Last week a Jewish woman, an activist in progressive causes, told me her daughter and her friends were terrified that fellow students at their elite university would find out they were Jewish. This is hardly paranoia, given the way that report after report confirms such actions, from the ripping down of signs of Hamas-kidnapped Israeli children to the chanting of baldly antisemitic slogans in protests.
This week law enforcement identified the source of alleged threats against Jewish students at Cornell University to be not an outsider but a student. At Emory University, students marched alongside their Jewish classmates in solidarity in response to the chants they heard of “From the River to the Sea” (a call for the eradication of Israel itself).
Those of us on the center-right who have seen our movement go awry should expect our friends and pro-democracy allies on the Left to learn from what’s happened with us in recent times. Many of us laughed away charges of incipient racism, nativism, and authoritarianism. After all, most of those critiques came from political rivals and was thought to be exaggerated.
But few of us could have imagined that political leaders at the state and national level would meet with or speak alongside a Holocaust-denying, self-proclaimed Hitler admirer such as Nick Fuentes. Few could have imagined the torch-lit mob at Charlottesville.
Many would have said it is “nut-picking”—letting only the most extreme examples speak on behalf of the whole—to suggest any such dark realities. Now, however, it seems that rarely a week goes by where we don’t find out that some “based” young Right activist or other had a secret, anonymous account spewing unfiltered and undisguised racism.
To suggest that, You know, kids will be kids; everyone has to explore and experience Nazism for themselves, would have sounded absurd just a few years ago—as it should today.
Thankfully, as of now, the figures with actual responsibility on the center-left have indeed repudiated the sort of leftist antisemitism we see in street protests, on university campuses, or online. Whatever one might think of President Biden, he has not yielded one bit when it comes to support both of Israel’s right to exist and of supporting the American Jewish community.
If polling data is to be believed, though, the demographic picture on the Left is not good. Though there are some who hold more nuanced views, TikTok—often found to be the primary source of news for teenage and college-age Americans—is rife with antisemitic dog-whistles and explicit expressions of hatred, all claiming to be under the banner of “pro-Palestinian” progressivism.
Some polling shows that only 48 percent of millennial and Gen Z respondents say that the United States should support Israel in the war with Hamas (compared to 86 percent of the Silent/Greatest generation, 83 percent of baby boomers, and 63 percent of Gen Xers).
Now is the time for leaders on the Left to do what many more on the Right should have done long ago—to identify extremism and bigotry for what it is, and to do so well before the extreme Left ends up where it has been before: excusing atrocities and embracing authoritarian strongmen.
A cliché of our time is what’s called “Godwin’s Law,” the rule that says any internet argument, given enough length, will eventually end up in a comparison of someone with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The overuse and inappropriate analogies to Hitlerism usually causes reasonable scholars, leaders, and journalists to avoid such comparisons at all—even with all the caveats of where the historical similarities end.
That reluctance is commendable, and yet I wonder how effective a taboo on Nazi comparisons become when we encounter those who parrot the exact same rhetoric, when it comes to the Jews, as early post-Weimar Germany.
And—just like the extremist Right—the extremist Left can reassure themselves of their moral integrity by pointing to how the dangers of the other side mean all the usual rules are gone.
Joseph Stalin helped defeat fascism—some American and European leftists once said—so we should remain silent in the face of his totalitarian dictatorship and his bloodthirsty program of mass murder. Such arguments are identical to those used just a bit earlier by others as to why we should support Hitler who, the country was told, is not perfect but is keeping Communism at bay.
Some brave figures on the Left, like some brave figures on the Right, refused to embrace that way. We are blessed to have a country that, in the perilous years of World War II and the Cold War, was led by such figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan rather than by such figures as Charles Lindbergh, Charles Coughlin, Henry Wallace, or Noam Chomsky.
As Christians—on the political Right, Left, or center—we have a special responsibility to recognize what happens when it becomes a point of actual debate on whether Jews are a “problem” to be solved.
We remember the Confessing Church of Nazi-era Germany. Those Christians withstood the loss of their reputations, their ministries, and, in some cases, even their own lives to repudiate a “German Christian” movement that exalted national Volk identity and history over the very Word of God.
We remember many of those anti-Nazi Christian heroes—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Corrie ten Boom—who stood in solidarity with the Jewish people in such moments of threat and refused to look away.
But we should, just as tenaciously, remember the German Christian movement. We should remember what can happen when evil ideologues count on weak and cowardly people, churches, and institutions for what should have been obvious at the time to be worse than neo-paganism—an outright Satanism.
In her magisterial work, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich, Doris Bergen describes just how so-called “German Christianity” took hold. Some of it sounds uncomfortably familiar. These leaders called for a kind of masculinity that contrasted a warrior Christ with such “feminine,” “bourgeois,” or “pietistic” views of Jesus that were seen as weak. Ultimately, that came to include a gradual erasure of such biblical titles as “Lamb of God” and of the emphasis on weak-sounding phrases such as “turn the other cheek.”
German Christianity, its advocates said, would restore the fighting spirit to a church too long at the mercy of its culture. They derided the Confessing Church as, in Bergen’s description, “a holdout of womanly, weak piety.” The detractors were pictured as self-righteous, as “divisive,” as upsetting the “unity of the church,” and as aiding the enemies of the church—those who wished to advocate Communism, sexual anarchy, and family breakdown.
People responded, they said, to appeals to nationalism and race-love for the fatherland—natural affections that they assured were created by God. Passages such as Galatians 3:28 were explained away. The antisemitism led first to a de-emphasis on the Old Testament and ultimately to an almost total rejection of it altogether.
In constructing what they said was necessary to protect the freedom of the church, they surrendered the lordship of Christ and placed themselves in submission to the Führer. As Bergen puts it, “they created a cult based on blood membership and dressed it in the ritual clothing of their Christian tradition.”
“They had replaced belief with ritual, ethnicity, state sponsorship, and war as the core of their spiritual community,” she writes. “In the process they perpetuated a church with neither authority nor integrity.”
Those of us who are Christians should learn this lesson, and those who are not should as well. Those who are conservatives should stand up whenever anything on their “side” leads in that direction. Those who are progressives should stand up whenever anything on their “side” does too.
We should criticize each other, of course, but there is a special responsibility to speak up for what is happening in one’s own sphere of influence. We do not love our “side,” or the ideas represented there, if we let it slide into movements that history and our consciences show lead to atrocities. In fact, such movements lead to death camps.
That means running the risk of being labeled as “hysterical” or “deranged” when pointing to small currents within one’s movement. But this is the way it works: What is excused grows. Suddenly, seemingly, the currents are overwhelming.
Left or Right, religious or secularist, we have an obligation to learn the lessons of an awful history. That doesn’t just mean vigilance from the politicians, but also the campus administrators, the faculties, the college students, the non-college young men and women, and, most importantly to me, the church of Jesus Christ.
When we see a generation that knows not Bonhoeffer, we should pay attention. And when we’re asked to start seeing the existence of Jews as the source of a problem, we should know what to say: Nein.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology project.