A Mennonite Agenda for Research and Action on Antisemitism

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Issue 2020, vol. 74

This article is a personal and professional response to the historical survey presented in “Anabaptist Mennonite Relations with Jews Across Five Centuries.” Mennonite history illustrates both great potential for positive Christian-Jewish relations as well as the worst forms of antisemitism and anti-Jewish violence. As two Jewish and Mennonite peacebuilders, we begin this article with how this history relates to our personal commitment to peacebuilding. Our professional task is then to identify the potential to transform this history into an opportunity for growth and reconciliation between Mennonites and Jews.

Summary of harms

Some Mennonites provided racial and theological justification for the Holocaust. Most Mennonites living in Germany, Poland, Prussia and Ukraine supported Hitler, with many voluntarily joining the German armed forces and participating in the Holocaust. Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) top staff in Germany had friendly relationships with Nazi leaders. The Nazis rewarded Mennonites for their support by giving Mennonites “gifts” that included homes and businesses confiscated from Jews and even bloodstained clothing with bullet holes taken from Jews.[1]

After World War II, MCC secured special privileges for Mennonites fleeing violence in the Soviet Union. Many of these Mennonites had supported the Nazis voluntarily. The refugees included high-ranking Mennonite Nazis and those who had participated in killing Jews. Many of these refugees held antisemitic beliefs that “Jewish Bolshevism” was responsible for their suffering. Some confess that there was widespread awareness of the killings of almost all Jews in Ukraine. MCC staff admitted they had “duped” the international refugee organizations who eventually paid for MCC to move Mennonites to North and South America. At a time when Jews were blocked from immigrating to some countries in the Americas, thousands of Mennonites who had participated and supported Jewish persecution found new homes.[2]

While Europeans went through a process of de-Nazification to delegitimize antisemitic beliefs and confront the horror of the Holocaust, MCC-assisted Mennonites were not accountable for their participation in the Holocaust or challenged on their antisemitic beliefs. MCC promoted Mennonite peace theology to Mennonite refugees, but this did not address antisemitism and may have enabled anti-Jewish sentiment, since Mennonite peace work often focused on Palestinians suffering from the creation of the state of Israel. Mennonites’ antisemitic views of Jews as responsible for their suffering in Ukraine seems to have morphed into Mennonites denouncing Israel’s violence and supporting Palestinians while remaining mostly silent on European and Arab violence to Jews. In the 1956 MCC history, Jewish suffering is not mentioned, the word “Jew” does not appear in the index, and MCC staff comment that Palestinian suffering in 1948 outweighed the suffering of any other group. [3] MCC was more generous – in every way – to Nazis than Jews.

At a time when most North Americans opposed Nazi Germany, a majority of Mennonite newspapers in North America published antisemitic, pro-Nazi propaganda. Two of these newspapers were run by actual Nazi staff after WWII. Mennonite publishers widely justified the theology and ideology of white supremacy. Out of this history, a few Russian Mennonites were part of creating the most influential white supremacist institutions and laid the groundwork for the obsession of today’s violent far-right movements with targeting and blaming Jews for African-American progress and Latino immigration.[4]

A Jewish and a Mennonite peacebuilder respond

In this article, we reflect on this history as Mennonite and Jewish peacebuilding scholars and practitioners. We draw on our personal stories and peacebuilding expertise to explore what it might look like to do justice and build peace for Mennonites in response to knowledge of Mennonite harms to Jews, past and present.

A personal response from Marc Gopin

I considered certain Mennonite peacebuilders to be my mentors, and my books are filled with learning from them. My first book with Oxford University Press contained a major chapter advocating for Mennonite forms of peacebuilding as the most pioneering in the world.[5] Mennonite scholars invited me to write in their books about peacebuilding.[6] I taught and learned about peacebuilding at Mennonite universities. This was unusual for a rabbi and activist peacebuilder. I was also pioneering a new field of religion and peacebuilding, but I felt it was true at the time that Mennonites stood out in their talents.

The reason that I took such an interest in Mennonites as peacebuilders is that I felt a kinship with them as a separated minority with a unique religiosity and lifestyle, and a humble appearance. Mennonites reminded me of my old roots in Ukraine, a place for me of longing, but also searing pain and anguish.

I come from a subset of Hasidim, who are the most conservative and pious Jews with a special approach to prayer and an utterly separated life from the modern world. They were focused in Eastern Europe on pietism and internal life through song and prayer. They are divided into many subsects, just like Mennonites, with strange names like Muncatch or Lubavitch or Satmar (deriving from European towns including Satmir from Saint Mary). They also hail in spiritual origins from Jewish pietist movements in the Rhineland in the Middle Ages, since they migrated along with most Jews from the Rhineland after severe persecutions there and eventually settled throughout Eastern Europe. But they speak a language called Yiddish, which is half Old German and half Hebrew, deriving from the earliest times in what is now Germany. My own sect in Ukraine was called Stolin-Karlin. We Gopins came from a small town in northwest Ukraine called Troyanivka, 50-75 miles east of Cracow, Poland. My great grandparents and grandparents left in 1912, leaving so many cousins behind, Gopins, Gittlemans and Melameds.

All of my relatives in Ukraine were murdered in one day in 1943, right before the holiest days of the Jewish year – all the Gopins, all the Gittlemans, all the Melameds, the children, all of the cousins. There is a plaque now where the 300 bodies of my cousins were thrown into an oil dump.[7] There was the big Dichter clan all murdered at once, the Hochleders, and the Guz clan. I know their exact names and ages. Little Tova Kot was just six, and Haya Hudil Marin was only 4.[8] I know exactly where they died and what it looked like. I have examined the trees and forests around their last terrible moments on earth.

I think about my town and those 300 all the time. I study the routes near that town, the neighboring towns of Povursk and Rivne and Kovel. I imagine their lives, for I have nothing left of Europe, no roots, my grandparents too traumatized to even speak the name of the village that they came from. There is no way to contain the evil of a complete genocide of six million innocent souls in my limited mind, but there is a way to embrace and embody the story of my 300 family members in their lives and last moments on one day.

Nazis and fascists murdered nine out of every ten Jewish Europeans. My relatives are just a small portion of the 1-2 million Jewish men, women and children killed by bullets in Ukraine in the “bullets Holocaust,” which is distinct from the “concentration camp Holocaust.”[9] Jews were despised by so many ignorant people who demonized them as Christ-killers, century after century – so many sermons given every Sunday labeling them as agents of the devil, to lead up to pogroms every Easter, when they had to hide underneath their beds. All this paved the way for their eventual elimination entirely.

I find it hard to move on from this even in 2020, 80 years later. Because everything – your history, all the beauty of roots, of land, of customs, of sacred place, of lantzman – it is all gone, in a terrible grave that only expresses the horror of the last moments of screaming and crying children. Theirs was not the peaceful grave of a natural death, not a place of burial. It is a place of torture, terror and murder, in Troyanavka and all across Ukraine and Eastern Europe. And as God said in Genesis 4:10, the blood of my brother screams at me from the ground.

I see all of them all the time. I am haunted by them. For like Jews around the world, I know everything about them. I know their names from extensive lists at Yad Vashem, I know their ages from 2-82, I know exactly who was murdered in Troyanevka, from the Gitelmans, my Bubbie’s (grandmother Bessie) family to my great-grandmother’s family, the Melameds, including the last rabbi of the town, a rabbi just like me, who in his last act hid the sacred scroll of the Torah for safekeeping with the Polish priest who buried it until after the war so that the fascists would not burn it.

I felt for Mennonites who shared their history of suffering with me. I listened attentively to tales from the Martyrs Mirror when I came to know Mennonites. I never shared with them the horror that I just shared above. I liked the old clothing of their ancestors that resembled what we used to wear. I loved their exuberant singing that reminded me of how my sect embraced loud singing and trained voices and still does. I thought there would be a reason why, as wounded survivors of history, we would both produce scholars and practitioners of peacebuilding.

I celebrate the Mennonite peacebuilders as I always did. I celebrate their kindness and compassion, their humility. They are the flower of German Mennonite culture, but they are sitting on top of an ash heap, which includes the ashes of my entire heritage in Europe, now only bones and ashes.

I did not know that my young peacebuilding friends came from a community that hid a terrible past that involved the destruction of my people. I did not know that secrets were being kept and terrible truths being hidden. And that changed me, which made me feel naïve and betrayed and abused. Particularly because this pacifist community, that excoriated my fellow Jews for their treatment of Palestinians, apparently did not excommunicate all their Nazi members who committed mass murder. I have only just learned now, in 2020, that some Mennonites worked tirelessly to help Nazis escape prosecution, even as they completely excluded help for the survivors of the Holocaust, my people.

Learning the history of Mennonite participation in the Holocaust changed me. This was no longer a world of pacifism that I had been presented with, but also a secret world of white supremacy and Aryanism beloved by Hitler, not by God. Thus, after writing everything I had written in the 1990s about Mennonite peacebuilding’s unique character and cultural trajectory, I realize that I was betrayed by those who saw fit to hide the truth from me of their own crimes while simultaneously guilting me on Israel.

From the first day I arrived in Mennonite communities as a student and as a teacher, I tried to model what it is to love deeply your people and your traditions, while at the same time facing your problems and weaknesses, and trying to build a theology of peace and justice nevertheless. For me, that meant talking about and working with Palestinians and recognizing the harms by the state of Israel.[10] I had no idea, when I came to Mennonite universities, that I was stepping into a community that covered a past that destroyed my community. While the Jewish community looks vibrant and successful, it may never again recover the gentle ways it had in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. We have all lost something dear in World War II.

When I gave a speech about my peacebuilding work in Syria, Israel and Palestine at a Mennonite university, the president publicly guilted me to take responsibility for Israeli policies, even as I was the one on the ground risking my life year after year to build peace and stop violence between Israelis and Palestinians. I never had support from MCC, only a strange silence that makes sense in light of the evidence now exposed. And I was also told by trusted Mennonite peacebuilding colleagues that Mennonite institutions prohibited them from work for peace between Jews and Palestinians. Mennonites could make peace between Hutu and Tutsi, between the worst murderers and their victims. They could rush to the Ayatollahs in Iran and heap praise upon them, even as these men vilify Israel as the worst place on earth. But you could not work on peace and justice in Israel and embrace each side, because there is a problem between the Mennonite Central Committee and the Jewish people. They have a Jewish problem.

Israel has a problem with Palestine and Palestine has a problem with Israel, and thousands of us have tried in good faith to be honest brokers and bridge builders. Israel has failed as a country to confront its past, even though there are thousands of amazing Jews who have worked valiantly for peace and justice and on behalf of Palestinian equality. They have poured millions of dollars into those efforts.

For Mennonites, their history with Jews starts with a crime, then a cover-up – and an obsession with Israel became a scapegoat. Those crimes must be acknowledged in order for Mennonite leadership to grow and evolve into a community that embraces its own ethics.

I felt a shudder as I read about the urgency, immediately in 1949, for MCC to begin a process of making Israel into the number one criminal nation, precisely in the wake of so many crimes being covered up by Nazi Germany and its allies in World War II. This was done by those who were seen as privileged Aryans and who received a reward of Jewish properties, stores and even bloody clothes from Auschwitz, as the reader can see from the accumulated evidence. These were the most serious war crimes on the planet, and what better time to begin to find fault with the Jews as a group than precisely when Nazis among Mennonites were being hidden and covered up, who would eventually preach white supremacy in North America.

I realize now that this fierce criminalization of Israel was projection, and a desperate declaration of innocence for the crimes of World War II. In many ways, it was a repeat performance of centuries of blood libels, where Jews were brought in to be sacrificed by the mobs when crimes were committed. They were tortured and executed, especially when children were found to have been sexually molested and murdered.[11] When communities are hiding crimes, they tend to desperately search for a scapegoat – something or someone ugly who is hated anyway – and then all crimes are pinned on them.

These are very sad things for everyone to bear today, both children of victims and children of perpetrators not having committed the actual crimes. But especially for my dear Mennonite peacebuilder friends who actually take their theology seriously as a peace church, who actually have dedicated their lives to all of humanity, Jews included.

It is very hard for ethnic groups to face the fact sometimes that they may have an authentic faith in God and in ethical values like peace, but they coexist with ethnic strains that are not worshipping God but worshipping instead their race and their blood. This is a danger for every religion on the planet. Unlike millions of European Christians, North American Mennonites never confessed, never apologized, never made amends and never comforted the survivors, like my family.

A personal response from Lisa Schirch

There are Mennonites, especially in Canada or from a Russian Mennonite background, who grew up knowing that some Mennonites had supported Hitler and contributed to the Holocaust. As a Swiss Mennonite, I never heard even a brief mention of Mennonite roles in the Holocaust until 2015. I have devoted my life to putting Mennonite ethics into practice. The painful contrast between Mennonite ethics and Mennonite history in the Holocaust is juxtaposed with my own life experience in a Jewish family today. My husband is Jewish, we are raising Jewish children amidst antisemitic attacks in my community, and we are committed to a just peace in Israel and Palestine.

I have attended, served and taught at Mennonite institutions my entire life. Growing up in Bluffton, Ohio, I attended a Mennonite church where I learned that Jesus was Jewish. I cannot remember ever hearing any negative word about Jews. On the contrary, I grew up admiring Jews. Fiddler on the Roof was the first movie I saw, and I remember my community remarking about the similarities between Jews and Mennonites. I read Anne Frank and visited her home on a family trip to Amsterdam. As a teenager, my favorite author was famed Jewish author Chaim Potok. But I cannot remember actually knowing any Jews before I got to graduate school in my 20s. In 50 years of attending and serving in Mennonite universities, never did I learn about the history of Mennonite Nazis. Never did I hear a sermon or attend a class about antisemitism.

For more than three decades, I have worked with dozens of Palestinians and Israelis, and have traveled and worked throughout the Middle East.[12] In college, I wrote a thesis on Israeli foreign policy and advocated on behalf of Palestinian rights. I attended many Mennonite church events hosting Palestinian speakers seeking a just peace. I heard personal stories of Palestinians losing their family members during the creation of the state of Israel. I read all of the MCC publications about Israel and Palestine and found myself frustrated with the Jewish state for the harm it did toward Palestinians. The only story I heard growing up about MCC in WWII was the story of Lois Gunden, who saved Jewish children. I was not aware at that point that MCC historians changed the way they told her story over the years.[13]

In the 2000s, I oversaw an Israeli-Palestinian Congressional Forum that hosted Palestinian and Jewish experts who guided Congress on how the United States could best support peace in the region. I was invited to the Obama White House to advise on the Israel-Palestinian peace process. I commented on the siege on Gaza on CNN and Fox News. Like my colleague Marc Gopin, I have tried to understand why MCC staff repeatedly assert that “conflict resolution” is not relevant in Israel and Palestine. MCC prevented my mentors in the field of peacebuilding from involvement in the region. MCC staff wrongly portrayed my field of study as ethically “neutral” and MCC determined that they must choose to stand only with Palestinians so they could support “justice.”[14]

In 2017, my husband and I led a 4-month cross-cultural study-abroad semester for Eastern Mennonite University. We spent half our time living and studying with Jews, and half with Palestinians and Arabs in Jordan and Egypt. We read Benjamin Goossen’s book Chosen Nation about Mennonite roles in the Holocaust, which had been published just months before our trip. I began to ask questions about how MCC’s role in WWII had morphed into a strongly anti-Israel stance, and why so many MCC staff expressed anger at us for meeting with and listening to Jews on our study-abroad trip.

As a Mennonite woman married to a Jewish man, raising our children to respect both Judaism and Christianity, I never could have imagined the nightmare that “my people” played such significant roles in the Holocaust or in the spread of white supremacy in North America. As a former MCC Canada volunteer and donor to MCC, I never could have imagined that MCC would depart from Anabaptist ethics to argue that the “ends” of saving ethnic Mennonites justified the “means” of lying to refugee agents about their Nazi ties and avoiding accountability to victims, a key principle of restorative justice.

For me and my family, this history has implications for our safety in the present. White supremacist narratives and threats of violence in Virginia continue to draw inspiration from MCC-rescued ethnic Mennonites who wrote books and built antisemitic websites and institutions that blame Jews for multiculturalism and racial justice. Mennonite institutions bear some responsibility for the spread of white supremacy in North America. As such, they should do more to address its impacts today.

This history also has impacts on the integrity of Mennonite peacebuilding in general, and specifically the integrity of Mennonite statements and work in the Middle East. MCC historians first ignored Jewish suffering in a book about post-WWII humanitarian work, and then left out the complex details of how and why so many Jews came to embrace Zionism and establish the state of Israel. Mennonite institutions rarely host Jewish speakers who could help others understand Jewish history. Many Mennonites are aware that 800,000 Palestinians lost their homes in the Nakba. But they are unaware that 800,000 or more Mizrahi Jews were forced out of Arab and Muslim states, also losing their homes. MCC staff regularly assert the argument that Israelis are simply white settlers and have no historic rights to live in Israel. This relies on the idea that most Jews went to Palestine voluntarily. It erases the history of the Holocaust and the reality that other countries would not accept Jewish refugees. It ignores the Jewish reality, unlike the Mennonite reality, that everywhere they migrated they continued to experience antisemitism and minority status that usually excluded their ability to observe holidays. Mennonites writing about Israel rarely mention Jewish narratives of what Israel means to Jews.

In 2018, the editor of The Mennonite commissioned me to write an article reflecting on Mennonite roles in the Holocaust and the current situation in Israel and Palestine. In that article, I raised research questions about why MCC had begun its work in 1949 only with Palestinians, immediately after it had helped Nazi-sympathizing Mennonites escape from Europe. MCC staff complained about my article, and The Mennonite pulled it off their website.[15] Then a month later, I was teaching at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg when I learned that MCC staff were calling for the cancellation of my course on “Peacebuilding Approaches to Violent Extremism.” Another former MCC staff person called for a boycott of my books after she was asked to read my Little Book of Dialogue. CMU defended me and supported me throughout this situation, but it left lasting questions about Mennonite worldviews toward Jews.

In the last two years, I have received countless letters from Mennonites angry with me for “digging up the past.” Some argued that “it was only a few Mennonites who supported Hitler,” while others insisted “they had no choice; they were forced to fight.” Others claimed, “You would have done the same thing if you were traumatized like those Russian Mennonites.” Mennonite researchers have debunked many of these ideas. But Mennonite narratives of victimhood and denial continue. And because so few Mennonites are in relationship with Jews, few are pressing for accountability or seem to have empathy for the impact of Mennonite roles in the Holocaust or MCC’s post-WWII actions.

As I carried out the research for Anabaptist Mennonite Relations with Jews Across Five Centuries, I shared the stories with my children and husband around the dinner table – stories of both the vast horror of Mennonite participation in the Holocaust and of the few Mennonites willing to resist and defend Jews.

As a peacebuilder who cares deeply about the Anabaptist ethics of pacifism and social justice, I believe Mennonite exceptionalism damages the credibility of peacebuilding work everywhere in the world. Some of my coreligionists believe Mennonite trauma matters, but Jewish trauma does not. Some believe Mennonite trauma justifies their participation in the Holocaust, while Jewish trauma is seen as an exaggerated excuse for Israeli violence. Some believe the myth that Mennonite militarism and violence occurred only under duress, while the context of European and Arab violence to Jews is ignored or delegitimized in relation to Jewish militarism and violence toward Palestinians. It seems that for some Mennonites, the ends justify the means. Mennonites can lie and kill if it will save their lives. But many Mennonites will critique Jews who kill to protect their lives. Mennonite colonization of vast portions of Indigenous land in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Paraguay and Brazil are widely accepted as unfortunate historic events, while some Mennonites actively denounce Jewish colonialism in Palestine. Mennonites largely ignore calls from Indigenous leaders in the Americas for truth-telling, returning land or restitution for Indigenous land, while some Mennonites write books and advocate to demand Jews return to land or provide restitution to Palestinians. Mennonites largely dismiss Mennonite racism and violence toward other groups as unfortunate, while some point fingers at Jews for racist policies. Some Mennonites view their love for Muslim and Arab countries as faithfulness to Jesus’ command to love enemies, while some Mennonites refuse to talk with Israeli settlers and view this only through the lens of “taking the side of justice.”

The integrity of Mennonite pacifism and peacebuilding depend on Mennonites taking clear steps to address this history and the psychological defenses of denial and exceptionalism we have developed.

Mennonite responses to harms toward Jews

Trauma contributes to violence. Wounded people do wound other people. Understanding trauma can help us develop empathy toward others. But trauma cannot excuse injustice toward others. As Mennonites and Jews, we are responsible for confessing our own people’s harms toward others and working to do justice and foster reconciliation.

All of this can change, just as it changed for German Protestants and Catholics. Germany had committed the largest genocide of a single people in human history. In the 1950s, young Germans utterly turned their backs on centuries of anti-Judaism and antisemitism. They found the poison and they rooted it out from their culture. They confessed, they apologized, they did restitution, and they made radical educational and symbolic changes. Hundreds of German youths flocked to Israeli kibbutzim, helping Jews in any way they could as penance, and it made a huge difference. Today, Germany is home to a very large Israeli Jewish community who actually returned to live in Germany. And compassionate, democratic leaders like Angela Merkel or Polish Catholics like John Paul II emerged from this German transformation.

Our field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding has an excellent array of processes of relationship building even for the worst of enemies. Even where many deaths have occurred, people can build new relationships through deep listening, mutual respect, the power of symbol and ritual to heal, and difficult and painful conversations, as well as by humbly making the space for that to happen. People can learn to be compassionate in both word and deed. Reconciliation between people of goodwill is possible. Apology and forgiveness can bring both healing and tremendous growth for all involved.

But peacebuilding only works when people recognize they have a deep problem. It starts with a commitment to self-awareness and self-reflection. Transformation and reconciliation are possible as long as people are ready to face themselves completely, in all their beauty and ugliness. Penance matters, confession matters, remorse and repentance matter, as they are basic to religious decency, moral growth and most importantly mental health.

That is the key to a future not of hypocrisy and coverup but growth and flourishing. Our field has also demonstrated that new theologies of compassion and care for all are possible, even in places where a mass murder occurred just years before. But cover-ups are poison. They poison the soul of nations, they poison family, they perpetuate a cult of secrecy, lies. They provoke other crimes on top of crimes. There is a reason that repentance is associated so strongly with absolution, with cleansing, for without it things only get murkier and more putrid.

I have great faith that younger Mennonites will forge a new path, for it is the only way to restore their position as a true peace church. Peace means confession, acknowledgment and an earnest effort to become new again. These are hard things to discuss and overcome, but it can be done.

Mennonites today are not responsible for the crimes of the past. Ezekiel 33 states that no one is held guilty or responsible for what they have never done. This forms the basis of any decent ethical search for universal principles. But it is essential to acknowledge everything that has been done.

Mennonites are responsible for truth-telling and accountability today. We are all responsible for denial and coverup to the degree to which we engage in it. We are all responsible for cruelty, lack of empathy and lack of expression of sorrow when we know that some of us, or our ancestors or our country, nation or community, caused harm to another group, harm of a grievous nature. All of us are responsible to repair the damage that has been done in our name or evil ideas and philosophies or theologies that justified all manner of crimes. Collective guilt and scapegoating are exactly how we got to this place of tragedy.

The Catholic Church has acknowledged this. Almost all Protestant denominations have. Even the German Mennonite Church has made amends for the horror of Nazism, acknowledging the role of bad theology in that tragedy, including (especially) the tendency to scapegoat Jews for all human problems. Theology changes. Learning from sacred text evolves. Scriptural reasoning between Jews and Christians – and now also with members of many other faiths – brings change. These evolutions of true faith and ethics act as a cleansing of past sins and are preparation for a viable spiritual future. Mennonites could go through a process of de-Nazification like other churches did decades ago.

Mennonite and Jewish ethics both emphasize lived faith. As human beings, we must not only believe certain truths, we must practice in our daily lives care for others. As such, there are steps to address the legacy of Mennonite harms to Jews. These include an agenda of self-reflection, reconciliation and confession that could be the focus of conferences and workshops, or further research by different groups of Mennonites.

Mennonite historians

Most Mennonite history books and courses emphasize Mennonite good works and devote little attention to Mennonite harms. Why do Mennonite history books minimize or exclude the extensive scholarship about Mennonites’ roles in theologically justifying, participating in and benefitting from the Holocaust? Which Mennonite university will undertake an effort to ensure future textbooks adequately and fairly tell this complex story? How have Mennonite institutions sanctioned and censored Mennonite scholars for writing about this history of harm?

Mennonite Central Committee

In 2020, MCC is celebrating its 100th anniversary. During this year of reflection on the past century, MCC could explore how its programming choices were made and how those choices impacted other groups. How did saving ethnic kin become more important than following Jesus’ ethics of truth-telling, justice for victims or principles of nonviolence? Did MCC’s advocacy to privilege Mennonite refugees limit assistance to Jews escaping the Holocaust? What were the internal conversations at MCC as it moved from helping thousands of Mennonites who supported the Nazis in WWII to immediately helping Palestinian refugees in Palestine, beginning in 1949? How could Palestinian suffering be described as worse than Jewish suffering in 1948? Why do so many of the MCC Palestine staff come from Russian Mennonite backgrounds where antisemitism was widespread? Do Russian Mennonites serving with MCC in Palestine view themselves as like Palestinians, and do they persist in believing the myth of “Jewish Bolshevism” and continue to blame Jews for Russian violence toward their ancestors? Is it a coincidence that some of the grandchildren of Mennonite families that once blamed Jews for Bolshevik and Communist violence against them now serve as humanitarians in Palestine, use narratives of Jewish world control, denounce the whole of Israel as “evil” and advocate boycotts of Jews and Jewish companies? Can MCC place more emphasis on addressing Mennonite’s history of colonialism and repression of Indigenous populations in the Americas so that its advocacy denouncing Israeli colonialism reflects our commitment to put our ethics into practice in our own lives? What can MCC do to address its role in the spread of antisemitism in North and South America? Can MCC require training on antisemitism for all MCC staff and a more substantial 1- to 2-week training on the history of Christian antisemitism and Judaism for MCC staff working in the Middle East?[16] Will MCC offer an acknowledgment and apology to Jews for MCC’s role in spreading antisemitism in North and South America at the 100th-anniversary celebrations of MCC later this year?

Mennonite conferences, pastors and churches

Over the last 500 years, some Anabaptists have recognized the significance of Judaism for Anabaptists seeking to reject Empire Christianity in favor of more authentic teachings from a Jewish Jesus. How do Mennonites move forward to learn from and with Jewish colleagues, standing apart from Empire Christianity? Some Mennonites still hold antisemitic beliefs that Jews killed Jesus and that Jews must convert, and some assert that Jews must control Israel to fulfill the prophecy that Jesus will return. Some Mennonites continue to use antisemitic tropes asserting Jewish control and power, even though Jews are still a small minority. Could Mennonite churches study a curriculum such as Understanding Antisemitism[17] to debunk these beliefs? Could Mennonites rethink how they teach and study the Bible in ways that challenge Christian antisemitism’s legacy by studying Amy-Jill Levine’s book on the church and the Jewish Jesus?[18] What can Mennonite pastors and churches do to increase understanding, accountability and repentance of Mennonite harms to Jews and other groups who suffered under the Holocaust? How can training in Mennonites’ legacy related to white supremacy be addressed from the pulpit and in the Sunday school classroom? What can Mennonites learn about advocating for Palestinian rights without relying on antisemitic narratives?[19]

Mennonite seminaries

Mennonite theologians at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va., and elsewhere have obligations for responding to this history. What might the Jewish Jesus who preached about the Good Samaritan and welcoming the stranger say about Mennonite participation in racial science and theology that suggested morals pass through blood? What might a Jewish Jesus have thought about his followers participating in genocide against Jews in Danzig’s Stutthof concentration camp, the Warsaw ghetto, Jewish villages near the Mennonite town of Chortitza, the Netherlands, and elsewhere? And how would Jesus have responded to Mennonites economically profiting from Jewish suffering by taking homes, businesses and clothing from murdered Jews?

Theologians could explore Mennonite exceptionalism and double standards. How do Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 7:5 apply to Mennonites? “You hypocrite! First, remove the beam out of your eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” How is Mennonite pacifism and teachings on restorative justice and peacebuilding hampered by the inability to practice these processes with harms Mennonites commit? How is Micah 6:8 guidance to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly relevant to Mennonite’s unwillingness to reflect on unflattering aspects of our history? Theologians could also help MCC reflect on the ethics of its post-WWII choices. Was it ethical to offer Nazi-supporting Mennonites privileged status over other refugees? Was it ethical to suggest the “ends” of saving many secular, ethnic Mennonites justified the “means” that required MCC to “dupe” immigration officials? Is Mennonite identity centered primarily on our ethnicity, or our ideology?

Mennonite sociologists and political scientists

Mennonites have an opportunity to reflect on their own, as well as with Jews, on how persecution, trauma, exile, cultural isolation, living in diasporas and entrenched victim narratives impacted culture, social life and political decision-making in both groups. This history also has wider impacts on global society and politics. How much of an impact did Mennonite newspapers and Mennonite publishing houses printing white supremacy and KKK literature have in legitimating and justifying these ideologies by linking them with upright Mennonite communities? What could a comparison between Nazi-supporting Mennonites who came to the Americas with those who stayed in Europe and went through a process of de-Nazification teach us about its role in shifting antisemitic attitudes? How did Mennonite immigrants arriving in North and South American after 1920 influence the broader society with their ideas of white supremacy and antisemitism? What would the white supremacy movement have looked like without Mennonite architects? Did Mennonite white supremacists shift the pro-segregation supremacists toward a movement more explicitly focused on antisemitism and targeting Jews? What responsibilities do Mennonites have in addressing white supremacy in North America today given the role of MCC-assisted Mennonites in a movement that has led to countless deaths of Jews, African Americans, First Nations, LGBTQ, Latinos and other immigrants?

Mennonite psychologists and trauma experts

Psychologists study the human tendency to amplify positive self-images. Even “humble” communities are prideful and experience cognitive dissonance when faced with the harms they do to others. Mennonite trauma experts have written extensively on the cycle of trauma and how wounded people wound other people. How can psychological concepts of cognitive dissonance, denial and projection help us understand the difficulty some Mennonites exhibit in facing this history? How can the sense of victimhood experienced by Russian Mennonites be addressed to enable a more honest conversation about their roles in the Holocaust? How can Mennonites explore their projection onto Israelis for harms they have committed toward Jews and Indigenous peoples? What are the psychological dynamics of some Mennonites appropriating Jewish victimhood by suggesting Mennonites suffered “more than Jews”? What does it mean for Mennonites to speak of the “Mennonite holocaust,” comparing the death and disappearance of 35,000 Mennonites to the genocide of six million Jews? What does it mean for Mennonites to speak of the “Mennonite exodus” out of Ukraine? How can Mennonites explore the psychology of Mennonite exceptionalism? Is there a way for Mennonites to interrogate how trauma has shaped their identity or to find ways to heal from intergenerational trauma? What rituals of mourning and loss can we do to remember Jewish victims? How do we draw on our growing understanding of trauma to reflect on how it shapes us and what we must do to heal the harms we have brought to others?

Mennonite peacebuilders

Mennonite peacebuilding centers at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University can consider a range of practical next steps. Mennonites and Jews have had significant roles in developing the fields of restorative justice, transitional justice, trauma healing and peace processes to address historical injustices. Mennonite knowledge of this history offers an opportunity to apply the principles and practices of peacebuilding to address the harms Mennonites have committed against Jews. What can Mennonite peacebuilders do to convene spaces where Mennonites can come to terms with harms done to others? What type of reconciliation processes might be possible between Mennonite and Jewish peacebuilders?

This history also creates new roles for addressing Mennonite peacebuilding approaches to white supremacy. White supremacy is a growing terrorist threat across North America and Europe, where it is destabilizing democracies and gaining new supporters. What responsibility and role do Mennonite peacebuilders have for addressing the Mennonite roles in the spread of white supremacist ideology? How might our expertise in trauma healing, social justice and rituals of memorializing help to reconcile Mennonite churches to the impact and potential for reconciliation generations of Jews, African Americans, Indigenous, Latinos, Asians and other minority groups hurt by the children or grandchildren of Mennonite white supremacists? How do Mennonite peacebuilders transform or undo Ben Klassen’s idea of a “racial holy war” in 2020?

Conclusion

For more than five decades, church leaders have delayed responding to scholars’ and concerned church members’ revelations about Mennonite harms to Jews. In 2020, there is now substantial evidence documenting these harms. Mennonites scholars and practitioners are leaders in the field of restorative justice, peacebuilding and conflict resolution and transformation. Anabaptist theology has informed and inspired this work. In light of Mennonite roles in the Holocaust, Mennonites need to reexamine Anabaptist theology, narratives of trauma, identity and righteousness, and psychological defense mechanisms of denial, justification and repression, and find new ways to put peace ethics into practice. Mennonite leadership in the fields of restorative justice and peacebuilding requires putting these skills to work within our own lives.

 

NOTES

[1] Benjamin W. Goossen. Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era. Princeton University Press, 2017.

[2] The following Mennonite researchers have documented the history of MCC assistance to Mennonite refugees: T. D. Regehr. “Or Dutch or German Ancestry? Mennonite Refugees, MCC and the International Refugee Organization.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 13, 1995; Steve Schroeder. “Mennonite-Nazi Collaboration and Coming to Terms With the Past: European Mennonites and the MCC, 1945-1950.” The Conrad Grebel Review, 21:2, Spring 2003; Steve Schroeder. “Selective Memory: Danziger Mennonite Reflections on the Nazi Era, 1945-1950.” Bethel College, North Newton, Kan. YouTube. 16 March 2018; Goossen, 2017.

[3] John Unruh. In the Name of Christ. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1952.

[4] Full citations for each of these conclusions can be found in Lisa Schirch. “Anabaptist Mennonite Relations with Jews Across Five Centuries.” Mennonite Life, 2020.

[5] Marc Gopin. “Conflict Resolution as Religious Experience: Contemporary Mennonite Peacemaking.” Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacemaking. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[6] Gopin. “Foreword.” From Suffering to Solidarity: The Historical Seeds of Mennonite Interreligious, Interethnic, and International Peacebuilding. Andrew Klager, editor. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2015.

[7] Here I describe the events and the location in greater detail. http://howtothinkandact.com/2009/04/21/my-holocaust-memorial-day/. Here is a link to the plaque for this small mass grave. https://images.app.goo.gl/2RrNNikdBjKi6y1s7. Accessed 30 April 2020.

[8] For detailed lists for Troyanovka, see: https://yvng.yadvashem.org/index.html?language=en&s_lastName=&s_firstName=&s_place=Troyanivka&s_dateOfBirth=&cluster=true. The same site can be used to find millions of names and places of birth and death.

[9] https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/einsatzgruppen. Accessed 30 April 2020.

[10] Marc Gopin. Holy War Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002; Gopin. Bridges across an Impossible Divide: The Inner Lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[11] See this excellent study on the origins of the “blood libel”: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-murder-of-william-of-norwich-9780190219628?cc=us&lang=en&. There is extensive literature on its persistence up until today and its use for persecution: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_libel .

[12] See my blog for a complete history of my writing and work on Israel and Palestine. https://lisaschirch.wordpress.com/israel-and-palestine-blogs/

[13] MCC’s changing story of Lois Gunden is explained in “Anabaptist Mennonite Relations Across Five Centuries.” Mennonite Life, 2020.

[14] Alain Epp Weaver and Sonia K. Weaver. Salt and Sign: Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine, 1949-1999. Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 2000, pp. 94-95.

[15] See Lisa Schirch. “An Open Letter of Complaint to The Mennonite.” Blog. 14 May 2019.

[16] This author has had direct dialogues with the heads of multiple Mennonite institutions requesting that staff be trained in antisemitism. The response to date has been to refuse to include this training, even though basic anti-racism training is included at most institutions. This author is in contact with the heads of Mennonite institutions, the Anti-Defamation League and with other Mennonites to attempt to address this problem.

[17] Understanding Antisemitism. Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, 2017, pp. 21-24 https://jfrej.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/JFREJ-Understanding-Antisemitism-November-2017-1.pdf Accessed 8 Feb. 2020.

[18] Amy-Jill Levine. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York: Harper-Collins, 2006.

[19] Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine. Habits of anti-Judaism: Critiquing a PCUSA report on Israel/Palestine.” The Christian Century, 29 June 2010; Lisa Schirch. “Progressive Christians and Antisemitism: From Arrogance to Ignorance on Israel & Palestine.” 20 March 2019. https://lisaschirch.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/full-report-on-antisemitism-and-progressive-christians.pdf Accessed 10 March 2020.