Oliver Kamm

The Church is right to apolgise for antisemitism

Repentance would be all the more powerful for being symbolic and it should be welcomed


Archbishop of Canterbury Christmas Day service and sermon at Canterbury Cathedral; ENGLAND: Kent: Canterbury: Canterbury Cathedral: INT The Most Reverend Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury) Christmas sermon SOT (1 of 3)

July 15, 2021 14:56

Does it make sense to say sorry for things you haven’t done? Yes, it can do, and an example has emerged this week. The Church of England is considering a service of repentance to mark the 800th anniversary of the council of Oxford of 1222. That meeting of English church leaders implemented the decrees of the Fourth Lateran council held in Rome seven years earlier. These included some strikingly discriminatory practices against Jews.

Symbolic acts of contrition for historical wrongs often get a bad press, and the Church of England is an especially tempting target for critics who complain of “wokeness”. The council of Oxford, moreover, long predates the Church of England. Yet it’s admirable and important that the Church is considering a formal act of repentance.

The Oxford decrees had many implications for Jews. Among other things they forbade building synagogues in areas where Jews had not previously settled, and outlawed sexual relations between Christians and Jews. And to enforce this, Jews were required to wear an item of clothing that identified them — a cloth badge that was a different colour from the garment it was fixed to.

The 13th century was a dark time for the Jews in England, culminating in their expulsion in 1290. But why should the Church of England atone for their treatment? The answer is not an easy one to put to Christians, especially given that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been admirably forthright in his condemnations of antisemitism. It is that the historical persecution of Jewry has deep roots in Christian doctrine itself. That is why modern Anglicans are right to focus on the issue and to atone for antisemitic edicts that have a disturbing resonance in modern history.

Antisemitism is atavistic and such recurring motifs as “Christ-killers”, the medieval blood libel and the conspiracy set out in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are utterly fraudulent. Some depictions of the modern state of Israel as a rapacious and malevolent land-grabber, rather than a flawed but vibrant democracy, replicate these myths. So why do such baseless fabrications keep cropping up across cultures and epochs, and with catastrophic consequences?

There are two reasons. First, the very existence of Jewish communities clinging over millennia to their own traditions, practices and languages poses a problem to intellectual currents that see themselves as superseding the need for such distinctive identities. The reason why there is a strong, though not inevitable, link between the revolutionary left and antisemitic ideas is that the search for a communist society ought, by the reasoning of its adherents, to abolish these putatively artificial distinctions of religious and communal identity. Yet, despite the presence of many Jews in revolutionary politics, the Jews collectively refuse, as it were, to give up and sign up.

Something similar has happened with conservative ideals of the unified nation-state. The persecution of Alfred Dreyfus by the French state was not merely an aberrant miscarriage of justice. It derived from a widespread perception of the alien character of the Jewish population, who wished to be integrated but refused to allow themselves to be collectively subsumed into this supposedly organic whole. And I could say something similar of my own “tribe” of liberal secularists subscribing to the Enlightenment ideals of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Hume.

Well, the Church of England is no different in this respect. It is not widely known that after the Second World War it opposed denazification in Germany. Its curious reasoning was that such a policy was against the spirit of reconciliation. The interests of the wider whole, the putative unity of Protestant peoples, superseded considerations of justice and specifically the plight of the Jews.

The second reason for the durability of antisemitic myths is that Christianity is bound up with them. It’s not an accidental link but an intrinsic one. If you regard Jesus as the fulfilment of messianic prophecy, then there is this ineradicable conundrum for Christian faith: the Jews did not believe this to be true. Modern Christians of course have rejected the lethal charge of deicide but, to this day, there has never been a successful theological attempt by Christians to come to terms with this fact. The great Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, for example, wrote a book titled A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question (1939) that concluded, in effect, that the continued existence of the Jews was a historical mistake.

In symbolically repenting of medieval Christian antisemitism, the Church of England is not only doing the right thing but raising a vital question. It’s not just a theological puzzle but an essential cause of human welfare to ask why these things happened. Jews should wish the Church well in its prayerful reflections.

July 15, 2021 14:56

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