October 19, 2018

That All May Be One / Fr. Rick Ginther

Religious misconceptions are rooted in ignorance, half-truths

Fr. Rick Ginther(This column is the first in a two-part series.)

There seem to be a growing number of “isms” and “phobias” in our world today. Many are based in ideologies. They are often “anti” something, someone or some group.

One of the more virulent ones today is “Islamophobia.” This is a fear of any and all things rooted in Islam. As all “phobias,” it is rooted in misconception, half-truths, faulty facts and ignorance.

I know what that is like. I grew up in a predominately Protestant neighborhood in Indianapolis. My family was a part of the Catholic minority. Indianapolis had a reputation of being anti-Catholic—we were the home of the Ku Klux Klan and the Know-Nothings. We experienced the lingering effects in the 1950s and 1960s.

I was reminded of this recently as I sat at a symposium on anti-Semitism. The day was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.

Anti-Semitism is an “ism.” It is more than 2,000 years old. But it was only coined as such in the late 19th century by German Wilhelm Marrs. Like Islamophobia or anti-Catholicism, it is fraught with misconception, half-truths, faulty facts and ignorance.

For centuries, Jews have been demonized, even to the point of being depicted in art as devils. Some of the early Church fathers insisted Jews were in concert with evil.

By the medieval period (when Church and State were inextricably bound), limits were imposed upon Jews by the Church as to what they could do for a living, what they should wear, the style of their hat. They were “other,” or marginalized.

A stereotype of “the usurer” was created, portraying the Jew to be a rapacious profiteer who amassed money at the expense of the common people. This stereotype would find expression in Shakespeare’s 17th century work “The Merchant of Venice,” and again in anti‑Semitic writings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Jews were accused of “ritual murders” and were executed. They were said to be the cause of the Black Death in the mid‑14th century. Three-quarters of Jews in Western Europe were expelled between the 13th and 17th centuries to Eastern Europe.

Is Christianity the creator or cause of anti-Semitism? History bears out that in part.

But official Church teaching and popular caricatures were often at odds.

And by the end of the 17th century, Jews began to return to Western Europe with the blessing of the Church and the removal by governments of past exclusions. Violence against Jews markedly dropped. They slowly became more of the fabric of society.

Caricatures, however, persisted. By the second half of the 19th century, the rise of nationalism in Europe took hold. Jews were said to be incapable of being good Germans. They were demonized as “other,” accused of causing economic hardships, or of working to overthrow the government.

The Dreyfus Affair in France (1884‑1906) was a prime example of fear of Jews being traitors, incapable of being French. After Monsieur Dreyfus was shown to be innocent, negative suspicions and throughs persisted toward Jews.

The mass emigration of 3 million Jews from Russian persecution (1880‑1914) swelled Western Europe’s Jewish population. Of these Jews, 1.5 million subsequently emigrated to the United States. The visible presence of so many Eastern European Jews was menacing.

And when World War I erupted into years of loss of life, untold cost, and fear that a few had profited from the war, the popular mindset once again chose the Jews as the cause, the scapegoat.

(Father Rick Ginther is director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism. He is also pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis.)

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