The following lecture was delivered by CISA's Director for the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba's Annual Women's Endowment Fund Luncheon on May 10, 2012.
Good Afternoon. I would like to begin by thanking Marsha Cowan and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba for giving me this beautiful honour to speak to you today about a subject that is very important to me and also to be part of promoting this wonderful fund that supports women and their children in our community. It really is a very great honour and a privilege to be given this opportunity today and I thank you for it.
Today’s presentation was not an easy one for me to write. Trying to be inspirational over a lovely lunch in the Provencher Ballroom about a subject as destructive and dangerous as antisemitism is a challenge indeed. However, talking about education and scholarship and how we might work together to create a more humane future is a pleasure.
How does one uproot a phenomenon that is over 2000 years old, so deeply embedded in Western culture, and so protean in nature that it continues to evolve outside its European context? Some say it cannot be done. I believe that there is good reason to be optimistic today: for the first time in over 10 centuries, we have youth who are not, since birth, indoctrinated by theological teachings inherently biased and hostile toward Judaism and the Jewish people. The significance of this new secularized reality cannot be under-estimated. In the West, we live in increasingly diverse societies and in Canada we at least claim to value the concept of universal human rights. All of this is good news for those of us intent on removing antisemitism from our society.
However I must tell you the equally important bad news: based upon a decade of experience teaching university students, most of whom are not Jewish, I can tell you that while the dominant Christian stereotypes of previous generations are reduced in power the economic mythologies and conspiratorial themes are gaining ground. These antisemitic tropes are well-established Western myths too but they are now reactivated in relation to the Jewish state, in other words all of this supposed Jewish control and manipulation is done in the service of Israel. I have not met a single student in ten years who is unfamiliar with this anti-Jewish mythology and that should tell us, unfortunately, how common and widespread it is.
The question must be asked: what other people is accused of killing God, working against the interests of common humanity, generation after generation, of running a worldwide conspiracy to control and then destroy the planet, of starting and financing wars today and in the past, of controlling world financial institutions and the international market? I ask my students: are Aboriginal peoples accused of these things, Africans, Americans of African descent, the Chinese, Indians, the Roma, the Scots, Arabs, Persians? No. The truth is that no other people is accused of these things—no other people in history has been perceived to have this kind of cosmic power, this need for world control, and this degree of bad faith and evil intention. Why? Why is this the case? Why the Jewish People?
For an explanation, we must look to history. For millennia the Jewish people have faced hostility toward their unique tradition of ethical monotheism, with its elaborate structure of 613 laws and all sorts of proscriptions designed to promote good behaviour. Judaism is a religious tradition that has often been at odds with its surrounding environment as Jews have for most of their history lived under foreign rule in their own land or as a minority in other lands. Many forms of anti-Jewish hostility have existed in antiquity, and Bible tells us that this hostility led to war and even to genocidal violence. In the history of the Islamic world, hostility against Jews and Judaism led to periodic violence and to a permanent second-class position in all Muslim societies. Dictated by Sharia law, this dhimmi status was also shared with Christians. Both were non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim state.
Antisemitism, by contrast, is not a common form of human hostility or even hatred, or a form of racism the way people think it is. It is a unique, complex, millennial phenomenon that few people actually understand. Antisemitism is the specific product of the rancorous divorce between Judaism and the Jesus movement of the first century, which evolves into what we know as Christianity. The impetus of antisemitism is theological—that is its uniqueness and its strength. The character of “the Jew” (which I place in quotation marks to distinguish this character from real existing Jews) is a fiction produced by theology. And augmented by European mythologies that grow out of this same theological tradition—the accusations of the blood libel and host desecration are two examples. In theocratic societies, like those of pre-modern Europe, theology affects every aspect of life. The rigid Christian conceptualization of the Jews as a deicide people, those who rejected and killed Christ, led to the systematic exclusion of Jews, as a collectivity, from mainstream Christian society, to their deep and abiding marginalization, eventual demonization, and to their uniquely peculiar positioning in Western societies as middlemen associated with the despised money occupations. What we see in the history of antisemitism is a compounding of stigmatization and hatred, which over time results in the production of a composite character that integrates religious and economic themes in a powerfully reinforcing manner.
As my second book illustrates, the theology of the Church and its teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism resulted in the construction of what I term the antisemitic imagination during the period of the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 CE), a phenomenon that continues to evolve over centuries and remains with us today. The continent of Europe was Christianized by approximately 1000 CE, albeit unevenly and idiosyncratically in many places. It is during these specific centuries that antisemitism becomes a popular mass phenomenon and the character of “the Jew” enters the collective imagination of Christian Europe. This vivid, image-obsessed imagination was Catholic and it was fed incessantly, both visually and aurally, through painting, sculpture, woodcuts, reliefs on buildings, passion plays, religious holidays and services, stories, sermons, liturgy, folk-tales, hymns and songs.
This medieval Christian imagination had a character at its center that appeared to have the power and determination to control the world, to manipulate and control rulers, and to influence events, thereby wreaking utter havoc in society. That character, that figment of the European imagination, was “the Jew.” For Europeans, he was the tormentor and killer of Christ—the Savior of universal humanity, according to Christian theology—who continued until the end of time to work against the Church, against its Gospel and its congregations. He was the ritual murderer and host desecrator who compulsively re-enacted the crucifixion through these homicidal “Jewish rituals”; the well-poisoner and the magician, both of whom were in league with Satan in a war against the Church (remember John’s gospel in which Jesus himself is purported to say that the Jews are the children of the devil). And, of course, “the Jew” was a usurer who recalled Judas Iscariot, the tax collector and archetypal traitor who betrayed his friend Jesus with a kiss, and sold him out to the Temple authorities for thirty pieces of silver. It is this caricature of “the Jew” that fueled the antisemitic imagination, and it is by the appearance of this character that we know we are in the presence of antisemitism and not a more common form of xenophobia or hostility.
This character that Europe produces in the 12th century (and begins to export in the 16th century) is remarkably consistent across time and space. Regardless of European region, religious denomination, language, or nationality, the general characteristics and qualities attributed to “the Jew” are static and monotonous: he is conspiratorial, manipulative, dishonest, vengeful, hateful, unrelentingly cruel and unforgiving, he is arrogant, blind to the truth, corrupted, especially by money and power, treasonous, traitorous, criminal, and at bottom, motivated by evil.
Antisemitism has been exported along with other forms of Western culture to all the places Europeans have settled. In the last half of the 20th century antisemitism was introduced into the Arab world by Nazi Germany and later by the Soviet Union and we are seeing the results of this Western propaganda today in Arab media, school curricula, and unfortunately in general thinking about the conflict with Israel. In the last several decades, the antisemitism of Europe, and of Nazi Germany specifically, has been Islamized, translated, in other words made native to the culture, sensibilities, and politics of the Islamic and Arab worlds. The antisemitic themes unique to Europe—such as Jewish conspiracy, child-killing, bloodlust, nihilism and cosmic evil—are now common currency on the Arab street, finding their way into the culture from cartoons to sermons.
The imagined characteristics, thought to be inherent in “the Jew,” whether because of religion or later, because of biology, remain consistent across time and now they appear to be consistent across cultures. Today those imaginary qualities are increasingly attributed to “the Zionist,” or to Zionist Jews (for those who make a distinction between Jews), or to the Zionist political lobby or to diaspora Jewry in general, which supports the State of Israel.
Since 2000, antisemitism has become a truly globalized phenomenon and for the first time in history, it is flourishing outside a Christian cultural context. The Internet and satellite television are the main vehicles by which antisemitism travels today. This is a worrying development and, quite frankly, it is not given the attention it deserves. The fact that this should be the case only 67 years after the murder of six million Jews and the wholesale destruction of their thousand-year old civilization on the continent of Europe is even more troubling. I believe we truly are in the position to ask what exactly the world—and the Western world in particular—has learned about antisemitism given Hitler’s Holocaust. Very little, I am afraid.
That brings us to CISA—the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, which I founded in 2010, to ensure that this phenomenon is introduced into university curricula (where it does not currently exist) and placed on the scholarly agenda in as many fields as possible (it is almost entirely absent). To ensure that human rights activists and scholars, including those working down the street at the CMHR, know what antisemitism is and include this millennial hatred in their work and concerns, never mind in the exhibits of the museum that will teach our children about the dangers of hatred and demonization. Antisemitism must be included in the content of this museum. The Holocaust gallery must reflect historical reality, which is to say—the gallery must clearly and accurately depict and explain the systematic destruction of European Jewry during the years 1933-1945, and not conflate this historical specificity with the crimes of the Nazi regime during World War II.
We must create a university program that foregrounds the subject of Antisemitism as a central phenomenon in the history of Western culture—one that culminates in the enormous Jewish and European tragedy that was the Shoah and unfortunately is growing today.
I cannot stress to you enough the transformative effects of this education on my students. They enter the course I teach called, The History of Antisemitism and the Holocaust, knowing nothing about Judaism, the Jewish people, Zionism, Israel, Antisemitism, or even much about the Holocaust—they know about Hitler; they know about Nazism. So the course is a revelation for these students, who may not like the amount of reading or my stringent standards, but are fascinated to discover from where all of these stereotypes about Jews come, and to learn how little Hitler actually invents, how in fact Nazi Germany was a link, a terrible and uniquely destructive link, in the antisemitic chain that in fact persists today.
They begin to understand the news they are reading, the debates about the museum, how important the Jewish state is to the Jewish people and how understandable that is especially given Jewish history and the Holocaust; some even understand that it is wrong to blame the Arabs for antisemitism—we deal with Islam at the end of the course not at the beginning or in the middle—because it is a European invention. However, by April, after spending 72 hours with me on this subject, they understand that antisemitism is now a key corrosive factor in the battle between Israel and the Arab world—they now recognize it when they see it and hear it—and they know that anyone who cares about peace in the region must work to remove antisemitism from the conflict.
Our last class is left open-ended, without a conclusion, because antisemitism is a living force that is expanding today. I tell them that when I took the course with Lionel Steiman in the late 1980s we didn’t deal with Islam, there was no Internet and no satellite television, and we concluded with Soviet Antisemitism and the neo-Nazi fringe who distributed their propaganda through the mail. That is how profoundly things have changed in 20 years and we need to re-adjust our thinking and our priorities accordingly.
Let me say that this history, the history of the Holocaust and of Antisemitism, is not only Jewish history, it isn’t owned by Jews, and it shouldn’t be expected to be of interest only to Jews—that is part of the problem I am desperately trying to correct, in fact. This history also belongs to people of German extraction, of European heritage, and to Christians regardless of denomination. If you look at CISA’s logo, the tree with the black roots and three white branches, you will understand my view of the dark history of the Church in relation to the Jewish people, which is responsible for antisemitism, but also the hope I have for the future.
I believe Interfaith work can be productive between Christians and Jews but it must be honest and principled and based upon a solid knowledge of the history of Antisemitism and the Holocaust and it must acknowledge the culpability of the Church and its anti-Judaic theology in unleashing both. Christians engaging in this reparative work must avoid facile references to The Golden Rule, which are offensive, however well intentioned. Instead, they need to face and bear the terrible, difficult, and uncomfortable truth at the heart of the Jewish-Christian relationship. The sad fact of the matter is that the Holocaust would not have occurred were it not for 20 centuries of Christian antisemitic conditioning. This is precisely why I believe the millennial betrayal of Christian ethics—over and over and over again—in relation to the Jewish people is a tragedy of epic proportions.
In conclusion, please allow me to reprise my original question: how does one uproot a phenomenon that is over 2000 years old, so deeply embedded in Western culture, and so protean in nature that it continues to evolve outside its European context?
Some say it cannot be done.
I say: through scholarship and education, let us, together, begin.
Thank you very much.