(RNS) I have a Jewish friend. She’s great, smart, and it’s fun to swap stories with her about our kids and the challenges they pose.
Having a Jewish friend, however, does not inoculate me against prejudice.
Unfortunately, as a very flawed human being, I can still fall into discriminatory beliefs and behaviors. I wish that weren’t the case, but I know it is. So, I have to work at overcoming the biases with which I was raised, to try to be the man I want to be.
This issue has followed President Trump and his relationship with those of the Jewish faith. He has repeatedly beaten up anyone questioning him about anti-Semitism, displaying indignant fury as though his daughter’s conversion to Judaism and his son-in-law’s Judaism weren’t enough to quell the issue.
But the president’s family members are not unlike me having a Jewish friend. Their importance does not make it impossible for us to be anti-Semitic.
Any thoughtful person will recognize that it’s possible to be prejudiced against a class of people while allowing a certain few to have the privilege of one’s company and trust. For these people, the trusted few are “different” from the rest, and thus they are worthy of confidence that should not be “wasted on the others.”
To be clear, Trump has only the man in the mirror to blame for questions about his relationships with the Jewish people. It was Trump who issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, which somehow failed to mention Jews.
When Jake Turx, an Orthodox Jewish reporter for Ami Magazine, tried to ask Trump about his response to bomb threats against Jewish sites on Feb. 16, Trump took umbrage at the suggestion and refused to let him finish his question, calling himself “the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your life.”
David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, wrote an open letter to the president that day, pleading with him to use the power of his office to make clear to all Americans that hatred of Jews was beyond the pale. Trump’s often strange silences brought him to this moment.
I don’t know Trump personally. I’m willing to entertain the notion that he’s not anti-Semitic. But if he’s not, then it’s time for him to use more than words to express his feelings. It’s time he started acting truly Christian.
He has made a great deal of America being a Christian country and has said that under his administration “Christianity is allowed again.”(Historical and theological note: It wasn’t founded as a Christian country, and to call it so is idolatrous. But I digress.)
Change will not be easy.
There’s a long history of Christian anti-Semitism that has been as virulent a scourge to the Jewish people as any other in their religious and national saga.
Christians attacked Jews in pogroms in towns across medieval Europe; Christians placed Jews in ghettos and passed laws banning Jews from their nations. Many of those who participated in the Third Reich’s genocidal atrocities were Christians, and many of those who are threatening Jews in America today call themselves Christian.
The Bible demands otherwise.
Paul wrote to the church at Rome that God had not rejected the Jews and that all Israel would be saved. Even if Christians wrongly saw Jews as their enemies, their living God had commanded them to love their enemies!
The New Testament could not be clearer: Christians cannot attack Jews without rejecting the commandment of their God.
The Roman Catholic Church in its document “Nostra Aetate” (or “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions”) directed Christians to have a mutual understanding and respect for Jews. It decried persecution, hatred, and any display of anti-Semitism.
Protestant denominations regularly teach similar doctrine. The Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination to which Trump is most frequently linked, stated as early as 1987, in its official “Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews,” that the church in its own identity is intimately related to the continuing identity of the Jewish people, and that Christians must show a willingness to ponder with Jews the mystery of God’s election of both Jews and Christians to be a light to the nations.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is Monday (April 24). Trump must remember the words of Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor who served under the Nazi regime, and who lamented his failure to act early during the Third Reich.
He wrote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
He survived the war in a German concentration camp, and served after the war as a voice of repentance.
This is your chance, Mr. President. Many are waiting for your moral leadership on this question, and you have proven that your example can and will be taken seriously. Take this opportunity to act as a Christian, and forcefully decry any attacks on Jews or any other religion as un-Christian, un-American, and unworthy of the bonds we strive to strengthen as we seek to form a more perfect union for this generation and all those to come.
(R. Ward Holder is professor of theology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and an ordained Presbyterian minister)