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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter 2022


Nicholas de Lange

There is currently great fluidity and inconsistency in the use of this term, which originated in late-19th-cent. Germany and designated a specific political movement, and is now often extended to the entire phenomenon of group-hatred directed against Jews, regardless of its historical setting or character. There is a stark division of opinion among scholars about the relationship between antisemitism and Christian anti-Judaism: for some there is an intrinsic connection, while others see the link as being much looser, considering for example that there is evidence of antisemitism before the advent of Christianity, or in non-Christian societies today (see Langmuir 1990).

The pseudo-scientific term “Antisemitismus” was first used in Germany in the 1870s. The immediate context for its introduction was the unification of Germany. The broader context embraced such diverse but interconnected factors as the rise of nation-states, of European imperialism and colonialism, and racial theories, connected with the study of languages and with social Darwinism. Digging more deeply, we should include the impact of the European Enlightenment, which had gradually brought about the civil emancipation of the Jews in several countries as well as a challenge to the power and influence of the Christian churches. All these various elements fed into the rise of political antisemitism. (This spelling in English is gradually replacing an older spelling, “anti-Semitism,” which has been objected to on the grounds that it is itself antisemitic, as it falsely implies the existence of a contrary movement, “Semitism.”)

There is no inherent connection between political antisemitism and Christianity, except in the sense that antisemitic rhetoric often represented the Jews as the enemy of Christian civilization and society. The movement was very diverse and deeply divided, and included anti-clericalists and anti-Christians, nationalists, socialists, and others. The first international antisemitic congress, held at Dresden in 1882, issued a manifesto addressed to “the governments and peoples of Christian nations threatened by Judaism.” This document accused the Jews of exploiting various means (such as finance, the press, liberalism, and freemasonry) to achieve world domination; Christianity is mentioned as part of a racial theory: Jewry “increasingly undermines the Christian religion, which has become a racially specific religion of the Aryan European peoples.”

On the other hand, there is undeniably a connection between antisemitism and Jewish–Christian relations, and specifically the very poor relations that existed at that time (with notable exceptions) between Christians and Jews. In 1881 a French Catholic journal, Le Contemporain, asked the ostensibly naive question: “Why are these people the target of such violent hatred?” This is indeed the crucial question. Surely, if there must be group-hatred and scapegoating, the tiny Jewish minority is not the obvious choice. (Indeed, in France for most of the 19th cent. the chief targets of opprobrium were the Protestants.) In considering why the Jews were singled out for this odium it is impossible to ignore the history of Jewish–Christian relations.

The medieval image of the Jews in Christian lands, cultivated through charges of deicide and other theological arguments, accusations of child-murder, host-desecration and various forms of antisocial behavior, and periodical outbreaks of actual violence, was far from dead by the late 19th cent., and fed into the rhetoric of the antisemites. Even if the atavistic prejudices were not in the foreground of this rhetoric, they are present in the shadows, and they help to explain why it was the Jews who were singled out to be the target of the new movement: their role as a scapegoat, as a stigmatized, oppressed and rightless minority, was long-established in Christian Europe.

The responses of the Christian leadership and press to antisemitism were varied. The charismatic Prussian Lutheran preacher Adolf Stöcker, court chaplain to successive German emperors, was a prominent antisemite and played a leading role in the Dresden congress of 1882. Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878–1903) intervened to secure the installation of the antisemite Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna in 1897 (against the resolute opposition of the Austrian emperor). From Leo’s accession the Catholic paper La Civiltà Cattolica, always a faithful mouthpiece of the papacy, became outspokenly anti-Jewish, and even endorsed the so-called Blood Libel. By contrast, in Russia, the higher clergy, which traditionally promoted the image of Jews as “Christ-killers,” gave no support to the accusations of ritual murder of Christian children which occurred from time to time. In the most notorious of these, the Beilis affair (1911–13), the Orthodox church offered no expert witness at the trial, whereas three professors at Orthodox seminaries spoke out against the accusation.

During the high tide of Nazism in the 1930s and in World War II, when antisemitism erupted into genocidal violence in many countries, very few leading churchmen (among them notably Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens and All Greece) stood out against it, and some distinguished themselves by their outspoken support of the anti-Jewish policies. It was reflection about this dramatic failure that led after the War to the inauguration of a new era in Christian–Jewish relations.

A key figure in this period was James Parkes (1896–1981), an Anglican clergyman who was working for the International Student Service in Geneva in the 1930s when European antisemitism was intensifying. The connection between antisemitism and Jewish–Christian relations is clearly brought out in Parkes’s writings. He began to explore the origins of antisemitism, and came to the conclusion, which he himself found surprising, that, contrary to widely held opinion, it was the Christian church, and the Christian church alone, which turned what he called “a normal xenophobia and normal good and bad communal relations between two human societies” into the unique evil of antisemitism. His book The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, published in 1934, marks a new turn in the study of both antisemitism and Jewish–Christian relations. Parkes ruled out any racial or economic explanation of the birth of antisemitism; instead, he reasoned, it arose from the image of the Jews derived by Christian theologians from their reading of the biblical prophecies relating to the people of Israel. He particularly singled out the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, who divided these prophecies into favorable and unfavorable ones, attaching the former to “the Hebrews” (the predecessors of the Christians), and the latter to “the Jews” (of whom contemporary Jews are seen as the heirs). The Christians thus inherit all the biblical blessings and promises, the Jews all the curses. In this unbalanced reading of divinely inspired scripture, Parkes maintained, resides the ultimate source of antisemitism, which found concrete expression in Christian legislation from the 4th cent. on.

James Parkes wrote as a Christian. Meanwhile, no clear position on antisemitism was taken by Jewish writers or institutions. The pioneering figure on the Jewish side (as it were) was the French historian Jules Isaac (1877–1963), who began writing his remarkable book Jesus and Israel during the German occupation, in 1943. Like Parkes, Isaac found his own book surprising. In a series of propositions, he demanded a reassessment of the then dominant Christian view of the Jews and Judaism: the people of Israel did not reject or crucify Jesus, and Jesus did not reject or curse Israel. This publication led directly to another, more germane to our subject: Genèse de l’antisémitisme. In this book, Isaac surveys five hundred years of pagan and a millennium of Christian antisemitism, and concludes (taking up a suggestion of the French Protestant historian Marcel Simon) that there is a fundamental difference between the two: Christian antisemitism is not a popular or haphazard phenomenon, but an official, systematic, and coherent teaching of the Church, whose aim is to make the Jews hated. Thus, both Parkes and Isaac drew a firm dividing line between pagan and Christian hostility to Jews, and insisted that it was only in the latter that the origins of antisemitism lay. Their approach has been widely, although by no means universally, accepted, and their work has been very fruitful, not only in terms of writings and teachings, but also in practical action.

In Britain, the first steps towards the founding of the Council of Christians and Jews were taken during the War at Parkes’s home near Cambridge. (Such councils had been created earlier in the USA and South Africa.) Isaac’s work led in France to the founding of Amitié judéo-chrétienne in 1948, and the first Amicizia ebraico-cristiana in Italy, in Florence in 1950. Eventually the International Council of Christians and Jews was set up, in 1974. The most significant development in the immediate post-war period was a meeting held at Seelisberg in Switzerland in 1947. The agenda of this meeting was threefold: to take stock of the presence of antisemitism in Europe at the time; to discuss practical measures to combat antisemitism; and to contribute to the healing of the Jewish–Christian relationship. Antisemitism was characterized as a worldwide problem, and as a “sin against God and humanity.” This meeting issued the famous “Ten Points of Seelisberg,” which were based on Isaac’s Jesus and Israel. The statement underlined the common ground between Christianity and Judaism, and countered common misunderstandings and misrepresentations, along the lines of Isaac’s work. The Seelisberg meeting marks an important step in improving Christian–Jewish relations; at the same time, it is a testimony to the relationship with antisemitism, and the belief that the path to combating antisemitism leads through educating Christians to eradicate what Jules Isaac termed “the teaching of contempt.”

The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948 issued an important statement on the “Christian Approach to the Jews” which acknowledged that “The Churches in the past have helped foster an image of the Jews as the sole enemies of Christ, which has contributed to antisemitism in the secular world,” and endorsed the Seelisberg formulation  that “Antisemitism is a sin against God and man.” Interestingly, this firm declaration on what was still a controversial subject also maintained, no less controversially, that missionary work aimed at converting Jews was a normal part of parish work.

The most important and influential statement in this area was the document Nostra Aetate, the declaration of the Second Vatican council on the relation of the church with non-Christian religions. The origin of this document lies in a meeting between Jules Isaac and Pope John XXIII in 1960. A key role was also played by the German Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea. The declaration takes a firm line against antisemitism with the words: “the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” This statement marked a momentous break with the past, and placed the Roman Catholic church in the vanguard of efforts to repair the Christian–Jewish relationship. The Vatican subsequently issued guidelines for implementing Nostra Aetate, and other materials aimed at removing negative teachings about Judaism from Roman Catholic teaching and catechesis. On 16 March 1998 the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued the document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah”, which cited and reaffirmed the words of Nostra Aetate quoted above, as well as a similar statement by Pope John Paul II. The document stressed some positive acts of Christians during the Shoah, and recognized that the Christian response had often been inadequate, but it failed to address the issue of the active participation of Christians on the Nazi side.

The Protestant denominations, lacking a central authority analogous to the role of the Vatican in Roman Catholicism, were relatively slow to produce formal declarations.  By the end of the 20th cent., however several Protestant churches in Germany and other countries had issued public statements on the subject, starting with the provincial Synod of the Protestant church in the Rhineland (1980). Judaism, too, has no central authority that could issue an official statement, but in 2000 a declaration entitled Dabru Emet [Speak Truth] appeared as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, signed by four Jewish scholars. Many others have added their names, and the document has attracted a good deal of discussion. Among a number of topics in the area of Jewish–Christian relations, it declares the following: “Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out […] But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity.” Currently most leading churchmen and synods, at least in Europe and North America, have taken a firm line condemning antisemitism, including Orthodox churchmen such as the late Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and the current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions, in all the main branches of Christianity. Besides the perpetuation of antisemitic language and prejudice at a more or less banal level, various forms of ideological antisemitism are sometimes linked to extreme religious conservatism or to specific political views (or a combination of the two, as was the case with the Pamyat Society in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s, which identified itself as “the People’s National-Patriotic Orthodox Christian movement”). To take a few examples, the influential Russian churchman, Metropolitan John (Snoychev) of St Petersburg (1927–95) published a book in 1994 entitled The Autocracy of the Spirit, in which he describes the whole of Russian history in terms of a struggle against the Jews, the people that “killed God” and aims at world domination. The book was widely distributed, and not repudiated by the leadership of the Russian church. In the Roman Catholic sphere, the Society of St Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, has been critizised for promoting antisemitic teachings.

There is room for a great deal of further research on this difficult and controversial subject. Three areas may be mentioned, alas very briefly.

Firstly, there is a need for much more theological investigation. No theological discussion of Jewish–Christian dialogue can afford to ignore the Shoah and the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, including its biblical foundations (which are particularly, but not exclusively, important for Protestants). Venturing even further, there is a question whether any Christian theology is possible which does not take account of the attitude to Judaism. The radical Catholic theologian Rosemary Ruether has even argued that anti-Judaism is an essential component of Christian theology (Ruether 1974). Her challenge has not yet met with an adequate response. Important contributions have been made by A. Roy Eckardt (Eckardt 1967), Franklin H. Littell, Paul M. van Buren and many others. At the heart of Christian theological discussions about Judaism three related topics are proving particularly challenging: promises (the eternal validity of the promises made in the Bible by God to Israel), supersession (the belief that Christianity has superseded or replaced Judaism), and missions (the practical obligation for Christians to convert Jews to Christianity). At the liberal end of the Christian spectrum there is a good measure of agreement about all three; the challenge is to extend this agreement to the more conservative wing.

The Shoah delivered a shock to Jewish theology which produced some seminal contributions in the last four decades of the 20th cent., by authors such as Ignaz Maybaum, Eliezer Berkovits, Arthur A. Cohen, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg, David Novak and Schalom Ben-Chorin. Little subsequent work has lived up to the promise of those heroic beginnings, however, and there is certainly scope for broader and deeper investigation into such classic topics as covenant, God’s intervention in human history, and redemption.

The second area is historical research. The Vatican document “We Remember” (1998) puts this question: “It may be asked whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts.” In general terms historians have answered the question with a resounding “It was”, but there is room for more subtlety and balance. “We Remember” also refers to “the Jewish leaders and people who, in their devotion to the Law, on occasion violently opposed the preachers of the Gospel and the first Christians.” This type of statement demands clarification in the context of today’s Christian–Jewish dialogue.

Thirdly, the persistence of antisemitism despite decades of concerted efforts to eradicate it raises questions about the effectiveness of these efforts. There is a good deal of muddle around the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Christian anti-Zionism is a subject that has been insufficiently studied; it has been claimed that classic antisemitic language sometimes permeates Christian rhetoric about Israel. At the same time Christian Zionism, a long-established Protestant movement, has been criticized for perpetuating elements of anti-Jewish theology.

Overall, this is a subject rich in opportunities for further work.


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