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The House-Endorsed Definition of Antisemitism Provokes a Rift with Christianity

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Above: American politicians march against antisemitism on November 14, 2023. Image credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP.

When the House of Representatives voted 320 to 91 last week in support of the Antisemitism Awareness Act, with only 21 Republicans opposing the bill, the dumbfounded reaction of conservative commentators shows that they didn’t listen carefully to Candace Owens’ recent interview with Rabbi Michael Barclay. The interview precipitated Owens’ divorce from the Daily Wire and unleashed a firestorm on social media. Barclay’s comments, and the online brouhaha that followed, reveal an uncomfortable truth about the conceptualization of antisemitism and its alleged link with Christianity. Getting your head around this is essential for understanding the disastrous bill that just sailed through the lower house.

(For non-Americans, let me explain: the proposed law now heads to the Senate to be voted upon, before it can be signed into law by the President.)

H.R. 6090 seeks to expand the definition of antisemitism in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to include the working definition created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and adopted by the U.S. Department of State. The bill is widely regarded as a response to the intensifying college protests against Israel’s war in Gaza following Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel on October 7.

The bill falls short on three fronts. Firstly, outsourcing definitions to third party NGOs for the purposes of investigating civil rights violations is an abrogation of the legislative responsibility vested in the U.S. Congress. Secondly, all but one of the examples of antisemitism provided by the IHRA amount to thought crime or speech-I-don’t-like, thereby imposing Soviet-style speech control.

Yet by far the most problematic aspect of the bill is that it embraces the IHRA’s statement about “classic antisemitism,” which lumps “symbols and images” about “claims of Jews killing Jesus” with “blood libel.” There is no distinction between the historical claims of the New Testament with any other claim about Jews and the death of Christ.

Ergo, the Bible, the inerrant and divinely inspired word of God, which clearly states in multiple verses throughout the New Testament that Jesus – a Jew – was handed over to the Gentiles by the Jews to be crucified (Jn. 19:6), is easily reduced to an antisemitic trope. St. Peter, a Jew, who on the first Pentecost exhorted the House of Israel to “know most certainly, that God hath made both Lord and Christ, this same Jesus, whom you have crucified (Acts 2:36),” becomes a hateful bigot. The same goes for St. Paul – another Jew! – who says the same thing (I Thess. 2:15).[1] This smear has just been endorsed by Republicans like House Speaker Mike Johnson R-La, Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik R-N.Y., House Majority Leader Steve Scalise R-La, and Jim Jordan R-OH. Every Republican in the states of Arkansas, Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Utah approved this bill. 

The objective here is not to prohibit wrongful conduct arising from what some regard as the false claim or myth that the death of Christ occurred at the hands of the Jews; the goal is to censor the very expression of that belief. The Bible – or more specifically, the Christian faith – isn’t collateral damage. It’s the target.

Those who believe that this was simply an overreaction, and that well-intentioned Republicans just got carried away trying to deal with the “River to the Sea” rabble rousers on college campuses and “legislate hatred away,” haven’t been paying attention. In March, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, an erstwhile vice presidential hopeful, signed into law a bill that codifies the IHRA’s working definition. Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, also floated as a potential Trump running mate, and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp have both signed into law bills endorsing the IHRA definition. Similar bills are pending in Florida and other states.

Last month South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, another VP favorite, introduced a bill into the Senate that would require the US Department of Education to apply the IHRA definition during Title VI investigations. He introduced a similar bipartisan bill in 2016 but it was ultimately killed in House Committee hearings. In 2019, President Trump signed executive order 13899 on combating antisemitism, which requires agencies charged with enforcing Title VI to take into account the IHRA’s definition.

Evidently this wasn’t some knee-jerk reaction. So where does the impetus for targeting Christian doctrine come from? Here’s where Owens’ interview with Barclay is so illuminating. Barclay was invited as a guest on Owens’ show to clarify accusations he had leveled against her in a since retracted op-ed for PJ Media. Within the opening minutes of the discussion, in which Barclay delves into a 2000-year history of the evolution of antisemitism, Barclay suggests that the early 5th century Latin vulgate and its translator St. Jerome, have been some of the most potent contributors to antisemitism over the past two millennia. 

After the early Church officially compiled the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels and the epistles into a single canon in 382 A.D., Pope Damasus encouraged Jerome to embark on a new Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome, painstakingly relying on original Hebrew and Greek texts and earlier Latin translations, dutifully produced the Vulgate. It was officially declared the Roman Catholic Bible at the Council of Trent and remained so (in its updated Clementine edition) until the publication of the Nova Vulgata in the 20th century. 

Barclay’s beef with the Vulgate and St. Jerome – whom he accused of intentional and mischievous mistranslation – is based on an absurd conspiracy theory. Barclay suggests that Jerome’s use of the word horned (cornuta in Latin) to describe the light emanating from Moses’ head after he descended from Mount Sinai holding the two stone tablets on which God’s Law was engraved (Ex. 34:29), was actually a covert dog whistle for early-Church, anti-Jewish bigots who understood from the translation that Jews secretly have horns and are therefore under the influence of the demonic.

It’s not clear how prevalent the Horned Moses theory is among Jewish scholars. What does enjoy widespread support, is the view that the historical origins of antisemitism are rooted in Christianity itself, with revered apostles, saints and doctors of the church like Jerome but also St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin, St. John Chrysostom, and even St. Augustine, among the supposed ring-leaders.

Last week The New York Times, citing the Anti-Defamation League, labeled “the assertion that Jews killed Jesus an antisemitic myth that has been used to justify violence against Jews for centuries.” Earlier this year, Professor Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law Professor writing for Time Magazine stated that “scholars agree that what we call antisemitism today has its historical origins in a strain of anti-Jewish thought that grew out of early Christianity.” 

Just a few years ago, The Times of Israel accused the Church of being the originator of antisemitic hatred. It denounced “the vast majority of Church Fathers” as promoting “flawed doctrine” and claimed that “the road to Auschwitz was … traced by [these] early Christian pioneers of anti-Semitism.” The Conversation commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and the Second World War by attributing the “animus towards Jews” to the “early Christians’ hostility towards their parent religion for refusing to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.” 

The Jerusalem Post went even further, claiming that “the roots of future anti-Judaism were noted in several of Paul’s epistles,” and that the Gospels of Matthew and John “[provided] inspiration for centuries of anti-Jewish persecution, resulting in the murders of millions of Jews long before the 20th century and the Holocaust.”

This poses a dilemma. If one believes that antisemitism is, as Barclay calls it, a unique kind of hate, that it is rooted in the early Church, and that the historical claim that Jesus was killed by Jews constitutes classic antisemitism, the only solution is for Sacred Scripture and Tradition to be reimagined, revised, or outright rejected. 

The rhetorical, ideological, and theological tension underpinning the Antisemitism Awareness Act has been building long before the pro-Hamas protests; it pierces the heart of the foundations of Christianity itself. House representatives have proposed a solution that would throw their Christian constituents – and the Catholic faith – under the bus. Now U.S. Senators must indicate to their respective states whether they’ll follow suit.

[1] Editor’s note: whatever one might think of the hazardous ambiguities in Nostra Aetate, the summary sentence in no. 4 accurately represents what the Scripture says: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” The death of Christ was an inter-Jewish conflict, when the King of the Jews was killed by the Romans under pressure from many of the Jewish leaders, who opposed His Jewish followers, some of whom were among the Sanhedrin. Yet more important than this is the traditional doctrine contained in the Roman Catechism (“The Creed,” art. 4) that sinful Christians today are “more guilty” for the death of Christ than the anti-Christian Jews were at that time.

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