A Letter from London – going just a bit too far
By Antony Lerman | 08/04/2010
My jaw dropped when I heard that the Pope's preacher—the only cleric who is allowed to preach to the Pope—had claimed that the ‘vilification' of the Catholic Church over the child sex abuse scandals was like the worst aspects of antisemitism. But when he said that this was a view a Jewish friend of his had expressed in a letter to him, I immediately thought: This sounds like some sick Jewish joke we tell against ourselves. We finally reach a rapprochement with the Catholics after hundreds of years of church-condoned antisemitism and now we're lending them some antisemitism with which they can sanitise themselves. Isn't that going just a bit too far?
There are, it seems, no end to the uses to which antisemitism can be put, which is not surprising given that there is widespread acknowledgement that it led to the Holocaust and is therefore very often held up as the most devastating form of racism, at least back then. The Catholics are by no means the only group to borrow the persecution of the Jews to serve their own cause. There are those who object strongly to anyone saying anything like: ‘Our situation now is like that of the Jews', and I fully understand and respect this view. Personally, however, I'm inclined to be more sanguine about the practice, especially in cases where there are indeed similarities between Jews' experience of racism and the experience of racism of other groups.
However much we may be concerned about this, it's a practice that's almost impossible to prevent. But I think it can serve a useful purpose for the analyst today because it highlights the complexity of the phenomenon of antisemitism, such that it reinforces the argument some make, which is that Jewish-non-Jewish relations are far too complex to be almost always subsumed under the heading of antisemitism.
It may seem strange to talk about antisemitism as ‘complex'. In many respects it's glaringly, obviously simple. Whatever way it manifests itself, it tells the same ugly, very often violent, insulting story. And yet the fact that it can be found in a person who can also show compassion for and understanding of Jewish aspirations—Lord Balfour for example, whose antisemitic views did not prevent him from championing Jewish claims to Palestine—shows that we may well be missing something important about the way others see us.
It was the world-renowned sociologist, Professor Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the word ‘allosemitism' as a way of encompassing the range of attitudes and feelings people have towards Jews, because he felt that the word antisemitism was clearly inadequate. Having grown up in a Jewish family in pre-war Poland, he had first-hand experience of negative attitudes towards Jews, but he also experienced the opposite and everything in between. Bauman has written so incisively about a whole range of human emotions, it seems odd that, despite having a clear view of how antisemitism must be contextualised, he has written very little on the subject. Once, when asked why this was the case, he replied: ‘You cannot be a bird and an ornithologist at the same time.' A somewhat gnomic answer, but one which any Jew who studies antisemitism must surely understand. Nevertheless, I have a suspicion that he steers clear of the subject partly because there is a tendency in current writing and comment on the subject to see everything in black and white.
I don't think it would diminish our sense of the seriousness of the problem one jot if we were more ready to look at hostility towards Jews within the context of Jewish-non-Jewish relations. Indeed this is the methodological and conceptual framework within which the Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish-Non-Jewish Relations at Southampton University in England has operated for many years and some outstanding scholars and scholarly studies on antisemitism have merged from there.
The Pope's preacher's comments, which he quickly retracted and apologised for after widespread Jewish and non-Jewish protests, are better understood as a manifestation of certain complex, but not necessarily negative feelings about Catholic Jewish relations.
The Jewish-non-Jewish relations angle also allows us to deploy humour—and not necessarily sick humour—to help us understand why people relate to us as they do. Which is why I'm fond of repeating the definition of antisemitism I first heard very many years ago from the outstanding historian of antisemitism and the Holocaust, Professor Yehuda Bauer: ‘Antisemitism is hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary.'