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Anti-Semitism, again

06 May 2016

EVERY time there is an eruption of anti-Semitism, it has several consequences. The first and most obvious is that the reputation of the person or organisation accused of anti-Semitism suffers harm. On this occasion, it has been the Labour Party. The fact that a local election is imminent, and a distraction was needed from the splits in the Conservative Party, suggests that the harm has not been completely self-inflicted. Whatever the exaggerations, the outraged response has one positive effect: it reasserts the norm. Anti-Semitic views are criticised because they deviate from the opinion of the majority of people — right-thinking people, we would say.

This should be distinguished from the opinion of far-right people. Another consequence of what might be termed “amateur” anti-Semitism is that it gives support to the small knot of committed bigots, in the way that Archbishop Welby’s off-the-cuff defence of people who are concerned about immigration recently gave comfort to the far Right, even when this was clearly not his intention. The anti-Semitism found among some Labour members is different from the right-wing kind, as it stems from a bias in favour of the Palestinians, who are, without a doubt, suffering oppression from their Israeli neighbour. It is one thing to be critical of particular policies, and there are plenty. But Howard Jacobson, the author, in a BBC interview, said that what he heard was “not what I would call ‘criticism’. It’s denunciation, it’s vilification.” He went on: “Be critical of Israel all you like. . . But you don’t talk about being ‘critical’ of China, or ‘critical’ of Turkey.” When there is talk of transporting Israelis to another continent, any difference from the far Right is hard to discern.

Another unfortunate consequence of each anti-Semitic outburst is that it mutes self-criticism in Jewish society, in Israel and elsewhere. The Jewish Socialists’ Group stoutly defended the Labour leadership and supported those who used “forthright expressions of support for Palestinian rights”. None the less, the louder and more sweeping the external condemnation of Israel, the less we hear from within.

Christians need to be particularly alert to the tug of anti-Semitism, given the Church’s centuries-long history of latent, and sometimes blatant, prejudice. Every generation needs to be taught about the Jewishness of Christ, to counter the New Testament texts that appear to blame his death on “the Jews”. More than this, the Church’s wide experience of discrimination ought to make it a strong defender of all who suffer persecution. This includes, of course, the Palestinians; but to focus solely, or even predominantly, on how the Israeli government is behaving currently is to have too shallow a view of the history of the Middle East, and too narrow a view of oppression in the world today.

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