Our topic yesterday was Passover. The range of knowledge among Year 7 students is immense. One was able to tell the entire story, with every detail, others had never heard of Moses. At the end of the lesson, we asked the question why such remembering was important to the identity of people. One student said he thought that remembering was even more important after the way Jewish people had been treated in the Twentieth Century.
The inevitable question came, a boy in the front row who always offers thoughtful and reflective answers, “Sir, why did people hate the Jews?” It was too late in the lesson to give a considered answer. It recalled an identical question in a classroom in Dublin exactly ten years 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.
I had gone home that day and pondered the conversation. I had been worried about giving my own individual perspective on a part of history that is in a category of its own, it is so evil.
At home, I had looked up the Good Friday Collects from the 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.
Incredible as it may seem, the Church of England still have this prayer on their website. Follow this link and you will come to a prayer that was wrong in the Seventeenth Century and that is nothing short of intolerable today. While it may be in the text of the written book, to publish it online is vile.
Anti-Semitism has not gone away.