A Timely Story – Reid S. Trulson's foreword.
Not since the end of World War II has this book been more timely.
This week, Philadelphia’s leading newspaper bore a chilling front-page headline: “Something Bad Is Happening in Our Country.” The photo accompanying the lead story showed people praying amid one hundred gravestones that had been toppled at Philadelphia’s Mount Carmel Cemetery, a nearly two centuries–old Jewish cemetery. The previous week 170 tombstones had been overturned in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. In addition, Jewish community centers and day schools in thirty-three US states and two Canadian provinces had received bomb threats in just the first two months of 2017.
The newspaper’s report on “a rash of anti-Semitism” is consistent with a broader trend in the United States and in Europe. The Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents reported that anti-Semitic incidents at US colleges and universities had nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015. The audit noted a dramatic rise in violent anti-Semitic assaults in the US. In total, reports of anti-Jewish incidents in 2015 increased 3 percent. A February 2016 CNN report concluded, “Anti-Semitism is thriving in Europe, so it was no surprise to hear the news last month of record-setting Jewish migration to Israel in 2015.”
Dr. Lee Spitzer’s Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust: The Hand of Sincere Friendship reveals how Baptists responded to European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s. The story is particularly timely in light of the reoccurring rise of anti-Semitism in the US and Europe today.
Although Baptists constitute the largest portion of US Protestants, little has previously been told of their response to the Holocaust and the hatred out of which it arose. Historical investigations by three earlier scholars had concluded that Baptists were largely silent about anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe, implying that there was no story to tell. Those studies, however, bore several significant deficiencies that Dr. Spitzer’s research has now corrected. Unlike the three shorter works, Spitzer’s broadly scoped research examines Baptist actions on national, regional, state, and local levels as well as activity in home and foreign mission agencies. Spitzer’s study is remarkably pan-Baptist, assessing the responses of Northern (now American), Southern, African American, Seventh Day, Swedish, and North American (German) Baptist Conventions, as well as documenting General Association of Regular Baptist, Baptist World Alliance, Baptist press, and Baptist ecumenical responses. His attention to African American Baptists, who identified as fellow sufferers with Jews, yields especially significant insight. By having ignored African American Baptists, the earlier scholarship had overlooked nearly 40 percent of US Baptists.
Context is crucial for accurate understanding. By placing the Baptist response in historical perspective, Spitzer corrects yet another deficiency of the earlier works. For instance, Spitzer reflects on the extent to which Baptist anti-war convictions after World War I influenced their response to European anti-Semitic acts. Similarly, the Turkish persecution of Armenians led to the Northern Baptists’ first response to genocidal acts. Their strong appeals to the US government on behalf of the Armenians proved fruitless in halting the Armenian genocide and left Northern Baptists frustrated. As a result, the Northern Baptist Convention “entered into the Nazi era humbled and uncertain of how to actualize its peacemaking mandate when protests failed and evil prevailed” (p. 46).
Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust is the first truly comprehensive assessment of the Baptist response to the repression and then persecution of Jews in the 1930s, culminating in the Holocaust. The book’s subtitle, The Hand of Sincere Friendship, quotes British Baptist Dr. J. H. Rushbrooke, speaking at a 1935 London forum on anti-Semitism and the Nazi threat. On behalf of the Baptists, Rushbrooke offered Jewish brothers and sisters “a hand of sincere friendship.” But how might such a hand be extended? Group actions such as official resolutions, petitions to government leaders, published articles, and solicited donations all played important roles. But Spitzer’s meticulous research also yields the very human story of Baptist individuals in action—a story that neither ignores failures nor inflates achievements.
One center of action left unexamined by earlier scholarship was the activity of Baptist laywomen. Spitzer notes that the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society was “the sole Northern Baptist Convention–affiliated national agency to address in a practical manner the difficulties Jewish immigrants faced in fleeing Europe and beginning a new life in the United States” (page 169). Year to year from the east to west coasts, more than five thousand Northern Baptist laywomen served Jewish refugees and immigrants through the society’s Christian Friendliness ministry. Spitzer introduces ten specific women, such as Matilda Utecht, a Christian friendliness missionary for Rhode Island and Maine, to tell this worthy but unknown story. The women enacted “the most prophetic and practical rebuke to racial prejudice and anti-Semitism within the Northern Baptist Convention” (p. 178).
Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust is a rich contribution to Holocaust studies as well as to Baptist, African American, and women’s studies. It is the story of a great evil and the responses of a people of faith—from inadequate to courageous.
In light of contemporary global anti-Semitism, American Baptist International Ministries issued a 2014 Resolution on Anti-Semitism. Noting that anti-Semitism is wholly contrary to Jesus’ teaching, it urges people “to reach out to Jewish neighbors and/or synagogues to build relationships of solidarity and to initiate mutual actions to confront anti-Semitic attitudes and actions.” Knowledge is power, but knowledge that does not lead to action is like a hand of sincere friendship that remains at one’s side. The story of Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust provides an informing and challenging incentive to Baptists and all people of good will to confront actively the anti-Semitism of our day.