07 May 2018, The Tablet

Does the shadow of anti-Judaism endure in the Catholic subconscious?

The Holy See's diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel in 1993 was based on international law

Does the shadow of anti-Judaism endure in the Catholic subconscious?

The anti-Semitism within Labour that Jews and others have so bitterly complained about in recent weeks, and which cost Labour an otherwise certain win in Barnet in the recent council elections, is mostly the result of a deliberate blurring of the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

Hostility towards the State of Israel, largely because of its perceived policies towards the Palestinians, overflows into hostility towards Jews in general, those living in Israel and those living elsewhere – regardless of whether they support Israel in principle or Israeli government policies in detail.

There are plenty of people who could be called Zionists, who nevertheless deeply deplore successive Israeli Government policies towards the Palestinians. Israeli ministers talk of peace in theory but do little to bring it about in practice. They sometimes show scant respect for the Palestinians' human dignity. But the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state is not the issue here. One can deplore President Trump's approach to most things, without calling in question the right of the United States to exist.

A distinction being made on the Left of the Labour Party, which may also be the position of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is that being anti-racist automatically includes opposing anti-Semitism, as it is a particular form of racism. But that does necessarily translate into acceptance of Israeli's right to exist. In other words one can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. That is why so many Labour leaders act as if they have a clear conscience in this regard. I don't think so. It is disingenuous. It forms part of a more general long-term effort to delegitimise Israel in the eyes of world opinion.

Jewish identity is not just about having a set of personal opinions on certain religious topics – though that is often how the secular mind likes to see religion in general. It is about being a member of a community, a people, what Germans would call a volk. Jews have a special relationship, a bond, with all other Jews including those in Israel, and this bond implies mutual responsibility which in other contexts we would call solidarity. A threat to Jews in one place is a threat to Jews everywhere. And denial of the State of Israel's right to exist is as plain a threat to the Jews who live there as one could possibly imagine.

This is still a minimalist statement of the case. On top of that, it is important to accept that European history has taught one undeniable thing with respect to the Jews – that they are on their own. They cannot rely for protection entirely on their acceptance by benign or sympathetic non-Jewish society. They tried it and it failed catastrophically, most notably in Germany. That was the cruel lesson the Holocaust taught them. They trusted democratic, civilised and tolerant Weimar Germany to look after them, unaware that beneath the mask was a devouring monster that would murder six million Jews. They learnt from Hitler that mild background anti-Semitism, even so discreet and polite as to be almost invisible, can be whipped up in less than a decade into virulent and lethal hatred. As a people without a land of their own they were peculiarly vulnerable to it.

That is why Israel's very existence has become the only worthwhile guarantee of Jewish survival anywhere in the world. And for this to mean anything, Israel has to be a Jewish State, not just one more secular nation with a large Jewish population and a few constitutional guarantees.

So denying Israel's right to exist as a Jewish State is ultimately a threat to every Jewish person's right to exist as a Jew. This is without reference to specifically religious reasons, for instance the belief of religious Zionists that they have a God-given right to the Land they were Promised. Zionism was initially a secular movement, and Jewish religious authorities were at first very suspicious of it. They believed that if Jews were ever to return to the land they had once inhabited, it would be by God's hand, not man's. Religious Zionism has since become embedded in Jewish consciousness – although some ultra-Orthodox Jews still reject it – but only right-wing extremists in Israel have made it the basis of their political programme. They are behind some of the illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. They have been supported, though somewhat ambiguously, by some American fundamentalist Evangelicals who take certain Biblical texts to indicate that the Second Coming will only occur when the Jews have returned to the Holy Land (and also, incidentally, when they have been converted to Christianity).

This is one of the reasons why many right-wing Republicans sound so pro-Israeli. This form of Christian Zionism is in its own way also anti-Semitic, for it too wishes the Jews to disappear.

The Marxist mindset, which some among Labour's present leadership share, does not see Zionism as a valid option but as a false construct to justify exploitation of the Palestinians. That does not necessarily mean that all Zionists are insincere, only that they are deluded. Marxists see capitalism as being in a permanent state of terminal crisis, and all political activity, left or right, is absorbed into that analysis. So suppression of Palestinian rights is a particular case of the suppression of all opposition, in whatever form, which capitalism requires if it is to survive. In Marxist eyes, right-wing American support for Israel confirms that scenario. It follows of course that Palestinian anti-Zionism, where it is based on an Islamist ideology, is equally unacceptable to a Marxist.

So what then of Catholics? The Catholic Church was anti-Zionist at least until Vatican II and various Popes opposed the very idea, not least because they believed the original secular Zionists, living in kibbutzim, were crypto-Communists and atheists. All that began to change with the 1965 decree Nostra Aetate, since which time anti-Semitism has been officially outlawed in the Catholic Church though from time to time it still breaks out here and there.

Three years ago Pope Francis went much further, saying when he met Jewish leaders in Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate that to deny Israel's right to exist was anti-Semitic. There is theological logic to this in that same Nostra Aetate, which declared "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues." This was a momentous statement whose ramifications have hardly been realised in the fifty years since it was issued. It overturned 1,500 years of Christian anti-Jewish tradition. It means for instance that in the Church's eyes, Judaism is still a valid route to salvation for the Jews, and converting them to Christianity is no longer on the agenda.

But it also has a great bearing on Zionism. The Holy See's diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel in 1993 was based on international law and not on theological reasons, though they may have been in the background. Yet the gifts God made to the Jews, as the Hebrew Bible makes clear again and again, included a homeland. So when Pope Francis repudiated St Augustine's insistence that the Jews had been driven from the land of their forefathers as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus Christ, he was following where Nostra Aetate pointed. So it appears that Nostra Aetate was implicitly, though somewhat vaguely, pro-Zionist. One has to ask why have the consequences of that have taken so long to emerge. Might it be that the shadow of anti-Semitism – or to be exact, anti-Judaism – has not yet fully faded from the Catholic subconscious?


Pic: Pope Francis met Israeli President Shimon Peres (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) for a group prayer session and private peace talks in the Vatican Gardens on June 8, 2014. Photo by Cristian Gennari/ABACAPRESS.COM/PA


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