bankers engineered the inflation to bring down the actual costs of repaying the debts demanded by the Versailles treaty. That served the interests of the wealthiest Germans who, like the wealthy today, kept their money not in savings accounts but in stocks, bonds, and real estate. Unlike working class savings accounts, the value of stocks, bonds, and real estate float with inflation. So, inflation helped the rich Germans stay rich, but completely wiped out the country’s workers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. 

“Finally, there came the Great Crash of 1929 that impoverished everyone. So, by the time Hitler came to power in 1933, the Germans, the Poles, the Hungarians and the Austrians were all ready to explode. And, of course, Hitler lit the match with his identification of all Jews as the root of their problems.”

Defensive Responses

Responses mainly from Jewish participants in Rob’s Zoom call came thick and fast.

They included the following:

  • I disagree. People do in fact hate individuals and groups for no reason at all. And Jews in Hitler’s Germany represent a case in point. They were completely innocent. To hint otherwise is simply anti-Semitic and leads to holocaust denial.
  • I don’t think there were very many Jews who managed property for the feudal lords. Yes, there may have been a few Jews who had a lot of power, and there is something to the Rothschilds, and now we have the Zionists that I absolutely hate. However . . .
  • You’re talking about Jews as if they were somehow monolithic. Most Jews were poor.
  • Yes, my own ancestors were holocaust victims and I assure you that they had nothing to do with what you’ve just described.
  • My grandmother was dragged off to Auschwitz with her husband and three children. Their entire village was leveled.
  • I’ve heard these tired arguments before – you know: the Jews keep to themselves, they wear odd clothes, speak their own language, etc., etc. It’s all part of anti-Semitism. I don’t buy any of it.
  • You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re nothing but an anti-Semitic holocaust denier. You’re basically saying that “The Jews deserved what they got in the holocaust. That makes you uncivilized; you should get off this call.”
  • I hope you’re recording all of this, Rob, so we can go back and see who’s misrepresenting what.

Biblical Perspective

Of course, it’s probably futile for a member of the goyim like me to comment on the dialog just summarized. Frankly, I’m unqualified to do so. My relatives and loved ones weren’t the ones slaughtered in Hitler’s crematoria and gas chambers. They weren’t among the peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives were cruelly wasted and destroyed by the Third Reich.

Instead, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out again and again, my Christian religious cohorts were the very ones who incinerated Jews during the week, went to confession on Saturday, were given absolution, received Holy Communion on Sunday, and then returned to their gruesome work the following day.

Yet, it must be acknowledged that my religious tradition is also specifically Judeo-Christian. Its central figure is the Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a reformer of Judaism and had no intention of founding the new religion that ended up defaming Jews as God killers – and who finished by supporting Hitler’s genocide. Jesus was not a Christian; from his birth to his death, he was a proud and faithful Jew.

In a sense, then, especially as a theologian in this tradition, I too am somehow a spiritual Semite. Whether they realize it or not, all Christians are. So, in that capacity, please indulge the attempt that follows to shed some biblical light on the dialog centralized here.

What really happened in the Zoom conversation just summarized mirrored exactly the traditional dynamic between on the one hand Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus, and on the other, their contemporaries, especially among the elite in Amos’ 8th century BCE and in Jesus’ first century of our era. Both Amos and Jesus (as typical Jewish prophets):

  • Denounced their nation’s elite in no uncertain terms
  • Predicted that their crimes would lead to destruction of the entire nation
  • Were vilified as unpatriotic, self-hating Jews
  • Were threatened with ostracism, imprisonment and death
  • And were often (as in the case of Jesus) assassinated for their prophetic words      

Put otherwise, the Jewish prophets were social critics – the kind of clear-eyed seers who weren’t afraid to blame the powerful in their own nation for crimes that brought harm, ruin, death and destruction to the entire nation. The prophets did not blame the widows, orphans, foreigners, peasants, unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, or the hobbled and ill. Instead, they unstintingly impugned the equivalents of Germany’s Jewish one percent while recognizing that the crimes of those few inevitably brought ruin, pain, exile and death even to the innocent among their own people. It’s simply the way the world works.

For his part, Amos criticized the wealthy for breaking covenant with Yahweh, their God, the traditional protector of widows, orphans and resident non-Jews. Instead of caring for the poor, the one-percenters, he said, lay on beds of ivory, lounged idly on soft couches, drank the finest wines, anointed themselves with precious perfumes and oils, lived in their luxurious summer houses while underpaying and overcharging the peasant poor. They victimized everyone, even the most innocent. Such crimes brought harm, the prophet warned, to everyone, even the most innocent. Once again, that was simply the law of cause and effect.

Jesus did something similar under the Roman Empire. His prophetic criticism was directed not towards his people’s poor majority; he didn’t blame them. No, he unrelentingly criticized their Jewish exploiters. However, at the same time he knew that the crimes of those powerful would cause untold suffering for everyone. So, he predicted the absolute destruction of Jerusalem where forty years after his death more than one million innocent Jews were slaughtered and nearly 100,000 of his blameless compatriots were captured and enslaved.

To repeat, that’s the way the world works. The blameworthy crimes of the powerful cause suffering, death and massacre for the innocent majority.

Conclusion

Despite what I said about being unqualified to comment on words that seem cruel and insensitive to victimized Jews, I do know something about being tarred with a broad brush. As a Roman Catholic and former priest, I could easily be accused of being part of a worldwide pedophilic ring represented by the priesthood and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It would even be true to say that the ring has connections to an even wider movement of pedophiles among the world’s elite whose iceberg tip revealed (e.g. in the Epstein scandal) connections with the CIA, mi5, mi6, Mossad, and Mafias of various types throughout the world.

All of that would be true even though I never personally encountered any hint of pedophilia in all my more than 20 years preparing for and direct involvement in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It remains true despite the innumerable saints, martyrs, and holy men and women I’ve known personally and from the otherwise hallowed history of the Catholic Church.

The point here is that as an American, and much more as a former priest, I’ve been deeply associated with horrendous institutional delinquencies that I’d rather not discuss, because they hit too close to my spiritual and cultural identity. In other words, I find in my own community, uncomfortable truths that parallel the “accusations” against the Jewish 1% in Hitler’s Germany. I feel resentment at their very mention.

Nonetheless, and despite my hurt feelings, truth remains truth. And in the spirit of Amos and Jesus, I must face the facts and draw appropriate conclusions. Doing so draws me out of ghettoized consciousness and self-defensive denial. It creates room for self-criticism, dialog and recognitions that might head off further community disaster.

America Is Not the Greatest Country in the World

Today’s readings: Am. 7:12-15; Ps. 85:9-10, 11-2, 13-14; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:7-13

Just before this year’s July 4th celebrations, HBO aired its first episode of “Newsroom.” Its highlight had lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivering a speech about our country that has been viewed widely on the web. I’m sure many of you have seen it. As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering the question “Is America the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered:

 

Whew! Those are hard words for most of us to hear, aren’t they? It’s almost as if their speaker were viewing the United States the way foreigners often do – or at least as someone highly sympathetic to the uneducated, infants, the poor, sick, imprisoned, and the victims of imperialistic wars. He seems to be saying that the experience of such people represent the measure of greatness.

I raise the “Newsroom” speech today because of today’s first reading from the Book of Amos. He was a prophet whose most famous speech was very like the one we just saw. I mean his words were similar in that they were offensive to patriotic ears and centralized the experience of the poor. And they were delivered by an outsider. As we saw in today’s first reading, Amos’ words also evoked such negative response that they led the chief priest of Israel to lobby for the deportation of the prophet.

What did Amos say ? Well, he was a very clever speaker. He did his prophetic work towards the end of the 8th century B.C.E. That was after the death of Solomon, when the Hebrew people had split into two kingdoms. The northern one was “Israel;” the southern one was “Judah.” Often the two were at war with one another. Yes, the “People of God” were that deeply divided even then.

Amos came from Judah, the southern kingdom. He went up north, to Israel, and confronted the people there. And he tricked his audience into agreeing with him that all their official enemies were really bad – the Aramites, Philistines, Moabites, and especially Judah, that kingdom to the south. God is extremely angry with these people, Amos promised. They would all be soundly thrashed.

“And they all deserve it!” his audience would have agreed.

And then the prophet turned the tables on his listeners. “But you know the nation that will be punished more harshly than all of them put together, don’t you? You know who the worst of all is, I’m sure.” (He now had his audience in the palm of his hand.)

“Who?” they asked eagerly.

“YOU!” the prophet shouted. “The nation of Israel has been the worst of all because of your treatment of the poor. You have shorted them on their wages. You have sold them into slavery. Your rich have feasted and lived in luxury, while those closest to God’s heart, the poor, have languished in hunger and poverty. In punishment, the Assyrians will invade your country and reduce all of you to the level of the lowest among you.

Of course the prophet lost his audience at that point. They didn’t want to hear it.

It was almost as if the Daniels character in “Newsroom” had responded like this to the question “Is America the greatest country?” No, I take that back. It’s almost as if some foreigner – one of our designated enemies, say from Iraq or Afghanistan, answered the question by saying:

“Well, America surely isn’t Nazi Germany, and it’s not the Soviet Union. Those places were hell on earth, weren’t they?  They caused havoc in the world; I’m sure we’d all agree. Those countries were truly the enemies of humankind. Neither is America Saddam’s Iraq, or Kaddafi’s Libya, or Ahmadinejad’s Iran. It’s none of those. But you know what? AMERICA IS  A LOT WORSE! And that’s because of the way it treats not only its own poor, but the way it savages the poor of other countries. Treatment of the poor is God’s criterion for greatness. And America falls flat before it!”

My point is that it sometimes takes someone who doesn’t share our cultural values and especially our class loyalties to help us see ourselves in something like the way God sees us. Those outside our culture often see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Do you think Amos’ concern for the poor (the Bible’s real People of God) might be also centralized in today’s Gospel? I think it is. Mark seems to be reminding his audience (40 years after Jesus’ death) that the poor represent the touchstone for Christian authenticity.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends off his 12 apostles two by two as his emissaries. They are to drive out unclean spirits and demons and to cure the sick. Can you even imagine them doing that? They were just fishermen, maybe a traveling merchant or two, a former tax collector – all of them likely illiterate – not public speakers at all. Who would ever listen to such people? And yet Mark pictures Jesus sending them off in pairs to preach his message: “Repent; the Kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the same disciples who Mark tells us later never really grasped what Jesus was all about. And yet here they are preaching,  curing the sick and driving out demons.

Such considerations lead scripture scholars to conclude that these words were probably never spoken by the historical Jesus. Instead they were added later by a more developed church. Early Christians evidently believed so strongly in Jesus’ post-resurrection presence that they thought the risen Christ continued addressing their problems even though those difficulties were unknown to him and his immediate followers while he walked the earth.

And what was the message to those later followers? It seems to have been this: “Remember where we came from. We’re followers of that poor man from Nazareth. So stay close to the poor as Jesus did: walk; don’t ride. Steer clear of money. Don’t even worry about food. The clothes on your back are enough for anyone. Others will give you shelter for the night.” This passage from Mark almost pictures Jesus’ followers like Buddhist monks with their saffron robes and begging bowls.

Mark’s message to his community 40 years after Jesus — and to us today —  seems to be: “Only by staying close to the poor can you even recognize  the world’s unclean spirits. So concealed and disguised are they by material concerns and by things like patriotism and religious loyalties.  So don’t be seduced by identification with the rich, your own culture, and what they value — sleek transportation, money, luxurious food, clothes and homes.” Surrendering to such seductions, Mark seems to be saying,  is to depart from the instructions of Jesus. We’d say it is a recipe for loss of soul on both the individual and national levels as described by Amos and “Newsroom’s” Jeff Daniels.

But identification with the poor is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to walk instead of ride, to have less money, to share food and housing with others. It’s hard to make political and economic choices on the basis of policy’s impact on the poor rather than the rich. For that reason, Jesus sends his apostles off not as individuals, but in pairs. The message here is that we need one another for support. This is also true because adopting counter-cultural viewpoints like those of Amos and the “Newsroom” anchorman evoke such negative response.

What do you think? Are we Christians really called to centralize concern for the poor, to simplify our lifestyles, and run the risk of being judged unpatriotic? If so, how can we support one another in doing that? (Discussion follows.)