Columns Culture Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Good Jews and Bad Jews

"Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur," by Maurycy Gottlieb, from 1878. Photo by Avraham Hai, courtesy of Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Gift of Sidney Lamon, New York, 1955

Earlier this month, Louis Farrakhan, denying that he hated Jews, told an audience at a Catholic Church  in Chicago that he was “here to separate the good Jews from the satanic Jews.”

If that seems peculiar, consider the likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who vilifies George Soros in classic anti-Semitic fashion even as he makes trips to the Western Wall and embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Or Jeremy Corbyn and others on the left, who denounce Zionism as racism even as they foreswear anti-Semitism and valorize the Jews who support them.

Not that there’s anything new under this sun.

In the 1930s, the demagogic Catholic priest Charles Coughlin liked to direct his radio addresses to “Catholics, Protestants, and religious Jews.” The bad Jews were, in his mind, the irreligious—the cosmopolitan. But there were also those, beginning in the Enlightenment, for whom the good Jews were the ones who had emancipated themselves from religious shackles. Similarly, for every person who condemned the Capitalist Jew and celebrated the Communist, there was someone else who did the opposite.

So while it is easy enough to identify simple hostility to a group based on race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality, there’s something distinctive about the way non-Jews—gentiles—divide us into the good and the bad. Why do they do that?

The practice, I suggest, derives from the New Testament, and is ultimately rooted in the Torah itself. In his Letter to the Romans (11:1-5), Paul writes:

I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.

Paul is quoting here from the first book of Kings, identifying the Jews who follow Christ with the Jews who, because they did not commit idolatry, were saved by God during the time of the prophet Elijah. But the earliest example of such a separating of Jewish sheep from Jewish goats comes in Exodus 32, when the Levites, at Moses’ command, kill 3,000 Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf.

To be sure, there’s a Christian tradition that wants no part of the positive side of the ambivalence. In the Gospel of John, the Jews are simply the villains, and the image of them as beyond redemption can be traced from the end of the Middle Ages. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, “purity of blood”—as opposed to baptism—began to be seen as the criterion of acceptance in society at large. Nazi Germany marked the apogee of such genetically determined anti-Semitism.

After the Holocaust, anti-Semitism of all kinds was pushed into the world’s dark corners. Now the primordial good Jew/bad Jew dichotomy has reasserted itself. It’s not a step forward.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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