Weekly Update: Has the church really learned from the Holocaust?

28 January 2021

This week there are many ceremonies around the world to remember the Holocaust. Many Christians will say “Never Again”.

But have we really learned from the Holocaust?

Only a generation ago, Nazi Germany and its allies almost succeeded in wiping out European Jewry, on the soil of Christian nations. At the same time as the gas chambers and ovens were operating at full speed in Poland, the British were preventing Jews from entering Palestine.

The world community – including the church – turned its eyes away from this unfolding tragedy in their midst.

The post-war period was no better. Anyone familiar with the UN Charter negotiations in 1945 and the Paris peace negotiations in 1946-7 knows that time and again there was no place for the Jewish people. Britain continued to restrict Jewish immigration into Palestine. It is a miracle the Jewish State emerged in 1948. When Arab armies attacked the new Jewish State, the UN was nowhere to be found.

In the decades after WWII tens of thousands of Jews died in displaced persons camps, were killed in pogroms in Eastern Europe or perished in the Soviet Gulag.

Today, anti-Semitism in the West is on the rise. Jews who want to live in their ancestral homeland are called “war criminals”. Most official church denominations condemn Jews who live in the Old City of Jerusalem, Hebron or Shiloh as “illegal settlers”.

So, have we really learned from the Holocaust?

Recent research shows just how complicit the church has been in the construction of the post-war “human rights” system that today is used to condemn the Jewish nation, and tell Jews where they may, and may not, live. It all sounds so terribly familiar.

James Loeffler, Professor of Jewish History at the University of Virginia, has written a fascinating book (Rooted Cosmopolitans) about the role of prominent Jewish lawyers in the development of the human rights movement in the 20th century. In doing so, he notes that Christians, too, played a significant role in the creation of this modern quasi-religious anti-Semitic system.

In a recent interview, Loeffler made these comments. We do well to take them to heart.

Why do human rights advocates care so much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? After all, there are plenty of other conflict zones and repressive regimes which far surpass Israel in terms of human rights violations and mass deaths. Why focus on a particular place, a specific problem? To answer that, we must seek an additional explanation.

In my book, I stress a subtle trend that no one else has noticed. It began in the 1960s, and relates to what we might call the political theology of human rights. The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extrascrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

If Loeffler is right (and, sadly, he is), then no: we have not learned from the Holocaust.

We – the church – still have a lot of repenting to do.

The Editorial team
Israel & Christians Today


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