History in a Minor Key
A look at the hardships that have befallen God’s Chosen People
The air was cool, a hint of dampness pervading it. I stood huddled with my Jewish friends. In front of us lay a massive mound of gray ash. Fragments of human bone protruded from it. As I gazed at the mound, my friends recited the “Mourner’s Kaddish,” a Hebrew prayer praising God and expressing a longing for the establishment of His Kingdom on Earth.1
We were at Majdanek, a concentration camp the Germans built outside Lublin, Poland, where they systematically exterminated an estimated 78,000 Jewish people during World War II. We stood at the memorial to the victims; the mound of ash was all that remained of them.
My friends’ low and tearful prayers pulsated in my ears, as I silently offered up my own anguished prayer. Oh, Lord . . .
Nothing else would come out. What could I possibly say, or even think, that would express the grief I felt?
The ash represented so much: Lives cut short. Human dignity, the very image of God, reduced to refuse. Six million Jewish men, women, and children murdered due to the hatred of one demented German whose degeneracy was sustained by an acquiescent citizenry.
The metered sounds of the “Kaddish,” the cement memorial to the victims, the awful heap of ashes—I knew they had all come to symbolize the story of the Jewish people in a Gentile world, a mournful history in a minor key.
Jewish people outside Israel live in what they call the Diaspora. The word comes from two Greek words meaning “to scatter across,” and it aptly describes Jewish history. In Deuteronomy 28, Moses told Israel that obedience to His Word would bring blessing, and disobedience would bring cursing.
Blessing meant fertile fields, healthy children, and security. Cursing meant dispersion around the globe—the Diaspora. The Jewish people would be plucked from their land, scattered to the four winds, and persecuted.
The first dispersion occurred in 722 BC, when Assyria conquered the 10 northern tribes of Israel and scattered them throughout the Middle East, where many of them remained for centuries. But the biggest dispersion took place between AD 66 and 135. After the Roman Empire crushed the great rebellion of AD 66, it destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 and began driving God’s people into other parts of the world. Ancient historian Josephus said a million Jews perished and thousands were sold into slavery.
Over the centuries, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob settled on nearly every continent, initially living in close-knit communities separated from their Gentile neighbors. Later, especially in Europe, they sought to integrate into the broader societies in which they lived. Sometimes they were successful, but persecution followed them no matter how embedded they became.
Tragically, much Jewish persecution came at the hands of professing Christians who claimed to believe in the Scriptures and to follow the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Many saw the Temple’s destruction as a sign that God was finished with the Jews and had replaced them with the church, the “new Israel.”
Early Christian theologian Tertullian (c. AD 160–220) claimed Jacob and Esau were allegories of the church and Israel. “Beyond doubt,” he wrote, “through the edict of the divine utterance, the prior and ‘greater’ people—that is, the Jewish—must necessarily serve the ‘less’; and the ‘less’ people—that is, the Christian—overcome the ‘greater.’”2
Tertullian’s terribly flawed theology took root in the Gentile world, and Christendom’s message became clear: The Christians must subjugate the Jews. This anti-Semitic dogma motivated the infamous Crusades.
Literally meaning “the war for the cross,” the Crusades were a response to the Muslim occupation of Israel, then called Palestine. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for a holy war against the Muslims “to recapture the Holy Land and ensure safety for Christian pilgrims visiting sacred sites.”3
Muslims were not the only people the bloodthirsty crusaders targeted. According to the dominant theology of the day, the Jewish people were also enemies of Christ and, therefore, fair game.
“Christian” armies massacred Jews throughout Europe. For example, Count Emicho, a German nobleman and crusader, led his marauders to attack Jewish communities throughout the Rhineland in 1096. They went from town to town with the message of convert or die.
At one point, Emicho and his henchmen exhumed the corpse of a Gentile man who had been buried for a month and claimed the Jews “took a gentile and boiled him in water. They then poured the water into our wells in order to kill us.” Angry mobs gathered “to avenge him who was crucified, whom their ancestors slew. . . . Let not a remnant or a residue escape; even an infant . . . in the cradle.”4 The crusaders killed nearly every Jewish person in the town.
Sadly, the Crusades were not isolated movements. Throughout the past 2,000 years, people who claim to follow Christ have been among the most virulent persecutors of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, the Roman Catholic Church hunted down and tortured Jews who converted to Christianity, claiming it was ferreting out infidelity.
Today, anti-Semitism is growing. In April 2019, 19-year-old John Earnest, a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian church, entered a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, and opened fire, killing one person and injuring three others, including the synagogue’s rabbi.
In an eight-page manifesto, Earnest based his hatred of Jewish people partially on his flawed understanding of Scripture. Referring to Jews as “one of the most ugly, sinful, deceitful, cursed, and corrupt” races, he gave 15 “reasons” for his action, including,
For their persecution of Christians of old (including the prophets of ancient Israel—Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc.), members of the early church (Stephen—whose death at the hands of the Jews was both heart-wrenching and rage-inducing), Christians of modern-day Syria and Palestine, and Christians in White nations.5
The Muslim world, too, has been cruel to the Jews. Abdelmohsen Abouhatab, a Philadelphia imam who live-streams anti-Semitic sermons on YouTube, delivered a sermon in 2019 in which he called Jews “the vilest people” and “enemies of Allah.” He also accused the late prime minister Menachem Begin “of slitting the stomach of a pregnant woman as part of a ‘bet,’” timesofisrael.com reported.6
Abouhatab also spouts lies about so-called Jewish money and power, a tactic people have always used to justify anti-Semitism.
The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, is among Israel’s greatest enemies. Its charter declares its intent to fight the “warmongering Jews” and states, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it.”7 Hamas’s efforts to annihilate Israel constitute a primary source of terrorism in the Middle East today.
Not all persecution is religiously motivated. Jewish people also have been targeted for political reasons.
One of the most emblematic manifestations of political anti-Semitism is the work The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 1905 and proven to be a hoax in the 1920s. It purported to be the secret minutes of meetings of Jewish leaders, the Elders of Zion, and their plans for world domination.
The Black Hundreds, an ultranationalist Russian organization, blamed the Jewish community for the Russian Revolution of 19058 and used the Protocols to justify their hatred, which eventually resulted in a vicious pogrom in Odessa that year in which more than 300 Jews were killed and thousands injured.9
As bad as the persecutions were, nothing equaled the politically motivated persecution led by a disgruntled painter named Adolf Hitler. His ultranationalism and Germany’s defeat in World War I fueled his hatred. Despite Jewish patriotism (more than 100,000 Jewish men fought for Germany during World War I),10 Hitler and many other Germans felt the Jewish people had cost them the war.
Hitler’s “Final Solution” for dealing with European Jewry resulted in the deaths of millions. In 1918, Europe’s Jewish population was about 9.5 million. By the end of World War II, it was only 3.5 million.11
Today college campuses are hotbeds of anti-Semitism, and mainstream society isn’t far behind. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2018 alone. Of these attacks, 39 of them were physical assaults, a 105 percent increase over 2017.12 One, called “the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the U.S.,”13 was conducted by a white supremacist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and left 11 people dead.
The Hope to Come
Despite their tragic history, God has not abandoned His ancient people, whom He has loved “with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3). I thought of His love for my friends as they concluded the “Mourner’s Kaddish” at the Majdanek death camp. Then we sang “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”), a 19th-century poem that is now the national anthem of the State of Israel:
As long as in the heart within,
The Jewish soul yearns,
And toward the eastern edges, onward,
An eye gazes toward Zion.
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope that is two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The Land of Zion, Jerusalem.14
Scripture exhorts us not to forget the hope—Hatikvah—that remains for the Jewish people because of the Lord who loves them:
I will make a covenant of peace with them. . . . They shall be safe in their land; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bands of their yoke and delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. And they shall no longer be a prey for the nations, nor shall beasts of the land devour them; but they shall dwell safely, and no one shall make them afraid (Ezek. 34:25, 27–28).
When that future day comes, Israel’s story will be in a minor key no more.
- “Jewish Prayers: Mourners Kaddish,” jewishvirtuallibrary.org [jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-mourners-kaddish].
- Tertullian, “An Answer to the Jews,” newadvent.org [newadvent.org/fathers/0308.htm].
- Joshua Levy, “How the Crusades Affected Medieval Jews in Europe and Palestine,” myjewishlearning.com[myjewishlearning.com/article/the-crusades].
- Cited in Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012), 67.
- Michael Davis, “The Anti-Jewish Manifesto Of John T. Earnest, The San Diego Synagogue Shooter,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, Memri.org, May 15, 2019 [tinyurl.com/y2cpfufm].
- “Philadelphia imam calls Jews ‘vilest people,’” timesofisrael.com, March 9, 2019 [tinyurl.com/yy54p7zt].
- “Hamas Covenant 1988,” Yale Law School, avalon.yale.law.edu [tinyurl.com/y4qkper5].
- “Anti-Semitism: History of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’” jewishvirtuallibrary.org [tinyurl.com/y66tcxw4].
- “Odessa” [jewishvirtuallibrary.org/Odessa].
- Goldstein, 260.
- “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents: Year in Review 2018” [adl.org/audit2018].
- “Hatikvah—National Anthem of the State of Israel,” Knesset.gov.il [tinyurl.com/y6xoqv9p].