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Growing from the same seed-bed

27 February 2015

Christian liturgy can unwittingly fan the flames of anti-Semitism, warns Jane Clements


Perennial hatred: recent anti-Semitic graffiti in Klaipeda, Lithuania

Perennial hatred: recent anti-Semitic graffiti in Klaipeda, Lithuania

THERE is an old joke in which a Jewish man goes to heaven and requests of the Almighty, "Can someone else be the Chosen People for a while?"

This month brought publication of the report by the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism on the reported upsurge of anti-Jewish incidents (the result of increased tensions in the Middle East) during the summer of 2014.

Hosting the launch of the report at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of anti-Semitism as "a blasphemy". While the report was still being compiled, Jewish shoppers were murdered in Paris; since its publication, a synagogue guard has been killed in Copenhagen. What the historian Robert Wistricht called "the longest hatred" certainly seems to be both specific and unending.

Despite this, Jews have survived centuries of destructive forces in almost every age and location. Today, primary schools, synagogues, and organisations like our own are being advised to tighten up already vigilant security measures. A Holocaust survivor tells me that he never expected to see this sort of thing again in his lifetime.

THERE are, of course, many reasons that certain prejudices flourish in a society, including tribalism, jealousy, or folk myths. European anti-Semitism has a history of all these. Jews were, for centuries, recognisably "other" from their Christian contemporaries, set apart through choice, or necessity.

Added to this was the Church's teaching of contempt: Jews were not only different, but cursed; Satan's children; Christ-killers. When the Nazi party refined its racial ideology, it was able to plug in to this dark, deep-rooted myth, which lingered unchallenged among the ignorant and impressionable.

Now those so inclined have another excuse for vilification of all Jews everywhere, namely revenge for Israeli government policies towards Palestinians. The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) is on record as saying that legitimate criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic; it is apparent, however, that the line between anti-Semitism and political comment and social activism can be quite easily crossed.

THE relationship between Jews in the European diaspora and the State of Israel is complex. Discussions about Israeli politics are far more diverse, and can even be quite vitriolic, within the Jewish community. Many non-Jews are also unaware of the Israeli NGOs working and lobbying for Palestinian rights.

None the less, Israel is both welcoming and familiar to Jews, with Hebrew as its national language; its calendar of Jewish festivals; and the availability of kosher food. Many British Jews have family there.

Should things in Europe again get tough, Israel is the bolt-hole. Never again would Jews have to rely on the whim of foreign governments, and risk-taking consular officials. For Jews, wherever they live and to whichever society they belong, Israel is both immensely precious, and terribly fragile. That the reality appears to others different does not negate this. 

IT WOULD be wrong, however, to assume that today's anti-Semitism is simply about Israel. Old stereotypes are often rolled out in conversation. More importantly, we as Christians need to look closely at our liturgy and preaching, which will both reflect and inform our own attitude. Of course, a great deal of work has been done by theologians in the decades following Auschwitz, and it has become easier to read the New Testament from a less anti-Judaic standpoint. Despite this, however, it is clear from much anecdotal evidence that many of us still believe that the Jews as a race wilfully rejected Christ, notwithstanding the fact that the disciples continually failed to grasp the essence of his teaching during three years of personal tutoring.

To take just one example, the popular modern hymn "In Christ Alone" contains the phrase "Scorned by the ones he came to save". I wonder how we understand these words; and how this understanding affects our view of Jews. 

OUR general approach to social justice should incline us to defend the rights of minorities and the vulnerable in our society. But this applies even more to those whose covenant relationship with God provided the seed-bed from which Christianity grew. (Those who would like to be actively involved can join CCJ's newly launched online campaign #stillanissue.)

In past times and places, Holy Week has been a difficult time for Jews, with its emotive and sometimes inflammatory liturgies. The development of a positive, compassionate, and informed attitude should be part of our Lent preparations, as we seek to rid our society of all prejudice - but most especially of this one, the longest-lived and most pernicious of all.

Dr Jane Clements is Director of The Council of Christians and Jews.

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