The Banality of Anti-Judaism

Matthew Cavedon

European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg with Flags by Cédric Puisney (CC BY 2.0).

Last year, Dr. Mia Brett wrote on Canopy Forum about the ways in which American law has demonstrated insensitivity to Jewish religious liberty. I found much to criticize in her characterization of Christian involvement in the pro-life movement. But her contribution does highlight a troubling issue: the prominence in American society of anti-Judaism. While Dr. Brett attributes it to the social power wielded by Christians, secularism also deserves blame.

Antisemitism has many dimensions, including animus against Jews based on racial, ethnic, class-based, national, and religious grounds. I use the term “anti-Judaism” to describe antisemitism as applied to Jewish religion in particular. Despite popular conceptions of antisemitism as the particular property of Klansmen, Nazis, and other hate-mongers, anti-Judaism is not necessarily or always based on ethnic biases (even ethnic Jews can be anti-Judaists), and is not necessarily limited to demagoguery or the bearing of torches. 

What do I mean by anti-Judaism? It can take many forms. Much of Dr. Brett’s piece discusses historical aspects of it in America. I want to focus on a problem with ongoing salience: the endorsement of practical bans on Judaism. For example: Dr. Alejandro Sanchez is a campaigns officer of the National Secular Society, a leading UK activist group. The Society professes commitment to egalitarian and pluralist values, and has even consulted with government officials regarding antisemitic hate crime. But Dr. Sanchez recently called for a ban on male child circumcision, saying “the religious wishes of parents” must yield to “medical ethics and child rights.” I have no reason to think Dr. Sanchez harbors hatred toward Jews; he is echoing the child-welfare claims of “Intactivists” who insist that boys who are circumscribed have been tortured and are now “bloodstained” (although it is worth noting the presence of some straightforward antisemitism in their ranks). But for many Jews circumcision is not simply a religious preference or cultural tradition; it is religiously non-negotiable. No circumcision essentially means no Judaism. From antiquity up into the Soviet era, Jews risked death to circumcise their sons. Banning circumcision would thus go beyond a slight narrowing of religious accommodations. It would mean expelling Judaism. 

“While Dr. Brett attributes [the rise of anti-Judaism] to the social power wielded by Christians, secularism also deserves blame.”

The concept of anti-Judaism also helps clarify what’s at stake as kosher practices come under scrutiny in Europe. In 2020, the European Court of Justice upheld a Belgian ban on the slaughter of unstunned animals, which had been praised by humanitarian activists. This effectively bans kosher slaughter (as well as halal varieties required by Islam). Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the continent’s rabbinical conference was outraged: “This decision . . . flies in the face of recent statements from the European institutions that Jewish life is to be treasured and respected.” The European Union’s ambassador to Israel, Emanuele Giaufret, took to the pages of the Jerusalem Post to dismiss such concerns. He called the “myth that the EU has outlawed Jewish religious practices” a “type of disinformation.” Why? Because while the court ruling “ban[ned] ritual slaughter without stunning, as required by most interpretations of Jewish law,” the EU was committed to security for synagogues and Jewish historical sites, and to combating antisemitism. Besides, the court was not “motivated by antisemitic sentiments.”

Anti-Judaism explains the inadequacy of Ambassador Giaufret’s response. Flanders has, in fact, outlawed a tremendously important part of Jewish (and Islamic) religious practice, in a way that could force observant Jews into vegetarianism. No amount of respect for Jewish cultural and social identities — and no absence of ethnic or racial animus — makes up for the fact that religious Judaism has just been dealt heavy blows by the hands of European government institutions.

Why do nice, non-racist people fall into the trap of anti-Judaism and propose de facto bans on Jews observing essential religious obligations? Dr. Brett is surely right that it is partly due to “the long history of assumed Christian majority and neutrality.” But Christianism is an odd accusation to level at Dr. Sanchez and many European animal-welfare activists. Part of the blame falls to secularization. To be frank, rules about penises and rituals surrounding meals make sense to most Christians and other religious believers — far more than they do to most secular rationalists. The “what’s-the-big-deal” approach voiced by Ambassador Giaufret sounds very discordant to those of us who think doing right by the Almighty is the biggest deal of them all. Maybe I’m overly optimistic about Christians understanding the evils of anti-Judaism. But we should lend our support to fellow believers as they face the harsh side of secular, progressive hegemony.♦

Matthew Cavedon is the Robert Pool Fellow in Law and Religion at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Previously a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA, he graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew. “The Banality of Anti-Judaism.” Canopy Forum, February 18, 2023.