Anti-Semitism is still rife in society – some of it carefully concealed. Catholics must help to fight it

A number of Catholic friends of mine recall praying for my soul when they were children. Not my soul in particular, but the souls of Jews in general. No offence meant, but we would not get to heaven unless we repented of our perfidy and acknowledged Jesus Christ our Lord. This was before Nostra Aetate, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, which stated that Jews were no longer to be thought of as rejected by God. So I must presume that my Catholic friends’ children no longer pray for the souls of my children.

There has been some theological coming and going on this matter since Nostra Aetate, but I take it that the Church’s official position today as regards Jews is the one stated by Pope Francis earlier this year, insisting on the “unique and particular bond” we share “in virtue of the Jewish roots of Christianity”, from which it follows that Jews and Christians must “consider themselves brothers, united in their God and a rich common spiritual patrimony”. Clearly, any expression of anti-Semitism, in whatever form, contravenes the spirit of that bond.

But mischief lurks in the phrase “whatever form”, because anti-Semitism is proving to be a versatile beast, and whereas once we knew it by the accusations the Church was wont to make, the anti-Semitic art and statuary, the libels, the yellow stars the Jews were made to wear, the pogroms and expulsions to which they were subjected in almost every corner of civilised Europe, today it finds more covert forms of expression, some of them so subtle that they come as a surprise to those who stand accused of them.

When Jeremy Corbyn, for example, insists he abhors anti-Semitism as he abhors every form of racism, there is no reason to disbelieve him. But we don’t always know our own guilt and the very fact that anti-Semitism strikes him as but another example of racism is a measure of what he, taking him as in many ways typical of thinkers on the Left, doesn’t understand. For anti-Semitism isn’t regulation racism, not because Jews are a superior sort of victim, but because anti-Semitism is so intrinsic to the Western imagination, has played such a significant role in the conversations Christians have had with one another for 2,000 years, is so knotted about the conscience of the Church and most other institutions, that there is no mind, however liberated or modern, that doesn’t have an ancient idea of the Jew lurking somewhere within it.

It isn’t an accidental encounter, a new wave of migration, colour or appearance or belief system that inspires mistrust and terror of Jews; indeed, as the example of Spain after the Inquisition, or even that of England in the reign of Elizabeth, shows, Jews themselves don’t have to be present for anti-Semitism to prosper. The Jew, you might say, partly on account of “that rich common spiritual patrimony” of which Pope Francis speaks, is as much metaphor as fact, a metaphysical conceit, a way of conceiving of attributes of which mankind is at once fearful, envious and ashamed.

If this sounds as though I am saying that anti-Semitism is the guilty secret of which none of us is innocent and most of us unaware, then I have gone too far. But there is a touch of truth in this, and it is borne out by the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in our day, not only in the Muslim world, which has its own specific reasons for it, but in the very European countries from which we thought it must have been expelled forever only half a century ago. Some of this is overt, some of it more concealed. Of the latter form, the most insidious and contentious to talk about is anti-Zionism.

I am aware of the formulation that holds the charge of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel to be a species of blackmail, intended to silence all such criticism. But that is a species of blackmail of its own, designed to silence criticism of the critics, not every one of whom, obviously, is innocently motivated. Good faith is as variously shared between critics of Israel as it is among any other random group of personages. Some will be anti-Semites, some will not. When it comes to anti-Zionism, however, we can be more definite. Anti-Zionism gives a platform to views which in any other context would be deemed too immoderate to be acceptable.

Any understanding of events waits upon an understanding of their beginnings, but beginnings are arbitrary. Why start here when you could have started there? And who is to decide, in any instance, how far back we have to go? Allowing for the arbitrariness of starting anywhere, it is nonetheless imperative to know something of what Zionism meant to those who first gave voice to it – and by giving voice, I mean something more specific than the ancient longing to return to the land of their origin which Jews have expressed as part of their litany ever since they were forced to leave it.

The idea that the Jewish people have endured a long, destructive exile is not confined to Jews themselves. George Eliot sympathetically explored the theme of Zionism in her novel Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, the self-determination she envisaged for the Jews being more a matter of spiritual deliverance than political. Not that the two are easy to separate in the early history of Zionism. For some, Zionism was a liberation movement in the sense that it promised an end to the persecution – the expulsions, the forced conversions, the pogroms – from which Jews had enjoyed only brief periods of respite since the Middle Ages; for others, it was a liberation from the narrow, superstitious round of reiteration and ritual to which Judaism had been reduced in the shtetls of eastern Europe. The life Jews lived there, with so many restrictions placed on how they could be employed, where they could live and what they could possess, was unnatural and stunted. Forever strangers – tolerated at best – they were, with a few exceptions, treated with suspicion and contempt, an easy prey to every wind of purposive loathing or idle vindictiveness that blew.

Not every Jew welcomed Zionism. There were those who feared it as another expression of the nationalism that had caused so much suffering in Europe. Speaking generally, their objections were honourable. They did not see in Zionism the workings of a rapacity peculiar to Jews; more a mistaken idealism. But it was an idealism rooted in recent history and non-controversial practicalities. Actual as well as imaginative affiliations with the Promised Land were already strong. Jews had been fleeing back to Palestine and building religious communities there for centuries. The most verdant of the Zionists were socialists and Bundists who imagined a near utopian existence in concord not only with existing Jewish groups but with the indigenous Arabs too. They would share the land. They would cultivate the desert together.

Were they naïve as well as desperate? Was there callousness in that naivety that blinded them to the rights and, in some instances, even the existence of others who lived there? We can debate these questions till kingdom come. Just as we can argue how great a falling off from Zionism’s original grand intentions modern Israel represents. But what we have no warrant to do is read backwards from the present state of things and impose its mistakes and disappointments on what was first envisaged.

The Holocaust was not a determinant of Zionism. Israel was viable well before Hitler. But if there were questions as to Zionism’s necessity – and the alternative for many sophisticated European Jews had been a vague, impractical universalism – the Holocaust answered them. Beyond doubt now, with so many countries if not bent on their extermination then at the very least mortally hostile to them, and with so many others, deemed friendly, imposing quotas and closing their borders, Jews had nowhere but Israel to flee to. The very fears to which early Zionists had given voice were borne out by history: stateless, the Jews were doomed.

So where does this leave the person – let him be a Christian or a socialist – for whom Zionism is at its very heart a tool for supremacist colonial oppression and Israel, as a consequence, eternally illegitimate? Either he admits his ignorance of Zionism’s life-and-death significance for Jews, or he declares himself in retrospect indifferent to their fate.

It matters not one bit that in his own eyes he is no anti-Semite. Few of us act in full consciousness of what sways us. That person is rare whose every thought is rigorously tested against reason and dispassion. So I say only this: to reject Zionism out of hand, to refuse Jews, alone of all peoples, the right to self-determination and therefore the right to safety, is to embrace the logic of anti-Semitism if not its conclusions. The fact that on some university campuses “Zio” has become a term of abuse hurled at Jews, performing the very function “Yid” once did, proves this incontrovertibly. Regardless of what’s intended, in effect anti-Zionism is just the same old anti-Semitism in a differently labelled bottle.

Am I arguing that no criticism of Israel as a political entity can be valid? No, I am not. There is, in my view, some savage mirth to be had at the expense of those who speak of being “critical” of Israel – “critical” suggesting the employment of fine tools of demurral and discrimination, when the language they employ is inflammatory and hyperbolic, proclaiming every battle a massacre, every war a genocide, and every security provision apartheid – still and all, it is the duty of a friend, regardless of what enemies propose, to point out faults. But the distinction is crucial: wanting Israel to act other than it currently does is one thing; denying its right to be there, or calling into question the motives of its origins, is another.

This still, however, does not render all acts of censure of Israel obligatory and inviolable. It must not be required of a Jew that he denounce Israel before he is allowed a platform. Wherever disagreement is refused, bigotry is at work. The ferocity with which the anti-Israel agenda is pursued should itself gives us pause. In an unjust and barbaric world, why does the injustice of the Israeli occupation resound with such particularity for us?

I am not going to say, because it is a Jewish state. But let me ask the question: how is that in the fury of anti-Zionist dialectic and demonstration are to be found caricatures of Jews that any churchman of the Middle Ages would recognise immediately – grinning gargoyles on the great cathedrals, implacable demons, sulphurous, bloodthirsty monsters convinced of their own divine election and murderously contemptuous of other people and other faiths? It is right that Christians should speak up for the oppressed. But compassion must not be bought at the price of prejudice.

If this is truly a time to affirm the ancient spiritual bond between Christians and Jews, it cannot be a time to tolerate the ancient cartoons that made of Jews a Satanic race. See Zionism through the prism of a medieval suspicion of the Jewish character, and Israel as the working out of Zionism’s diabolic intentions, and you have brought the Devil back among us.

Howard Jacobson is a Man Booker Prize-winning novelist, critic and broadcaster

This article first appeared in the June 24 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.