PITTSFORD — The history of anti-Semitism is long and complex, Kenneth Jacobson recently explained to the several dozen participants in the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness Summer Institute for Catholic School Educators, which took place Aug. 24-26 at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. Jews have been dealing with anti-Semitism since long before the birth of Christianity, although it’s transformed in its manifestations over the centuries, said Jacobson, the ADL’s deputy national director.
Institute participants listened to a variety of presentations about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the Jewish and Catholic faiths.
“The very fact that we can do such a program shows how far Catholic-Jewish relations have come in the last 40, 50 years,” Jacobson said. “It’s really a reflection of the tremendous progress that’s been made that we’re able to have an open, honest conversation.”
It’s important for Catholics and all Christians to understand Judaism because it’s the root of Christianity, Jacobson added. His presentation however, was not to be misperceived as a history of the Jewish faith, he cautioned. Instead, his presentation focused on what has been done to the Jews over the centuries.
“I’m talking now about the history of anti-Semitism, not the history of the Jewish people. I think that’s an important distinction,” Jacobson said.
Anti-semitism shares some but not all characteristics of other forms of hatred, such as racism, but racism is more of a “what you see is what you get” type of hatred, he explained. Outward appearance often is enough to trigger racial hatred, but that’s not the case with anti-Semitism.
“At the heart, it’s the idea that the Jews seem to be regular people like you and me, but that’s not the reality of the Jew. The (perceived) reality of the Jew is something hidden, something sinister, something powerful,” he said. “Once you establish that reality is not what it seems to be … then in almost any situation someone can stand up and say, ‘The real reason you’re suffering is because of the hidden power of the Jews.'”
It’s difficult, then, for anti-Semites to be dissuaded from their positions by logical arguments, since they believe the reality of the Jews is not what it appears to be, he added.
“That helps you explain why anti-Semitism is so enduring. Any time there’s a problem, somebody can seize on this issue and know there’s a long history of that and say, ‘Oh, that’s why you’re suffering,'” Jacobson said.
Evidence of anti-Semitism can be found in the Bible, which contains accounts of the Jews’ toiling as slaves and eventually fleeing, as well as accounts of the destruction of the first Jewish temple in 586 BC, when Jews were dispersed around the world.
“This is where we begin to see some characteristics of a minority that is being treated differently. The sources of anti-Semitism were more cultural than anything else,” Jacobson said.
The monotheistic Jews were treated differently mainly because they were different from the pagan majority, he said.
The arrival of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, however, marked a turning point. Early Christians still identified themselves as Jews, he said, so there was conflict among Jews about who would be the true heirs to the Jewish tradition. The Christian concept of Jews’ collective responsibility for the death of Jesus also caused conflict, he added.
Another turning point came in 321 AD, when Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire and made Christianity the empire’s official religion, Jacobson said.
“That was a disaster for Jews in the long run,” he remarked.
Jews still had an “escape hatch” from anti-Semitism, however, Jacobson said, and most Jews who converted to Christianity were treated fairly. That changed around the time of the Crusades, when even Jews who converted to Christianity were treated with suspicion and contempt and accused of being “secret Jews.” This shows a shift in anti-Semitic thinking, which before was based on theological differences but now, with the “escape hatch” removed, is more inculcated into society and is more racially based, Jacobson said.
When people start to believe that a certain group, such as the Jews, is sinister and intrinsically evil, they feel they have to defend themselves against that group. This sort of thinking can lead to so-called justified violence and terrorism, with modern examples including both the Holocaust and the violence between Israeli and Hezbollah forces, he said.
Sister Barbara Baker, MHSH, said she was amazed to learn how long anti-Semitism has been around and how integrated it has been in nations around the globe. Sister Baker is pastoral associate and catechetical leader at St. Jude the Apostle Parish in Gates, and she said she signed up for Bearing Witness because she hopes to incorporate some of what she’s learned into the parish’s faith-formation programs.
“I think the value of coming here was to heighten my awareness and to make me work a little more at being sensitive with language, with intimations, when I speak with people,” Sister Baker said.