As she cleans up the counter where the teenagers at her church’s Vacation Bible School ate their cookies and yoghurt, Luba Yanko complains about the state of the country. President Donald Trump is trying to act on Christian values, she believes. But from what she reads online, it seems that a certain group keeps getting in the way.
Trump, she says, “is surrounded by a Zionist environment with completely different values from Christians. It’s kabbalist. It’s Talmudic values. Not the word of God.”
In other words: It’s the Jews’ fault.
“Why do we have pro-abortion, pro-LGBTQ values, and we do not have more freedom to protect our faith? We are persecuted now,” Yanko says about evangelical Christians like herself. “[Jews] say, ‘We’ve got America. We control America.’ That’s what I know.”
It’s an anti-Semitic viewpoint shared by a number of evangelical Christians across the country. The relationship between Christians and Jews has been fraught for almost 2,000 years since the death of Jesus. Today, with a president who levels accusations about Jews and who encourages his fans to mistrust the mainstream media, a growing number of evangelicals are turning to the Internet for information, and finding anti-Jewish beliefs there.
Christians take their cues for what to think about Jews from many sources: From the long history of evangelicals’ support for the state of Israel. From fiery pastors who decry Jewish influence in their YouTube videos. From Trump, who this week declared that Jews who vote for Democrats – meaning more than 70 percent of all Jews in the United States – are “disloyal.”
In churches across America, evangelicals say they don’t believe they can get unbiased facts from any traditional news outlet that Trump has branded “fake news” (though many are fans of Fox News, and also watch other TV networks and read major news websites). Instead, they seek news from alternative websites and videos.
Pastors are aware of the conspiracy theories floating among their congregants, including a small number of virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic beliefs that some Christians interviewed by The Washington Postthis summer professed.
But leaders are often unwilling to address these beliefs head-on. After a churchgoing evangelical Christian killed a Jewish woman at a synagogue in Poway, California, earlier this year – an act he prefaced with a manifesto including both anti-Semitic tropes from the Internet, and Christian theology from church – some pastors called for a national conversation about how evangelical pastors can make clear that such beliefs aren’t acceptable in their pews.
That doesn’t sit well with many evangelical pastors’ insistence that their job is to preach the Bible, not stray into current events.
At Christian Life Centre, the evangelical church north of Philadelphia where Yanko, a housekeeper, espoused anti-Semitism at the snack counter, lead pastor Mark English was unruffled to hear about Yanko’s statements.
“I’m not in government. It would be like me trying to understand the insurance business,” he said, when asked about Yanko’s allegation that Jews control the government. “The government is so complex – I don’t think that any one group controls everything.”
He felt no need to address his congregant’s anti-Semitic beliefs, either one-on-one or from the pulpit.
Historically, evangelicals have thought of themselves as very good friends of the Jews, not as anti-Semites. The two faiths share the Old Testament – known to Jews as the Hebrew Bible – and share basic watchwords of tolerance like loving your neighbour as yourself. Evangelicals often think fondly of Jews as their religious forebears – after all, Christ’s early followers were Jews of 2,000 years ago – even if they think Jews are missing the crucial Jesus part of the story.
And evangelicals tend to fiercely defend and embrace the state of Israel, a Jewish nation, because of its central role in their own faith. The nation is the site of numerous Christian holy spots, including the places where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Certain interpretations of Revelation say that Jewish presence in Israel is important for Christians, because it will take the homecoming of Jews to the land of Israel to bring about the return of the Messiah.
But Christian theology has also gone hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism for centuries, dating back long before Martin Luther. To this day, some Christians commonly believe that the Jews killed Jesus, and modern Jews should bear the guilt.
“There are plenty of evangelicals who have views about Jewish power, who assume Jews are controlling things. Jerry Falwell joked about how Jews could make more money,” said Daniel Hummel, a historian at a Christian study center at the University of Wisconsin who recently published a book about evangelicals and Jews.
Hummel described the deep-rooted anti-Semitic beliefs among some evangelicals as both cultural and theological, with the cultural beliefs coming from their conservative neighbours and the theological beliefs dating back to early Christianity, when Christians first started casting themselves as the new chosen people replacing the Jews.
“Some associations in certain conservative areas, with Jews being liberal, cosmopolitan, international and that being a threat to American Christian identity: You’re going to find those views, weirdly, right alongside expressing support for Israel,” Hummel said. “Someone like that would be vaguely or even strongly anti-Semitic, but also pro-Israel.”
And politically, evangelicals find themselves sharing common cause with right-wing anti-Semites. They might have little else in common, but both groups are enthusiastic supporters of President Donald Trump. And Trump, who strives to court that evangelical fandom, has flirted with anti-Semitism before this week. During his campaign, he retweeted and defended an image from a white supremacist website, showing Hillary Clinton’s face over a pile of money and a six-pointed Jewish star. He famously said that the demonstrators who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, included “very fine people.”
Deborah Lipstadt, a historian who is one of the foremost researchers on anti-Semitism, said she has noticed that politically conservative talking points echo the language common to anti-Semites much more often. She pointed to Sen. Josh Hawley’s speech at the National Conservatism Conference, in which he used the word “cosmopolitan” 12 times.
“This class lives in the United States, but they identify as ‘citizens of the world.’ They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community,” said Hawley, R-Mo., ,referring not to Jews but to liberal elites.
The Washington Post