Listening to a history lesson on Nazi Germany, there was a moment of surprise for me when one of the students asked if there had been anti-Semitism elsewhere. Didn’t the student realise how widely and deeply anti-Semitism had extended?
It recalled a class in a Dublin primary school. a decade ago.
“Mr Poulton, why did people hate the Jews?”
We had been looking at the history of the Bible and the question arose as we thought about the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures. The normally noisy class sat attentive.
“Anti-Semitism goes back a long time, back to the First Century. Christians and Jews fell out. By medieval times Jews were seen by some Christians as the people who killed Jesus”.
“But they didn’t – the Romans did; they crucified him”, someone called out.
“You’re right, but the Church said the Jews were responsible. And there were other reasons.
Christians could not charge interest on money they lent, so people did not want to lend money. So when Venice started to grow in medieval times and businessmen wanted to borrow money, Jews were allowed to come to live in the city to act as bankers. They lived in part of the city where the iron foundry had been, it was called the word for ‘casting’: ghetto.
Because some Jews were bankers and made money, people resented them. People began to think that Jews were rich, although there were rich Jews and poor Jews just as there were rich Christians and poor Christians.
So there was the stuff about killing Jesus and the stuff about making money”.
“But didn’t people dislike them because they though they were the chosen people?” a girl asked.
“I’m sure they did. But don’t Christians think the same stuff about themselves? Don’t we think we are God’s people?”
“You said Jesus was Jewish; if Jesus was Jewish, why aren’t we Jewish?”
“Because the Christians wanted to include people who were not Jewish and the traditional Jewish people did not like this and started having prayers in the synagogue that the Christians could not say without cursing themselves; so there was a split about 85 AD and we went different ways.
Maybe a lot of hatred came from the simple fact that the Jews were different; if you lived in times past, the only people different from you were the Jews”.
There was silence.
Reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas had left twelve year olds with serious questions to ask.
At home that evening, I had looked up the Good Friday prayers from the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the third of which reads:
O MERCIFUL God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor wouldest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live; Have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
By the 1920s, the language had been toned down:
O MERCIFUL God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor wouldest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live: Have mercy upon thine ancient people the Jews, and upon all who have not known thee, or who deny the faith of Christ crucified; take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy fold, that they may be made one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
Even in the sanitised form, the church had considered the Jews to be guilty of ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt.
Anti-Semitism is now too easily passed off as an aberration that happened elsewhere, as something that belonged in places like Nazi Germany; it has been much easier than looking at the anti-Semitism that was in our own societies.