Anti-Semitism: Our Problem?

First published on: 4th February 2019

Anti-Semitism is again headline news. As Christians, as reconcilers, as people working for peace in the world, it is vital that we are equipped to help and support our Jewish friends and neighbours. In late January the Diocesan Committee for Interfaith and Ethnic Relations (CIFER) invited Rabbi Aaron Lipsey, Bishop Michael Ipgrave and Revd Bryan Vernon to speak at Church House. We considered the history, current issues and how we are called to respond.

Rabbi Aaron Lipsey
Rabbi Aaron Lipsey

Aaron Lipsey: Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation in Gosforth

Rabbi Aaron noted that this was quite a dark topic and started with a story of religious conversion which could not possibly be printed here!

He referred to historical studies concluding that medieval England had led in anti-Semitism; the church introduced discriminatory legislation against Jews, some of whom were massacred in 1190 all of whom were expelled in 1290. We could say that anti-Semitism is integral to European culture.Constantine and his successors legislated against the Jews. He sees a history of anti-Jewish feeling from Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Protestant Churches, such feelings permeated the culture.Turning to the Holocaust (Memorial Day was the previous Sunday) Rabbi Aaron placed Nazi atrocities in the context of this history of anti-Semitism.

He noted a feeling, post-war, that anti-Semitism was in decline, especially with the presence of films telling eloquent stories. Yet anti-Semitism continues and significant numbers of Europeans believe the Holocaust did not take place or was exaggerated. Commenting on recent decades, he felt political correctness has made it impossible for respectable Europeans to self-define as anti-Semites and so the hatred has mutated into being anti-Israel.

Despite many bodies adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism there are still numerous anti-Semitic acts across Europe. Rabbi Aaron highlighted the anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN. He continued: Few point out that anti-Semitic attitudes are part of European culture. One of the few who do is the head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Justin, who writes: Within European Culture the root of all racism is found in anti-Semitism… within our Christian tradition there has been century upon century of terrible, terrible hatred.

Bishop Michael Ipgrave
Bishop Michael Ipgrave

Michael Ipgrave: Bishop of Lichfield and National Chair of the Council of Christians and Jews

Bishop Michael was keen to point out that while anti-Semitism is a problem for Jewish people it is not a Jewish problem, it is ours. Reminding us of the need to confront and combat the pernicious evil of anti-Semitism, he picked up the thread of Archbishop Justins writings, pointing to Lessons Learned Reflections on Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (download via Google) and expanded on its themes:

The habits of anti-Semitism form a significant part of European History, like a virus within our society. Archbishop Justin writes, It is a shameful truth that the church… compounded the spread of the virus. Although there have been some improvements to Jewish-Christian relations at an institutional level, there are still parts of the Christian scene where anti-Jewish attitudes flourish. Bishop Michael felt that, Christian anti-Judaism helped prepare the ground where secular anti-Semitism could grow and distorted theology can still be used to support negative attitudes. Christianity should have provided an antidote.

This virus latches on to a variety of different agendas, perhaps the most eye-catching being the issue of IsraelPalestine. For some the language of Jews is replaced by the language of Zionism. It is important to safeguard space for robust criticism of any particular Israeli government but in the words of the Chief Rabbi: When someone denies the right of Israel to exist it hurts us just as an attack on a close member of our family.

Bishop Michael exhorted us to celebrate the extraordinary contribution of the Jewish community to British Society, and encouraged us to reflect on our theology. Archbishop Justin wrote that Anti-Semitism undermines and distorts the truth … it is…a denial of God himself.

Revd Bryan Vernon
Revd Bryan Vernon

Bryan Vernon: Honorary Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in Heath Care Ethics at Newcastle University

Bryan talked of his discomfort in recalling some of his formative experiences relating to anti-Semitism: Jewish Jokes which stereotype Jews as money orientated, the characters of Shylock and Fagin and how they were taught. He reflected on some of the prayers used by the church, in the past, for Jews, Turks, Infidels and Heretics… with their hardness of heart.

Bryan discussed the 2010 Equalities Act: this applies if the church is exercising a public function. He said that the Act makes discrimination against Jewish people illegal as their race and religion are protected characteristics. He had been involved in promoting the rights of Jewish students to take a holiday on Rosh Hashanah.

Speaking about work on unconscious bias currently being developed in the university, he commended us all to try an online questionnaire to help us reflect on our own biases, (to find this Google: teaching tolerance bias). He concluded by commenting that it is wrong to talk about the Jewish problem as the problem lies with us.

The Very Revd Geoff Miller
The Very Revd Geoff Miller

Towards the End of the Day

We recognised that we cannot eradicate our anti-Jewish history but we can try to make sure it is not perpetuated.

Bishop Michael proposed a three-part process:

1.Public acknowledgement and recognition of what we have done.

2.Fully acknowledging the Hebrew Scriptures, often disparaged in church, including how we use them in our liturgy and preaching.

3.Creating a new story, something positive together.

The Speakers were asked How can we say that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life without denying Jewish Wisdom? Rabbi Aarons immediate response was: Goodbye [Laughter], followed by the view that we each have our own belief structures and our own ways of evaluating how much credence we give to what others perceive and believe, and thats fine. I have no issue with that (youre all wrong, but…) [Laughter]. The panel nodded in agreement.

The final question was: What one meaningful, practical thing can we do to change things for the better? In summary the speakers suggested:

  • Rabbi Aaron: Speak to everyone you know, challenge, educate. Talk to us, we are here to talk and walk side by side.
  • Bishop Michael: Confront friends and relatives when you hear them expressing views you find anti-Semitic, not suppressing what they want to say, but not condoning such views.
  • Revd Bryan: Listen to the experiences of those who are on the receiving end.

    The Very Revd Geoff Miller, who chaired the day, summarised the three answers as: Speak whenever possible, Confront those who offend, and Listen to those who have suffered.

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