Today, Wednesday 28 October, marks 50 years since Pope Paul VI proclaimed that the Jews are not collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This landmark proclamation laid to rest, officially at least, generations of religiously motivated anti-Jewish prejudice. Sadly, it did not put an end to antisemitism. Like a virus, hatred of the Jews had already mutated and adapted and it was of course some 20 years prior to the proclamation that Hitler’s attempts to ethnically cleanse the Jews from the earth had led to the deaths of more than six million individuals.
Antisemitism lives on, having again transformed and now often masquerades as a criticism of the Jews as a national collective. As they were singled out for attack from the 1970s to the 1990s by anti-Israeli terrorists, including the bombing of the offices of the UK Jewish charity UJIA, Jews are now hunted by Jihadi terrorists predicating their ideological attacks on Middle East injustice. In France, Denmark and elsewhere the murder of Jewish civilians is a clear example of the real and present danger for the Jews.
Some antisemitic trends endure. The idea that the Jews killed Jesus was likely a prime motivator for the blood libels that spread throughout Europe and the world in the centuries that followed. Fantasists created fables of Jews crucifying and later drinking the blood of Christian children as part of some imagined Jewish religious rite. Originating in the 12th century, the tales developed and persisted. In recent years, there have been multiple examples of the libel being adopted on Arab language television channels.
Both the endemic nature of this ‘old’ hatred and the spread of anti-Jewish discrimination can be seen within modern antisemitic discourse. Earlier this year, the all-party inquiry into antisemitism published a report highlighting some of the dangers in the discourse currently employed in discussion of the Middle East. The report should be read in full but to summarise we found that accusations of Jewish dual loyalty and malevolent influence were still commonplace in modern day discourse about the Middle East. Where articles cite ‘Zionist influence and control’ of politicians, the media or the banks, the whiff of antisemitism is pungent. Meanwhile, attacks on Jews as local ambassadors for Israel continue as Jewish concerns are spuriously misrepresented as fake cover for the country’s government.
And yet, like the blood libel, this new narrative spreads but further and faster. In the summer of 2014, the antisemitic attack level in the United Kingdom broke the threshold of 1,000 incidents while #hitlerwasright trended on Twitter. Through the most recent spate of violence in the Middle East the hashtag ‘#slaughterthejews’ was prevalent. Before long, the same phrase was used during physical attacks in France and Sweden. How many watched the Islamic State video in which a jihadi terrorist warned that no Jews were safe and that they would ‘move to eradicate the disease … worldwide’? From anti-Jewish jokes to egregious acts of terrorist hate, incitement against the Jews is spreading online faster than ever before.
This story of evolving and enduring antisemitism is of course depressing. However, the recent tragic death of David Cesarani has led many of us to recall his words and as he put it ‘Jews in Britain have never been so secure and prosperous’. Prior to 2014 there had in fact, been a fall in incident levels and across many sectors, work to tackle discrimination not just against Jews but all victims of hate crime has become mainstreamed and in some cases delivered impressive results.
Through the 2005 and 2015 all-party parliamentary inquiries into antisemitism, the work of the Community Security Trust, the educational efforts of the Holocaust Educational Trust and others there are a series of systems and initiatives in place which seek to safeguard Jews and Jewish life in Britain. This approach is working but we remain on alert.
The proclamation of Jewish innocence in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ by Pope Paul VI was an important marker. The centuries of prejudice prior to it requires a massive educational effort to combat. In this new, fast-paced and better-connected world we must be very careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Our responsibility is collective.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.