Digest of terms


The viciousness of negative attitudes and behaviour towards Jews is the more difficult to deny after the programme of genocide systematically pursued by the Third Reich and now fully documented. Yet the negativity persists, sometimes prompted by what are better identified as ant-Israel or anti-Zionist judgements. Throughout the world, synagogues and Jewish burial grounds are still subject to attacks, which include both physical damage and daubing with swastikas.

Explanations commonly given for such attitudes include that of traditional suspicion of anyone who is socially different, and basic envy at the supposed financial flourishing of a whole group of people. What is less frequently acknowledged is the contribution from deep and widespread hostility expressed by Christians towards Jews over the centuries. That this itself contributed a ready predisposition throughout continental Europe to think the worst of Jewish people is often glossed over.

Such words as whore, father of lies, vermin, devil's offspring are shouted against Jews in Nazi propaganda, with the synagogue as den of thieves and brothel. But these same terms have a hallowed history in Christian tradition from New Testament (Matthew 27:25, John 8:44) and early century theologians, through to the writings of Luther. The requirement of Jews that they wear a Yellow Star of David was not a Nazi invention, but introduced long ago by Church Councils so that Christians would know not to eat with them, offer them a proper job or contemplate courtship. And arguably the stereotypical role of money-lending Shylock is a direct result of the judgement that usury is morally wrong for Christians - all the more reason to encourage it in the Jew with its welcome hellish consequences. The incongruous fact that Jesus never ceased to be Jewish was consistently overlooked.

Comparable antipathy towards Jews is no less evident in some parts of the Muslim tradition, in recent years blatantly reinforced by the serialisation for prime-time TV in Egypt of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This 19th century Russian anti-Semitic propaganda purporting to expose the Jewish conspiracy to achieve global domination is presented as historical truth. Popular circulation of such across the countries of the Middle East, not least Saudi Arabia, is a permanent incitement to prejudice and discrimination. It directly undermines the long-standing status in Islam of Jews, along with Christians, as 'People of the Book', dhimmis. As such they had second class but, in principle, protected status. It also makes more difficult the distinction between being Jewish in an openly universalist way and being an Israeli nationalist in an exclusivist Jewish way. Thus there are evidently moral issues for Jews, Christians and Muslims in respect of how they relate to each other in the contemporary world, issues which have political as well as theological implications. The heteronomy mode of moral thinking, as found in each of the three traditions and applied to their scriptures, is commonly checked and balanced by the other modes of moral thinking. There are invariably religiously-sponsored problems when that is not the case, and in relation to anti-Semitism that is especially dangerous.

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