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The Church, Boycotts and the Jews

Towards the end of each year, thousands of churches and concert halls across Europe prepare for a traditional performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Towards the end of each year, thousands of churches and concert halls across Europe prepare for a traditional performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

After the joyous opening, the tenor sings that ‘Joseph went into the Land of the Jews…’ followed by the alto singing ‘Rise up Zion, and abandon your weeping…’Premiered in 1734, these words were sung two hundred and eighteen years before the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel and two hundred and thirty-seven years before Israel occupied the ‘Land of the Jews’ (aka the West Bank) following the Six-Day War.

Today UNESCO almost denies the 3000 year old Jewish connection to Jerusalem, while mainstream churches and European states support anti-Israel NGOs such as Zochrot that seeks to flood Israel with the descendants of Arab refugees. NGO Monitor has documented this in detail.

During the same festive season, many parents take their children to productions of Mozart’s Magic Flute, written fifty-seven years after the Christmas Oratorio. Based on the European Enlightenment’s reason and humanism which accorded Jews more civil rights, major philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau nonetheless retained their anti-Semitism while French Revolutionary liberal Clermont-Tonnerre argued that Jews should have individual rights but not rights as a people.

The Jewish people have been tied to the ‘Land of the Jews’ for thousands of years, which is reflected in language, beliefs, rich archaeological finds, including references to the House of David, and the ongoing agricultural festivals of Sukkot, Shavuot and Pesach that are celebrated to this day. In short, the Jews are the indigenous people of Israel and despite exile, always maintained a significant presence in their lands. Indeed, the first census of Jerusalem taken in 1840, attests to Jews being the largest group which soon became an absolute majority.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Jews and Israel have been inexorably tied for thousands of years, Jews are treated very differently from other indigenous people such as the Sami in Scandinavia or the Ainu in Japan. Why?

A major reason is that the early Christian theologian Augustine, arguably the founder of western Christianity and philosophy, asserted that Jews should be regarded as ‘eternal witness,’ which would render them homeless, unloved and impoverished. Their status would be seen as a triumph of Christianity and serve as a warning to Christians.

This ‘eternal witness’ epithet became a dominant force in the treatment of Jews. It was reflected in European culture with Wagner, Degas, Agatha Christie, TS Elliot and many others. Moreover the Hep-Hep anti-Jewish riots in Germany, the Mortara Affair in Italy, the Dreyfus Affair in France and the Nazis of 1933 all occurred in post-Enlightenment Europe.

In 1904, Pope Pius lX invoked the ‘eternal witness’ by bluntly telling Herzl he did not support the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In 1936 Cardinal Hlond of Poland issued a pastoral letter warning Poles of ‘the evil Jews’. He encouraged boycotts of Jewish businesses but advised not to physically harm them. In 1964, Pope Paul Vl, visiting Jerusalem, refused to acknowledge Israel’s President Shazar—all these before the occupation of ‘the land of the Jews’.

Boycotts against Israel occur in various forms. Magen David Adom is only permitted to use the Red Crystal instead of the Star of David outside its borders including East Jerusalem and the disputed territories. Bishop Tutu is a strong advocate of Israel’s total isolation, inverts the Holocaust yet receives Germany’s prestigious prizes. The Kairos Palestine Document which advocates boycotts against Israel, has been signed by mainstream churches and endorsed by the World Council of Churches. Conductor Barenboim who vociferously supports boycotting Israel received Germany’s Peace Prize. Palestinian resistance advocate Felicja Langer was given Germany’s highest award by President Kohler. She speaks at churches, comparing Israel to apartheid and referring to its leaders as war criminals. Students hide their Jewishness while others, like the new violist in the Brussels Philharmonic, are told to sign onto BDS before accepting their positions. Some world leaders such as Obama and Hollande have been reluctant to address the Knesset, the very symbol of sovereign not ‘eternal witness’ Israel—often referred to as the ‘Holy Land’ or’ Jewish Homeland’, rather than by its correct title.

The pariah status of the Jews and Israel is some 1600 years old and played a central role in the development of European economics, culture, socio-political structures and the arts. Europe almost routinely votes against Israel at the UN and its agencies. Each year Al Quds marches, calling for the destruction of Israel, occur in major European cities. Church officials and politicians are mostly silent. Like Augustine, they occasionally say Israel has ‘a right to exist’—but nothing more.

It is time for Augustine’s ‘eternal witness’ to be repudiated. The unfinished business of the first Enlightenment needs to be addressed. Endless investigations into growing anti-Semitism and inter-faith meetings have not borne much fruit as evidenced by the highest levels of anti-Semitism seen since the 1930s.

Augustine was a theologian, not one of the gospels. Indeed, his ‘filioque’ about Holy Trinity that divided the eastern and western churches, has been deemed to be inessential in order to promote Christian unity. The same spirit can overcome the injustice to Jews and their state which wins more Nobel prizes than its European critics. The incompatibility of Israel’s reality and ‘eternal witness’ status is a shameful remnant of unresolved Church/European culture that is long overdue. Without repudiating Augustine’s ‘eternal witness’ Europe’s future relations with its Jews remains in doubt.

Ron Jontof-Hutter is a writer and psychologist based in Melbourne and Berlin.

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