As in many other towns and cities across the UK, Norwich held its annual event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.The city of Norwich has its own particular event in the past that echoes down the centuries as we remember such cruel acts of brutality and discrimination. We recall how in 1144 the first recorded case of blood libel anywhere in the world took place in our city: the libel that a child was murdered and their blood used by the Jewish community in the making of unleavened bread for their Passover commemoration.
At the time when this happened medieval Norwich was the second city in the country after London and it saw several outbursts of anti-Jewish persecution. On this particular occasion, a young lad, William was murdered and his death was wrongly blamed on the Jews of the city. Over the next few years a cult grew up at the newly built Cathedral which venerated William as a Christian martyr, and pilgrims, bringing prosperity in their wake flocked to his shrine for several centuries, until it was abolished at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
This notion of blood libel was exported from our city, first to other places in the UK, and then across Europe. It became one of the themes in Der Sturmer, the Nazi magazine of the 1930s which was used to stir up antisemitism within Germany and prepare the way for the slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews in the decade that followed. This wrongful slander against the Jews is not an event much marked in Norwich’s own account of its history but it is remembered in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents in Norwich Cathedral; a memorial that places the victims of the Nazi Holocaust alongside the children murdered by King Herod in Bethlehem.
To help ourselves deal better with this event in the history of our city, we are holding a study day on March 26th where Jews and Christians together will be able to reflect on the issue of such antisemitism and work out ways of remembering it more effectively, as well as devising programmes to educate today’s tourists and pilgrims about all forms of discrimination and hate crimes against those who are different from ourselves.
In preparation for this day I have been looking at some contemporary incidents of anti-Semitism of which there are still too many in the UK. The definition of an anti-Semitic incident used by the authorities is ‘any malicious act aimed at Jewish people or property where there is evidence that the act has anti-Semitic motivation or content, or that the victim was targeted because they are Jewish.’ Thankfully such incidents have recently been decreasing in the UK, but there is no room for complacency.
In 2012, the last year for which figures are available, there were still 640 confirmed antisemitic incidents, the majority occurring in London and Manchester where the largest Jewish communities are to be found. These incidents range from violent assaults against people to desecration of buildings and monuments. Although the overall figures show a downward trend the reverse has been true in schools and colleges where there has been an increase. An example of this kind of incident occurred when two Jewish schoolboys boarded a bus and went to sit upstairs. There were two white males sitting near the back of the bus, one of whom addressed them with the words, ‘a f**king Jew. I hate f**king Jews, they really p**s me off… What are you looking at? Keep looking and I’ll push your f**king head through the window.’ We can all immediately sense the horror of such an experience in the life of a teenager.
Over the years various world events have produced spikes in such antisemitic incidents, e.g. the conflict in Gaza in 2009 led to the highest recorded total in the UK. The pattern of a rise in antisemitism as a result of such events is paralleled also by an increase in Islamophobia when terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists hit the headlines. At such times fear and anger too readily look for a victim to punish for events with which they have no personal connection.
At the same time, the ongoing and near-intractable situation in Israel Palestine has led to confusion in the minds of many about what constitutes antisemitism. To some, any robust criticism of the policies or actions of the government of the State of Israel is seen as antisemitism. While to those, both Christian and Jew who are committed to particular Zionist convictions, any criticism of the state of Israel may offend their strongly held beliefs, fair criticism on the grounds of justice is not rightly to be judged as anti-Semitic. If such criticism is given in a manner that recognizes the right of Israel to exist within secure borders, it must surely be accepted as valid opinion and conviction.
The Jewish organization particularly concerned with the protection of their community (the CST) acknowledges the validity of the distinction between anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel activity. They often reject reporting certain incidents because they are the latter rather than anti-Semitic, though they sometimes find it difficult to decide in a given case. To quote from their most recent report, ‘Graffiti reading ‘F**k Israel’ would probably be classified as an anti-Semitic incident if it appears to be targeted at an area known for having a large Jewish community but would probably not be counted as anti-Semitic if it appears in an area where few Jews live.’
Naturally Christians have a particular affinity with our fellow Christians in Israel Palestine and feel an obligation to protest at the injustices they suffer as a result of certain actions and policies of the Israeli government. We also, of course, have a natural affinity in religion with our siblings within Judaism - as well as those within the Muslim community, our other Abrahamic near neighbours. With these different relationships often pulling us in different directions, even the most caring among us, must take care that as we seek justice for one group we also exhibit care for those who may also become innocent victims themselves of others’ prejudices.