Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On anti-semitism - Christian, Islamic and secular

Jonathan Freedland writes a righteous piece in today's Guardian on anti-semitism in which he presents, what are for me at least, two incontrovertible facts that anyone hoping to get their head around this present situation absolutely must understand. These are:
1) Anti-semitism has taken root in the Arab world in particular, and is on the increase practically everywhere else in the world.

2) This is basically a European, Christian import, which extends even to recycling the same old propaganda such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
By any conceivable objective measurement, the first point is true to the point which those who disagree are either simply ignorantly out of touch with the world in which they live or are 'in denial' for political reasons. Anti-semitic violence, against persons and property - including graveyards and synagogues - has demonstrably increased in recent years in practically every country in the world, but in particular Europe, as have public anti-semitic pronouncements, opinions, websites and literature of every kind. Recently, the most obvious, extreme example was that from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of a sovereign nation with nuclear ambitions expressing the opinion that Israel should be obliterated from the face of the planet and that the Holocaust was a piece of historical fiction. He was oblivious to the irony - understandable, because this is irony of the very darkest kind.

I sincerely believe this to be undeniable. Those younger who disagree, I understand; they don't remember that it wasn't always thus: those my age and older who say this isn't happening, I simply don't understand; have they no memories?

But Freedland's second point is, if anything, more crucial; this is a European, Christian import:
"This represents a menace to Jews, of course, but also a tragedy for Muslims. Theirs is a tradition that historically valued learning, and when an ignoramus like Ahmadinejad denies the overwhelming weight of historical evidence he makes a mockery of that tradition. In a period Jews still look back on as a golden age, Muslims were the people of scholarship, of science, of tolerance and coexistence - a contrast with the Crusader barbarians. Yet now many lap up the myths and lies that were once fed to the peasants of Europe, lies which endured through to the last century - and which led all the way to Treblinka."
There's a rather airbrushed version of the 'golden age' where Muslims and Jews all sat holding hands and celebrating the gorgeous mosaic of their diversity as 'People of the Book'. The historical reality is that those Jews that remained in the Middle East never really enjoyed either legal or social equality with the majority Muslim populations in whose countries they settled but the central point is absolutely true: their experience really was golden compared to the discrimination, revilement, pogroms and persecutions that Jews were subjected to by the self-professed followers of Yeshua Ben-Joseph the crucified King of the Jews.

While it's easy to understand why some scholars think the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular, to be intrinsically anti-semitic, I don't believe this to be correct. All it's authors, with the exception of Luke - who may well have been either a 'fellow traveller' or a convert to Judaism - were Jewish and I think various texts would be interpreted differently, had history not taken the course it had. But it's relatively unimportant because it is history that interests me more than theology; it is how these texts have been understood historically by various religious-political institutions that is crucial. From at least 300 AD, various theologians - serving as chief ideologues to imperial power - have espoused the view that Jews are especially wicked, for not only are they adherents to a now false religion - they are guilty in a unique way, guilty of 'Deicide' - the murder of God, a grotesque interpretation (in my view) of passages from the Synoptic Gospels, especially that of St. Matthew.

Everyone knows this led to the medieval pogroms and persecutions in Christian Europe - the 'blood libel', the tales of Jews poisoning wells, and all the rest. Catholic medieval Europe, specifically England, pioneered the yellow star of David. But are people quite so aware that protestantism didn't escape the stain? I despise John Calvin for being the hard-hearted, inflexible, intolerant, tyrannical, theocratic bigot he was - not least for the misery and disfigurement that his ideas have brought to the Scottish psyche. Yet no historian can completely close their eyes to those aspects of modernity his ideas wrought, that we recognise today - the individualism, the elimination of magic, a certain disposition towards equality, and the emancipation of the Jews.

Not so with Martin Luther. Initially well-disposed towards the Jews, he thought they - now that the Bible had been rediscovered - would convert to his new protestant version of Christianity. Later he became frustrated with the reluctance of Germen Jews to respond and increasingly bitter (and drunk, apparently) in old age, one of the last tracts he ever wrote was entitled, "Against Jews and their lies".

That fascists in Europe picked up this tradition is not in doubt. The Nazis gave it a biological twist. For all it's obscenity, traditional Christian anti-semitism was less extreme because it saw assimilation and conversion as the answer; for the Nazis, this was the problem. In the pursuit of the solution they joined a twisted road with many footprints that lead to Auschwitz.

Which brings us to President Ahmadinejad's remarks. I get a bit annoyed at some of the amateur scriptural exegesis that goes on in the blogosphere, with texts from either the Koran or the Bible quoted completely out of context with no consideration given to either their 'Sitz im Leben' or the historical context in which they've been interpreted or the social institutions that have mediated them. Anti-semitism is not intrinsic to Islam so there's no point in taking the recent statements of these conspicuously modern ultra-religious fanatics on the subject as being somehow representative of this tradition because they are not. It is, as Freedland says, a European, nationalistic, pseudo-scientific concept that has been imported into the Middle East. As I've said before, we used to call it fascism - and fascism is what we should call it now.

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