3 (or 4) Types of Anti-Semitism, And Why We Must Fight Them

3 (or 4) Types of Anti-Semitism, And Why We Must Fight Them November 17, 2022

There is a persistent, historical phenomenon that plagues the western World (and, from time to time, encroaches into the East as well). It is the tragic, and mysterious, phenomenon we usually call “anti-Semitism.” It spans centuries, if not millennia. It manifests itself in various cultures, in various nations and at various times. It is most poignantly remembered as culminating in the years between 1930 and 1945 in what was then the most culturally advanced nation in the world, the nation of Germany. The result of it was the Holocaust, or “Shoah” in Hebrew.

However, earlier manifestations, in both Europe and the Middle East, also lead to similar atrocities, pogroms in the Russian. One might conjecture that these earlier pogroms against Jews would have equaled the German Holocaust in carnage, had the technological power been available to those cultures in those times. One scholar has appropriately called the phenomenon of anti-Semitism “the longest hatred” (Robert S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred). From the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD to the restoration of the nation of Israel in 1948, and still today, this hatred persists.

However, there are variations to anti-Semitism. Not every kind of anti-Semitism is rooted in the same ideological foundation. While these differences may matter in one sense, none of them matter with regard to the need to always confront and condemn anti-Semitism. Of course, this is entailed by the more general moral duty to confront any type of anti-ethnicism, be it against semites or gentiles. Still, it may help to understand different kinds of anti-Semitism as it applies to our approach for confronting each. I should caveat this post by pointing out I am no expert in this area. These are merely my observations, and I welcome any constructive, i.e., non-woke, criticism regarding the accuracy of these analyses.

Anti-Semitism Type #1: Religious Anti-Semitism

The first type of anti-Semitism is also the most ancient of its manifestations. As such, it is the historical seedbed for all other types. This religious anti-Semitism is rooted specifically in theological ideas and interpretations of the Bible. The most obvious agents, historically speaking, of religious anti-Semitism have been Christians and Muslims. The history of Jewish oppression at the hands of European Christians and Muslims in North Africa and the Middle East is incontestable. However, being Christian and not Muslim, I will only speak to the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism.

Christian anti-Semitism seems to be grounded in the idea that the Jewish people, as a historical entity, were directly responsible for the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. And, in accordance with some interpretations of Pauline theology, that Christians are the replacement of God’s chosen people and the Church the “New Israel.” To focus this tragic misunderstanding, a misunderstanding grounded mainly in parts of Paul’s letter to the Romans as well as a few passages in Matthew, one might look at one, very dark legacy. It is a legacy spawned by the otherwise great Reformer of the Church, Martin Luther.

In his 1543 book, The Jews and Their Lies, Luther unleashed a series of anti-Jewish invectives that cannot be nuanced away through even the most sophisticated apologetic. While historians debate over whether the younger Luther was less anti-Semitic than his later self, one thing is clear: for Luther, the treatment of Jews in Germany was directly related to the possibility of their conversion to Christianity. As Luther began to believe Jews were not capable of being converted, his antipathy toward them increased, and his proposals regarding their treatment grew more radical and inhumane.

Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to call Martin Luther a “racist” in the modern sense of the term. While Luther did hurl libels and slanders at the character of his Jewish enemies, he hurled similar libels and slanders at his gentile and Muslim enemies as well: the Roman Catholic popes, the radical Reformers, the so-called “Enthusiasts” of the radical Reformation, and the Turks. All these, and others, felt the sting of Luther’s sharp tongue (and pen). Luther was bombastic and hot-headed, and his written word reflected his personality. Luther scholar, Eric Gritsch, however, reinforces the conclusion that Luther’s hatred of the Jews was born explicitly from his theological judgments:

Luther was not an anti-Semite in the racist sense. His arguments against Jews were theological, not biological. Not until a French cultural anthropologist [Arthur de Gobineau] in the nineteenth century held that humankind consisted of “Semites” and “Aryans,” were Semites considered inferior.

Erich Gritsch, author of Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism

As Gritsch further points out, Luther’s main problem was that he “violated his own method” of doing theology. In speculating about the post-Resurrection nature of God’s relationship to the Jews, he went beyond what was found in the revealed Word of God. He violated his own principle of exegesis: formulating doctrine and pronouncing judgment when there was no scripture to support his position. Luther went too far in trying to discern the “hidden will of God,” something he himself had warned not to do. Yet, in doing so, he violated a Protestant principle meant to instill humility in the Christian.

Anti-Semitism Type #2: Racial Anti-Semitism

In contrast to the more ancient, religiously grounded, anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism in the modern era focused less on some incomplete or faulty theology of the Jewish people or their role vis-a-vis the death of Jesus. Instead, modern, 19th century anti-Semitism morphed into antipathy toward the racial or ethnic identity of European Jewry. It was less concerned with the religious beliefs or practices of the Jewish people, although those were still considered abhorrent by racial anti-Semites. Nevertheless, this modern anti-Semitism was developed within what, at that time, passed for a “scientific” theory of races. The most notable of such theories was produced by the French aristocrat, Arthur de Gobineau (1818-1882), who first posited the biological and social superiority of the so-called “Aryan” race. As such, modern anti-Semitism was far more about biology than theology, regardless of how shoddy that biology may have been.

Still, German anti-Semitism, the likes of which came to a head under National Socialism, certainly felt free to appropriate the Lutherian invectives against the Jews to supplement their own political and social agenda. To many National Socialists, Luther became a type of hero, a forerunner of the movement toward ethnic cleansing. Racial anti-Semites’ repurposing of Luther’s views was certainly less interested in Luther’s anger on account of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Still, Luther’s bombastic proposals came ready-made for National Socialist propaganda. Even more egregious, the Lutheran state church in Germany not only came to Luther’s defense, but forwarded arguments for the final realization of his program of Jewish expulsion from the land.

The ugliness of this lamentable fact of Church history simply cannot be sanitized. One can only thank God that today relations between both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches and Jews, especially in America, is diametrically other than that which existed prior to WWII. Of course, this is not to say that the entirety of the Church, Protestant or Catholic, was involved in the anti-Semitism of Hitler’s regime. The German “Confessing Church,” and the accompanying Barmen Declaration, are testimony to those who bore true witness to Christ in a time of great evil. Further, individuals like the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Roman Catholic nun, Edith Stein and the Roman Catholic peasant, Franz Jäggerstätter, testified with their own blood to the evil of national socialist anti-Semitism, all dying as martyrs of the faith. These men and women are the forerunners of Christians today who stand up for the life of the most oppressed human beings of our times, the unborn.

Unfortunately, today there is another variation of racial anti-Semitism that has gradually emerged since the 1960’s. It is one that has become especially noticeable among black communities in America.

Anti-Semitism Type #2.5: Conspiracy Theory Anti-Semitism

This type of anti-Semitism seems to act as a subtype of type #2: ethnic anti-Semitism. It is grounded entirely in the ethnic component, theological reasons for any animus aimed at Jews having been long forgotten. However, the focus of this variation of racial anti-Semitism is not merely on the racial identity itself. Instead it is on the inordinate amount of political, economic and social success achieved by ethnic Jews–success that seems disproportionate to their actual population size. This is, in part, factually true. Jews have achieved at an inordinate rate in the West, especially since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, and, to some degree, on account of it. This is something Jewish historians have pointed out, and that in spite of Martin Luther’s personal attitudes.

A useful term to denote this type of anti-Semitism is “Conspiracy Theory Anti-Semitism,” since it makes especial use of wild and unverifiable allegations of global conspiracies orchestrated by Jewish individuals or communities. It is especially insidious in its claims, yet it is nevertheless a trap that many in the West fall into, most notably celebrities. In making this tremendous error in judgement, it seems those who do so equate worldly success with something like a transcendent, almost metaphysical plot or scheme. Of course, this plot is always construed as evil and never as something aimed at good.

The projection of such transcendent powers onto Jews by conspiracy theorists almost acts as a type of Romans 1:18-32 confusion. It confuses something which exists in the world, a particular people group, with an attribute of the Creator Himself, His divine governance (gubernatio) of the world. It is as if to say that some group or “cabal” within the world has providential powers akin to that of God Almighty. They, not God, are not only able to steer and guide the world in the direction of their collective will (which is itself part of the fictitious nature of the claim), but are actually doing so.

This kind of thinking is not only an unjustified, and ridiculous, projection upon ethnic Jews, it is a tremendous blasphemy against God. In recent years, however, we have seen this type of anti-Semitism creep into the African American communities in the US. Figures like Kanye West or Kyrie Irving, along with their many predecessors (Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, Stokely Carmichael), have, perhaps partly in ignorance, made explicit anti-Semitic remarks that smack of the conspiratorial. Of course, this kind of anti-Semitism is by no means limited to the black community, even if it has tragically made many inroads there.

Of course, as some studies point out, there are other, more mundane, economic and social factors that have lead to black anti-Semitism. James Baldwin saw black anti-Semitism as simply a variation on black anti-white sentiment. At the same time, there is even a variation on this type of black conspiratorial-Antisemitism. It is one that again has theological roots, this time in the embrace of Islam by many black Americans in the 1960s, engendered by anti-Semites like Malcom X, and more recently Louis Farrakhan. This may be the most ironic form of anti-Semtism, given the long history of black African subjugation and oppression at the hands of Arab and Turkish Muslims.

Anti-Semitism Type #3: Anti-Judaism (and Anti-Zionism)

A final type, and subtype, of anti-Semitism is anti-Judaism. This is unique in that it is a form of anti-Semitism found mainly among political Leftists. Moreover, it is also found among those who themselves are ethnically Jewish. One might think here of various thinkers who were ethnically Jewish, like the Frankfurt School social theorists, and who defended against ethnic anti-Semitism on the one hand, yet who were vigorously engaged in the deconstruction of orthodox Jewish thought and practice on the other.

As such, this form of anti-Semitism is similar to type #1. It is a religious anti-Semitism. However, it is not religious in the sense that it comes from people who are themselves religious. In fact, the vast majority in this camp are explicitly non-religious, usually atheistic in their worldview. In being adamantly anti-religious, therefore, these anti-Semites are fundamentally against the Jewish religion. Specifically, they are at existential odds with the Hebrew Bible and with those Jews who believe the Bible to be the revelation of God. Again, one thinks here of historical figures like Marx or Gramsci, or Theodor Adorno, or more recently Saul Alinsky and Thomas Friedman.

Of course, when it comes to those leftist anti-Semites who were explicit Marxists, which is most of them, there is also a sociological aspect of their anti-Semitism. After all, in 19th and early 20th century Europe and America, Jews had been very successful in and through the capitalist economy. Thus, Marxist ire at Capitalism often entailed an irritation with Jews who had capitalized on its account. This tense dynamic is seen in a very focused way in the life of someone like Felix Weil. Weil was the son of a wealthy Jewish business magnate in Germany, who became the primary financier of Max Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. Weil and Horkheimer’s think tank was dedicated to Marxist economic thought and the gradual overthrow of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. This dynamic of biting the capitalist hand the feeds one is a common thread throughout leftist, anti-Semitic life and practice. We see it manifested today among the latté-sipping, iPhone using, college-student class that decries evil Capitalism at every turn.

Ultimately, however, and even more specifically, anti-Judaism anti-Semites are engaged in a fight against the moral laws and commands found in the Bible. More specific than that, they are strongly against those moral commands that relate to human sexuality, marriage, and the nature of human identity. This is the main reason they also oppose the state of Israel. For as liberal and irreligious as Israel is in practice (a socio-political fact that may be quickly changing), it was still founded as a Jewish nation, with many concessions made to orthodox Jewish religion and the ultra-Orthodox rabbis at its inception. For example, in Israel today one must be married according to halachah and under the authority of the chief Rabbinate. This is an incredible atrocity in the eyes of the anti-Judaic Left, whose war with Capitalism pales in intensity to their war on the biblical notion of the family unit.

Thus, one subtype of anti-Judaist anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism, which itself can take the shape of an internecine conflict. For while this hatred of Judaism is motivated by the modern religion of secularism, if ever there was a kind of self-loathing, it would be that of the secular, leftist Jew toward their own religious heritage and those who still practice it. One should note, however, this is a not a phenomenon reserved for leftist Jews alone. It is found among leftist Christians with equal force and hysteria, even though there is no such thing as a Christian ethnicity.

It describes anti-semitism
How Can Make Sure This Never Happens Again?

Combatting Theological Anti-Semitism

It can be hard at times to discern who is actually an anti-Semite these days. This is usually due to the propaganda coming from the Left, whose main tactic to gain power is to label everyone they disagree with politically as a bigot of some kind. This is, after all, much more expedient than making arguments for or against ideas and positions. Further, the inaccuracy and abuse of our information delivery systems (e.g., of online media) makes it hard to know when someone is a genuine anti-Semite, or just parroting stupid or negligent things he or she picked up somewhere. Nevertheless, when sources have been checked, due diligence done and genuine anti-Semitism identified, anti-Semitism must be confronted.

In the case of theological anti-Semitism, Islamic anti-Semitism is currently the most radical form. To exposit its nature and catalogue its activity warrants an entire article all its own. I will refrain from that task for now. As to Christian theological anti-Semitism, one can say, without hesitation, that it is almost non-existent in today’s global environment. In fact, evangelical Christians in America are by far the staunchest defenders of Israel and the Jews in the world today. Roman Catholics as well. Of course, there are theological reasons for this new posture, not just historical ones. This is also one more reason why the Left in America hates Evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics.

For Protestants, newer, more accurate, readings of passages like Romans 11, have lead to more holistic theological conclusions, like that of dispensational theology, as well as Reformed covenant theology. These do not teach that the Church has “replaced” Israel as God’s chosen people. Instead they interpret the relevant Scriptures to show that the Church is an entirely separate entity from Israel (dispensationalism) or the expansion and enlargement of Israel (covenantalism). All who have faith in Christ, regardless of ethnicity, are members of the Church, just like the first Jewish Christians. Moreover, according to dispensationalism, the Jews are still God’s chosen people, and God has not broken His covenant with them. Ethnic Israel still has a role in God’s overall plan of redemption, and that role is being carried out even today. This is not to say that there is salvation outside of the Jewish Messiah, who is (and always has been) Jesus of Nazareth. But it is to say that the Jews retain the status of God’s chosen nation.

Further, with regard to other misreadings of Scripture, especially verses like Matthew 27:25, Leon Morris points out in his seminal commentary on Matthew:

This verse has been greatly misused throughout the centuries, being made a proof text to justify all manner of horrific practices against the Jews. But we should bear in mind that this was no more than a thoughtless assumption of responsibility by an unruly mob. They had no authority to commit their nation for the evil thing they were doing. And even if they could do this, they could not bind God to punish subsequent generations of the chosen people. Evils have been perpetrated against the Jews through the centuries, and in some places they still are. But Scripture gives us no justification for any such thing. It is relevant that all the first Christians were Jews; the writer of this Gospel cannot possibly have meant that punishment for this mob’s outrageous behavior would fall on every Jew in every place at every time.

Leon Morris, PNTC Commentary on Matthew, 708

The first generation of Jewish Christians were not anti-Jewish. This would have been impossible for them, especially seeing that God had fulfilled His covenant promise. There is no aberrant self-loathing among the earliest followers of Christ. In fact, there is joy in the revelation of the Messiah and God’s faithfulness to His people. What there was, however, was a new openness to non-Jews. But the opening up of the family of God to non-Semites is not equivalent to a rejection of Semites.

Combatting Other Forms of Anti-Semitism

As to other, non-theological, forms of anti-Semitism, they must be combatted in their own right. As alluded to above, all forms of anti-ethnicism are wrong. We know this simply in virtue of the doctrine of the Imago Dei— that all human beings, regardless of ethnicity, are made in the image and likeness of a holy God. This is a metaphysical status that transcends any social category or biological reality. While that image and likeness is defaced by sin, sin is not exculisve to any particular group or set of image bearers. It is common to every particular human person and every aggregate thereof. Therefore, to make unwarranted moral or ontological distinctions among people groups, is to make false judgments about the image of God in man. This is a gross error.

As to conspiracy-theory anti-Semitism, one can only hope that showing the various logical fallacies involved might mitigate the problem. Hopefully reason still has some influence in the minds of the average American today. (Although, one wonders whether reason has any place in a nation that can unapologetically embrace atrocities like abortion as a moral right, or that believes men can become women and women men.) Nevertheless, conspiracy-theory thinking must be confronted with facts, and its claims shown as groundless. Here, absence of evidence does equate to evidence of absence. Unfortunately, in our era of internet and social media, this problem has become increasingly difficult to combat as worlds of information float freely about cyberspace untethered from their sources and any basis of empirical support.

Finally, there is the ever-so-subtle leftist version of anti-Semitism: anti-Judaism/Zionism. This form of anti-Semitism is the most insidious in that it is mainstream, wildly popular, openly public and politically influential. Yet, it is repeatedly able to present itself as on the side of moral righteousness. Leftist anti-Semitism is thus the most powerful form of anti-Semitism in our contemporary, Western world, and it is also the most accepted.

The reason for this, as pointed out above, is because Western culture has become broadly secular, i.e., non-religious. Further, as stated, leftist anti-Semitism is not anti-ethnicism. As such, leftist anti-Semitism, being ultimately grounded in an atheistic worldview, can hardly be combatted with political or social arguments. Leftist anti-Semites, being primary against the Jewish religion, can only be confronted with classical apologetics: with arguments for the existence of God as well as arguments for the inspiration and reliability of His Word, the Bible. Leftists, unlike other kinds of anti-Semites, require not only moral correction, but spiritual enlightenment.

Of course, much more should be said about anti-Semitism. And, to qualify this entire essay, I would ask readers to realize these are all generalizations. For clearly there are black Jews, pro-Israel atheists, and conservative, non-religious Jews. But for now, these categories shall have to suffice to at least promote discussion and advance some ideas about how to fight anti-Semitism in our world.


About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.

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