Article Note: On Christian Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism

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Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 3 (September 2014)

Article Note: On Christian Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Robert Morgan, “Susannah Heschel’s Aryan Grundmann,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32, no. 4 (June 1, 2010): 431–94.

Susannah Heschel, “Historiography of Antisemitism versus Anti-Judaism: A Response to Robert Morgan,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33, no. 3 (March 1, 2011): 257–79.

Many of our readers will be familiar with Susannah Heschel’s important and widely-reviewed work, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). Fewer may know of these two articles from the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, which take up the long-standing debate over the use of “anti-Judaism” and “antisemitism” in the context of Christian hostility towards Jews and Judaism, whether in pre-modern Christian history or in the history of the Holocaust. This exchange between New Testament scholar Robert Morgan and Jewish Studies scholar Susannah Heschel highlights key disciplinary differences between theological and historical approaches to this question. Morgan hopes to distinguish between various theoretical categories of Jew hatred, while Heschel focuses on the historical confluence of theological, cultural, and racial attitudes and language of hostility towards Jews.

In his sixty-page critique of Heschel’s book, Morgan argues that The Aryan Jesus presents a one-sided impression of 1930s German church history,” based on a “failure to distinguish clearly between the churches and the völkisch movement that stands behind Nazi antisemitism.” (431) In contrast to her, he makes the case for a conceptual distinction between medieval Christian antisemitism, theological anti-Judaism, and modern secular antisemitism.

Morgan minimizes the connection between modern German theological developments and the participation of masses of German Protestants and Catholics in the Holocaust–simply put, for Morgan, the failure of Christians of the Nazi period to live up to their beliefs was nothing unusual in the history of Christianity, and didn’t require an associated failure of theology. In that vein, he argues that the efforts of theologian Walter Grundmann and his Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life (established in 1939) had little if anything to do with the Holocaust (434).

With this as his starting point, Morgan raises the broader question of the historical relationship between theological anti-Judasim and secular antisemitism. His answer revolves around setting theological scholars like Grundmann and those involved in the Institute, who “introduced the racial issue into their older liberal Protestant theology,” into a separate category from the masses of Christians who supported the Hitler movement during and after 1933. He maintains that Heschel fails to examine Grundmann’s theological context in sufficient detail or to assess carefully enough his relationship to and responsibility for Nazism and the Holocaust.

In contrast, Morgan argues that the Institute was an outgrowth of a particular radical Thuringian wing of the German Christian Movement. Apart from this development, most Germans were caught up in “a pervasive antisemitism” which was fueled by factors like “nationalism, hostility to modernity, to secularism, to left-wing politics, resentment against rich bankers at a time of national distress, and a perceived disproportionate influence of assimilated Jews in the professions and national life. But little of this passive antisemitism was ideologically driven, as it was in the völkisch movement and its political expression in the National Socialist party” (441). Morgan goes on to distinguish what he calls “this (passive) cultural antisemitism” from both “the more aggressive völkisch racist antisemitism” and “theological anti-Judaism” (441). Morgan admits that “some modern antisemitism surely included religious and tribal echoes and memories along with its more obvious social, political and economic ingredients,” but argues we still need more investigation about “how far (when at all) it was fuelled by theological anti-Judaism” (441). As a way to distinguish between older and newer eras, he introduces a new term for medieval and Reformation-era Jew hatred, which he calls “theological antisemitism,” and which occurs “where monstrous religious beliefs such as the guilt and curse of Israel for the death of Christ lead directly to antisemitism.” Moving forward to the Nazi era, Morgan argues that theologians like Grundmann and Gerhard Kittel were not guilty of this “medieval ‘theological antisemitism'” but rather promoted a “poisonous modern antisemitism” which was “distinct from the results of their New Testament scholarship” (441). Their scholarship, which contained a measure of “theological anti-Judaism,” was “less inflammatory, and concerned with Christian self-definition, not (in principle) defamation of Judaism” (441-442).

What emerges from this detailed process of categorization is the sense that Morgan would like to rescue the term “theological anti-Judaism” and redefine it to mean simply the disagreement of Christians with Jews concerning the one God they both worship–in other words, criticisms of the religion, not the people. As an example of his granular approach to categories of hostility towards Jews and Judaism, Morgan describes the Confessing Church leader Martin Niemöller as “untouched by racial theory,” but sharing in “the pervasive cultural antisemitism of the time, which was presumably reinforced by the tradition of Christian theological anti-Judaism and even contained residual traces of ‘theological antisemitism’.” This was, Morgan adds, “social and cultural non-violent antisemitism” (444).

Morgan continues in this vein throughout the rest of the article, criticizing Heschel for not distinguishing clearly between various scholarly theological developments, cultural antisemitism, the rise of the völkisch movement and Nazi party, nationalism, and racism (461). He is willing to admit to the indirect influence of theology on popular belief, but attempts to keep these areas as distinct as possible (465). In his conclusion, he reasserts that Heschel has not properly demonstrated the “contributions of theological anti-Judaism to Christian antisemitism,” that Christianity is not racialist, nor a kind of anti-Judaism, nor antisemitic, though Christians themselves have acted in those ways (488-489).

Not surprisingly, Heschel disagrees with Morgan’s critique, particularly with respect to his categories of theological anti-Judaism, and modern, racial antisemitism. In her article, she argues “that the texts of pro-Nazi German Protestant theologians integrate race and religion with a fluidity that obviates a sharp distinction between the two terms. Antisemitic propaganda produced by Christian theologians during World War II leaves the strictly theological realm in its use of Nazi language and concepts, even when framed in a Christian context, and demands a different kind of conceptualization by historians” (257).

In the first instance, Heschel highlights the significant difference between her approach and that of Morgan, noting how she and many other scholars “no longer find the distinction between theological anti-Judaism and antisemitism to be helpful.” She argues this categorization tends to “mask rather than illuminate the historical material we are studying,” and that she and many other scholars are now “less interested in establishing definitions and boundaries than in finding slippages, similarities, influences and parallels” (258). More concretely, Heschel demonstrates how intertwined Christian and Nazi racial ideas were with one another. For instance, she characterizes Morgan’s view that Martin Niemöller exhibited cultural antisemitism, theological anti-Judaism, and theological antisemitism as “quite a brew” (258). To drive this home, she asks how we should understand the mixture of ideas in the speech of Siegfried Leffler, a well-known leader in the pro-Nazi German Christian Movement, who stated in 1936: “Even if I know ‘thou shalt not kill’ is a commandment of God or ‘thou shalt love the Jew’ because he too is a child of the eternal Father, I am able to know as well that I have to kill him, I have to shoot him, and I can only do that if I am permitted to say: Christ” (258-259). Simply put, Heschel doesn’t find Morgan’s taxonomy useful as a means to historical explanation. Instead, she points out how the historical context of Leffler’s words–the proclamation of the Nuremberg Laws prohibiting sexual relations between “Aryan” Germans and Jews and the widespread fear-mongering about the dangers of Jewish impurity–goes a long ways to explaining the passion in Leffler’s outburst against the dangers of Jews and Judaism for German Christianity.

Heschel also questions Morgan’s chronological differentiation between anti-Judaism and antisemitism, with theological anti-Judaism giving way to secular racism and antisemitism. Indeed, she notes how this view has been abandoned by many scholars, who prefer to describe all hostility to Jews and Judaism as antisemitism. Religious hostility, which might be called anti-Judaism, is just another kind of antisemitic discourse, alongside economic, political, nationalistic, or racial modes of speech. For instance, Heschel quotes a New Testament scholar, who explained: “The problem is that even in the patristic and medieval eras, long before the coinage of the term antisemitism as such, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the racial and religious/ethnic elements. Form many of these authors, as I’ve seen in my Caiaphas research, Jews were by their nature evil, and their rejection/killing of Christ is evidence of that evil nature” (260). Heschel adds that racial language and imagery were used to describe Jewish degeneracy in the Middle Ages, creating “an otherness of the Jewish body … that, already by the thirteenth century, was believed to be immutable and incapable of erasure even by baptism” (260).

As for the Nazi era, Heschel lists four reasons why scholars increasingly employ “antisemitism” to describe Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism: 1) explicitly Nazi language plays a central role in Christian discussions of Jews, while older terms took on new connotations in the Third Reich; 2) negative theological statements about Jews have to be understood in their wider social and political context; 3) “‘das Judentum’ is an ambiguous term in German,” meaning “Judaism, the Jews, or Jewishness,” which in turn creates an ambiguity in German theological language; and 4) “given the Nazi regime’s policies towards the Jews, terms such as ‘Entjudung’ (dejudaization) of Christianity or ‘Beseitigung’ (eradication) of Jewish influences insinuate practical implications and not just theoretical allusions” (261).

Heschel goes on to criticize Morgan for an outdated historical understanding of the German Christian Movement and an outdated theoretical understanding of the relationship between racism and nationalism, providing examples to show how racially-oriented German Protestant leaders were. For instance, she notes how Walter Grundmann “spoke about fighting on the ‘spiritual battlefield’ to protect Germans from Jews, Christianity from Judaism,” how he described “Jews as the underlying enemy of Germany,” and how he wrote that “‘the Jew’ is ‘the Antichrist [who] wants to unleash itself and overthrow the Reich’ through the war, Bolshevism and liberalism” (264). Heschel adds that this mixture of theological and racial antisemitism can be found in Grundmann’s scholarly and popular writing, making it impossible to separate his words and ideas into different categories of antisemitism.

Heschel restates the interpretation she puts forward in The Aryan Jesus: Grundmann and his colleagues “were theologians predisposed to accept the nationalism, antisemitism, anti-liberalism and anti-Bolshevism of Hitler and to view politics through religious lenses.” They viewed Nazism as a means to revitalize Christianity and sought to support Nazism with spiritual means. “To that end, Nazism had to be defined as embodying Christian values, and Christianity as embodying Nazi values.” They sought “to eradicate Jewishness from Christianity, just as the Reich sought to eradicate Jews from Europe” (265). And Nazi theologians need to be understood not only in their theological context, but also in their political and social context. She illustrates this last point by reminding Morgan (and her readers) of the wide-ranging evidence of Grundmann’s Nazi affinities and activities and the broad consensus of scholars such as Robert Ericksen, Guenter Lewy, and Kevin Spicer. In the end, Grundmann and his theological allies provided Hitler with ideological and propaganda support for “the disenfranchisement, deportation, and murder of the Jews,” (268) just as so many other academics and functionaries did throughout German institutional life.

To summarize, Heschel argues persuasively that the older distinction between theological anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism is increasingly difficult to sustain, given current scholarship on either historic Christianity or the churches in the Third Reich. This is certainly the interpretive path most historians now follow. Taken together, the Morgan and Heschel articles outline the two main perspectives in this terminological debate.