Talk One: Antisemitism
Recently, I had the very great privilege of being invited to attend a Seminar organized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem whose mission is not only to inform people about what happened in those terrible days of the Third Reich in Germany, but also, through education and outreach, to help people learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to combat the rise of antisemitism today. There were 30 of us there, Christian leaders from 13 different nationalities, with the majority from America. We all shared a commitment to Christ and a desire to learn more about what had led people, brought up in a Christian culture, to take part in such an unprecedented programme of hate and mass murder.
We all felt deep shame at our part as Christians in the horrors that we were studying, moved both to tears and, hopefully, repentance. We also felt, I think, a sense of responsibility to join with our Jewish brothers and sisters to work together to make sure that it could never happen again, while seeing with horror that antisemitism refuses to go away. Sadly, there seems to be truth in the saying that ‘the only thing history seems to teach us, is that history doesn’t teach us anything’.
Since returning from Jerusalem, I have read headlines reporting acts of violence against Jews in America, Nazi swastikas painted on photographs of Holocaust survivors in Vienna, and the toleration of antisemitism in one of the two major British political parties in the UK – the country I come from. And this is to give just three examples from many.
One of the observations that has been made of Jeremy Corbyn, the present leader of the political party in the UK that I have referred to, is, that when asked to condemn antisemitism, he always replies that he condemns antisemitism and all other forms of racism. At first, this seems entirely reasonable. Christians, in particular, should surely be against all forms of discrimination. The problem is that this response, while it cannot be faulted for what it affirms, gives the impression that the person responding in this way wants not so much to condemn racism as to minimize the seriousness of antisemitism. It is, after all, just one form of racism. That may be unfair, and not what is intended, but it remains an impression, nevertheless.
Friends in the Church I have shared my experience in Jerusalem with, interestingly, have had a similar reaction when I have talked with them about antisemitism. Their first reaction hasn’t been to share my repulsion towards this specific evil and join in condemning it, but to ask me how I feel about other evils. Why won’t we face up to this evil I wonder? Could it be that we still don’t see how evil it is? Could it be that the seeds of antisemitism still remain planted in the soil not only of Christianity, but of the culture of our own times?
I would like to think not. But, if we want to avoid an enemy planting them there once more, we, and again particularly those of us who are Christians, have to face up to the reality of antisemitism and of the Church’s responsibility historically for it. Bishop Otto Dibelius, who became the President of the World Council of Churches after the war, said in 1928:
‘Despite the evil ring that the word has acquired in many cases, I have always considered myself an antisemite. It cannot be denied that Judaism plays a leading role in all the corruptive phenomena of modern civilization.’
Gideon Klein, Mouvements pour quatuor à cordes, Op. 2: Largo]
Bishop Dibelius was by no means alone in thinking this way. Thankfully, I know no Church leader or Christian who would say that today. But, to quote Martin Niemoller, another Church leader from those dark days:
‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.’
It is not enough for us to be against antisemitism, we need both to speak and act.