The following are excerpts from Evan Moffic’s upcoming book, First the Jews: Combating the
World’s Longest-Running Hate Campaign (Abingdon Press, 2018). Evan is a rabbi in the
Beliefnet.com, HuffingtonPost.com, and MichaelHyatt.com.
Mainstreaming Hate: The Return of
On Saturday, August 17, 2017, I received an email from Alan Zimmerman, the president of the
largest synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia. He described the scene outside of the synagogue
on the previous Friday evening. “For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed
with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I
could have done to stop them. . . . Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building,
shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ and other anti-Semitic
language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”
He advised those in the building to leave via the back exit and also insisted that, in case the
synagogue was attacked, they carry the Torah scrolls—the most sacred ritual objects in
Judaism—with them from the temple. At the same time, a few blocks away, several hundred
others marched through the streets of the city. Some held signs saying, “Jews will not replace
us.” Some held tiki torches. Others held Confederate flags. Many identified as neo-Nazis.
The Charlottesville march was the largest gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis since
the 1930s—but it was not an isolated incident. During the 2016 presidential election, journalists
with Jewish-sounding last names were continually harassed on Twitter. A conference in
Washington, DC, the weekend after the election ended with Nazi salutes. Hate crimes began to
surge in 2015 and continued into 2016 and 2017. In the US, Jews top the victims of hate crimes
by a wide margin.
Addressing the rise in anti-Semitism has become the biggest challenge of my spiritual
congregation. After the Charlottesville march, one of them, who had just celebrated her
birthday, told me she felt more frightened than she’d ever felt since coming to the United
Another survivor, who had been a history professor, began teaching again so he could share the
dangers he saw reappearing. He made two observations that made the hair on the back of my
neck stand up. First, he noted that Hitler had blatantly attacked the legitimacy of the press and
the courts. These attacks began right when Hitler entered
the press and the judiciary. Second, the professor said the idea that “it can never happen here
in America” is a fallacy. We sometimes become so comfortable that we forget what human
beings are capable of doing to one another.
To prove the point, he introduced me to an editorial that was published in a German Jewish
newspaper on February 22, 1933:
We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in
possession of the power they have so long
circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of
their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the
jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this
of crucial factors hold powers in check . . . and they clearly do not want to go down
How wrong that turned out to be! Liberal democratic institutions around the world are fragile.
And these institutions do not sustain themselves. They can collapse without awareness,
resolve, and action.
• What emotions did you feel when you heard about the Charlottesville rally last year? Do
you think it and other examples like the shooting in Pittsburgh are representative of a rise in
• What do you think accounts for the recent rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitic rhetoric?
• How should we as Christians respond to anti-Semitism in the world around us?
• What are some ways that we can work to support and protect those who feel at-risk in the
current political climate?
An Optimist Faces Reality
How do we respond to this new climate of fear? Do we turn inward, focusing primarily on our
own security and interests? Do we circle the wagons and put up more fences?
Turning inward feels like an act of desperation. Even with the upsurge in anti-Semitism, the
Jews, Jews are more integrated into the larger culture than at any time in history. While Jews
are only 1.5 percent of the US population, 58 percent of American Jews marry someone not
Jewish, creating many more families with Jewish members. The isolation German Jews
experienced is difficult to imagine in America.
Desperation and inwardness are not the answer. Vigilance is. And so is outreach. I don’t mean
outreach in the sense of urging people to come to synagogue and convert to Judaism. I mean
building ties with those of other faiths and sharing the wisdom of Judaism with people of all
faiths. To turn outward rather than inward: that’s what I have tried to do in response to the
surge in anti-Semitism.
Some Christians have been allies in fighting anti-Semitism—that is, many Christians today
recognize that they share with Jews, and to some extent owe Jews a debt of gratitude for, their
belief in a sovereign God. We see also certain teachings within Christianity became sources and
justifications for virulent anti-Semitism. But even in the Middle Ages, bishops sometimes
protected Jews from violent mobs and several popes spoke out against the anti-Semitic charge
that Jews used the blood of Christian boys to make matzah (ritual unleavened bread) during the
holiday of Passover. The two most murderous anti-Semitic regimes of the twentieth century—
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—were secular. They attacked any faith other than faith in
the government and the dominant political party. Many Christians understand that an attack on
Judaism is an attack on the God of humanity.
I’ve seen this understanding repeatedly because my work on the Jewishness of Jesus has given
me the opportunity to speak at many churches. In these churches, I’ve met Christians who have
a deep desire to learn the lessons of the Hebrew Bible and to understand what Jesus and the
disciples were teaching and practicing. This is not just a quest for knowledge. It is part of the
building of an identity, a deeper faith.
One woman approached me after a lecture and said she wished she had been born Jewish. I
was surprised because she seemed to be a devout Christian and deeply committed to her
church. I asked why. She replied, “So I could live the way Jesus did.” This woman’s Christian
Judaism—and that appreciation, too, can help combat anti-Semitism.
And it is important that we undertake that combating. During the same years that I have been
encouraged by Christians’ appreciation of Judaism, I have also increasingly seen that antiSemitism
is an urgent problem, of import for both Jews and Christians. Rising anti-Semitism
points to the growing division in the world. The liberal world order, with America at its center,
was created after World War II. Since then, we have lived in an era in which Jews and the world
have experienced more freedom than ever before. But this freedom has begun to unravel, as
we will explore more deeply in chapter 10. Anti-Semitism is one of the signs of this process.
Anti- Semitism destroys societies. It lowers our moral, social, and political horizons. It dooms us
to a world where the loudest and most hateful voices dominate.
The dangers we face now are epitomized in a poster I first saw in the fifth grade. My family had
moved from Houston to Milwaukee. We joined a new synagogue, where I began my Hebrew
studies. I was nervous the first day. I had a teacher from Israel who spoke with an accent and
seemed much tougher than my teachers in Houston. I didn’t know any of the other students. In
this state of anxiety, I looked for a distraction. My eyes wandered around the room and landed
on a black poster with white letters. It hung on a wall near the back right- hand corner. I read its
words, and they have stayed with me ever since. Looking back, I have come to see them as the
impetus for First the Jews. The words on the poster came from Reverend Martin Niemöller. He
was a Lutheran pastor imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. Initially
indifferent to the rise of the Nazis, he came to strongly oppose them. Reflecting on his
experience during the war, he wrote:
First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out.
Reverend Niemöller survived the war and became an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism and a
champion for human rights. What would he say today?
• How do you respond to fear? Do you have a tendency to turn inward or outward?
• When you think about Jesus, do you think about him as a Jewish man? Is this important to
our conception of Jesus? Why or why not?
• What are the costs of anti-Semitism? How does it damage our society?
• What are some ways that Christians and Jews can work together for the benefit of God’s
world? Is there a synagogue in your neighborhood that your church can partner with?
• What do you think Reverend Niemöller would say about our world today?
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