One of my favorite movies that I and apparently zero other humans have seen is The Great White Hype. In it, Peter Berg plays an amateur boxer turned alt-rocker whose utter douchiness is encapsulated in this response to a groupie’s declaration of her worship for him:
I vibe with this particularly because it’s the kind of thing I imagine not a few self-satisfied trustafarians I went to college with saying, and also Peter Berg went to that same college (go fightin’ Scots!) so I feel like I know where he got the inspiration for the character.
Anyway, if you use the word “Judeo-Christian” I will most definitely cheer at the end of the movie (SPOILER but kind of an obvious one) when you are knocked out by Damon Wayans. Please allow me to explain some of the issues I have with this term.
The Three Historical Phases of Antisemitism
I find it useful to think of antisemitism as having three historical phases, the effects of which are cumulative and overlapping.
The first phase is Christian antisemitism. From its very beginnings, Christianity projects its history into the Jewish past and claims the people it finds there. Those who remain Jews after Jesus shows up with new information become those who should have been “us” but refused to be, having heard and rejected the Gospel. Metonymically they become the money changers at the temple, and Judas who betrayed Jesus for silver.
Christian antisemitism really comes into its own with the rise of the Roman church. First of all, it’s here that Christianity gains the necessary military power to oppress others. And secondly, given that Christ is now their God, the Romans can’t really have people going around telling stories about how they were the ones responsible for his death by excruciating and prolonged torture. And so the narrative becomes, the Jews killed Jesus. (This story has earlier roots, but really takes off in the 4th century.)
Even in this first phase we have numerous antisemitic tropes that remain with us today: the love of money, the clannish refusal to assimilate, the deceptiveness, the uncanny looking-like-us-but-not-being-of-us. Most important of all, however, is the Jew as scapegoat, where the oppressor conceals their oppressor status by deflecting it onto the oppressed. No longer is it the Romans who killed Jesus king of the Jews; instead it’s the Jews who killed Jesus God of the Romans. Christianity projects everything oppressive within itself onto the Jew. It associates its kind and loving parts with the New Testament, and all its judgmental tyranny with the Old.
The second phase is the “middleman” antisemitism of medieval Europe. This phase builds on elements of the previous, primarily the Jew as money-changer and the Jew as face of oppression. Medieval European laws prohibited Christians from lending money at interest, while permitting Jews to do so. At the same time, Jews were typically barred from owning land, which was the true measure of wealth in pre-industrial Europe. These factors slotted Jews into the position of money-lending (and often, tax collection), making them into the public face of everyone else’s economic oppression. Thus, when resentment bred by impoverishment boiled over, Jewish neighborhoods became targets of mass violence in the form of pogroms, while the aristocracy were untouched.
Then, with the industrial revolution, money comes to replace land as the fundamental measure of wealth in Europe. As a result, an infinitesimal percentage of Jews (bankers, primarily) actually do gain considerable economic power. These Jews, represented metonymically by the Rothschild family (or today, by George Soros) become key players in fantasies about global Jewish conspiracies. Here also is where we get The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a supposed internal memo/manifesto outlining the international Jewish plot to take over the world (debunked long ago as a forgery but still frequently circulated as a supposedly authentic document in antisemitic circles).
The third phase is biological antisemitism, which emerges along with scientific racism and the conceptualization of human societies as ecosystems. This builds on earlier narratives about Jewish global conspiracy, clannishness, uncanny Otherness, economic power, and especially lack of connection to the land (given the historical denial of land ownership) to cast Jews as a parasitic invasive species whose insidiousness stems from their ability to blend in and flourish as they bleed their host nations dry. Here is where the composer Richard Wagner paints the Jews as insects feeding on the corpse of European culture, and the Nazis compare Jews to plague rats that need to be exterminated for the health of European society.
Have Jews been oppressed outside Christian and European contexts? Sure, but either in ways not specifically antisemitic (pre-Christian empires oppressed Jews pretty much in the same way they did their other imperial subjects) or that borrow directly from the European Christian tradition (e.g., antisemitism in the Arab world, which arose largely with the foundation of the state of Israel).
So that’s a lot, but if there’s a consistent through-line it’s this: Antisemitism relies on the notion that Jews, notwithstanding any outward appearance of being a marginalized minority, are actually secret oppressors with god-killing levels of power. What can’t you pin on the Jews using this narrative? How about culture-draining mass-mediation (or academic elitism), capitalism (or bolshevism), social decay (or hyper-traditionalism), patriarchy (or cultural feminization), homophobia (or homosexuality), slavery (or the erosion of white society via the promotion of black culture)? How about not only the murder of the Christian God, but Christianity itself?
Seriously Just Stop With All This Nonsense
When “Judeo-Christian” gets used in a positive way, it’s usually to reinscribe some narrative of Christian moral superiority that you can keep my name out of, please and thank you very much. The work the prefix is doing here is to absorb the cultural capital of Jewish history into Christianity, and as a bonus, to camouflage any moments when Christians might have been not very nice to Jews. When it’s used in a negative way it’s usually as a near-synonym to “Western” or “European” or “white” or “colonizing” in a way that has everything to do with actual European Christian history. The work done by the prefix in this case is to adapt that Christian tradition of projecting all that is tyrannical in itself onto the Jew, so that Judaism becomes the root of everything oppressive and stifling within Christianity.
Also it makes no damn sense because the major world religion closest to Christianity isn’t actually Judaism. The centrality of faith, the evangelical tradition, the doctrinal centering of judgment in the afterlife as a way to guide behavior in the now—these are things Christianity has in common with Islam, and in which Judaism has very little truck. On the flip side, Islam orients itself to legal text and commentary in a way similar to Judaism; Christianity, not so much. The only reasonable way to draw a line of commonality between Judaism and Christianity, in other words, is via Islam as an intermediary point. This is why we have the terms “Abrahamic” and “people of the book.” The erasure of Islam from this picture is about some serious political grossness.
So the term “Judeo-Christian” isn’t actually based on real-life similarities between those two traditions. Instead, it emerges from Christianity’s fantasies about what Judaism is and should be. It’s about a Judaism that existed before Christianity solely to prepare for it. Anything within BCE Judaism that fails to serve a narrative function as Christian pre-history is discarded as irrelevant. Any element of Jewish tradition that diverges from Christianity following the birth of Jesus is likewise erased.
On top of which, over the past two millennia Christians have been the primary persecutors of Jews, have spread the story of Jewish insidiousness across the world, have collectively been responsible for millions of Jewish deaths from pogroms to the Crusades to the Holocaust. (Some people like to imagine that Germany was a Lutheran nation before 1933 and after 1945 but somehow not during the intervening years. This is silly. It should probably also be mentioned here that Martin Luther’s On The Jews and Their Lies, which urged the killing of Jews, the confiscation of their money, and the burning of their synagogues, was a source of some inspiration for the Nazis.)
So there’s the basic problem of being persecuted for millennia. Compounded by being lumped in with your persecutors. In a way that reduces your history into being a footnote in theirs. Rewritten in such a way as to frame you as the oppressor. Which allows them to imagine they’ve been oppressed by you. And justify more persecution. All of this, distilled into that single, seemingly innocuous, inclusive-sounding term, “Judeo-Christian.”
And that is why I find it so satisfying to watch Damon Wayans knock the crap out of Peter Berg at the end of The Great White Hype.