The scourge of anti-Semitism was part of official Catholic teaching into the 20th century

In 1959 Pope John XXIII ordered the removal of the Latin word ‘perfidis’ from the prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy

It comes as no surprise perhaps that anti-Semitism has raised its ugly head given the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anti-Semitism has been described as the world’s oldest hatred. The Holocaust is the most extreme example but it did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Anti-Semitic attitudes date back to the ancient empires of Babylonia, Greece and Rome, where Jews were criticised and persecuted possibly for their efforts to remain a separate cultural group rather than taking on the religious and social customs of their conquerors. They saw this as essential to their historic understanding of being a divinely chosen people. It should be noted that being separate in that way did not prevent them from making remarkable contributions to the wider world in many areas of endeavour including science, art, music and literature.

Despite this, across Europe throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish people were denied citizenship, forced to live in ghettos and persecuted. And it is uncomfortable to acknowledge that the Christian church was a party to this obscenity, providing moral cover for attitudes and actions that were contrary to everything the gospel stands for. We perhaps see something of the origins of this in texts such as tomorrow’s reading from the Book of Acts, where the apostle Peter accuses the Jews of being responsible for the death of Jesus: “But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.”

One commentator sees in these words a “transformed” Peter, where the onetime coward becomes a fearless leader, the denier a stout defender. But it was only a partial transformation. Peter had yet to fully realise the significance beyond Judaism of the mission of Jesus Christ and his followers, and was reluctant to support the Gentile mission proposed by Paul. The Book of Acts makes clear that Peter had some way to go before he could contemplate a future imagined by Paul in his letter to the Galatians where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

One may be distressed by and even critical of what the Israeli state is doing in Gaza and the West Bank without being anti-Semitic

Anti-Semitism persisted officially in church life until the 20th century when in 1959 Pope John XXIII ordered the removal of the Latin word “perfidis” from the prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the Roman Catholic Good Friday liturgy. The word had long been an object of complaint as it was commonly translated “perfidious”, expressing contempt for the Jews. Yet even now anti-Semitism is alive and well in some Christian circles as was seen in a far-right rally in Charlottesville, US, in 2017 where torch-bearing marchers, among them white evangelical Christians, chanted “Jews will not replace us”, a sentiment shared by right-wing political movements in many countries. These expressions of hateful bigotry are dangerous, but sadly they have been given a new impetus by what is going on the Middle East.

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Christians cannot be identified with such attitudes. One may be distressed by and even critical of what the Israeli state is doing in Gaza and the West Bank without being anti-Semitic. Indeed such concerns unite us with Jews around the world such as the Jewish Voice for Peace Movement and its Rabbinical Council, which has declared: “We are rabbis representing hundreds of thousands of Jews affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace Action imploring our leaders to end their complicity in the Israeli military’s genocidal campaign in the name of tzedek (justice) and real safety for all people”. These are Jews who, like decent people everywhere, acknowledge the pain and grief of those whose lives were shattered by the brutal attack of Hamas on civilians in Israel last October and who seek peace and justice for all.

We are told that Jesus wept as he approached Jerusalem 2,000 years ago because its people did not recognise the things that make for peace. Little has changed.

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