“Engage with people who also care about the common good,” urged Rev. Daniel Joslyn Siemiatkoski, Ph. D., as he recounted the history of and explored the ways to combat antisemitism in America.
Fairfield University’s 17th Annual Jewish-Christian Engagement Lecture offered students and staff the opportunity to hear Dr. Siemiatkoski discuss the nation’s prevalent challenges with bigotry. The Aloysius P. Kelley Center Presentation Room held the event on Wednesday, March 22, which was titled “Antisemitism and the Far-Right: A Challenge to Jewish-Christian Relations.”
Dr. Siemiatkoski began his speech with an introduction to the history and evolution of antisemitism and white supremacy in America. However, the bulk of his time regarded the major challenges these concepts pose to Jewish-Christian relations.
These challenges, as told by the speaker, settle themselves into three categories: conspiratorial thinking, the institutional decline within the Church and a tendency towards illiberalism.
During his address, Siemiatkoski highlighted the composition of antisemitism as complex mindsets and tools used to eliminate the Jewish population from Christian societies.
As noted in its title, the speech emphasized specific actions of the far-right political standing. Although threats of antisemitism in the far-left are still worthy of concern, he emphasized the vitality of recognizing its apparent damage as it stems from the other extreme.
“In the context of the United States, the threat of antisemitism on the far-right is a greater material concern,” he advised. “This is because far-right antisemitism is a well-documented cause for acts of murder, violence and mayhem against a U.S.-Jewish community in the past decade.”
The difference between anti-Judaism and antisemitism was a point Dr. Siemiatkoski made sure to cover in the early moments of his talk. According to him, the difference lies in how Jews are treated socially.
Anti-Judaism occurs from the distinction Jewish people have curated between themselves and white Europeans. The theory states that Jews demonstrate a set of apparently different qualities that are shown simply in their essence.
“Jews are then portrayed in their essence as the eternal enemy for Europeans or, in a US context, for white people,” reported Siemiatkoski. “They can never be made into an equal because their essence is always the one inferior to and in conflict with European society.”
Hence this disparity, he asserted that white supremacists aim to remove Jews from society.
Antisemitism, on the other hand, is a worldview formed by conspiracy theories.
The speaker elaborated on how white Christians present Jewish people as an “all-powerful, malignant force responsible for all the problems in the world.” In fact, he warned that antisemitism is a branch of conspiratorial thinking that is and will be used to reject democracy.
He also discussed an overarching narrative of the Christian religion: that America is blessed by God, and Christians must fulfill God’s will for their country. Not only does this narrative perpetuate cultural degradation, but it also privileges those under that specific worldview.
“This [white, cultural] identity and this worldview is based on conflict. It uses an ‘us versus them’ dynamic that polices who does and does not count as an American,” said Siemiatkoski.
In essence, antisemitism is a tool of hatred that operates under white nationalism; it elevates the goal to eliminate the Jewish population, similar to the plan of Nazi Germany.
This annual lecture was proudly co-hosted by Fairfield University’s Bennett Center of Judaic Studies and the Center for Catholic Studies, with efforts to unite two presumably different groups.
Positioned at a Jesuit University, a center for Judaic Studies may seem “counterintuitive,” as proposed by Glynn Dynner, Director of the Bennett Center of Judaic Studies. However, he continued to explain its duty to become a “bridge between Jews, Catholics and other communities.”
“We do this both through immersion into very specific aspects of the Jewish experience, and through events that increase awareness about wider, humanitarian issues,” such as monthly Shabbat services and dinners.
Siemiatkoski noted that because the ideas of Christianity and white identity are fused together into a single notion, people who adopt those ideas are more inept to cause and encourage violence towards outsider groups, such as Jews.
“Once a person has adopted this worldview of white, Christian nationalism, surveys show they also have high degrees of disposition towards racism, xenophobia, anti-immigration views and authoritarianism,” he revealed.
Another symptom of this belief is that conspiratorial thinking which drives nationwide prejudice.
The speaker laid vast attention on the “Great Replacement Theory,” a conspiracy theory that sits at the heart of antisemitism. This theory suggests that the Jewish population, and “other global elites,” are “plotting to replace white, Christian Americans with non-white immigrants.”
The Great Replacement Theory hints at a sort of white genocide that is simply not true.
At the “Unite the White” Rally in Charlottesville in 2017, protesters chanted the phrases, “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Similarly, Nicholas Fuentes, political commentator, Christian and self-proclaimed antisemite and white supremacist, stated in 2021, “We are coming for you,” as well as, “We are willing, ultimately, to die for our cause,” towards the people who have “disrupted” America.
These statements, as described by Siemiatkoski, not only endorse the Great Replacement Theory but incite considerable acts of violence against those “disruptors,” who are portrayed as a threat to American purity.
As Siemiatkoski grew further into his speech, he touched upon the fact that social media has established an atmosphere for antisemitism to flourish. The “Christian lies” that spread about the Jewish population, in the form of outlandish conspiracy theories, have created a mainstream type of danger.
“This is not an issue far away from you,” he spoke. “Violence is only a matter of time.” He pondered which “American patriots” will have the courage to simply take that next step.
Siemiatkoski also explained the concept of words leading to actions. Although antisemitism may begin as a theoretical belief, it transforms into an action that is feasible and, finally, one that is necessary.
“This history [of violence and expulsion] tells us that rhetoric about hidden enemies and sinister plots has real, social consequences,” he said.
For the final third of his speech, the scholar switched gears and brought his and his audience’s attention to Jewish-Christian relations—another roaring purpose of his lecture.
Although they have faced significant challenges, positive relations still exist between the two religions. It is the duty of Christian churches not only to conduct self-examinations but to actively partake in making real amends towards antisemitism. These amends can be as simple as recognizing the New Testament as a Jewish text.
The second challenge posed to uplifting Jewish-Christian relations is an institutional decline. Siemiatkoski inquired his audience about the frequency with which they attend church. Fortunately for the point of his argument, not many people raised their hand.
He predicted that by 2050, Christians will not be the majority in America. And, with fewer Christians and fewer people attending church, there will be less support and funding to build up Jewish-Christian relations.
He reminded his audience that the power lies with Christians to rework these relations into something better. However, when you have people like Fuentes endorsing violence and separation, it is difficult to meet those amends.
A solution? Siemiatkoski voiced this question: “We have to ask how the Church’s teaching against antisemitism can be disseminated effectively in the future.”
He believes it is a problem of ignorance. If racists and antisemites knew better, they would not think the way they do—which ties greatly into the roots of conspiracy theories.
The final challenge discussed was the emergence of illiberalism, or anti-liberalism, which “rejects the core assumptions of the modern political systems of western liberal democracies.” Instead of embracing values like pluralism and multiculturalism, it embodies authoritarianism and traditionalism.
Siemiatkoski claimed that we as a society are moving out of the modern era, a period that relied on liberalism. Now, those liberal ideas as well as democracy are being challenged.
“That [is] what the Jan. 6 [attack on the Capitol] was!” he exclaimed.
In line with this idea, reshaping Christian identities in an illiberal pattern shifts the meaning and construction of Jewish-Christian relations altogether.
He admitted that Jewish-Christian relations cannot do or solve everything. Nonetheless, he left his audience with two guiding principles regarding future improvements.
“We have to let go of the fallacy of progress,” was his first point. “Progress is not inevitable, we cannot assume the future will be better than the past.”
This fallacy overlooks the actual work that true progress entails, and it leaves those deserving of progress behind.
Siemiatkoski’s second principle reminded his audience that the work of Jewish-Christian relations is political—not in the manner of political parties, but in its advocacy for better relations and the creation of public, judged positions.
Being aware of this political aspect allows people to gain stronger perspectives on the issue surrounding them.
His “key move,” however, is to confront the assumptions of Christian nationalism.
“Left unanswered, antisemitism will continue to grow, and manifest increasing threat to American citizens and to American democracy,” he declared.
At Fairfield University, the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies supports that mission of confrontation by hosting lectures that highlight Jewish-Christian relations. Dynner hopes that these lectures increase empathy among their guests.
“Although Jews and Catholics have different histories, and relations have historically been difficult at times, we really have much in common,” he said.
In addition, he related the Jewish value of tikkun olam–healing the world–to the Jesuit mission of social activism.
Siemiatkoski deems this issue of violence and discrimination a “conflict that concerns all Americans.” Still, through the grit, he has hope for reconciliation, civility and peace.
“This problem might seem intractable, and the work overwhelming. But those willing to engage with it will find that they are not alone.”