Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dr. Neil J. Kressel's Response to Christianity, Antisemitism, Poles and Jews

Ivy Tashlik Sutterstock. Source
Recently I talked about Polish-Jewish relations at WPUNJ. A previous blog post includes a link to the talk on youtube. You can see that blog post here.

Dr. Neil J. Kressel attended the talk. He mentioned Christianity, the Catholic Church, popes and saints as possible causes of antisemitism. I responded in the blog post linked above.

Dr. Kressel responded with the post, below, which he permitted me to post here. Dr. Kressel is the author of Sons of Apes and Pigs.

Neil Kressel

Dr. Kressel's response, below:

I will try later to respond to in more detail to specific points raised in your response, but I would start by noting that (in my comments and your response) we are talking about a number of fairly distinct questions.

1) What was the role of the Christianity in general and the Catholic church in particular in creating, structuring, sustaining, and justifying hostility toward Jews in various historical periods?

2) What role have the various Christian denominations played in recent times in combatting antisemitism?

3) What were the preponderant Polish modes of interaction with the Jews in various historical periods? How did Polish treatment of the Jews at various times compare with treatment of the Jews by other Christian and non-Christian countries?

4) How did various Polish leaders and parts of the population typically interact with Jews during the past century or so? How did Poles react to Nazi antisemitism? How did Poles typically treat the survivors of the Holocaust and their property?

5) How important are economic and political forces in explaining the history of Polish-Jewish interactions?

6) How do Poles currently think about the Jews and interact with the Jews? (For perspective here, I might refer you a recent global ADL poll of 100 nations which places Poles in the middle – not nearly so antisemitic as many other countries but more so than Americans, British and a few others. )

7) How do most Jews and Jewish scholars think and act toward Poles? How do they think about Polish history?

8) How do Americans in general think about Poles?

9) What were the distal and proximal causes of Nazism and Nazi antisemitic policy? Does Christianity bear any responsibility for creating the conditions that made people responsive to, or accepting, of Nazi antisemitism?

10) What were Jewish attitudes toward Christians and other non-Jews in various historical periods? To what extent is negativity in these attitudes a product of the Jewish religious tradition, to what extent was it a reflection of natural preferences for the in-group, and to what extent was it reaction to discrimination?

11) To what extent is pre-Christian hostility toward Jews part of the same phenomenon that later becomes known as antisemitism?

12) How does Christianity compare with Islam as a source of anti-Jewish sentiment? To what extent did anti-Jewish ideas in these civilizations develop independently?

13) What role has the Old Testament played in building dysfunctional behavior patterns and belief systems?

14) What role have Jewish theologians played in building dysfunctional behavior patterns and belief systems?

15) How has Israel conducted itself? Where do Israeli actions originate? How does Israeli behavior compare with the behavior of other states confronted by similar circumstances?

Needless to say, it could take a lifetime to explore these questions, and I am open to your perspectives on all of them. I suspect that answers vary greatly by era. I won’t shoot references back at you, but I might start by saying that I think there were certainly some positive aspects to Polish-Jewish interactions – especially in comparison with relations in other nearby Christian states.

But the situation was far from rosy. I also think that you seriously understate the pervasiveness, depth, significance, and moral responsibility of Christianity in making antisemitism into one of mankind’s longest hatreds. In different periods, all sorts of sociopolitical causes were relevant. However – without Christian hostility – things would have been very different and Jew-hatred would never have become the obsession it was, and remains, for Western civilization.

I also think that you may understate the impact of twentieth century antisemitism in Poland as a source of the attitudes of many contemporary Jews toward Poles. Some, like my mother-in-law are still reacting to actual thefts of property and the loss of their homes. While this does not justify generalized attitudes toward Poles (and I don’t think she has them), it is hard to come away from such circumstances with an altogether positive impression.

A common attitude Jews have is “Thank God we got away from that place; our ancestors always were second-class citizens and half the time lived in fear. Thank God we are in America.”

Having said this, I also think that many Jews do not adequately separate crimes committed by German Nazis in Poland from Poland itself. They also may lack perspective on the pre-Nazi period. Many think of the Nazi death camps in Poland as the worst places on earth – without realizing that people now live near these places who played no part in the genocide and may themselves be the descendants of victims. (I think this point needs to be made to Jewish youth groups; I do not know whether it is but I will try to find out.)

I also agree that there is considerable anti-Polish stereotyping in America – including among some American Jews – and that this type of bigotry (like a number of other types) seems to have escaped the attention of the anti-racist community. I detect somewhat less of this now than I did growing up.

Finally, I might point out that I am no enemy of the Catholic Church and – in recent years – have frequently found myself respectful of Catholic institutions. I am a great fan of the fiction and nonfiction of the late Father Andrew Greeley. But he and many current American Catholic leaders agree with my perspective on Church history.

In any case, I detect a great deal of good will in your work and I look forward to reading more of it.


Neil Kressel


  1. Poet Jim Valvis sends this in:

    I see no evidence in history for the idea that Christianity is responsible for anti-Semitism. The Egyptians enslaved the Jews a thousand or so years before Christ. The Romans razed the Jewish temple to the ground and basically tried to eliminate them as a race. Muhammad specifically attacked Jewish caravans and to this day Muslims are the most obnoxiously antis-Semitic people in the world. Atheist and neo-pagan regimes treated Jews horribly, including the Holocaust. Even today, the much more secular Europe (to include Poland) and with its abysmal history is by all measures more anti-Semitic than the far more Christian America.

    If anything, with the possibly exception of Germany and its twin unfortunate influences of Luther and Nietzsche, Christianity has been a drag on the anti-Semetic urges-- for Christianity is a drag on all of man's fallen urges, like hate.

  2. I appreciate Dr. Kressel's points, 10, 13, and 14. These tacitly acknowledge some Jewish responsibility for past antagonisms against Jews.

    However, I wonder whether traditional Christian teachings about Jews, or the concept of Jews as Chosen, played a greater role in the generation of anti-Semitism.

    Although Jewish Chosenness is usually framed in terms of Jews having extra obligations to God, it does in fact have unmistakable connotations of Jewish privilege and Jewish supremacy.

    I have recently explored Jewish Chosenness in detail, and the interested reader can find out more by clicking on my name in this specific posting to read one of my book reviews on this subject. To learn still more, click on a series of links found in the review and under the first Comment.

  3. “Thank God we got away from that place; our ancestors always were second-class citizens and half the time lived in fear. Thank God we are in America.”

    "That place" is my homeland. In Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth my ancestors were serfs. No sane Jew would swap places with them.
    In interwar Poland my ancestors were peasants. Poor farmers. Jews lived mostly in shtetls, like some settlers in the Wild West. An island in the sea of "savages". A community under constant siege.
    Maybe they indeed lived in fear. All those natives around them. Obviously they weren't scared enough to sacrifice their Yiddishkeit and integrate.
    Americans may find that situation normal. They may even identify with Poland's Jews. But by European standards those Jews were an anomaly, if not something worse. Imigrants and refugees should adapt to their hosts. Or go to some other country. Disappoint some other nation.
    If a Jew in Poland was a second-class citizen, it's because he lived like one.
    "Next year in Jerusalem". A temporary resident's motto.

    1. Excellent point, Lukasz. Poland's Jews were better off than Poland's peasants--which most Poles were. However, this was generally true of ALL Christian-majority societies, and that for most of the shared Jewish Christian history. Furthermore, at certain places and times, Jews had privileges that compared to those of the burghers and even the nobility.

      The customary lachrymose view of Jewish history distorts this history as an endless series of humiliations and persecutions. In actually, such events were sporadic in space and time, often not related specifically to the Jewishness of the targets, and often having a tenuous basis in Christian-Jewish antagonisms.

      To read about all this, please read my review that can be found by clicking on my name in this specific posting.

  4. My historical sense is that claiming that traditional Christian anti-judaism played a role in the Holocaust is problematic.

    The problem with this claim is the evidence of long periods of peaceful cooperation and coexistence between Jews and Christians. Danusha points to the Polish Commonwealth, but there are many other examples. Germany, for instance, during the 19th Century saw Jewish assimilation at the same time that the Protestant Prussians were playing on traditional anti-Catholicism to persecute the Catholic Church. If one were to speculate in 1870 about which group was most likely to be exterminated, one would have bet on Catholics, not Jews, as the victims.

    Notably, there was a brief effort by some Catholics to play on anti-Jewish prejudices to make common cause with Protestants, in order to deflect anti-Catholicism onto the Jews. This effort died in its cradle. There was virtually no one interested in late 19th century Germany in playing the anti-Semitic game, it seems. Antisemitism was looked down on by Catholic leaders like Windthorst as beneath contempt or de classe.

    Likewise, Italy under Mussolini was notably anti-anti-semitic until approximately 1939. Jews in Italian areas of occupation were protected from deportation.

    Anti-Pius books have attempted to explain this fact on the secularization of Italian politics by the forces of the Unification, but that seems weirdly convenient and hardly a satisfactory explanation for allegedly so great a cultural shift in so short a time.

    So, there are numerous examples of Jewish-Christian rapprochement in Christian culture. The times of Jewish persecution seem to be be in places where there are obvious external factors, e.g., the loss of WW I or the Austrian effort to split Polish religious solidarity.

  5. This post is off-topic, but I want to inform everyone that Mr Władysław Bartoszewski has passed away today at the age of 93. He was a writer, journalist, historian, polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, soldier of Home Army,former prisoner of Auschwitz, Warsaw Uprising fighter, member of Żegota, member of anti-communist resistance, member of Solidarity, honorary citizen of Israel and Righteous Among the Nations.
    We have lost a good man today. A brave Pole and a great person.


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