European leaders are increasingly worried about the latest specter haunting the continent–the specter of anti-Semitism. “Today throughout Europe Jews wait anxiously for the next news of a synagogue vandalized, a cemetery desecrated, a Jewish school set on fire, Jews attacked in the streets,” said Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, before an audience in Brussels earlier this year. “Let it not be said of us that we saw the tiny flame but did not put it out until it became a raging fire.”
It’s not only religious figures who are warning about a revival of anti-Jewish hatred. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) met on September 13 and 14 in Brussels to address the issue, its third conference in less than a year. The OSCE’s “Berlin Declaration,” signed in April by representatives of all 55 nations in attendance, insists that no political controversy (the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example) could justify attacks on Jews. Earlier this summer, at the first-ever U.N. conference on anti-Semitism, Secretary General Kofi Annan decried “an alarming resurgence” of violence against Jewish institutions. French President Jacques Chirac, mindful of his nation’s reputation as a hothouse of anti-Semitism, recently announced the creation of a government agency to combat “odious and despicable acts of hatred” against Jews. Last month a French high court ruled that a Lebanese TV channel would lose its right to broadcast into France if it continued airing anti-Semitic programming.
Public declarations and legal rulings could help combat racism. So could a crackdown on Muslim extremists, who are generating a good deal of the violence, especially in Western Europe. The problem is that these measures are limited by a public culture increasingly cut off from its deepest resources for promoting tolerance: Europe’s Christian ideals and heritage.
Many observers will find the claim laughable: It was “Christian Europe” that had institutionalized expulsions, forced conversions, and persecution of Jews. Though it’s a slander to draw a straight line from Christian-Jewish antagonism to the Holocaust–Nazism was explicitly and violently anti-Christian–it’s also true that many religious leaders failed to help those fleeing Hitler’s death camps. Indeed, the Germans couldn’t have been as efficient in their roundup of Jews without significant local “help,” including the passivity and occasional collaboration of priests and ministers. Earlier this year, in fact, Pope John Paul II officially apologized for the behavior of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust.
Prejudice and sectarianism are indeed part of the history of the Christian church, but Europe’s leaders see these failings as its defining features, and as a rationale for marginalizing religion from public life. Jacques Chirac’s recent speech condemning anti-Semitism, delivered in the southern village of Le Chambon, typifies the problem. The French leader praised the bravery of the Chambonnais, who sheltered more than 5,000 Jews during the Nazi occupation, even as the Vichy government actively collaborated with Germany to deport thousands to concentration camps. Chirac called the inhabitants of Le Chambon the embodiment of the nation’s conscience, but then cited France’s “humanist” principles–tolerance, solidarity, and fraternity–as their inspiration. He went on to extol the nation’s commitment to “laicite” (secularity) as the best guarantee of preserving French values.
No incident during the Second World War, however, illustrates more powerfully the moral vigor of Christian ideals than what occurred at Le Chambon. Led by Protestant minister Andre Trocme and his wife, Magda, a poor mountain hamlet became the most effective Jewish-rescue operation in France under the Nazis. During four desperate and destitute years, 1940 to 1944, the entire village opened its homes, farms, and cellars to Jews on the run. Philosopher Philip Hallie, in his book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, explains that while murder and betrayal blackened the rest of the continent, Le Chambon was a ray of peace and safety. “In the midst of our struggle for survival…we creatures on earth have made room for thoughts and deeds of love,” he writes. “Some creatures have made more room than others.”
Even religious skeptics can confess the bracing truth of Le Chambon: It wasn’t secularism that turned an occupied people into a stubborn remnant of non-violent resistance and rescue. It wasn’t the rational values of the Enlightenment that made them, as one villager put it, “toujours prete a servir”–always ready to help. It was the Christian ideal of love of neighbor, taught from the pulpit and lived out in family and community life. As Hallie tells it, the believers from this Huguenot village considered the Bible a book of absolute truths and commandments–not mere opinion and suggestion–to be obeyed no matter what the cost. “The word of God had to be taken that way or not at all,” he writes. “The felt allegiance of the Chambonnais to God’s words convinced them in their heart of hearts that they were doing God’s work by protecting the apple of God’s eye, the Jews.”
The Chambonnais were not alone, of course, as historian Martin Gilbert documents in his magisterial work The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust. Gilbert, author of eight books on the Holocaust, recounts thousands of acts of heroism by believing Christians on behalf of Europe’s Jews.
In Italy, for example, Catholic Bishop Nicolini and Father Rufino Niccaci of Assisi helped save 300 Jews by disguising them as monks and nuns and slipping them into every monastery and church in town. In Holland, devout Calvinist Johannes Bogaard traveled to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and other cities to shuttle Jews back to his farm in Nieuw Vennep. In Norway, all seven bishops of the Norwegian Lutheran Church resigned to publicly protest the treatment of Jews under Minister-President Vidkun Quisling (a name already synonymous with betrayal). “The Church has God’s call and full authority to proclaim God’s law and God’s Gospel,” they wrote. “Therefore, it cannot remain silent when God’s commandments are being trampled underfoot.” Everyone knew that being caught helping Jews invited deportation or death, yet stories like these were repeated all over Europe. “In every country under Nazi rule or occupation, the instinct to help remained strong despite widespread hostility or indifference,” writes Gilbert.
An earlier generation of leaders understood the connection between religious conviction and tolerant, civil societies. Writing when much of Europe was in Nazi hands, for example, French philosopher Jacques Maritain argued for the recovery of “the sacred roots” of Western democracy. He criticized political figures for thinking that democratic values could be sustained without Christian conviction. “If the democracies are to win the peace after having won the war,” he wrote in 1942, “it will be on condition that the Christian inspiration and the democratic inspiration recognize each other and become reconciled.”
Why is it that anti-Semitism has mostly been defeated in the United States? As French observer Alexis de Tocqueville saw it, religious freedom and political freedom marched side by side in the nation’s democratic development. The result was a civic culture that was diverse, tolerant, and deeply religious–a mixture that rarely appeared in Europe. This year marks 350 years of Jewish life in America, and synagogues around the country have recalled the warm letters exchanged in 1790 between Jeshuat Israel, a congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and George Washington. As Jeshuat Israel described it: “We now…behold a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance–but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship–deeming everyone, of whatever nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine.” Thus, it’s no coincidence that the most religious nation in the West is also the friendliest state to Jews outside of Israel.
Until Europe undergoes a similar rapprochement between democratic values and Christian virtues, it’s hard to see how anti-Semitism will be defeated. “Not since Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led pogrom against German Jews in 1938,” writes Mark Strauss, editor of Foreign Policy, “have so many European synagogues and Jewish schools been desecrated.” If anti-Semitism is, at its core, a sickness of the soul, then deep cultural changes–including spiritual renewal–would seem to be required.
Europe’s political and intellectual class can’t be expected to promote religious commitment. They can, however, commit themselves to honoring the salutary influence of their faith traditions. That would involve, for example, revising education curricula to explain how Christian leaders and Christian ideals positively shaped Europe’s political and social development. The religious conscience, with its emphasis on the transcendent worth of every human soul, would help stigmatize the racism that is gaining ground in Europe. “In the opening chapter of the Hebrew Bible, God declares that He has made man in His own image: to teach us that one who is not in my image is still in God’s image,” says Rabbi Sacks. “That is the most powerful antidote to hate ever created.”
It was precisely this doctrine that found a home in the hearts of the Chambonnais. The world was ablaze with hatred, betrayal, and violence–and they chose unconditional love. How did they do it? “The greatest sin the human mind can commit is to try to explain away the obvious,” wrote Philip Hallie. “The most obvious answer was Pastor Trocme himself…willing to suffer, even to die, for others. He was part and parcel of the great tradition of imitating Jesus the Christ.”
The remarkable deeds of grace at Le Chambon remind us that the Christian gospel is, fundamentally, a story about a rescue mission. It is a narrative of redemptive love in the face of great evil. It was this message that helped sustain those faithful villagers in the French alps and in all their other outposts of mercy during Nazism’s raging storm. “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus said, “than when a man lays down his life for his friends.”
That story, too, is part of Europe’s heritage, a bit of history worth getting right.