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Catherine Chatterley


Pat Johnson and Cynthia Ramsay, Jewish Independent

At the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs Western Regional Policy Conference on May 5, Dr. Catherine Chatterley, founding director of the Winnipeg-based Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, will take part in a panel on 21st Century Antisemitism – a topic on which she has a unique perspective.

A non-Jewish scholar, Chatterley founded CISA, “an independent national academic organization committed to the scholarly study of the millennial phenomenon of antisemitism in its classic and contemporary forms,” in 2010. One of just over a handful of institutes worldwide that are conducting academic research on antisemitism, CISA’s academic council comprises 35 renowned scholars from around the world, including Chatterley.

The institute aims to create “a more humane future for all people” through scholarship and education, and Chatterley has personally contributed much to this cause already. At the U of M, she teaches modern European and Jewish history. She also writes and lectures on a variety of subjects, including Christian antisemitic themes in anti-Israel discourse, antisemitism and anti-Zionism, antisemitism on campus, and what Chatterley calls “The Antisemitic Imagination,” which will be the title of her forthcoming book. Her first book, Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization After Auschwitz (Syracuse University Press, 2011), was a National Jewish Book Award finalist.

According to the description on Chatterley’s website, The Antisemitic Imagination “argues that antisemitism is one of humanity’s most enduring and destructive inventions due to its core-location at the centre of the Western religious imagination.” In the book, she describes antisemitism as “the product of the rancorous separation between Judaism and the Jesus movement, which evolves during the first century into a gentile church and later into the imperial religion of Christianity.” From 1000-1300 CE, “a fictitious character comes to life out of the stories and liturgies of the Church. That character is ‘the Jew,’ a figment of the Christian imagination, who is both the product and generator of antisemitism.”

The book, which also offers an explanation of “how and why antisemitism is flourishing today – for the first time in history outside a Christian cultural context,” shows how the “radically immoral characteristics of this fabrication created by Christianity remain consistent despite their secularization and racialization during the 18th and 19th centuries, their Islamization from the middle of the 20th century, and their globalization via the Internet and satellite television since 2001. For the antisemite, ‘the Jew’ remains inherently unethical, enormously powerful, conspiratorial by nature, intent on world domination, corrosive in effect, and an existential threat to humanity however that shifting concept is defined (be it Christian, proletarian, ‘Aryan’ or Islamic).”

Chatterley spoke with the Jewish Independent via e-mail about her research and some of the conclusions she has drawn from it.

JI: Throughout the decades that the Jewish Independent, formerly the Jewish Western Bulletin, has been around, there have been countless headlines about “new” forms of antisemitism. Is the latest “new” antisemitism, or “21st-century” antisemitism, really different from the ancient kind? If so, in what ways?

CC: I use the words “classic” and “contemporary” to describe antisemitism along its temporal continuum. Antisemitism is a millennial phenomenon that is protean by nature, meaning it evolves with society and is adapted to apply to new conditions. I have named the vehicle for this phenomenon “The Antisemitic Imagination,” and it is remarkably consistent across time. There are, however, some new developments in society since 2000 that are important factors in the recent evolution of antisemitism. The Internet and satellite television are the primary modes by which it travels today and antisemitism is now a global phenomenon, unlike in the past when it was restricted to a Christian cultural context. 

JI: The inevitable argument arises about anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and where the line may be between the two. Have you concluded where such a line could be drawn? What are the broader factors when considering the confluence of the two?

 CC: Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two distinct phenomena historically. Anti-Zionism is traditionally a Jewish phenomenon and also an Arab phenomenon. Large numbers of people in both groups criticized Zionism before 1948 for a diverse number of reasons that do not include antisemitism, and Arabs continued to reject Zionism after the establishment of Israel. It is the Nazis and the Soviet Union who integrate Anti-Zionism and antisemitism and then transmit their ideologies into the Arab and Islamic worlds, and into the post-colonial world and the UN. Rather than red, the line between the two today is thin, and their relationship is something scholars are now debating.

 JI: For three generations, Western opinion has associated antisemitism with the political far right. Now, we see it increasingly as a characteristic of the far left. Can you explain or address this?


CC: Antisemitism is a complex phenomenon that spans the political spectrum historically and it does today as well. No one should imagine that the centre and right are free of this way of thinking and feeling – just look at contemporary Europe, especially the new states in the post-Soviet bloc.

 JI: While many people express genuine concern about European antisemitism, Arab or Muslim antisemitism seems to be accompanied with an asterisk, as if resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue will resolve it; as if it is a political reality, not a racialist one. Is this assessment accurate?

CC: Yes, there are people who believe that the antisemitism of the Arab world will pass away with a resolution of the conflict in the Middle East. It is possible that some of the animosity between the two sides will decrease with a legitimate peace agreement. However, the antisemitic propaganda that is used to indoctrinate the public, and children especially, in these societies is very destructive, as it was in Nazi Germany, and it will be very difficult to uproot. This propaganda is not only about the conflict but libels the Jewish people as a collectivity and as one that is accused of dominating the world in order to destroy humanity. This conspiratorial view of “cosmic Jewish evil” is European and Christian in its origins and it is a tragedy that these lies have now infected the Islamic world and made a very difficult conflict over territory that much more challengi

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