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ANTI-SEMITISM: THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM

by Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr.

On October 30, the three Episcopal bishops of Massachusetts, the largest diocese in the United States, joined a dramatic pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of the Israeli consulate in Boston. Surrounded by posters showing a Palestinian child dwarfed by an Israeli tank and condemning "Destruction in Bethlehem," M. Thomas Shaw, Barbara C. Harris, and Roy F. Cederholm Jr. expressed solidarity with Palestinians killed and wounded in recent clashes with troops occupying West Bank towns. The bishops, dressed in purple cassocks and pectoral crosses symbolizing their office as Christian leaders, protested acts of violence in the town revered in their faith tradition as the birthplace of Jesus, the Messiah and Prince of Peace. "God is with all who are oppressed," they announced, and "today and every day we stand with our Palestinian brothers and sisters" in their struggle against the military forces of Israel.

In a letter to the clergy of their diocese explaining why they had become involved in the demonstration, the bishops noted that the issues they raised were not new but had been espoused by the Episcopal Church for several decades. Episcopalians had consistently supported both the Palestinians' right to establish their own state and international demands for Israel's withdrawal from territories seized during the Six-Day War. In addition, Shaw, Harris, and Cederholm emphasized that they felt compelled to take action as leaders in the church, for Christians as well as Muslims were suffering grievously at the hands of Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem and elsewhere. There had long been "a simmering uneasiness in the Christian community" about the conflict in the Middle East, they thought, and it was time for church people finally to speak up. Instead of continuing to ignore what they termed "the elephant in the living room," the three bishops had participated in the October 30 vigil in order "to break the silence on Israel's unacceptable treatment of Palestinians."

Although the three Episcopalians received immediate support from the heads of other Protestant churches and organizations in Boston, they were soon roundly denounced by local Jewish leaders, who recognized the deeper historical implications of their actions. As the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League observed, it was troubling that the protest had been so one-sided. Why, he wondered, had the bishops been silent about terrorist attacks by Palestinians against innocent Israeli citizens - "teenagers at nightclubs, diners in restaurants, families traveling in their cars, and schoolchildren"? The pain that Jewish leaders felt was understandable, since the Episcopalians' apparent indifference to the murder of Jews seemed to echo the behavior of Christian prelates in Europe during the Nazi era. Sensitive to such criticism, Shaw, Harris, and Cederholm quickly amended their initial remarks, emphasizing that they grieved in equal measure for the deaths of Palestinians and Israelis. They were not taking sides in the complicated struggle in the Middle East, they insisted, but simply wanted to encourage dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims about it.

Coming in the wake of the September 11 attacks, this controversy involving church leaders in Boston ought to be as disturbing to Episcopalians as it was to members of the Jewish community. As Jonathan Rosen recently noted in the New York Times Magazine ("The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism," November 4, 2001), Jews in the United States, no less than Muslims, find themselves in an extremely vulnerable position at the present time. Just as the Jewish people occupied "the metaphysical center" of the worldwide conflict with Hitler and Nazism in the twentieth century, so Jews today - through Arab hatred of Israel - seem to have provoked unprecedented acts of violence on American soil. In the minds of people panicked by terrorism, a new but not unfamiliar notion has begun to surface: there is something "almost magical" about Jews that make them "toxic for friends and foes alike." As a consequence, Rosen fears that anti-Semitism, which diminished markedly after World War II, might well reemerge in strength in Europe and the Americas.

Although "anti-Semitism" is a relatively modern term, the bitter hatred of Jews to which Rosen refers is an ancient evil in which Christians have consistently colluded. Throughout history, Jews have been treated as scapegoats for whatever problems a particular society has faced. Blamed for the deaths of Christian children (the "blood libel" myth) in the twelfth century and for the bubonic plague that decimated Europe two centuries later, thousands of Jews were slaughtered by enraged mobs. Jews as corrupt and villainous child-killers, whether represented by the Gospel's account of the killing of the Holy Innocents in first-century Bethlehem, by accusations of ritual murders in the Middle Ages, or by Israeli tanks menacing young Palestinians on the West Bank today - this image has remained vital within the collective Christian imagination over the centuries. Given the power of this pernicious stereotype, it is scandalous that leaders in the Episcopal Church have lately chosen to repeat a historic pattern of singling out Jews for censure.

Anti-Semitism is, in a very real sense, Christianity's original sin - the unnoticed "elephant," as it were, standing in the middle of the church's living room. Thanks to interfaith discussions during the last few decades, I am sure that few Episcopalians would now consciously defend the anti-Judaism expressed in New Testament texts, the invectives uttered by theologians from John Chrysostom to Martin Luther, or similar pronouncements in which earlier generations of Christians depicted Jews as agents of Satan. However, because manifestations of anti-Semitism in England and the United States have been relatively mild in comparison to other countries, modern-day Anglicans may well feel complacent about our role in this hateful tradition. In fact, we have very little to brag about. Instead of overt violence, the anti-Semitism of Anglicans and Episcopalians has usually taken the form of social exclusion - bigoted attitudes conveyed in literary works such as Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and T.S. Eliot's poetry rather than in pogroms and death camps. Indeed, members of the Episcopal social elite were still speaking openly of their contempt for Jews as recently as the 1960s - a culture of smirking anti-Semitism in which a number of today's church leaders were raised.

The statement by the House of Bishops on the events of September 11 ("On Waging Reconciliation," September 26, 2001) clearly needs to be understood in this light. In their remarks to the church, the House of Bishops rightly summoned Episcopalians to aid "our Muslim brothers and sisters in this time of fear and recrimination." Unfortunately, their statement - unlike the more balanced one adopted by the Executive Council a few weeks later - offered no advice on how Christians are meant to relate to Jews. Thus, as an ironic result of the current emphasis on Muslim-Christian dialogue alone, a few influential church leaders, e.g., Bishops Shaw, Harris, and Cederholm, have felt empowered to question America's traditional support of Israel. Since anti-Zionism is now a common way to express anti-Semitic sentiments in many parts of the world, the House of Bishops would have been wise to take note of this trend and to warn its membership against demonizing Jewish people when speaking about the Middle East.

Because of the enduring heritage of anti-Semitic bigotry, Episcopalians as well as other Christians in the United States need to be extraordinarily careful in their interaction with the Jewish community during these perilous times. The three bishops of Massachusetts are certainly to be commended for their desire to see an end of the conflict that has existed between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Palestine for more than a century. But the ill-considered tactics they employed during their protest at the Israeli consulate bring to mind troubling images of vested Christian clergy reproving the Jews in ages past. Because of the shameful history of Christian-Jewish relations, Episcopal leaders commenting on the state of Israel should never overlook the presence of this "elephant in the living room" - the sin of anti-Semitism that continues to pervade the church's soul.

A priest and historian, Gardiner H. Shattuck Jr. is the author of Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights. He is currently working on a study of the Episcopal Church during World War II.

 


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