But they are not a racist

I want to come back to one of the points I made when looking at the Tribunal ruling on Stephen Sizer. In previous articles I wrote that I thought it was unhelpful for the panel to engage in an attempt to assess whether Sizer was by nature antisemitic.  I argued that they would have done better to focus on specific actions.

The basis for my reasoning was first that we are not in a position to read hearts and minds.  We can only look on the outward actions, it is for God to judge the heart.  I also noted that we would not ask the same question with regards to other sin.  If someone is accused of adultery, we do not spend time attempting to establish if they are at heart lustful and unfaithful. The evidence is that they have been unfaithful.

It’s also helpful to think about the nature of racism in general and antisemitism in particular. This may also help us be aware of the complexities of the matter and why it may not have been so easy for others, especially those speaking for organisations to draw conclusions outside of a careful panel hearing.

We often think of racism as being simply about expressing prejudice – either our pride in our own race or fear/hatred of another race through words and actions.  So, if someone makes a racist joke or uses derogatory terminology, that is fairly obvious. Also if they single people out for violence or discriminatory behaviour then we may conclude that they are racist.  We have become more aware in recent years of how racial discrimination may become systemic and structural.  However, it has taken time to see how this is harmful.

However, if racism is also about fear as well as pride and hatred, then it is important to recognise that it may come through in different ways.  In the particular case of antisemitism, it is not just that people hate Jews and discriminate against them, it is that they have accepted a particular narrative about the Jewish people.  This narrative is that Jews are, by nature of their Jewishness:

  • Powerful and wealthy through secretive and illegitimate means.
  • Of questionable character as presented in literature and art through particular caricatures. 
  • As a scattered and exiled people bearing divided loyalties between their race/homeland/religion and the host nations where they have settled and have citizenship.

This is why when you look at definitions of antisemitism, they don’t just include hate speech or actions explicitly against Jews.  You, see antisemitism is as much about buying into a particular narrative, a particular conspiracy theory.  So, definitions include examples of ways in which people buy into that narrative/conspiracy theory. They include things that maybe subtle and may not be obvious to us at first sight, hence the need for careful investigation.

The Tribunal considering Stephen Sizer’s behaviour concluded that his decision to share articles accusing Israel of being behind the 911 attacks was antisemitic. This is because such rumours were and are part of that conspiracy theory narrative where Israel and the Jews are seen to be shadowy and untrustworthy, wielding power that controls world events and deceives other powers.

This is important, because it is possible for someone like Sizer not to hate individual Jews and in all other regards to be warm, welcoming and loving towards Jews, yet when the crucial moment came, he presented the conspiracy theory narrative as a reasonable possibility. He allowed himself to be diverted away from truth and the outcome was not just that Jews might feel a bit offended but that he shared a narrative that put Jews at risk of harm.

This also helps us think about how we can end up doing the same. A lot of people who end up making racist statements are not burning with hatred against others, though I think we all have a temptation towards pride in our own ethnicity and nationality. Yet, what happens is that at the crunch point, when fear is being stoked up about social harmony or about immigration, we can find ourselves accepting dangerous and untrue narratives.

This is why its cruiclal that we eschew cartoon ethics where we divide the word up into monsters and angels.  Just because someone is decent, loving and kind does not mean that they are free from sin.  Indeed, the point is that although we may all have that potential for kindness and generosity, we are all still sinners and that’s why we need the Gospel.

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