world council of churches

Report from the consultation on
"Anti-Semitism in church and society"
Warsaw, 16-19 October 1999

A paragraph, and particularly the last sentence, in the Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue (WCC, 1983) could be seen as prompting the recently held consultation on "Churches and Societies in the Baltic Area on New Threats of anti-Semitism", Warsaw 16-19 October 1999. It reads "The World Council of Churches Assembly at its first meeting in Amsterdam, 1948, declared: 'We call upon the churches we represent to denounce anti-Semitism, no matter what its origin, as absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith. Anti-Semitism is sin against God and man'. This appeal has been reiterated many times. Those who live where there is a record of acts of hatred against Jews can serve the whole Church by unmasking the ever-present danger they have come to recognise." It is important to underline that a resolute position and stance against anti-Semitism is not a favour to be done to Jews. Anti-Semitism is, as someone has said, a Christian problem and not a Jewish problem.

The presence of anti-Semitism cannot easily be explained. It is linked to political, economic and societal developments in many parts of Europe and has surfaced again within our societies, to some extent related to the upheavals in Europe of the last decade.

Addressing the question of the presence of anti-Semitism in a particular society is sometimes met with quite a bit of defensiveness. No country likes to admit that anti-Semitism is alive and well in their midst. This is particularly the case in some of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Churches here are not an exception and some prefer to dodge the issue. It was important in the planning of this consultation not to put anyone up against the wall, inviting a defensiveness, which is not constructive. It seemed important to find partners in the struggle against anti-Semitism instead of labelling this or that country as a haven for anti-Semitism. An intentional search for a partnership as to the context for the consultation was therefore a priority. The Theobalt network proved to be such a partner.

Theobalt, a network of churches in the Baltic region for common reflection and the sharing of experiences regarding their role in society, meets every third or fourth year. In between gatherings of the full participation of the churches in the nine countries around the Baltic Sea, initiatives are taken to call smaller consultations or meetings on specific issues of concern to one or several churches within the region. Theobalt-conferences have been arranged in Visby on Gotland from the beginning of the 1980s. The new openness between the nations around the Baltic Sea after 1989 has made it easier and more urgent to meet. The churches in the area are in many ways facing the same challenges on the threshold of the new millennium, requiring renewed reflection on societal values and new possibilities for co-operation and exchange.

In many of the main folk church-traditions around the Baltic Sea there are - as a response to the appearance of anti-Semitism - documents and statements that deal with the basic theological and moral issues involved. This is the case for the Roman Catholic Church with the Vatican II-documents Nostra Aetate and several subsequent documents and statements. Although there are no documents from Orthodox churches in the Baltic region, there are some statements by the Patriarch of Moscow and other church leaders. For the member churches of the World Council of Churches there is the statement from the Amsterdam Assembly as well as the 'Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue', a letter by Emilio Castro to the churches in Europe addressing new threats of anti-Semitism (1990) and the Central Committee- document 'Jewish-Christian dialogue beyond Canberra '91'(1992).

In a joint effort, the desk on Jewish-Christian relations and the Theobalt network invited church representatives and experts on Jewish-Christian relations from the region to come to Warsaw for a first and tentative discussion on new signs of anti-Semitism in the societies of which the Theobalt churches are part. The intention was to have a first and tentative deliberation on how to go from official documents and statements to their practical implementation within our churches and within the societies, in which the churches live and witness.

Experiences from within the Baltic context

There was from the beginning a rich contribution. Participants had many insights into the problem that was to be faced through personal experiences or through the experience of their churches. During a first session, such experiences were shared.

The "New Threats of anti-Semitism" have several dimensions where differences are blurred and seldom distinct. The contexts of anti-Semitism have different facets and are varied.

There is a political context, where the Jewish origin of political opponents is an issue, where there is a supposed Jewish conspiracy against the country or against nationalist leaders or a perceived Jewish implication in ethnic or territorial conflicts.

There is a context related to debates on the catastrophic situation of the economy, on the social and political models to be followed to overcome the crisis and political instability.

There is a context related to ideological debates on national problems: modernity vs. traditionalism, clerical vs. lay leadership, western-style democracy vs. an ethnocratic state following an autochtonous tradition. There is a context related to interpretations and polemics on the national heritage: the responsibility for the mass crimes of World War II; the causes for the advent of the communist regimes and the disasters provoked by it.

These contexts pertain to confrontations with national identity and myths: the nationalistic tradition, the revaluation of former political leaders and nationalist ideologies.

Finally there is the dimension, which is related to theological argumentation: the Christian replacement theology vis--vis Judaism, the question of deicide, etc.

The pattern of finding scapegoats to explain societal or personal failures is not a new phenomenon. As there is a long tradition, not least within the Christian societies, to blame the Jews for what is wrong, financially, morally, etc., this attitude easily comes to the surface, particularly in times when society is in turmoil. Jews, then, are seen as leading within the financial circles. Jews are responsible for moral depravation through films, music, theatre, etc. Jews are looked upon as responsible within society for the introduction of communism, for the collapse of Communism, for the hardships in a market economy, for enriching themselves at the misfortune of other people.

Russian participants reported that Jews are blamed for the iconoclastic movement, for Protestantism, liberalism and ecumenism. Extreme nationalist groups see the murder of the Tsar and his family as an example of ritual murder.

This kind of anti-Semitism is a poison to society and an evil growth that produces evil fruits: neo-Nazi ideas, xenophobia, violence such as the desecration of Jewish burial yards and threats to and even murder of people who speak publicly or work against the spread of anti-Semitic propaganda.

The theological anti-Judaism is another kind. It is of a more subtle kind and difficult to come to terms with. Anti-Semitism has its origin in the anti-Judaism that has its roots in the Christian faith tradition. As the Christian tradition has developed over the centuries, there are expressions and phrases in prayers, hymns and liturgical passages as well as in popular piety that has changed from this in-built tension between Jewish and Christian faith claims into a general anti-Jewishness that then again easily links to anti-Semitism. When churches are faced with questions regarding their liturgical praxes or theological thought-patterns, there are two ways of reacting. Either there is a defensive attitude, saying that this is part of the revealed truth and therefore not to be given up. Or, there is an awareness of the dangers to the faith and to the sobriety of the society in some of these traditional expressions and consequently a willingness to exchange them for more sound, biblical and healing wordings.

Historical research and proven facts

During a session with a historical perspective on anti-Semitism in Christian dominated areas in Eastern and Western Europe, it became even clearer that, although they are intertwined, it is necessary to make a distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.

The antagonism between Christian and Jewish truth claims is one thing, which can lead to and regrettably often leads to an anti-Jewish attitude. But it seems that it is when nationalist, ethnic and other societal concerns are mixed with a need for someone to blame, a scapegoat, that things easily develop into anti-Semitism in the sense that it is the Jew, as a Jew, who is a threat to the society and to societal order.

Also, it is important to realise different manifestations of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism from above and anti-Semitism from below. Before the disastrous events in Europe in the 20th century, particularly in its central and eastern parts, during the Nazi reign and the Holocaust, there was an anti-Semitism from above. Governments, politicians and public persons could use the Jews as scapegoats, blamed responsible for things that had gone wrong in terms of finance, moral or societal orders. After the Holocaust - governments, churches, political parties have made it a point to speak up against anti-Semitism in all its forms as an evil and a threat to society. Officially there is no defence for anti-Semitism.

What seems to be a breeding ground for new forms of anti-Semitic propaganda and actions is an anti-Semitism from below, from the streets in the form of wall scribbling, various types of popular publications and news papers. Surveys of the present situation in the countries around the Baltic Sea give the picture of a creeping anti-Semitism in underground circles, nurturing the idea that there is a 'plot' against the old good society. In such a strange plot there are several suspect components: The European Union, NATO, the Western world in general, etc. and among them often 'the Jews'.

In some of the countries on the eastern side of the Baltic there is a specific problem in that people do not know the Holocaust phenomenon as a historical event and fact. It has not been part of the curricula of the schools, the universities nor even in theological institutions. The truth is not revealed to those who ought to know. Therefore the link between anti-Semitism and the death camps is not known, nor the link to xenophobia in other directions than the Jews.

A specific problem in societies where there was, or is, a substantial Jewish population, one would easily point out that there were, or are, many Jews in the top Communist leadership, among the top bankers, leading artists, film producers, etc. In such a perspective, anti-Semitism is often an expression of envy.

Church documents

A session on church documents on anti-Semitism showed that many churches had tried to come to terms with their history in this respect and the history of their societies. The first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam declared that "anti-Semitism is a sin against God and man". The motifs for the statement might have been mixed1, but it stands as a starting point for hard work within many member churches on the relations to the Jewish people. The Roman Catholic Church, after having wrestled with its heritage, embarked upon a new relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people during the Second Vatican Council.

The document Nostra Aetate has been followed by several official writings explaining church teachings, stressing the particular relationship between Christians and Jews.

The Patriarch Alexis of Moscow in a speech in the United States took a clear stand against anti-Semitism, which gave a signal in the Orthodox context on the importance of the issue. The ecumenical bodies, the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation, have worked out substantial documents to be studied in the member churches. Thus there are documents and statements in which past mistakes and dangerous interpretations regarding the relationship between Christian and Jewish faith claims are pointed out and the way ahead to avoid stereotypes, general anti-Jewishness and anti-Semitism in particular is lined out. Several churches have applied such theological and historical insights to their own context in public documents, others are still working on a clarification of their stand, while some churches have not said anything in clear wording. Orthodox participants reminded the meeting that the Orthodox Church does not have a tradition of passing documents on any subject, let alone the subject of anti-Semitism.

For the sake of clarifying the Christian position, there was a strong wish among the participants that the churches of the Baltic region - in view of new threats of anti-Semitism - should be of service to their societies by stating publicly their stand in principle on anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic propaganda. As long as it seems unclear what the official line of a country is, the reputation of that country is at stake and the country as such and its citizens easily get a bad name. The churches, particularly so if they do it together in a given context, can take a lead and thereby not only reject open anti-Semitism but also the evils that follow in the wake of anti-Semitism such as caricatures of disliked neighbours, xenophobia in general, acts of violence towards minorities and an anthropology that sees "the image of God" only in people of one's own ethnic group, race, nation, etc. and not in "others".

Suggestions for the future

As for concrete suggestions the Warsaw meeting saw the following tasks and possibilities

  1. To emphasise the area of education, informing a new generation about what is at stake when anti-Semitism surfaces, providing knowledge about what has happened within the European context in relation to anti-Semitism, and particularly the Holocaust, which physically took place in the Baltic region.

  2. To link persons and groups within the region who are counteracting such ideologies and thought patterns which lead to and stimulate anti-Semitic acts and propaganda, and to encourage personal testimonies from inside the region, in order to avoid the impression of an imposition and interference from outside, from abroad.

  3. To search for ways to make books and substantial articles available in local languages and to support historians and theologians who can write on relevant themes from within their contexts.

  4. To encourage an inter-Christian wrestling with the problem of anti-Semitism, as it is manifested within official or semi-official circles or in the margins of the Christian faith tradition, and to explore certain themes that might provide an opening, for example the theme of suffering in Jewish, Christian and general humanistic thinking.

  5. To support and, whenever possible, participate in the reflection and study process on the issue of Jewish-Christian relations - historical and actual - that has begun in Latvia and to encourage an attempt to gather those who are involved in church education in St Petersburg for an ecumenical reflection process of the same kind.

  6. To contact those who are responsible for web sites on the Internet for Christian-Jewish relations to ensure that there are references through links from anti-Semitic entries on the net to sound and scientifically researched material on their own web sites.

  7. To explore the possibility to connect centres, places and key persons within the Baltic area for a joint study, preferably inter-confessional, on old and new forms of anti-Semitism and their effect on the political and spiritual climate and on the basic value systems of the societies around the Baltic Sea.
  1. The statement is to be found in the chapter Barriers to Overcome, dealing with issues how Christian mission to the Jews can be more effective.

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