Friends in the Teeth of History

Rembrandt. c. 1648. Head of Christ.
Menasseh ben Israel, rabbi, scholar, and printer in
Amsterdam, is believed to have posed as the model.

Some of my best friends are Christians. That sounds like my riff on the anti-semite – who delicately sets aside an exception or two – to counter-balance his sweeping detestation of Jews in any larger numbers.

No – unlike the anti-semite with his preferred exceptions – I really mean it! And my “Christian best friend” category applies across Christianity’s denominations, even including those nonbelievers who, in their formative years, ever called themselves Christian.

These friendships have not been based on shared beliefs of the creedal kind. But the Christian part was not within these friends accidentally. Their qualities of character, developed in them by parents and the parental culture, have stood the many tests of friendship very well indeed.

This datum of my personal experience gave me the sense that anti-semitism – although it counts as the oldest continuous hatred in recorded history – could be cured! Admittedly, the creedal inheritance had come with its emotional add-ons, giving it an almost genetic feel, albeit culturally transmitted. And the potential cure met one other impediment in Christian culture: its deforming antipathy to Jews had been endorsed by saints and writers of the highest caliber.

No matter, I thought. Look at the culturally-transmitted belief in women’s inferiority! Without any credible exception that I know of, that’s been endorsed and enforced in the acculturated, from the highest-placed to the lowest-ranked, all over the planet. And lo! within a generation we have seen unprecedented changes in the relations of men and women, world-wide! After all, what cultural formation is more deep-rooted than the sexual one? If that can change, when it may have been around for some thirty- to forty-thousand years, why not the hatred of Jews which, in its most rabid form, might be no older than eighteen hundred years?

People’s actual rank in society can be seen in how they walk, stand, look at others and themselves, as shown in their bodily and facial expressions. In my lifetime, African-Americans have gone from suffering degrees of public disdain that were clearly internalized to a self-approval visible in their gestures, ways of looking round at others and ways of occupying the shared public space.

When I was first in Israel, I spent an afternoon at the Turkish baths in Jerusalem, getting the strains of the long El Al flight sweated and massaged out of me. It also gave me the chance to take a long look at naked Israel on her feminine side. Having hitchhiked through Europe and stayed at youth hostels, I had a fair idea of what the girls of Europe looked like, unadorned, when they were wearing nothing.

Coming back to my Aunt Myriam’s house, where I was staying in Jerusalem, I met Orna, my young Israeli-American cousin. “How did you like the Turkish Hamam?” she asked, with her sunshine smile of greeting.

     “Very much,” I said. “Israeli girls … look wonderful! We are the Chosen People!”

So, viewed in my ultra-basic terms, how’s it going with the Jews nowadays? When I taught philosophy in Brooklyn College, my students included the children of Holocaust survivors. Nothing in their bearing suggested any loss of social standing or self-confidence on that account. 

Today, I’m told by an intelligent and reliable faculty friend – himself not Jewish – the Jewish students walk across the Brooklyn campus quickly, their heads down. 

For the seven years that I fought back against an unfair firing, I was staunchly (and at last successfully) supported by the Professional Staff Congress, which is the faculty union at The City University of New York. More recently, some Jewish faculty have been trying to withdraw from the PSC, because they don’t want their union dues continuing to fund its anti-semitism! 

Hoping to get new light on this ancient subject, and pass the time on our recent flight to California, I read a book titled Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism, by Rosemary Ruether. Though I’ve read a fair number of books on this subject, I’d never tried to fathom the adversos Judaeos tradition, produced between the second and the sixth centuries of the common era. That was a literature authored by early church writers, whose anti-Judaism was so fundamental that it furnished their case for being a Christian! The adversos Judaeos claim was that “the Jews” had always been depraved murderers whom God had rejected. The Lord had made exceptions in a few cases for figures who were not at heart Israelites or Jews but – ahead of their time – looked to the future advent of Christ to free them from proximity to their Jewish neighbors. 

Although I’d learned from Hegel that a culture may be defined by its view of the Absolute, I’d never managed to track the theological connection between this literary divestment from the Jews – of every one of their hard-bought, lovingly remembered and transmitted, covenantal connections to God and – once Christianity became the official religion of the empire – the step-by-step enactment of state policies that cumulatively brought the Jews of Europe to their condition of social, economic and legal ruin. 

The author records the major stages of this theologically rationalized and politically manipulated downfall. Although the European Enlightenment included an all-too-belated restoration of the rights of Jews as citizens, the author argues that the price of Jewish emancipation was the cultural demand to shed all outward (and surely some inward) traces of Jewish identity.

The Nazi sheering-off of citizenship rights – so recently conferred and so conditionally recognized – would turn out a heck of a lot easier than had been initially imagined by its Jewish victims or other enlightened modern people.

* * *

Now what? In my mind, I go back to my parents’ living room, and the afternoons or evenings where, among friends of varied faiths, they had

tired the sun with talking

and sent him down the sky.

I remember sitting among them as a child, or a teenager, and thinking – not that it would all end someday – but only that it was so exquisitely, endlessly normal that one could stretch and stretch and never exhaust it all. In that sense, those times seemed endless.

Then one day, they were gone. My father died first, my mother three years later. I found myself alone in their empty apartment, kneeling beside the cartons, trying to pack up their last belongings to give away or send to their house in Maine.

Of course, I was crying. It had all ended. And it was on me to tie it up and send it on its way.

Then I noticed a note left on a side table, written in my father’s clear and elegant hand. It said,

“The future is the past entered through another door.”

The effect of the note was not to dry my tears of that hour, though over time, in its own way, the note proved right for my life.

About this Christian and Jewish thing:

Can we not enter the past

through another door

and get it right this time?

Related Reading: Christians, Jews, and The Great Rift | The Covenant on the Timeline | Does Anti-Semitism Have Sex Appeal?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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