The Historical Roots of the Anti-Israel Positions of Liberal Protestant Churches

, June 1, 2007

No. 57, 1 June 2007 / 15 Sivan 5767

An Interview with Hans Jansen

  • The verbal attacks and boycott calls by a variety of Western Protestant, mainly liberal, denominations, as well as the World Council of Churches, have raised new interest in the origins of Christian anti-Semitism and in particular its Protestant version.
  • Among the Protestants’ founding fathers, Martin Luther was particularly anti-Semitic. His writings were precursors of twentieth-century National Socialist texts. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Julius Streicher gladly quoted from Luther’s works, even if he never recommended the physical destruction of the Jews. Luther did, however, advise burning synagogues in honor of God and Christianity, confiscating Jewish books, and expelling Jews from Christian countries. In 1985 the World Federation of Lutheran Churches distanced itself from these statements of Luther.
  • Other sixteenth-century Protestant reformers such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and Philipp Melanchton also considered Judaism archaic but were against drawing operational conclusions from this. Another reformer, Martin Butzer, took a more favorable position toward the Jews.
  • In the current anti-Israel positions of liberal Western churches nontheological influences are probably more important. Blaming Jews is for many of them a question of their own spiritual welfare and of avoiding a look in the mirror.
  • Churches have taught antipathy to Jews for two thousand years. It is mistaken to think this can be overturned in a few decades. The new expressions of Christian hatred toward Israel reflect deep psychological processes.

“For several decades there has been in many Jewish circles the impression that Christian anti-Semitism was declining and would fade away in the course of a generation or two. This perception stemmed mainly from the major post-Holocaust policy change by the Roman Catholic Church in its attitude toward the Jews.

“The last three years have seen attacks and boycott calls against Israel by several Western Protestant denominations and the World Council of Churches. These aggressions raise new interest in the origins of Christian anti-Semitism and in particular its Protestant version. This requires reexploring the positions toward the Jews of major sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.”

Prof. Hans Jansen is the author of a major, frequently reprinted work in Dutch titled Christian Theology after Auschwitz.1 The subtitle of the first tome is The History of 2000 Years of Church Anti-Semitism. The second tome-in two volumes-is subtitled The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the New Testament.2 Jansen, a Dutch Protestant, taught history at the Flemish Free University in Brussels (1990-2000) and since 2002 teaches at the Simon Wiesenthal Institute in Brussels.

Luther’s Anti-Semitic Writings

He explains: “Among the Protestants’ founding fathers, Martin Luther was particularly anti-Semitic. The Protestant tradition had not paid much attention to these texts and their existence came as quite a shock to many believers. I was one of the first who published about Luther’s anti-Semitic writings.

“In 1985 the World Federation of Lutherans distanced itself from Luther’s anti-Semitic texts, claiming one had to understand them in the spirit of his time. They said Luther was disappointed that the Jews did not convert to Christianity, but this did not excuse his writing such anti-Semitic works.”

Jansen observes: “No other important Catholic or Protestant theologian throughout the centuries who wrote major works of exegesis had as many horrible things to say about the Jews as Luther. His anti-Semitism is fully interwoven with his exegesis of the Hebrew Bible. I sometimes ask Protestant theologians, ‘What do you think, for instance, of his 1543 book From the Jews and Their Lies?’3 They often answer: ‘I really don’t know it.’ This is despite its being one of his important works.”

Promoting Discriminatory Action

“Luther’s thoughts were abused by the Nazis. However anti-Semitic he was, Luther never preached that the Jews should be destroyed. Julius Streicher based himself on Luther as his great master. Also Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels gladly quoted from his works.

“Luther in his latter days was a rabid anti-Semite who promoted extreme discriminatory action against the Jews. Initially, in 1523, he had written a book that was relatively friendly to the Jews titled Jesus Was a Born Jew.4 Never before had a European theologian considered Jesus a Jew, which was major heresy. To give a book such a title was thus extraordinary.

“Luther wrote there that if the Christian mission among the Jews had failed for so many centuries, it was for obvious reasons. The Roman Catholic Church did not have much to offer. He claimed he was returning to the pure gospel of the New Testament and that the Catholic Church did not follow this.

“In his book he wrote:

I’ll show from the Bible which reasons I have to believe that Christ was a Jew born from a virgin. Perhaps I shall thereby bring a number of Jews to the Christian religion. But our fools, popes, bishops, sophists, and monks have until this moment treated the Jews in such a way that to become a good Christian, one should have become a Jew.

Had I been a Jew and seen how such idiots and fools lead and teach the Christian tradition, I would have preferred to be a pig rather than a Christian. They have treated the Jews as if they were dogs and not people. They have not done anything for them other than curse them and expropriate their wealth. When the Jews whom they converted saw clearly that Judaism had such a strong basis in the Bible, whereas Catholic Christianity was pure nonsense not based on the Bible, how could they pacify their hearts and become truly good Christians?5

“Luther thus thought that once confronted with the authentic gospel, the Jews would accept it. He wrote this initial book with the intention that the Jews would convert to Christianity.”

Comparable to Twentieth-Century Anti-Semitic Texts

“By 1638 Luther wrote a letter ‘Against the Sabbatists.’6 In it he strongly attacked Christians who had become Jews. He proclaimed to those Christians who believed in the role of the Messiah and the Sabbath, that Moses’ law had already lost its validity fifteen centuries ago. He added that if Jews wished to practice Moses’ law they should also establish a state in Palestine, which would never happen due to a divine promise.7

“By the time he wrote his anti-Semitic book about the lies of the Jews, Luther was disappointed that the Jews had not converted. He now expressed himself in the same way as twentieth-century National Socialist texts would do and spiced his book with many defamatory remarks.8

“He stated, for instance, that no people were as thirsty for money as Jews. If a Christian met a Jew in daily life, he should make the sign of the cross because a live devil was standing before one. Jews, Luther asserted, dominated Christians and had more power in Christian society than they had in the times of David and Solomon.”

Burning Synagogues

“Luther wrote: ‘What should we Christians do with this cursed and rejected race of the Jews? They live among us and we know that they lie, slander, and curse. We cannot support them if we do not want to share in their lies, curses, and slander. We must, full of prayer and respectful religiosity, exercise a merciful severity.’

“He recommended:

Let me give you my honest advice. In the first place the synagogue should be burned and what doesn’t burn must be covered with mud. This must be done in honor of God and Christianity so that God can see that we are Christians and we do not just have patience or approve that his Son and Christians will be publicly subjected to lies, curses, and slander.

In the second place, their houses must be broken down and destroyed. They must be housed in stalls like Gypsies so that they are aware that they are not masters in our country as they proudly declare, but poor prisoners as they incessantly complain before their God. Third, their books must be taken away. Fourth, their rabbis must be forbidden to give lessons on punishment of death. Fifth, they are not to be allowed to move freely. Let them stay at home. Sixth, they should not be allowed to take interest. The money one takes from them must be devoted to helping a Jew who is baptized. Seventh, they must be put to work very hard.

Jansen notes that Luther ends by saying: “Honorable rulers and noblemen who have Jews in your country: if this advice doesn’t suit you try and find something better so that we all will be liberated from this unbearable, devilish burden, the Jews.”9 Jansen adds: “The above passages are far from the worst Luther wrote about the Jews. He also accuses them of wanting to kill Christians, ritual murders, and poisoning wells.

“Another reformer, Justus Jonas, translated the book into Latin. One bookseller alone-in the sixteenth century-ordered as many as five thousand copies to fill orders from Italy and France.”

The Lutherans: Distance and Silence

Jansen observes: “Luther was only a reformer in the sense that he split off from the Roman Catholic Church, didn’t recognize the pope anymore, abandoned celibacy, and so forth. As far as the Jews are concerned he just copied the main medieval anti-Jewish writings. Luther adopted the idea that one should not leave the Jews in Christian society in peace, but put them in a ghetto. He also embraced the decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council, for instance, that the Jews had to wear specific clothing, such as a distinctive red or yellow sign, a hat, and so forth.

“From his theology it is clear that Luther was very anti-Semitic. Because the World Federation of Lutherans distanced itself from his words in 1985, one can no longer claim that Luther’s theological anti-Semitism has much currency among Lutherans. On the other hand, if one is a Lutheran, the psychological influence of the denomination’s founder is still there. Probably, besides Jesus, more works have been written about Luther than anybody else.

“His anti-Semitism remains largely a taboo subject for Lutherans. In my scholarly career I have observed how difficult it is for people who have much admiration for Luther to be confronted with his unpleasant side. (The same is true for those who admire Erasmus, who made rabid anti-Semitic remarks as well.)10

“Lutherans say something like ‘we shouldn’t really discuss this.’ People feel that it threatens their theological construct. In my opinion, this silence is dangerous. One gets a false picture of a person if one leaves aside such important developments in his life.”

Jansen points to a contrast: “What is so extraordinary and fascinating in the Hebrew Bible is that the greatest people are portrayed in all their humanity, including their failings. It is a shortcoming of most national histories that they concentrate on extolling rulers, heroes, or generals without paying attention to their human aspects. Many Lutherans wrongly claim that as they have distanced themselves from the anti-Semitic texts, this chapter of history should be closed.

“I am thus particularly happy that in 2005 a Dutch Jewish scholar, René Süss, devoted his doctoral thesis at the University of the Reformed Church in Brussels to an analysis of Luther’s anti-Semitic works.”11 


“The theology of the other major church reformer, John Calvin, did not differ from Luther’s anti-Jewishness. He considered that since the Christian church had come into existence, the Jewish people had become an anachronism, other than as potential Christians. Calvin propounds the ‘verus Israel‘ concept: the church is the new authentic Israel. No place is left for the Jewish religion.

“Calvin’s rejection of Israel as a people went even further than more ancient theologians.12 He called the Jews ‘mad dogs,’ ‘beasts,’ and ‘animals.’ Yet whereas Luther accuses the Jews of ritual murder, one does not find such demonization in Calvin’s texts and his operational conclusions are radically different. He says it is totally against the gospels to persecute the Jews in any way. 

“In Calvin’s view, Christianity’s heritage, both in this life and in the hereafter, is due to the greatest son the Jewish people ever produced. Christianity owes everything to Jesus of Nazareth and thus should be grateful to the Jews.

“Calvin’s approach has had a major influence, for instance, on many Dutch Protestants. They always had a high opinion of Jews, saying they could not have been Christians if there had not been Jews. From this trend has come Christians for Israel International, who are great supporters of Israel. They invest in projects in Israel and help Russian Jews finance their emigration to it. Such activity has its origins in Calvin’s teachings.”

The Other Reformers

“Among the other Protestant reformers, Ulrich Zwingli also adhered to the official church theology on Judaism. He interpreted the Jews’ dispersion all over the world as a divine punishment for Jesus’ crucifixion. Zwingli did not, however, expect the Jews to convert, and believed that many ceremonies of the papacy and its military power derived from Jewish influences.

“Philipp Melanchthon’s views were very close to Calvin’s. He also considered the Jews and their practices as anachronisms.13 A very different position was taken by Martin Butzer. He was one of the first in Christian Europe to oppose the organized mission among Jews. Butzer thought Christians should set a good example to the Jews and should mainly give them help and love. He added that if Christians wanted Jews to convert to Christianity, they should first ‘convert’ themselves.”

Jansen remarks: “Substitution theology has been the greatest error in the history of the Christian churches. This was the belief that Christians had replaced the Jews in the covenant with God, entailing the false claim that Jesus was the founder of a new religion. This theology has largely been abandoned.”

Accusations Based on Prejudices

“The ongoing confrontation with this past is important because if you try to repress a thought it comes back. In 1981, after a public discussion, a very smart philosopher came over to me and said that he had liked my book. Yet he added, ‘You have shown that the Jews over the ages have been blamed for almost everything. It seems that in the future they will also be subject to new accusations. If these have been so constant and massive, much of it must be true.’

“We agreed that we should have a lengthy discussion session. I said that having read my book in detail, he knew that Jews had been suspected of hundreds of things over the ages. I had not found a single verifiable charge. He admitted that God’s murder could not be verified, nor could the charge of murdering children. We went through the accusations and he acknowledged that there was no proof that Jews were rapists, traitors, or conspirators.

“I concluded that all one could say was that Jews were human like anybody else. There were good and bad Christians, good and bad Dutchmen, good and bad Jews. All accusations against the Jews resulted from prejudices.”

Jansen observes: “Elie Wiesel told me that he never talked with anti-Semites because all arguments only confirmed their prejudices. In his view the only solution was to educate people in school before they had been infected.”

What Influence on the Present?

Jansen wonders to what extent the reformers’ anti-Jewish theology and Luther’s legacy influence the present anti-Israel attitudes of Protestant denominations. He thinks they play a role, but that other influences are more important.

“Simon Wiesenthal told me after the Lebanon War in 1982 that it was becoming fashionable to call Israel racist and fascist. He pointed out, already at that stage, that it gives Germans double pleasure to call Jews fascists. On the one hand, they can give National Socialism a less horrible face because apparently all people including the Jews tend to fascism and racism. On the other hand, they can portray the Jews as particularly wicked people who espouse fascism despite having undergone it themselves.

“For Germans and Austrians, the question as to whether the Israelis had committed war crimes was not one of rational judgment-as it would be regarding British, French, or Dutch troops-but rather a question of their own spiritual welfare.

“Only this can explain how, together with the rest of the European press, the German and Austrian media fell all over the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Here one could manipulate the facts. The Germans had massively killed defenseless civilians. The Jews supposedly had done the same when given the chance. I’d be surprised if a poll showed that as many as 10 percent of the European population know that in Sabra and Shatila the murderers were Christian Lebanese and not Israelis. In the Second Intifada, many Europeans wanted to view the Palestinians as ‘new Jews’ and thereby finally forget the Shoah victims.”

The Churches’ Deafening Silence

“What shocks me is that throughout the Second Intifada, I haven’t heard a prominent Christian leader or politician explicitly condemn the anti-Semitism in Arab countries. That can only be explained by the European desire for psychological liberation from the past.

“The best one could hear from the previous pope or the World Council of Churches were some general nonexplicit remarks. There is still much discussion of the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. He did not come out openly against the persecution of the Jews.

“The same is true today regarding the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches. The World Council of Churches has not explicitly condemned the suicide bombings in Israel. There is a deafening silence, which is probably the main source on which the boycott attempts feed. It is an expression of anti-Semitism, which as always says much more about the anti-Semites than it will ever say about the Jews.”

Muslim Anti-Semitism

Jansen says this was his major motivation for writing his much-read book of over a thousand pages on Muslim anti-Semitism.14 “There is still a taboo in Europe about Islamic anti-Semitism. The EU intended to conceal the first report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC)-it was leaked after many months-because it also exposed some of the major anti-Semitism of European Muslims. It still is not mentioned in Europe that European Muslims are incited by speeches from imams in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Al-Manar in Lebanon is the most anti-Semitic television station I am aware of. It is even worse than those in Egypt, a very anti-Semitic country. Entire generations in the Muslim world may have been lost because they have been infected by prejudices. What makes it even worse in the Muslim world is the state anti-Semitism that injects hatred into the education system.

“In Europe many Muslims regularly watch Al Jazeera, which also is anti-Semitic. Fear of Muslim retaliation affects European attitudes. That was why many in the European Union did not want the first EUMC report to be published. In the Netherlands, for instance, Middle Eastern anti-Semitism has been adopted by substantial parts of the Dutch originating from Morocco, and both fear and taboo play a part in failing to confront them with it.”

Jansen notes that in his recent book he quotes politicians, academics, journalists, and teachers in the Arab countries surrounding Israel on what they think about the Jewish state. For many Europeans, this makes extremely unpleasant reading. Through the mirror of the Arab inciters and haters, they see what they themselves have been and still are. Jansen points out that one Dutch publisher did not want to publish his book, not because he thought it would not sell but because he was afraid. As far as the churches are concerned, he concludes: “For two thousand years they have been taught not to like Jews. It is mistaken to think this can be overturned in a few decades. The new expressions of Christian hatred toward Israel reflect deep psychological processes. On the other hand, out of Christianity’s positive tendencies toward Judaism come Christian and Evangelical support for Israel.”

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Prof. Hans Jansen taught history from 1990 to 2000 at the Flemish Free University in Brussels and since 2002 teaches at the Simon Wiesenthal Institute in Brussels. He also has lectured at the Free University in Amsterdam. He has prepared radio programs for the Dutch radio, among others, on the Christian roots of anti-Semitism. His major book is Christian Theology after Auschwitz. His other books, all in Dutch, include Diagnosis of Racism and Anti-Semitism in Europe (1994), The Christian Origin of Racist Hatred of Jews (1995), The Pope and the Persecution of the Jews: John Paul Rewrites History (1998), and From Hatred of Jews to Suicide Terrorism (2006).

*          *          * 


1. Hans Jansen, Christelijke theologie na Auschwitz: Theologische en kerkelijke wortels van het antisemitisme, Tome 1, 6th ed. (Amsterdam: Blaak, 1999). [Dutch]

2. Ibid, Tome 2.

3. Martin Luther, Von den Jüden und ihre Lügen. [German]

4. Martin Luther, Dasz Jesus Christus ein geborener Jude sei. [German]

5. As quoted in Jansen, Christelijke theologie na Auschwitz, 148. 

6. Martin Luther, Wider die Sabbather. [German]

7. Jansen, Christelijke theologie na Auschwitz, 149.

8. Martin Luther, Vom Schem Hamphoras. [German]

9. Jansen, Christelijke theologie na Auschwitz, 151.

10. Hans Jansen, “Het protest van Erasmus tegen de renaissance van Hebreeuwse literatuur,” in Driemaandelijks tijdschrift van de Stichting Auschwitz, 74 (January-March 2002): 5-40. [Dutch]

11. René Süss, Luthers Theologisch Testament over de Joden en hun leugens: Inleiding, vertaling, commentaar (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2006). [Dutch]

12. Jansen, Christelijke theologie na Auschwitz, 157.

13. Ibid., 161.

14. Hans Jansen, Van jodenhaat naar zelfmoordterrorisme: Islamisering van het Europees antisemitisme in het Midden-Oosten (Heerenveen: Groen, 2006). [Dutch]

Hans Jansen

Prof. Hans Jansen taught history from 1990 to 2000 at the Flemish Free University in Brussels and since 2002 has been teaching at the Simon Wiesenthal Institute in Brussels. He also has lectured at the Free University in Amsterdam. He has prepared radio programs for the Dutch radio, among others, on the Christian roots of anti-Semitism.