Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: On antisemitism

Where my Jewishness meets my Christianity, there is pain 
January 24, 2024

Last August, York received the city’s first rabbi since 1290, when the Jews were expelled from England: Dr Elisheva Salamo, a Liberal rabbi. Liberal, because the nearest Orthodox synagogue is in Leeds and Orthodox Jews need to be able to walk to Sabbath services. While there have been flourishing Jewish communities for generations elsewhere in Yorkshire, York was notorious as the place where one of England’s worst antisemitic atrocities took place: the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190. This was a big deal. At least it was a big deal for Jews around the world. It was less important for the Church of England. Last year, the Archbishop of York marked the occasion with a tweet: “It is good to hear that York is to have its first Rabbi in 800 years. I look forward to meeting Rabbi Dr Elisheva Salamo when she begins her role in our historic city. Welcome!”

I learned about Clifford’s Tower when I was a child; the phrase “our historic city” made me wince. Why is York historic as far as Jews are concerned? It’s historic because we Christians (and I include myself and the Archbishop in that “we”) committed an atrocity there. The Archbishop spoke with the best of intentions. It just gave me a pain where my Jewishness meets my Christianity. 

That moment now seems like a point of light in a distant galaxy. Then 7th October happened, and the Israeli attack on Gaza, and the world of my Jewishness and my Christianity (I converted to the latter in 1989) is tangled like never before. I’m familiar with the way antisemitism creeps into criticism of Israel, and criticism of Israel is regularly conflated with antisemitism. This has escalated to the point where Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, asked by a reporter about the shooting of two women within the precincts of a Catholic church in Gaza, described the allegation as an instance of the blood libel. If you’ve never heard of it, the blood libel is the myth that Jews kill Christian children at Passover and use their blood to make matzo. Calling out the nationalistic violence of the IDF and the settler movement isn’t in itself antisemitic. 

We have supporters of the Israeli government calling out antisemitism where it is not, but, at the same time, genuine antisemitism bubbles up from the storm drains like sewage. Antisemitism is part of European folklore and fictional stereotypes, linking Rumpelstiltskin with the goblins of Gringotts Wizarding Bank and the black dwarves of Narnia. It surfaces in the works of TS Eliot and some of his friends like a turd in our cultural soup. Antisemitism is irrational, but those who stir it are quite rational: better that people hate the unassimilable stranger than the government when times are hard. 

There’s also the antisemitism that comes from within the Church of England. Years ago, I heard a seminarian preach, “If Jesus were to be born now, he would not be born a Jew.” Some of my fellow clergy say they can’t bring themselves to pray the psalms anymore, that they can’t stomach the Old Testament reading at Morning Prayer, and even that the readings we’ve been getting from the prophets on Sundays are offensive. Too much of God’s covenant with Israel. Too much anger, imprecation and lament. Above all, too much about the land.

Then there are all the references in our hymns to places like Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Those are giving people the fantods as well. I once worked as the teaching assistant for a professor who insisted that the characteristic heresy of Anglicanism wasn’t Pelagianism—the idea that you can save your own soul by hard work and clean living—but Marcionism, the idea that the Old Testament and the God of which it speaks, the Creator of the World, are incompatible with Christ, and need to be thrown out. That’s happening by default. To keep the Sunday service to a brisk 45 minutes, many churches jettison one of the two readings that come before the gospel, almost always the one from the Hebrew Bible. Only a couple of days ago I was asked whether I would talk about the Old Testament to the youth group at a parish down the road. There are three members of clergy at that church. None of them felt equal to the task. 

This matters for Christians. We are grafted into a living tree. That tree is Judaism. Antisemitism matters even for those who are not Christian, who are not religious in any way. It is the death-dealing, ghoulish hatred of the neighbour. I feel its presence in the claim that Jews can only be safe in the state of Israel. It should be obvious by now that there is no land on Earth where people, whether Gentiles or Jews, are safe. In front of me on my desk is a Bundist poster from 1918 whose motto, translated into English, says what I want to shout: “WHEREVER WE LIVE, THAT’S OUR HOMELAND.”