Unfortunately No End to Antisemitism in Sight


Opening remarks to the conference An End to Antisemitism!,
University of Vienna, 19th of February 2018
By Arie Folger


Hatred of Jews has been justified because they are poor and because they are rich, because they are powerful and because they are weak, because the are healthy and because they are ill, because they are geniuses and because they are devoid of wisdom, because they are pious and because they are godless, because they hew to high morals and because they are degenerate. In short, Jews have been hated simply because the are.

Dear Prof. Armin Lange,
dear distinguished organizers of this monumental conference,
dear distinguished academics, and I particularly great the delegation from NYU, my alma mater, as well as a representative of my other alma mater, Yeshiva University,
dear distinguished religious leaders,
dear distinguished political representatives,

As numerous speakers at yesterday’s gala opening of the present conference noted, the title of this conference invites, obviously on purpose, a mixture of unbridled optimism, disbelief and introspection.

The hopes are very high, for some of the best, most creative, most perceptive and most systematic academics have assembled here, and hopes are that some magic solutions – yes, solutions in the plural, because no one is so naive as to still believe that there can be a single silver bullet that will remove the scourge of antisemitism on its own – will be advanced, which within the medium term will, if not eliminate antisemitism, will at least vanquish it and forever push it back in the dark corner out of which it dare not come out again.

Ladies and gentlemen, for all the high esteem in which I hold science and humanities, as well as its teachers and researchers, I believe that the endeavor – if formulated as it – is doomed for failure.

As Bernard Henry Lévy showed yesterday, Antisemitism is old, very old, and as Prof. Armin Lange showed, it is multifaceted and extremely diverse. An almost endless list of people and events that expressed Antisemitism in particularly ugly and murderous manners was brought to our attention. He only ended his list somewhere because he had to, for an exhaustive list would have kept us hungry and tired for many more hours, as he would rattle off the leading figures of the bottomless pit of hatred that is Antisemitism in all its forms.

Hatred of Jews has been justified because they are poor and because they are rich, because they are powerful and because they are weak, because the are healthy and because they are ill, because they are geniuses and because they are devoid of wisdom, because they are pious and because they are godless, because they hew to high morals and because they are degenerate. In short, Jews have been hated simply because the are.

Let me illustrate this with one historical curiosity that repeated itself in our days. Robin Judd, in her study of the circumcision debates of 19th century Germany1 describes how in the 1840s and again in the 1890s and the 1910s, medical debates raged as to whether to prohibit the Jewish practice of circumcision. This debate was known as the Circumcisionsfrage, to be distinguished from the Beschneidungsfrage – Beschneidung is synonymous with circumcision in German, but in this historical context the Beschneidungsfareg relates to the controversy of Jewish fathers refusing to circumcise their sons and yet demanding that they be registered as Jews in the Jewish community, a fascinating but very different issue. Judd writes:

The Circumcisionsfrage also debated the effects of circumcision on male sexuality. Some physicians asserted that circumcision dulled the sensory organ, thus robbing Jewish boys of their manlines. This claim appeared frequently not only in the antisemitic press, but also in the established medical literature as well. As Freud’s writings began to have an influence, some physicians evoked images of castration in claiming that the removal of the foreskin caused Jewish men to experience severe sexual frustration. Such frustration allegedly would result either in abstention from any type of sexual contact or, on the contrary, in excessively passionate behavior and sexual deviance. Similarly, masturbation also supposedly had its origins in the circumcised penis, a particularly awesome charge since nineteenth and twentieth century medicine and science considered masturbation antisocial – the cause of homosexuality, deviant sexual behavior, insanity, even death. Impossibly categorizing the Jewish man as both undersexed and supersexual and his penis as both unresponsive and hyperactive, medical writings suggested that there was indeed something abnormal about the Jewish man.2

During the most recent German circumcision debate, following a court decision of a Landesgericht in Cologne, echoes of the very same arguments were heard. Plus que ça change…

In their paper Bible, Christianity and Antisemitism, Jews and Judaism Between Bedevilment, and Source of Salvation: Christianty as a Cause of an a Cure against Anti-Semitism, conference organizer Armin Lange and co-author Maxine Grossman show that Christian Antisemitism is unfortunately deeply rooted in Christian theology and epistemology. Let me illustrate this with the following experience I had. In the wake of the most recent German circumcision brouhaha, I was invited to give a lecture at the Catholic academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart on May 5th 2013, to defend the practice of circumcision. In the audience was a Catholic religious leader, member of an order of monks, who listened attentively, and then interjected that as far as he is concerned, children should not be circumcised. They could, of course, be circumcised after puberty, when they could express their own agreement, but until then, let them suffice with what was, in his opinion, the true meaning of circumcision, namely circumcision of the heart.

The concept of circumcision of the heart is found in the Torah, in Deuteronomy 10:16. The monk’s interpretation fits neatly into Christian theology and exegesis, which, in the wake of the Pauline doctrine of the Abrogation of the Law, interprets almost all commandments symbolically. Jews, on the other hand, have consistently understood the commandments and injunctions of the Torah to be law, which is to be applied in real life. It is telling that in his comments, the monk wrapped two Christian anti-Jewish prejudices into one: seeing and projecting only his own exegesis while ignoring the validity of the alternative Jewish approach, a fallacy that was only possible because in his heart of hearts it is quite clear that he considered Christian teachings to supersede Jewish teachings. Despite the then almost five decades since the Second Vatican Council ratified Nostra Aetate Nr. 4 and repudiated the doctrine of Verus Israel, that doctrine was alive and well in the understandings of that religious leader.

Like other expressions of prejudice against Jews, the manifold arguments against the Jewish practice of ritual circumcision, though often cloaked in scientific argumentations, are so contradictory and so factually inconclusive but philosophically strident, that we must conclude that these are not rational arguments, after all, but rather manifestations of a deep-seated – probably subconscious – prejudice, seeking to delegitimize Jews no matter what.

I said earlier that the conference is doomed to fail in bringing about an actual end to Antisemitism. Let me explain this. As numerous panelists have shown, and as I also argued above, Antisemitism is very old, very diverse, isn’t taken aback by self contradictions, and can thus not be rationally justified. Sure, we can rationally explain how one manifestation or another of anti-Jewish prejudice was triggered or spread, but considering the vast diversity and consistent hardiness of Antisemitism must perforce lead us to the recognition that it defies rational explanation.

As a religious leader, I have no problem recognizing that Antisemitism must have metaphysical origins. As Bernard Henry Lévy mentioned yesterday, we believe Antisemitism to be a necessary manifestation of the Revelation of the Word of G”d to the People of Israel at Sinai and it being charged with living the Word of G”d and passively allowing it to spread. Religiously, we would explain it as follows: Whether because of envy, hatred of truth, antipathy to the messengers of morality and holiness, or simply as a result of misunderstanding and ignorance, there have always been people, too many people, way too many people, who have hated Jews and their values. Academics acting in the name of religiously neutral research may be wary of confirming such metaphysical reasoning, but I do not think that we can deny that Antisemitism defies ordinary explanation. If we want to end Antisemitism now, in an unredeemed world, we will fail.

However, even if it be G”d’s Will that Antisemitism exist in a still unredeemed world, that doesn’t mean we ought to allow it to flourish. Most surely, identifying sources of instances of Antisemitism and seeking remedies against those manifestations will help us keep Antisemitism in check, and that may be a fruitful endeavor.

In their paper, Lange and Grossman present ways in which Christian Antisemitism may be successfully attenuated. Well, indeed.

I was most fortunate to be entrusted with leading an international rabbinic committee, whose task it was to craft a rabbinic response to Nostra Aetate Nr. 4, which had just celebrated its 50th anniversary. The committee was constituted of members of the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America and representatives of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel; Prof. David Berger, who is part of the present conference, was an invaluable member of that committee. On August 31st 2017, we presented our declaration to Pope Francis.

Through the process of leading the committee and writing its declaration Between Jerusalem and Rome, I gained much insight into the effect that Nostra Aetate had on the Church. Beginning with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church embarked on a long road, and though it hasn’t yet reached the destination of eliminating Catholic Antisemitism altogether, it has succeeded in largely eliminating Antisemitism from its official doctrine and within its top leadership. The trickle down effect will require many more years of consistent work, and there have been setbacks, such as the lifting of the excommunication of the Society of Saint Pius X, but generally, Nostra Aetate Nr. 4 and the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews have been extraordinarily successful in removing Jew-hatred from official Church doctrine and combatting it among mainstream Catholics.

Nostra Aetate Nr. 4 most significantly abolished the teachings of contempt, as Nostra Aetate finally absolved from the charge of deicide all Jews of later generations, as well as Jews of Jesus’ time who were not involved in his crucifixion. Furthermore, Nostra Aetate Nr. 4 abandoned the supersessionist doctrine of Verus Israel. Though the Church quite obviously sees itself as having a special covenant with G”d, it no longer claims that its purported later covenant replaces the earlier covenant with Israel. Instead, as a 2015 publication of the Pontifical Committee on Religious Relations with the Jews strongly emphasized, the Church believes that the covenant with Israel is eternal,3 and quite obviously, the Church now sees itself as having a parallel covenant instead of a supersessionist one. Thus, presciently, the Church implemented Lange’s and Grossman’s major suggestions for combating Christian Antisemitism, and that long before Lange and Grossman presented their paper. Would it be that other Christian denominations now follow suit.

And yet, despite the good news emanating from the Catholic Church, I posit that Christian Antisemitism has so profoundly embedded itself into Western culture, that it continues to inspire terrible prejudice among many Westerners even when they no longer associate with any church. How else but as a manifestation of the doctrine of Verus Israel can we explain that otherwise enlightened, tolerant and generous people who support all ethnicities’ right for self-determination, question Israel’s right to exist or otherwise apply a double standard when evaluating policies and actions of the Jewish state. How else do we explain respect for the cultures and religions of many minorities, but insist on explaining to Jews that their religious laws, including such practices as ritual circumcision and ritual slaughtering without stunning are “really” the product of earlier, primitive ages, and that continued practice thereof is not befitting modern man? Unfortunately, those old prejudices are not finished rearing their ugly heads.


1Robin Judd, Circumcision and Modern Life, A German Case Study, 1843-1914, which appeared in Elizabeth Wyner Mark, ed., The Covenant of Circumcision, New Perspectives on an Ancient Rite, Brandeis University Press, 2003.
2Ibid. pg. 149
3The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable, Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 2015 , §36-§39.


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