Bishop of Chester on the need to erase antisemitism

On 20th June the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Berridge, “that this House takes note of the incidence of anti-Semitism worldwide.” The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate:

Christian complicity arose after the break between the Church and the Synagogue in the late first century of our era, and with the emergence of the view that the Christian Church had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. The properly New Testament view that Christians had been graciously grafted into Israel to share its promises and inheritance reasserted itself only in the 20th century, after nearly two millennia. This was partly the result of renewed biblical scholarship and partly due to the efforts of a small but distinguished group of continental Christian theologians led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, who saw the evil of Nazism.

The Bonhoeffer-Barth view, with its rejection of the previously well-nigh universal belief that the Christian Church had replaced the Jews was expressed in its own terms by the Second Vatican Council, and is now widely accepted across all the Churches. I had hoped—naively, no doubt—that these changes would come to exert a downward pressure on anti-Semitism. I have been shocked and deeply disappointed by the contemporary re-emergence of anti-Semitism. What are the underlying causes? Further research into this question is still needed, but clearly today there is a connection with opposition to the current policies of the State of Israel—which so easily becomes falsely associated with the belief that Israel itself has no right to exist. This seems to be the crux of the problems that have beset the Labour leadership in recent times.

I have taken a keen interest in these issues, and have visited Israel seven times in my time as a bishop, taking around 500 people from my diocese there over the years. One cannot but be deeply impressed by modern Israel in many ways—its economy, its cultural life, its protection of ancient archaeology and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Anyone who thinks that the modern State of Israel should somehow disappear is tilting at the moon from every possible angle. Quite beyond the facts on the ground, including the military facts, there is another reason why the State of Israel is here to stay. Studies of Jewish life on the continent before World War II have demonstrated that, paradoxically, Zionists who wanted a new Jewish state in Palestine shared this hope with many anti-Semites, who wanted large numbers of Jews to leave Europe. Continental anti-Semitism wanted Jews expelled or destroyed, and their influence curtailed. Zionists could in this sense agree that Jews, like everyone else, must have a national home which would be open to all Jews, as is still the case today. It is largely forgotten that in the late 1930s, Nazis could assist Zionists to organise the departure of Jews to Palestine, before the dark reality of the Holocaust took over.

There is a sense in which the appalling and tragic anti-Semitism of the Holocaust itself helped to achieve the Zionist hope. In the great sweep of history—and, I would add, from my perspective, the providence of God—it is hardly an accident that the modern State of Israel was founded just after the most systematic attempt in history to erase Jewish people from the earth. The challenge for us today is to do our best, in every way we can, to erase anti-Semitism from future history.

Lord Parekh (Lab)…Anti-Semitism springs from a variety of factors. Some are specific to a particular historical period; some are common to all historical periods. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, the Jews have been accused of killing our Lord—deicide—and this is not assuaged by simply talking about Judeo-Christian tradition, because to talk about Judeo-Christian tradition is to reduce Judaism to a mere precursor to Christianity. It is to assimilate it into Christianity and not to appreciate its autonomy and identity.​..

Lord Finkelstein (Con): .. I thank many noble Lords for wonderful speeches: the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, the super-magnificent noble Lord, Lord Pickles—that is his official title—the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his superb speech and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. On one occasion, I ran into the Peers’ Writing Room, smashed my leg on the table and, I am rather ashamed to say, exclaimed, “Jesus!” very loudly. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester looked up and said, “Can I help you?” Today, he did exactly that…

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