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Does the Antisemitism Awareness Act Make the New Testament Illegal?

In response to the “pro-Palestine” protests on US campus, which seemingly often degenerate into displays of open support for Hamas and anti-Semitic hate, the House just passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act.

This has generated some controversy among some lawmakers on the right, not just because of free speech concerns (which are obviously valid), but over the bill’s definition of antisemitism. Some lawmakers such as Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as commentators such as Tucker Carlson, have alleged that this bill condemns the New Testament.

Does it?

The bill codifies “The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (referred to in this Act as the “IHRA”) Working Definition of Antisemitism” into law.

What does this definition say?

The controversial passage at issue describes “contemporary examples of antisemitism” which “include, but are not limited to […] Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

Oh boy.

What are we to make of this?

Let us try to be very rigorous and precise, because this is a matter both important and sensitive.

First of all, what does the New Testament say on this topic?

Some very clever people on Twitter have pointed out that, according to the New Testament, Jesus was executed by the Romans. This is true.

But an honest review of the text would have to point out that the New Testament also describes a conspiracy by important elements of the Jewish community in Roman Judea, including leaders of the Pharisees (an activist sect influential at the time) and the Sanhedrin (the official religious leadership of the Jewish community at the time) to essentially trick the Roman authorities into sentencing Jesus to death on false charges of sedition. It also depicts the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate sentencing Jesus to death in order to placate a Jewish mob baying for his blood. To say “the Romans killed Jesus, full stop”, is almost as misleading, vis-à-vis the actual text of the New Testament, as to say “the Jews killed Jesus”.

As Matt Gaetz has pointed out, there are several passages of the New Testament that refer to “the Jews” as being responsible for the death of Jesus.

Let us already clarify something: it’s perfectly straightforward to understand that when the New Testament refers to “the Jews” it is using that expression as shorthand for “many Jews in the time and place where Jesus lived” (political correctness having not been invented in the 1st century AD), and not alleging some sort of collective bloodguilt of the Jewish people that transcends time and space. In the same way that, when someone reads “the Romans” in the New Testament, they naturally understand that it is referring to the authorities of the Roman Empire in 1st century Judea, so that it would be bizarre to read that phrase as implying anything about, say, 21st century Italians.

(With regard to New Testament statements about “the Jews”, another obvious thing should be pointed out, which is that almost all the “good guys” in the New Testament, starting with Jesus himself, his mother Mary, and the Twelve Apostles, are also Jews, as are the authors of the New Testament.)

Furthermore, mainstream Christian tradition has classically understood this “mixed” responsibility for the death of Jesus, implicating both the Jews and the Romans, as symbolizing the responsibility of all men as sinners in the death of Jesus. The twenty centuries of Christian history are filled with theological treatises, spiritual texts, prayers, hymns, and so forth, emphasizing the collective spiritual responsibility of all people in the crucifixion of Jesus since, according to Christian orthodoxy, Jesus had to die on the Cross to redeem the original sin which is carried by all human creatures and into which all people share.

So, to summarize: (a) it is true that the New Testament ascribes to significant elements of the Jewish community at the time of Jesus a significant share of responsibility for the death of Jesus; (b) it is not true, however, that a straightforward reading of those passages implies anything about “the Jews” as a collective entity today or in any time or location outside the world of the New Testament.

However, the most important question at issue is not whether the New Testament says this or that; it is whether the Antisemitism Awareness Act’s definition of antisemitism can be interpreted to cover the New Testament.

Now that we’ve clarified (hopefully) what the New Testament says about the Jews killing Jesus, does that overlap with the Act’s definition of antisemitism?

The first thing that must be said about this definition is that, perhaps inevitably, it is a mess.

It includes umbrella clauses such as “but not limited to” which could cover potentially anything.

The second point is that the “Jews killed Jesus” passage of the definition is followed by another clause: “to characterize Israel and Israelis”

So, therefore, under the text’s definition of antisemitism, saying “the Jews killed Jesus” would not be antisemitic; but saying “the Jews killed Jesus, therefore Israel is evil” would be. That seems…paradoxical.

As we said, that text is just a mess.

And so, does the Act make the New Testament illegal? The honest answer is that the text’s definition of antisemitism is too imprecise to give a good answer.

But this, in turn, means that when one is asked to codify such an imprecise definition into law, that imprecision is itself a sufficient reason to decline to do so.

To put things differently: can we imagine a future where a perfectly non-antisemitic and orthodox professor at a Christian university says something clumsy or imprecise about the Jews and the New Testament, and in turn some overzealous Department of Education bureaucrat uses this Act’s authority to go after that university? The answer to that is: yes, obviously.

That is a perfectly legitimate reason to vote against the bill, though it is not quite the same thing as saying that the Act “makes the New Testament illegal”.

We have written many times that the New Antisemitism rising among young American radicals is a serious threat, and one worthy of a public policy response, as well as a bipartisan show of will from elected officials. We sympathize with and understand the authors of this bill and why they voted for it. But we also sympathize with and understand the conservative lawmakers who voted against it.

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