Dutch humanists spurn call to condemn Erasmus’ anti-Semitism

Association says offensive remarks about Jews made by 15th century Catholic theologian should be seen in historical context

Pioneering humanist Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger (Wikimedia commons)
Pioneering humanist Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger (Wikimedia commons)

AMSTERDAM — The Netherlands Humanistic Association declined to condemn the anti-Semitism of pioneering humanist Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Hans Jansen, a former minister of the Dutch Reformed Church called for the condemnation in a recent Op-Ed in the Reformatorisch Dagblad daily. He said the association, which promotes the humanist school of thought that Erasmus helped create in the 15th and 16th centuries, should distance itself from Erasmus’ characterization of Jews as “the most noxious pests.”

Jansen, who is a partner of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute in Brussels, argued the Humanist Association should take action now in light of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands’ public rejection last month of anti-Semitic statements by Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

But a spokesperson for the Netherlands Humanistic Association dismissed the call, Reformatorisch Dagblad reported Thursday, saying, “Humanist tradition is very diverse” and Erasmus “was not the founder of Humanism. Humanists are also not followers of Erasmus, as is sometimes the case with Luther.”

Erasmus is widely known by the sobriquet “prince of the humanists.”

Anton van Hooff, a former chairman of the the De Vrije Gedachte (“Free Thought”) humanist association, told the daily there was no need to apologize for the statements as they were made in a different historical context.

“If anyone is bothered by anti-Jewish statements, it should be impressed upon them that such remarks must be understood in the context of their time, but please, no apologies,” he said.

Erasmus is a national hero in the Netherlands. Countless streets and Rotterdam’s main university are named after him.

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