(Not Whiteness) Christianity is at the Root of Anti-Semitism in America

american crucifix


After Pittsburgh and Poway, it was almost comforting to be able to identify the political and racial identity of white anti-Semitism. We knew, more or less, where it was coming from and recognized the motivating ideologies. Now many of us are less secure about that after the attacks in Jersey City and then Monsey and the attention these drew to the ongoing harassment of hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, predominantly by people from communities of color. About this, because the appearance of these facts, largely not understood, does not always conform to a clear political agenda, liberal and progressive gentiles, white and black, have been largely silent. Already very nervous, American Jews are now very, very nervous and on edge. It’s not an unfair question to ask. Where is this coming from? As a socially distributed form, violent and lethal anti-Semitism seems to be truly ambient and everywhere.

A number of analyses from the anti-Zionist Jewish progressive/radical left about anti-Semitism are structured around whiteness, i.e. primarily the whiteness of rightwing ethno-nationalists in relation to Jews, and then the whiteness of white Jews in relation to POC, including Jews of Color caught at a uniquely terrible intersection. According to this point of view, white supremacism is, in this country, the primary cause of anti-Semitism and of anti-black racism and Islamophobia; mainline Jews are deeply implicated in American whiteness; and Zionism is racism. The solution going forward is to recognize that Jews and POC are “natural allies”; police-securitization of the problem only undermines this alliance; and that social justice, political revolution, and solidarity with communities of color are the only answer to the problem.

The primary line of this argument about the deep common root of anti-Semitism and white supremacism is, effectively, the exact reverse of the titular line of critical thought in the classic 1967  thesis penned by James Baldwin. Addressing two different sources of anti-Semitism, the argument being made today on the progressive/radical left that Americans Are Anti-Semitic Because of White Supremacy mirrors Baldwin’s claim that “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” However and in that the left-analysis ignores another constituent feature of American culture, it lacks Baldwin’s critical nuance while missing the key point of Jewish difference in the western tradition, which has little to nothing to do with race per se.

While white supremacism and anti-whiteness are deep factors contributing to the expression of contemporary anti-Semitism in the United States, it’s also the case that Americans’ aren’t anti-Semitic because of whiteness.

Americans are anti-Semitic because of Christianity.

By “Christianity” I mean here (only and narrowly in relation to Judaism) a two thousand year hegemonic structure of thought and feeling that has dominated European cultures, an assemblage of historically sedimented habits that, over time, cut across class and race and that predispose people to look at Jewish things in a negative light, more or less utterly and before they are even aware of it.

About this too, Baldwin has much to say, although this part of his analysis often goes overshadowed by the claim about anti-whiteness in the African American community.

I’m identifying three lines of thought that distinguish Baldwin’s analysis of anti-Semitism and the particular form coming out of the African American community at the time he penned it.

[1] The first line of thought is that African Americans are anti-Semitic because they are anti-white, because Jews have become white and do nothing to distinguish themselves from other Americans of European ancestry. Embedded into the rhetorically provocative title, this is the line of thought that has dominated the reception of Baldwin’s essay. It is the line of thought that gets picked up and mimicked by the radical/progressive Jewish left today. Less commented upon is how this first line of thought leads to the next.

[2] Baldwin positions American whiteness not simply on its own and as itself, but in relation to Christianity. In a probably unintended inversion of the argument made by Marx about the relation between Christian capitalism and Judaism, Baldwin writes, “In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man–for having become, in effect, a Christian.” For Marx, it was the Judaism of capitalism that was supposed to scandalize his gentile readers, whereas for Baldwin, it was the Christianness of Jewish social privilege that was meant to shock his Jewish and Christian readers.

[3] While writing about black anti-whiteness in relation to anti-Semitism, Baldwin knew better about something that was once commonly understood by both Jews and gentile and that has been forgotten across the entire political spectrum. A still impolite and impolitic thing to say is the recognition recognized by Baldwin that Christianity “[controls] the American drama,” that anti-Semitism is a “devastating” Christian “vice,” that “the crisis taking place….is not produced by the star of David, but by the old, rugged Roman cross.”

Perhaps the sudden appearance of the swastika in public life today takes our eye off that rugged Roman cross. The swastika allows us to forget about Christian religion and the intersection between Christian religion and American culture, including the soft or hard bigotry that sees in the Jew some thing either beneath contempt and not worthy of attention or the immediate cause of “our misfortune.”

In relation to anti-Semitism, whiteness and blackness are mainly beside the point. To focus only on these, first, in the assessment of the appearance of white ethno-nationalism, anti-blackness, and, then, on the assessment of white anti-Semitism and black anti-Semitism in relation to the rise of Trump is to miss something important about America and the violence of its culture. Regarding the particular form of anti-Semitism, historically a more minor but suddenly lethal prejudice in this country, a good place to look is at the variegated points of difference between Jews and Judaism in relation to Christianity and Christians.

The  problem is not Christianity as such. There are many, many Christians who are not anti-Semitic and who recognize the problem of anti-Judaism in their own tradition. And there is much more to Christianity than its relation to Jews and Judaism. But Christianity is there at the root of the original social prejudice and stigma that first creates the difference between Jews and gentiles, setting up and permeating the entire cultural milieu which all of us inhabit together in the United States after genocide in Europe.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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7 Responses to (Not Whiteness) Christianity is at the Root of Anti-Semitism in America

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m not sure, though, that one can draw such a neat line between Whiteness and Christianity– Whiteness, of course, being a made-up concept used, in tandem with various iterations and articulations of Christianity, to justify the enslavement and torture of African people. You’re certainly right that American Whiteness was not invented with Jews in mind, but the entanglement of American Whiteness and American/European Christian Hegemony strikes me as too dense to neatly parse the two and claim that American antisemitism is not partly a result of the American ideology of Whiteness. But I think you are right in pointing out that a focus on Whiteness alone, without an analysis of the legacy of Christian Hegemony, is going to be lacking and flimsy. Curious to hear you thoughts.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, moriel. the point, or part of it, is only that antisemitism crosses the color line and that a focus on whiteness loses the focus on christianity basic to this particular animus and domination in relation to jews and judaism; i’m not making any claims re: the entanglements of christianity, whiteness, and blackness, which is its own can of worms

  2. dmf says:

    been running into the unacknowledged supersessionism of far lefty protestants who read Jesus’ heresies back into the scriptures to make themselves the faithful keepers of the ancient truths and Jews (past and present) who deny Jesus’ Universalism a people blinkered by their self-serving tribalism who had Christ killed to maintain their God’s chosen people monopoly/grift…


  3. dmf says:

    Alan Montefiore and Stephen Mulhall on faith commitments and conflicts

  4. LDK says:

    Good post, thanks for writing it. I teach at a Christian seminary. My colleagues all know that anti-Judaism is part of the New Testament narrative. They respond in different ways — all helpful, I think — based on their denomination and teaching area. One provides historical and hermeneutic context to soften it. Another teaches: learn now NOT to be anti-semitic in the present. Another teaches students to accept that the whole world will never be Christian.

    • zjb says:

      it may probably be the case that people at Christian seminaries are better able to identify it, as opposed to a generality of people who simply absorb prejudices without even knowing that that’s what going on.

      • dmf says:

        be better if they presented it as a kind of Kierkegaardian leap of faith made in genuine fear and trembling that the costs of supersessionism have some kind of afterlife payoff while acknowledging that they may be making a tragic error with real world implications…

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