In My Own Words: Meandering thoughts about...

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Antisemitism and Jesus. Yes, I know some of you are shaking your heads, but a question about that connection was recently raised in Congress. (More on that in the next paragraph.) Antisemitism is a hot topic in the Jewish community, so much so that the larger community has chimed in on the debate. So many books on the subject are being published that there is no way I could read and review all of them. (Well, unless I could spend three work weeks focusing just on reading and writing about them. Yeah, that is so not going to happen.) The interesting thing, though, is that there is no consensus on a definition of antisemitism. That includes recent congressional legislation on the topic. You know there is a problem when the far right and ACLU both disapprove of the legislation, although for very different reasons.

It’s actually the disapproval on the far right that interests me. One member of Congress (she gets enough free publicity for her outrageous statements that I’m not going to name her) said the definition is in conflict with a fundamental theological principle of Christianity. She noted that it might become illegal to say that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Her statement included the fact that the Jews of that time handed Jesus over to the Romans to be killed. This has also been understood by many to mean that the Jews killed Jesus.

A former grade school Catholic friend thought that. I have no direct recall of our conversation because I blocked out the memory. I learned what happened one day after asking my mom if she remembered why I stopped playing with the kids down the street. My mom was surprised that I didn’t remember because she said I was really upset. According to her, I came home spitting mad, saying, “[Person’s name] said I killed Jesus. I did not kill Jesus!” I now find that exchange amusing because the idea is ridiculous, but as a young child, I took everything seriously. However, the basic idea is interesting from a variety of theological and political viewpoints.

I am not going to write about the theological implications because the political implications are more relevant to my discussion of antisemitism and Jesus. The member of Congress who voted against the legislation also opposes teaching about the more difficult and distressing eras of American history. She and others are worried that children will feel bad about the United States and need to be protected from learning the real history of our country. That’s a euphemistic way of saying they don’t want them to hear about the horrific way the United States treated Native Americans and African slaves.

They would also like Native Americans and the descendants of those who were slaves to forget about the past. They believe the past should remain in the past and that there were no lasting repercussions from that treatment, something that is patently false. This is similar to those who say we Jews should stop talking about the Holocaust: according to them, it occurred a long time ago, so we need to move on and forget about it. However, Jewish theology commands us to remember the past – the good and the bad – whether done to us or others.

But to return to the objection that the new definition of antisemitism will mean that people won’t be able to say that the Jews were either directly or indirectly responsible for the death of Jesus. One could say, “Hey, that was centuries ago, so get over it and move on. After all, you want everyone else to do the same.” If you are going to demand that history be whitewashed and you not be blamed for what your ancestors did, then the same principle should apply to everyone.

That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? But somehow there never seems to be objections to blaming Jews for all the world’s ills. The 21st century is proving to be no different from previous ones. And, cynic that I have become, I’m not sure I ever expect that to change.