How do we define “anti-semitism” so that we can use it for testing Matthew 27:25?

I’ve written now a series of posts on the use of Matthew 27:25 – “His blood be upon us and upon our children” – in Christian writers up to the 6th century.  This was provoked by the question of whether this verse was the cause of, or contributory to, anti-semitism.

In order to examine that question at all, it is  fairly obvious that you have to have some working definition of “anti-semitism” to use.  The term is very vaguely used in our day.  I am having genuine difficulty in separating something measurable from the noise of our unhappy time.  So I have been thinking about this, and trying to come up with something useful.  I don’t feel that I have succeeded, but I offer my thoughts for what they are worth.  If anyone can come up with something better, then I am all ears.

My first thought was to google for a definition.  I found nothing useful, because the definitions used were so extreme.  Indeed I found evidence that Jewish groups are lobbying in the US and EU to create formal, legally binding definitions, which define as “antisemitism” any criticism or opposition to the policies of the state of Israel.

It’s hard not to laugh at such arrogance. Just imagine if we had a crime of “antiamericanism” in England, punishable in the same manner, or a crime of “antienglishism” in the US, where the expression of any opposition to the policies of David Cameron risked fines and expulsion from your job?  One can only shake one’s head at the folly of those responsible.

Here’s another deeply daft example of over-extension of the term which I came across on Twitter today:

That is, a  bunch of pro-Israeli Americans expressing a hope for the conversion of the Jews is “anti-semitism” to this fool.   But to use the word in this manner renders it empty of meaning.

I quickly found, therefore, that definitions on Google were worthless.  We need merely change them to refer to Americans, or Britons, to see how extreme they are.

Meaningless usage need not be so crude.  Let me give a passage from Sax Rohmer, The Devil Doctor.  This Fu Manchu novel was published before the first world war, and has great charm in its way, and would appeal most likely to anyone who enjoys the gaslight era stories of Sherlock Holmes.  Here is how Rohmer begins chapter 11, “The White Peacock”:

Nayland Smith wasted no time in pursuing the plan of campaign which he had mentioned to Inspector Weymouth. Less than forty-eight hours after quitting the house of the murdered Slattin I found myself bound along Whitechapel Road upon strange enough business.

A very fine rain was falling, which rendered it difficult to see clearly from the windows; but the weather apparently had little effect upon the commercial activities of the district. The cab was threading a hazardous way through the cosmopolitan throng crowding the Street. On either side of me extended a row of stalls, seemingly established in opposition to the more legitimate shops upon the inner side of the pavement.

Jewish hawkers, many of them in their shirt-sleeves, acclaimed the rarity of the bargains which they had to offer; and, allowing for the difference of costume, these tireless Israelites, heedless of climatic conditions, sweating at their mongery, might well have stood, not in a squalid London thoroughfare, but in an equally squalid market-street of the Orient.

They offered linen and fine raiment; from foot-gear to hair-oil their wares ranged. They enlivened their auctioneering with conjuring tricks and witty stories, selling watches by the aid of legerdemain, and fancy vests by grace of a seasonable anecdote.

Poles, Russians, Serbs, Roumanians, Jews of Hungary, and Italians of Whitechapel mingled in the throng. Near East and Far East rubbed shoulders. Pidgin English contested with Yiddish for the ownership of some tawdry article offered by an auctioneer whose nationality defied conjecture, save that always some branch of his ancestry had drawn nourishment from the soil of Eternal Judaea.

Some wearing men’s caps, some with shawls thrown over their oily locks, and some, more true to primitive instincts, defying, bare-headed, the unkindly elements, bedraggled women – more often than not burdened with muffled infants – crowded the pavements and the roadway, thronged about the stalls like white ants about some choicer carrion.

Vivid stuff indeed.  This depicts a bunch of Jewish street traders in the East End of London, and a grubby and mercenary bunch they are (and probably are still, for the breed is not extinct).

Is this passage “anti-semitic”?  In the wild, woolly, political usage of today, it is undoubtedly anti-semitic.  It depicts Jews in a negative light, and that is more than enough for today’s thought police.  Favoured groups may not be depicted in any way that they dislike, and few Jews would probably care to be identified in this way, whether fairly or not.  Indeed few people of any group would like to be; but some groups have the power to enforce their will.

If we changed a few words, to describe Moslem traders, it would instantly become “islamophobic”.   Another change of scene, making the traders Negros, and it is unlikely that we would be allowed to retain our jobs, or to feed our families.

But change it again, to refer to English people in an American novel, or Americans in a British novel, and all would be well.  You may sneer at “rednecks” as you choose.  Make the mistake of then making them into Red Indians, and all hell would break loose.

These remarks are not intended to make a political statement, but to clarify what a useful definition will not be.  The examples above show that these definitions have no meaning other than to tell us which identity groups are currently in favour with those who control the media agenda in our day.  They are equivalent to “shut up, peasant”.

We may, I think, safely disregard any definition that fits into a scenario of this kind.  There is, after all, no rational or moral reason why one particular ethnico-religious group should enjoy the privilege of being above negative comment.

There is another reason to disregard this kind of definition. Is there any point whatsoever in reading through the fathers to determine whether they conform to Political Correctness as it is in 2015?  The Fathers cannot be politically correct, for they lived before it was invented.  Nor can anybody else in that period, other than accidentally.  In fact, the standard of these modern definitions keeps shifting.  There can be few more politically correct than US President Obama.  In 2008 he dismissed “gay marriage”.  The words he used in 2008, expressed in 2015 by others are now grounds for dismissal from office.  To conduct a test based on definitions derived from such shifting sources is to waste our time; and in any event every writer of antiquity – or of a period before 2010 – would fail the test.  It’s not worth doing.

Perhaps the answer is to go back 50 years.  In those happier days we did not ruin a man, or sentence his family to beggary, merely for expressing an opinion, unless that opinion was provably untrue and defamatory.  It is characteristic of modern politics that words are proof of guilt, and that the truth of those words is not a defense.  This again provides a fingerprint for what we want to avoid.

Faced with this endless nonsense, I started looking in older sources for definitions.  My search led me to a really interesting statement in Bernard Lazare, Antisemitism: Its history and causes.  The book is pre-WW2 in origin.  From p.157-8:

… the antisemitism of the Christian conservatives, says: “If modem society is so different from the old regime; if religious faith has diminished; if the political system has been entirely changed; if stock-gambling, if speculation, if capital in its industrial and financial forms, knowing no spirit of nationality dominates now and is to dominate in the future, the fault rests with the Jew.”

Let us clearly examine this point. The Jew has been living for centuries in the midst of those nations which, so it is said, are now perishing on account of his presence. Why, it may be asked, has the poison taken such a long time to work?

The usual answer is, because formerly the Jew was outside of society; because he was carefully kept apart. Now that the Jew has entered into society, he has become a source of disorder, and, like the mole, he is busily engaged in undermining the ancient foundations upon which rests the Christian state. And this accounts for the decline of nations, and their intellectual and moral decadence: they are like a human body which suffers from the intrusion of some foreign element which it cannot assimilate and the presence of which brings on convulsions and lasting disease. By his very presence the Jew acts as a solvent; he produces disorders, he destroys, he brings on the most fearful catastrophcs. The admission of the Jew into the body of the nations has proved fatal to them; they are doomed for having received him. Such is the very simple explanation which the antisemites advance to account for the changes which society is undergoing.

The accusation has not been limited to this alonc. The Jew, it is said, is not only a destroyer, but also an up-builder; arrogant, ambitious and domineering, he seeks to subject everything to himself. He is not content merely to destroy Christianity, but he preaches the gospel of Judaism; he not only assails the Catholic or the Protestant faith, but he incites to unbelief, and then imposes on those whose faith he has undermined his own conception of the world, of morality and of life.

Now this has the right sound about it.  Classically anti-semitism wasn’t about negative depictions in novels, but about plots, conspiracies, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Enemy Within, the Merchants of Death, and so on.  It was about the perception of a conspiracy by Jews to do down everyone else, in their own selfish interest.  Nor is it a perception without elements of truth, which had led to its rise in the first place.

Violence against Jews, as Jews, was also comprehended in the definition.  Pogroms against Jews in Tsarist Russia were certainly an example of anti-semitism, and seen as such.

But not all violence counted.  A boy who thumped another boy “because the latter was a Jew” was not anti-semitic, but a quarrelsome boy; a gang of men who preyed on Jews undoubtedly was.

How then do we distill this, far more genuine sentiment, into something that can be used for our examination of the Fathers?

What we may do, I think, is to ask this: does what the Fathers write intentionally tend to encourage the reader to consider Jews as a group apart, in a way that no other group is; to consider them as a sinister group, most likely plotting against the rest of us; to think of them as somehow less human, less like “real people”?  Does it tend to demonise, to marginalise?

That, it seems to me, is a testable definition of whether a given writer is, or is not, anti-semitic.

One problem with this is that we must normalise for the climate of the times.  Some of the trends in antiquity themselves may have had this effect.  Does a writer reflect his times, or shape them?