For as long back as I can remember, I have been lighting the candles of both Chanukah and Advent. My religious upbringing was a mixture of Judaism with various bits of Christian denominations – from my grandmother’s dignified Episcopalianism to the non-denominational charismatic church we attended in an old warehouse, where they tried to force me to speak in tongues and I refused. Eventually we settled down to Catholicism, but Judaism remains my earliest religious imprint. I was singing the Hebrew prayer for the lighting of the menorah before I ever learned to pray a Hail Mary.
Used to having my religious practices all mixed up with each other, I didn’t notice initially that many of my fellow Christians were doing to Judaism what we now know as “cultural appropriation.” Protestant churches hosted Christianized Seder meals, and I thought little of it, other than amusement when they replaced the wine with grape juice. At Franciscan University, the many different “households” on campus (basically, pious versions of fraternities or sororities) did “Lord’s Day” celebrations, which were ripoffs of the Jewish Sabbath. I never joined a household, because I’m allergic to joining things, but my friends and I did do our own Sabbath celebrations, at which we drank cheap wine and I said the correct Hebrew prayers.
So it was hard for me to square this fondness of Christians for all my cultural Jewish traditions with the fact that I kept running into anti-semitism, in both Protestant and Catholic circles. Maybe I was naive, thinking that “they like our stuff!” means “they like us!” The people of India, colonized by the British, could have told me otherwise. So could the Black people of my own nation.
I was also less alert to signs of racism in those days – and many racists, back in the Nineties, when I was an undergraduate, did not yet feel emboldened to let their true colors show.
Now it is 2018 and anti-semitism is on a rise. Or maybe it’s simply gaining visibility? I’m no longer the naive little conservative scholar I was 25 years ago; I’ve learned to be alert, and have been watching it for some time, especially among catholics. I see it in the way right-wing Catholics flirt with the Alt Right, the way Trad catholics dog-whistle antisemitism, and the way polite Catholics refuse to acknowledge or call out racists in their midst.
That’s why the recent gaffe, on the part of Catholic News Service, is so bothersome. They tweeted “happy Hannukah” with an image of a bunch of people carrying a Menorah – which was actually NOT a picture of Jews celebrating, but rather a representation of the Roman sack of the Jewish Temple. A murderous infamy in Jewish history.
Naturally, Jewish readers objected. CNS posted an apology for being “sloppy in our tweeting.”
But that doesn’t remove, from my mind, a sense of unease. With anti-semitic violence on the rise, and a generation of privileged young Catholic men who think trolling at being alt right is funny, it’s hard to take this kind of sloppiness with a light-hearted “c’est la vie.”
Simcha Fisher, also of Jewish descent, addresses why this whole situation is so problematic:
The barely-an-apology apology is harder to get past. The follow-up apology is better, although it puts the blame a single person, even though the tweet went out under the CNS name; but I feel a dreary certainty that CNS learned the lesson “Jewish people are touchy” rather than the much more important lesson, which is this:
Antisemitism is in the Church.
Catholics who aren’t antisemites are obligated to reject even the smallest hint of it, whenever it turns up.
Even if it was unintentional; even if it seems minor; even if it seems to gentiles like an isolated, meaningless incident that can be explained away if everyone would just calm down. Even if the antisemite does other good things or is an effective fundraiser for Catholic causes.
If we don’t step up and say something every single time, then those who really are malicious become more bold, and ideas that once pushed the envelope become commonplace.
What I would like to add to this is that many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, don’t feel obligated to be serious in their treatment of Judaism. The Jewish religion is not regarded as something alive, vital, and developing in our world today, but as a quaint relic from the past, something for Christians to raid the way Indiana Jones goes around nabbing the sacred artifacts of other peoples and cultures. No need to do research into what images might represent, or spend time finding out how Jews might feel.
Christians enjoy cosplaying Jewishness, without stopping to think about the fact that Jewish identity, at many different times throughout history, could get you killed.
Sometimes, it could get you killed by Christians.
How many times, throughout history, have Jews had to light their candles in secret?
Dear fellow Christians, Judaism is not your toy box. My Jewish heritage is not something you can use for your own adornment. Yes, we have a rich culture, and fascinating traditions. Yes, latkes are delicious. I’m not saying “don’t fry potato pancakes,” because fried potato pancakes are present in many cultures, and rightly so.
What I am saying is, Jewish identity is not to be treated as a plaything, and you have not earned the right to dabble in it if you are unwilling to do the hard work not only of understanding our culture, but also of being an ally against anti-semitism. I don’t care how cool you think our customs are, how badass you find my foremothers, if you’re willing to tolerate anti-semitism in your ranks. Look at how many people in the past century adored jazz while never lifting a finger to stop racism. Look at the British aristocracy adapting “oriental” fashions and finally learning how to season their food. It did not make them any less racist.
And yes, the anti-semitism is there. It’s there in the dogwhistles of “soros”, “globalism”, and “Alinsky.” It’s there in the preference for the Council of Florence over Nostra Aetate. It’s there when Republicans vote for a literal Nazi. It’s there when you rant like a drunken Mel Gibson about Jewish conspiracies in Hollywood. It’s there when you equate Antifa with the racist fascists they oppose. It’s there when you complain that the Jews get all the attention when we talk about the Holocaust. It’s there when you make inaccurate Holocaust comparisons.
I am open about my Jewish heritage, and have been attacked for it for years. And I no longer believe people who say “we love the Jewish people” – unless they’re willing to stand for justice for the Jewish people, and to lend an ear when Jews say what is or is not acceptable.
Otherwise, you’re not loving the Jewish people. You’re viewing Jews as people who don’t need to be taken seriously, who no longer even have a claim on their own traditions. You’re viewing them the way a colonizer views the colonized.
image is from the author’s personal collection