As Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was being released, many Jews predicted a new wave of pogroms. It never happened. When I speak of my respect for American Fundamentalist Christians, I'm constantly asked, "Aren't you, as a Jew, afraid of them?" I'm not.
Initially, when pressed about my "fearlessness" about American Christians -- even, gasp!, conservative, Southern Christians -- I always attributed my lack of fear to my personal experiences. When I was living among Europeans, I was on the receiving end of genuine anti-Semitism. Europe was the first place I heard the expression, "To Jew someone down." It was the first time someone, upon learning I was Jewish, asked "Are you rich?" It was the first time someone conversationally referred to Jews in my presence as "Christ-killers." It was also the first (and last time) anyone told me an Auschwitz "joke."
A short time after that unpleasant experience, I lived in the Bible Belt, a relatively secular Jew in a sea of Christians. Some people did approach me intending to proselytize, but they always backed off politely when I made it clear I wasn't interested. I never felt offended by these efforts. I always had the sense that these people, rather than being hostile to my Jewish-ness, simply wanted me to join them in what they perceived as the best possible way of living and dying. Their efforts were actually rather kind.
I'm open to the possibility that my experiences were aberrant. I've had Jewish friends who were raised in the South who felt isolated, but feeling isolated is not the same as being on the receiving end of active anti-Semitism. Also, these friends were also a bit high strung, which may have resulted from the hostile treatment they received, or may have caused the hostility. Who knows?
My own personal experiences aren't going to convince any terrified Jewish Americans, though, that modern American Christians are not the enemy. I think one has to look more closely at historical anti-Semitism, and at the current anti-Semitism. I'm going to draw on my own knowledge base here, so excuse the absence of hyperlinks, please.
Anti-Semitism originally was a deeply Christian attitude. You can point to whatever source you want for this ideology: Paul's need to separate dramatically from the source faith; the fundamental insularity of Christianinity in the Middle Ages, which did not allow for dissenting views; the graphic representations of Jews killing Christ (although I think that was more a result of anti-Semitism, than a source). I'm sure anyone with a couple of minutes can come up with more ideas.
Whatever the sources, any anti-Semitic attacks were formulated in the name of religion. Thus, whether Jews were accused of poisoning wells at plague time, or ritually sacrificing Christian children, or committing heinous usurious practices, their being targeted resulted from their being the un-Christian. And this anti-Semitism was widespread and violent. Most of the Crusades really didn't get kicked off until all local Jews, and then all Jews in the Crusaders' paths, had first been murdered. In England, the British simply expelled all the Jews, who were not readmitted until Cromwell's time (more about that later). The Spaniards are famous for their Inquisition, although in fairness one must note that infinitely more heretic Christians died at the hands of the Inquisitioners than did Jews.
While this virulent religion-based anti-Semitism is most firmly rooted in the Middle Ages, it didn't end there. The horrible pogroms in Russia and Poland were tied to the traditional Christian hostility to Jews, and they lasted until the early 20th Century. Indeed, they were the single largest factor behind the huge immigration of Russian and Polish Jews to America at the end of the 19th Century.
The Reformation saw a change in anti-Semitism. Martin Luther was virulently anti-Semitic but, with him, it was personal. When he broke with the Roman Church, he approached the Jews, believing that his Bible-based approach to God, stripped of the trappings associated with Catholicism, would bring Jews into the Christian fold. When the Jews rejected his advances, he turned against them.
Despite Martin Luther's hostility, though, the Protestants were less hostile to the Jews. I think this is because Protestants, who read the Bible themselves, instead of having it processed through priests, and who associated themselves with the people of the Old Testament, simply felt closer to the Jews. How can you repeatedly read the Jewish history in the Old Testament, envision a new Jerusalem, and nonetheless view as evil the original Jews?
Many of the Protestant sects that developed following the Reformation also believed that the in-gathering of Jews in Jerusalem was a prerequisite to the Second Coming, and this too inclined them, not to want to destroy the Jews, but, at some level, to accomodate them. Certainly, it was no coincidence that, as I've noted above, it was Oliver Cromwell, during his Protectorship in England, who finally invited the Jews back.
There was always another strand to anti-Semitism, and it had to do with money. Usury (which was then defined as charging interest on money, no matter how low the rate) was banned under Catholic rule in the Middle Ages. However, even in those feudal times, people needed access to money, especially the already rich and powerful. The perfect loophole was to allow Jews, who were not bound by these Christian strictures, to be the money lenders. And Jews, who were barred from most activities in the Christian world, stepped up to the plate and took on the job. Some of them did well, at least for a time (before the monarch or noble refused to pay interest and took the lender's other assets as well), although most lived in abysmal poverty.
The result of this money-based relationship between Jews and Christian states was that Jews became associated with money, not in the ordinary way of being merchants, but in the reprehensible way of being usurers. The connection between Jews and money in the ordinary person's mind was negative: it conjured up greed, avarice and sin.
The Enlightenment came along and, in many parts of Europe, the connection between the Church and anti-Semitism began breaking down. However, certain associations remained, the most interesting (for my purposes), being the negative association with capital.
Socialism, as articulated by Marx and Engel, equated capitalism with evil. It was a short step, therefore, to equate Jews (widely perceived as the first capitalists) to be the most evil in the capitalist system. Not surprisingly, then, socialists, and their offspring (communism and, believe it or not, facism), proved to be just as anti-Semitic as the Church had been. This time, however, the anti-Semitism was framed by the Jews' connection to capital, not their rejection of Christ and their association with his death. Indeed, socialists and their ilk took anti-Semitism to heights the Medieval Church had never imagined, culminating in the 6 million dead at the end of WWII.
In recent years, the Jews' historic association with capitalism has meant that, as far as the Left is concerned, Jews are allies of, proxies for, spokespeople for the ultimate capitalist enemy: America. If you hate America (as so much of the Left, even the American Left does), you must also hate the Jews. And since the Jews' country is Israel, you must hate Israel and love her enemies -- even if her enemies, like the radical Islamists, hold views antithetical to the views you, as a good Leftist, espouse.
I haven't forgotten my original premise, although you may be wondering right now what this dash through history has to do with American Fundamentalist Christians. Well, a lot. First, although I know there are exceptions, American Christians seem to have abandoned entirely historical Christian-based antipathy to Jews. Whether it's because Protestantism is the dominant Christian religion in America (and Protestants have historically felt more connected and less hostile Jews); or whether it's American Protestantism developed in large part after the Enlightenment; or whether modern American Protestants have grown up in a post-Civil Rights era; or whether American Protestants are simply a forward-looking people, who don't carry around the old hatreds, I don't know. All I know is that "anti-Semitism to the death" does not characterize American Fundamentalist Christians, and it explains the lack of anti-Semitic attacks following Mel Gibson's movie.
Conservative American Christians also tend to be highly patriotic people. As I pointed out, the Left has determined that America's friend -- Israel -- is the enemy, making Israel and Jews fair game (and allowing traditional anti-Semitism as an acceptable weapon). Conversely, American Christians view with approval Israel's friendship with America and extend that approval to Jews.
I think, also, that American Christians recognize that there has been a rejiggering of alliances. The enemy is no longer people of the wrong faith, it's people of (a) no faith (i.e., the aggressive secularists) or (b) people of a faith hostile to America and American Christianity (i.e., radical Islamists). Religious Jews do not fall into either of these catagories. Indeed, they are most likely to be the Christians' allies against these common foes.
So, to sum up, I think that the two historical forces driving anti-Semitism (rooted in religion and socialism) do not apply to American Christians. They have pretty much purged themselves of the religious aspect of anti-Semitism, and they have never allied themselves with socialism. And that's why I'm not afraid of Christians.
UPDATE: Wow! Talk about synergy. I've been contemplating this post for a long time, but only yesterday got around to drafting and posting it. Today, Dennis Prager writes about the similarities between Christianity and Judaism, and Daniel Pipes looks into the difference between traditional and modern anti-Semitism.
UPDATE II: It occurred to me that I should explain why I opted for the phrase "Fundamentalist Christian" in this post. I don't use the phrase to liken Fundamentalist Christians to Islamic Fundamentalists, with whom they have virtually nothing in common, except a powerful belief in the word of God as expressed in their founding books (the Bible and the Koran, respectively).
I use the phrase, instead, to distinguish the group of American Christians that Jews find so worrying from the great masses of Americans who identify themselves by saying, "Oh, I was raised Christian," or "I guess I'm Christian." To my mind, Fundamentalist Christians are people whose religion is an integral part of their lives, rather than a loose, Christmas-time affiliation.
Lastly, I opted not to use the phrase "conservative Christian" (a phrase David Limbaugh uses in a biting column about the Demos' inept efforts to jump on the values bandwagon), because that has more of a political ring to it, when I wanted to use this post to discuss matters less secular and more religious.