* Swastikas painted by night on Jewish synagogues from Los Angeles to Michigan to New Jersey and New York. * A synagogue in Paris bombed by neo-Nazis.

* Jewish homes in America vandalized at an alarming rate -- twice as many incidents this year as last.

Are we sliding back into a period of anti-Semitism reminiscent of the 1930s?

Jews in America are cautious not to push the panic button. They partly attribute the increase in anti-Semitic acts to a more general rise in crime and to frustrations over the world economy. And recent B'nai B'rith studies show that most crimes against Jews have been isolated instances of teen- agers taking out their frustrations on the nearest scapegoat they could find.

But Jews cannot conceal their uneasiness. How to cope with the rising temperature of anti-Semitic activity, that hot streak of intolerance that seems to persist even in the most liberal of pluralist societies?

Here cool-reasoning Harvard Prof. Krister Stendahl looms as an oasis in the desert. American Jews recently honored him for his lifelong work in helping christians see through false stereotypes of Jews.

Professor Stendahl, one of the world's eminent Bible scholars, has long pitched his tent in the center of Jewish- Christian dialogue, and uncovered through his writings the often subtle elements of Christian thought that have aggravated anti-Semitic feeling for centuries.

He has a knack for unraveling the most tangled of moral dilemmas.

And the anti-Semitism issue is a Gordian knot. It's an issue that is snarled in Middle East politics, tangled in the verbal jousting in the United Nations over the Palestinian issue, caught up in the confusion created when politically active evangelical Christians speak out in favor of greater support for Israel -- while at the same time a leading pastor in their ranks makes a now-notorious remark that "God does not hear the prayers of Jews."

"Most acts of anti-semitism have indeed been isolated acts," Mr. Stendahl concurs after the reception given in his honor in Boston.

"But the question we need to ask is: To what extent are these acts occurring in a Christian culture that pictures Jews as despicable? Now when there is psychological need for scapegoats, you can never say that anti-Semitic acts are Christianm acts. But they are not disconnected. Christians have a responsibility."

Defining that responsibility has been a driving force for Professor Stendahl from his student days in Sweden. As a Lutheran, he was painfully aware of how Martin Luther's tract on "The Jews and their Lies" was dredged up the Nazis to rationalize extermination of Jews in World War II.

But the war aside, he long suspected that the sharp distinctions traditionally drawn between Christians and Jews sounded "fishy." Graduate studies at Harvard convinced him that the centuries have underplayed the contributions of first-century Judaism to the emergence of Christianity, and that Paul's writings were not in fact anti-Jewish, as later centuries tried to make them out to be.

Better popular understanding of Judaism, he believes, remains high priority on the agenda for combating anti- Semitism.

In the past three decades of Christian-Jewish dialogue, Professor Stendahl has been somewhat cheered by the progress made. Since World War II, the Protestant and Catholic churches have made sweeping audits of their doctrines to eliminate anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Consultations with Jewish scholars, he says, have led in recent years to a revision of educational materials.

In virtually every major American city there is now some form of Jewish-Christian dialogue of joint social welfare action, a development totally unprecedented in American history.

And the religious reforms in the early 1960s known as "Vatican II," he says, brought sweeping changes in Roman Catholic teachings and attitudes.

"For example, one service for the evening of Good Friday," he says, "had tended, in a highly emotional way, to accuse Jews [and by implication modern Jews] of Deicide, due to ancient Israel's rejection of Jesus in the first century. Now all that has been eliminated."

Yet, for all the progress, new strains of anti-Semitism have emerged. Flaws in the early building of Jewish-Christian bridges, he says, have now widened into cracks in the construction.

"As we Christians did our rethinking of Jewish-Christian relations after World War II, we tried to achieve action on the basis of a guilt trip about the treatment of the Jews in the war. This produced some quick results. But it is my experience that that approach, in the long run, comes back to haunt us. You should do what you do not because of guilt, but because of what is right."

He claims that to understand what is the right way to bring about change, one first needs to listen to the Jews' own concerns about their treatment in society.

"If I were to get preachy . . . You remember what Jesus said about the need to go to your brother at those times when you come to the altar and remember that he has something against you? It's not that youm have something against your brother. It's the other'sm feeling that is important. for example, the need to hear the feelings Jews have had about Christians -- even just to hearm it. Being in the majority situation -- we Christians haven't been very good at that."

During Mr. Stendahl's reception, one of the world's leading "ecumenical rabbis," Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, related one such story from his youth:

"I was born the son of Russian-Polish immigrants who came to Baltimore from the Ukraine. They came victims of poverty and persection, seeking peace for themselves and their children. One Sabbath afternoon, my father told me of a time back in the old country in his village of Vinnitsa. It was Good Friday, and down the road a Russian Orthodox Church begun a celebration of the passion of christ, at the center of which was this demonic imagery of the Jews who killed Jesus.

"Before long, my father told me, the priest had worked himself into a fervor, the congregation became a howling mob, stormed out of the church, and came down that dusty road to the village carrying sticks and rocks. They surrounded my grandfather's house, grabbed my uncle Aaron, a poet visiting for Passover . . . and at the lakeside in the presence of all the Jewish villagers, forced my uncle into the lake. Then, with the priest holding up his staff screaming, 'Godforsaken Jew!' my uncle Aaron was pushed into the water until it covered his head.

"As a young boy of three, that was my first introduction to Christians and Christianity. I remember that whenever we would walk with my father to synagogue in later years and came near a church, instinctively he would grab our hands and walk across the street for fear of the churches and the crucifixion."

Such incidents, Krister Stendahl urges, only begin to hint at the muddy streams that need clearing if Christian-Jewish relations are to advance.

"Many Christians are fond of the phrase 'Judeo-Christian tradition.' But the 'Judeo' part is usually seen only in terms of the Old Testament period, and then we seem to have no knowledge whatsoever of what happened to the Jewish people since. We are in the danger of just defining the Jews away, or thinking about modern Jews only in terms of Jesus' controversies with the Pharisees.

"Even when thinking about the first century, aspects of commonality tend to be overlooked: For example, the fact that the Golden Rule was not an invention of Jesus but had been uttered by Jewish teachers before him, though in slightly different form."

Indeed, when it comes to commonalities, Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum is himself quick to argue that they have made possible unprecedented acts of civility.

"During the past three years I joined the International Rescue Committee's efforts to help save the lives of the Vietnamese boat people, the Cambodians, Laotians, and ethnic Chinese. The Jews and Christians on those delegations did not come there just as liberals or as humanitarians. there was a joint consciousness of the infinite worth of every individual and our common sense of responsibility for the events of history.

"It was not just a biblical piety to us, but literally formed our whole perception of our relation to other humans. It led to a response of redemption in the midst of destruction and despair that was a great consolation to us all. It showed the profound moral importance of Jews and Christians building a human community stamped by divinity and reponsibility for one another in a world which is increasingly dehumanized."

Nevertheless, the participants in Christian-Jewish dialogue still worry about continued stereotyping of Jews in the United States and abroad.

Jews have long identified the Soviet Union as the world's largest distributor of literature with degrading Jewish stereotypes or cartoons.

One of the crudest of anti-Semitic literature is an old pamphlet, the "Protocols on the Elders of Zion," that Professor Stendahl calls a "spurious document" that attributes all the world's evils to an international Jewish plot to take over the world economy. He says that the pamphlet, thought to have originated in the Soviet Union, was popular in the Nazi period and still circulated in various languages, especially in the Middle East.

In Japan, he adds, a widespread popular stereotype of Jews is a blend of Shakespeare's Shylock and Jesus' critique of the Pharisees.

From within the US, the greatest new problems for the Christian-Jewish dialogue involve trends that could erode religious pluralism.

Evangelical Christian organizations, for one thing, are buying up so much of the network time allocated by TV stations for religious broadcasting, Rabbi Tannenbaum says, that religious communication is in danger of being homogenized.

"I was talking recently with the vice-president of CBS about religious programming. He said that 10 years ago religious programming on the network involved about 200 affiliated stations carrying diverse programs. today only about 23 stations carry those programs. The reason: The majority of the 200 affiliates had sold their time to local evangelical preachers."

Still high on Professor Stendahl's personal list of anti-Semitic dragons is one of the most formidable and slippery of all: increasing misuse of the term "Zionism."

This term -- meaning the political ideology behind formation of the Jewish state of Israel -- has often been linked narrowly with alleged Israeli abuses of Arab Palestinians, and turned into a catchword for racism or for anti-Israel propaganda.

"A popular Christian perception today identifies Judaism with Zionism as a gimmick for engaging in anti-Semitism," he says. "We have very little bona fide 'anti-Semitism' any more under that name. It tends to come now in the language of 'anti-Zionism.' There's a language game going on. You can see it even in materials circulated by some Christian peace groups."

Professor Stendahl points to a leaflet recently distributed by a prominent Christian peace group: Linked bayonets form a Star of David, while a dove of peace perches on the Arab Crescent.

On the other hand, he says, dialogue with Jews is impossible without recognizing that 95 percent of the Jewish community identifies with Israel and its survival.

"All Jews do not identify, of course, with everything that is donem in the name of Zionism, but you have to at least recognize that the survival of Israel is part of Jewish religion. If we try to impose a framework of the separation of church and state, we make our own little definition and break the first rule of dialogue: listen to how the other party defines itself.

"In fact, the separation of politics from religion has never existed in the Middle East where all the religions, Christian and Islamic, have established very close ties between church and state in ways that are totally different from American church-state separation.

"In my view, the glory and the tragedy of the Middle East after the fall of the Turkish Empire and the withdrawal of the British mandate is that there emerged two national liberation movements in Palestine, both with well-grounded hopes for freedom and autonomy. But these are obviously in conflict, and compromises will have to be found."

Mr. Stendahl is now planning to lead further discussions on behalf of the World Council of Churches with the American Jewish community over the sumer. The longer-term future of dialogue, however, may be set back by the sheer distance of the youngr generation from first-hand memories of atrocities against Jews in World War II.

"Very much depends on that generation somehow coming into dialogue," he says. "But those of us who remember the Holocaust are getting older.

"And gains made in dialogue to date may unfortunately be ephemeral, since much of the churches' response was motivated by a shocked awareness of Christian guilt. Heaven knows that guilt was well-motivated. But it has not been the most solid basis for long-term efforts to prevent anti- Semitism."

Still much positive momentum remains.

"There are many people in the Christian community who are coming to be concerned aobut Jews not just because they want to be good or want to make a quick payoff of guilt, but rather to do what is right. And it has become precius to me to know and feel freer with Jewish women and men, while somehow finding that in our distinct representativesness to one another -- as Christian or Jew -- there still can be a freedom to be oneself, words and all."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today