The Light Sleeper – Antisemitism today

Staines CCJ, 27/09/16


Tackling antisemitism has been one of the core aims of CCJ since its inception in 1942: when Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz and Archbishop William Temple jointly founded the Council of Christians and Jews in 1942, at the darkest time in modern European history, they defined its first aim as being ‘to check and combat all forms of religious and racial intolerance’.

We therefore warmly welcome the publication yesterday, jointly by the Holocaust Education Trust and the Community Security Trust, of Lessons Learned? Reflections on Antisemitism and the Holocaust. This comprises nine short essays, by both Jewish and non-Jewish people; it is easily available as a downloadable pdf online, and I commend it to you warmly.

I want to focus particularly tonight on some of the non-Jewish contributions to this collection, for one reason: that while antisemitism is a problem for Jewish people, in the sense that they are in the first place the ones who suffer from it, it is emphatically not ‘a Jewish problem’, as Jewish people are not in any sense responsible for this ugly phenomenon. Indeed, to refer to ‘a’ or ‘the Jewish problem’ has historically been a marker of antisemitism.

While referring occasionally to other essays, I want in particular to reference the two short pages supplied by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Justin writes succinctly, powerfully and in uncompromising terms about what he calls the ‘virus’ of antisemitism; I shall comment on seven themes he mentions in turn, which I can identify by these words: history; Christianity; agendas; racism; positives; confrontation, and theology.


The habits of antisemitism have been burrowing into European and British culture for as long as we can remember.

This is undoubtedly true, and the image of the virus is a powerful one for an infection which seems to circulate deeply and pervasively within our societies. Another image evoking the sense of a constantly present phenomenon, sometimes latent, sometimes explicit, is that which I have been given as the title of my talk tonight: A Light Sleeper. That was the title (actually, ‘A Very Light Sleeper’) of a report on antisemitism published by the Runnymede Trust in 1994. In this century, and perhaps particularly in the last year or so, there is no doubt that the sleeper has woken up and is horribly active.

This is important to recognise, as people sometimes speak of ‘a new antisemitism’. That is certainly accurate in reflecting new causes which are distorted to serve antisemitic agendas, new groups of people who are drawn into antisemitic ways of behaving and speaking, new methods which are developed to promote antisemitic propaganda – the Lessons Learned? collection has on its cover a chilling image of a smart phone with a grossly antisemitic tweet. But at the same time this is no new phenomenon: it is the same tropes which re-emerge, of a conspiratorial cabal controlling the world’s destiny, of a morally repugnant group opposed to basic decency, of control of the media and the rewriting of history, and so on – even the blood libel resurfaces in some forms of contemporary antisemitism.


It is a shameful truth that, through its theological teachings, the church, which should have offered an antidote, compounded the spread of this virus.

Archbishop Justin does not go into details here, but neither does he mince his words. The extent of the ‘teaching of contempt’, l’enseignement du mépris, in Christian tradition was powerfully charted by the French historian Jules Isaac in the last century, and his analysis was largely taken on board by the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council in the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate. That has proved hugely influential for Christians of many different denominations, and as a result Christian-Jewish relations are undoubtedly in a much better place now than they were a hundred years ago. However, Christianity is a notoriously fragmented religion, and there are certainly parts of the Christian scene where anti-Jewish attitudes continue to flourish.

It is important here, as has often been said, to distinguish between Christian anti-Judaism, seeking justification in an inadequate theology, and secular antisemitism, claiming support from pseudo-scientific theories of race or whatever. But that is not to exonerate Christianity from historical responsibility, nor to lessen the challenge for us today: Christian anti-Judaism helped to prepare the ground in which secular antisemitism could grow, and distorted theology can still be used to support negative attitudes to Jewish people in our own time.


The virus continues to seek a host. It latches onto a variety of different issues: financial inequality, wars and depressions, education, politics and government, grave international issues, such as the rights of Israelis and Palestinians, and inter faith tensions.

There is so much that could be said at this point, but perhaps the most eye-catching in the Archbishop’s list of agendas capable of being suborned to antisemitism is the reference to Israel / Palestine issues. This is for some contested ground, but to me there seems no question that denying the right of Israel to exist, failing to take seriously the claim of its citizens to security and recognition, viewing the complex situation in the Holy Land as an unparalleled example of injustice when it is in fact surrounded by egregious instances of oppression and unsettlement, adopting a one-sided view which fails to recognise the legitimate interests and real anxieties of all sides – all these can be manifestations of, or excuses for, real antisemitism.

That is not always the case – sometimes these things are just the product of lazy thinking or inadequate understanding – but the litmus test is the re-emergence of antisemitic tropes from the past, even if the language of ‘Jews’ is replaced by ‘Zionists’ or ‘Israelis’, or whatever. It is indeed important to safeguard a space for robust criticism of the policies of any particular Israeli government, but the Chief Rabbi is surely right in saying:  When someone denies the right of Israel to exist, it hurts us, just as an attack on a close member of our family would hurt us … the idea of Jewish self-determination [is] at the very core of mainstream Jewish identity. I have been much helped in charting the boundaries of appropriate language on these issues by a section on antisemitism appended to the recent World Council of Churches document on Religion and Violence.


Antisemitism is at the heart of racism.

I do not want to spend long on this, but it is a significant statement. If antisemitism is the particular, racism is the general; or perhaps, if antisemitism is the parent, racism is the child. For centuries Jewish people and communities, as the primary ‘Other’ in European societies, bore the brunt of xenophobia, suspicion and scapegoating, and racism today finds its most virulent and undiluted expression in antisemitism. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, states in his short essay: Hate crime against Jewish people is an attack on everything we stand for.


Alongside a robust condemnation of antisemitic discourse, it is imperative that we celebrate the extraordinary contribution of the Jewish community to British society over the centuries through science … ethical finance … and the arts, to name but a few.

This is a welcome point to insist on; one of the ways in which what one might call low-level or shallow antisemitism can best be removed is through positive encounter with Jewish people whose integrity and stature cannot be questioned. And of course, these do not have to be scientists, ethical financiers or artists; they can also be entirely ordinary people living by Jewish values in Jewish ways alongside their Christian or other neighbours. Archbishop Justin kindly goes on to speak warmly of his association with our own organisation CCJ. Our core values are: promoting understanding, valuing difference, demonstrating empathy and respect, and challenging prejudices; these are surely an antidote to antisemitism.


[Antisemitism] permeates and pervades all that it touches when it is swept under the carpet, denied and not confronted head-on.

This is the other side of the coin to building positive relationships: sometimes it is necessary to challenge negative attitudes. In a fine contribution to Lessons Learned?, Sajid Javid speaks of ‘dinner party antisemitism’, referring to the respectable, middle-class people who would recoil in horror if you accused them of racism, but are quite happy to repeat modern takes on age-old myths about Jews. It is in the dark soil of unrebuked casual bigotry that the weed of virulent antisemitism can grow, as history teaches clearly. Here indeed is a challenge right into the heart of polite English society, which can make us feel quite uncomfortable.


Antisemitism undermines and distorts the truth: it is the negation of God’s plan for his creation and is therefore a denial of God himself … Antisemitism is the antithesis of all that our scriptures call us to be and to do.

This the heart of the matter for us as Christians and Jews. I want to repeat here what I have said in other places, because I think it needs to be said repeatedly:

There is a fundamental truth that Jews and Christians hold in common: we are taught, and we believe, that men and women are made in the image of God. It follows that to demean, to hate, to plan to destroy our fellow men and women, whatever their race or religion, means nothing other than to demean, to hate, to plan to destroy the God in whose image they are made (although in fact nobody can destroy God whose life is indestructible).

It follows that when we speak, act, pray against any evil that dehumanises others on grounds of religion and race, we do not do that because we subscribe to any fashionable ideology or political correctness. On the contrary, we have seen how cruel fashionable thought can be, how political discourse can be not just incorrect but plain wrong. We challenge antisemitism, and any religious or racial intolerance, because in doing that we are taking sides with the God of justice and fairness who honours each person made in his image. Combatting antisemitism is an issue for God, and it must be an issue for us too. Thank you all for your support of CCJ as we seek to play our part in that combat.


Bishop Michael Ipgrave

CCJ Chair