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Moving forward

Moving forward
The second half of this lesson has shown us a variety of efforts made to curtail antisemitism by monitoring and defining it, by legislating against it and so forth. These and other measures are of course imperative to any attempt made to diminish antisemitism. Yet can this form of hate be uprooted completely? During this long journey we saw how in late antiquity and the Middle Ages a perception of the Jews developed which was rooted in a religious doctrine. Jews were perceived as the antithesis of all that was true and good - ‘the devil incarnate’.
We moved on to the modern period and saw how the rapid and major social changes taking place in different regions and cultures at the time created a new image of the Jews that portrayed them as the ultimate danger, an irredeemable force conspiring to destroy humanity and to ultimately rule it. We ended our exploration of the history of antisemitism with the contemporary world, exhibiting how these forms of antisemitism continued to exist alongside new forms that view Israel and Zionism as the antithesis to all that is right and good and that misuse and question the Holocaust. Though antisemitism has taken many forms throughout history, all these forms share the commonality of viewing Jews as the ultimate other.
This brings us back to the topic with which we began our voyage - the nature of hate. Hatred of a specific social or ethnic group has a clear utilitarian function. It allows an opposing group or individual to define itself in relation to another. It is a negative self-definition that is based on an imagined perception of the so called ‘other’ rather than one that is based in reality. We saw this again and again when examining each and every ideology or group from which antisemitism has emerged and continues to emerge. Yet though antisemitism or any other form of hatred may be entrenched in much of our societal dynamic, hate is not something we are born with but rather something we are taught.
Therefore, as with any social construct, it has the potential to be deconstructed. Are we improving or deteriorating in terms of relations between religions and ethnicities? Well it seemed for a long time that the world was getting better. But I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what happens to a hedgehog or a porcupine, when suddenly a light is turned on. It gets frightened and bundles into itself. And that’s what happens to any human group when it is feeling threatened. We turn inward. That means we turn away from the people who are different from us and we cling closely to the people like us.
The reason that is happening today - and it is happening to all religions and all ethnicities - is because the world is going through an unprecedented period of change. People can get used to almost anything. They can get used to poverty. They can get used to disease. They can get used to war. What they can’t get used to is change. When you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, that creates uncertainty which breeds anxiety, which breeds fear, which eventually breeds hate, because when you’re anxious you huddle and you turn inward, and that means you turn away from the people not like you. So right now we’re going through a period of great ethnic and religious rivalry.
You can trace it throughout the world and that is why we have to fight against it because it’s destructive and it’s probably the wrong way to respond. The truth is, we face the challenges of humanity better if we face them together. So we have to stand together in defense of mutual respect, the dignity of difference and the free society and we will do so. As an imam with over 25 years of experience of interfaith work in Britain and a little bit abroad, including Nigeria, Israel and other countries where I’ve done some of this work, I know that there are people in all religions who use religion to sow division, hatred and conflict, even violence.
But equally and more so there are many, many good people, good men and women in every religion who use religion for what it should be therefore - for moral improvement of individuals and communities, and peoples to strengthen our relationship with God and with each other. And they use religion as a source of transforming conflict into peacemaking and reconciliation. In fact, one of the meanings of Islam is not just submission or peace. It’s actually peacemaking and Muslim actually literally means a peacemaker also. It is very similar to the biblical teaching that blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be blessed by God. That teaching is in the Quran as well.
And it’s very important I think today for the state of religious co-existence and of the coexistence of people worldwide where religion is often a powerful factor, is that we insist on the positive use of religion and we look at the commonalities, common humanity and the common struggles around our relationship with God, and how we understand religion, how we practice religion, how do we try to keep it as open and inclusive as possible rather than making it a divisive factor, and that struggle continues. I believe people of all major world religions should begin to think along this way as people have done for centuries, that their path to God is their path to God.
It’s their religion that they worship, and every religion has great positive aspects to it which link the believers with God through all of the acts of worship and other things that they do. But to recognize that other religions equally have symbols and practices, worship, liturgy etc. places of worship, and festivals and everything else which link them to God also in different ways; and that we should when we are involved in religious activity and in worship we should remember that and say well this is our path to God. Other people have different paths to God, or other paths to God, and we should respect that and come together especially as citizens in modern nation-states.
It’s not a case of one religion against another. One of the main reasons of antisemitism, reason also for xenophobia, or any form of racism is ignorance. If you know the other, also you learn at least to respect if not to love him. If you don’t know the other, the prejudices that you receive from the other will guide you in the relations with him. We shouldn’t say that all the religions are the same, but also we shouldn’t say that the others are worse than us. We have to respect the others for what they are. I think that today the religious leaders have a very important responsibility - to teach …
first of all to be men and women of vision, to have a vision and also to be able to pass, to transmit, to share this vision to their people, to their believers, first. The second it’s important also to take the responsibility first of all to condemn any form of violence in their name, and to promote any form of encounter and dialogue. Doesn’t mean syncretism but dialogue - meeting the other is very important nowadays. And the religious leaders have an important role. Since religion is so instrumentally used for violence, it’s important that the religious leaders condemn openly such a violence. Every day I wake up and I have to believe in two contradictory things.
I have to understand that I am fighting against things that have old roots. When I fight for women’s rights - for feminism, I need to remind myself that for ten thousand years around the world women were treated as property, in some cases still today. So I need to understand on the one hand that the roots of antisemitism are deep. I cannot be naive and I cannot just wish it away. At the same time, I have to believe in the possibility of progress. I would not be sitting here and speaking now if I did not believe that it mattered that we speak and that we appeal to people.
I have to believe that ultimately most people once they are confronted with what is at stake, they will change their opinions, they will change their views. I have to believe in the possibility of progress for women, in the possibility of progress for all peoples of all colors, and in the possibility that ultimately humanity will eradicate antisemitism. Otherwise there is really no point in talking, in speaking, in writing, in making the case. I think the stranger has always been not so much hated as feared. In ancient times when you encountered a stranger, you expected hostility, and there was a ritual - “I come in peace.”
If the stranger said, “I come in peace” that was an indication that he did not have hostile intentions and you were supposed to respond in the same way. ‘Shalom Aleichem’ must date from very ancient very ancient times.
So, fear of the other - and there have always been strangers - fear of the other is enormously important in human history and the ways of overcoming fear are also very important. Familiarity is the beginning of the end of otherness. In the ancient world, the traveler, figure like the Greek Herodotus,
who went to some strange place and came back and told the Greeks: “They’re not so different from us.”
The ethnographers and now anthropologists are in the business of saying:
“There is a common humanity.” There are vast differences in belief, in religion, in everyday practice and kinship patterns, but there is a common humanity. I think most people at some level believe that.
And the task of those of us who think of ourselves as egalitarian say is to convince our fellows that that common humanity matters more than all of the differences, even when the differences seem extraordinary.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Imam Sheikh Dr. Usama Hasan, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Dr. Einat Wilf, Prof. Michael Walzer

Hatred of a specific social or ethnic group has a clear utilitarian function – it allows an opposing group or individual to self-define itself in relation to another. It is a negative self-definition that is based on an imagined perception of the so-called “other,” rather than one that is based in reality. We saw this again and again when examining each and every ideology or group from which antisemitism has emerged – and continues to emerge. Yet, though antisemitism, or any other form of hatred, may be entrenched in much of our societal dynamic, hate is not something we are born with, but rather something we are taught.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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