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Dr. Catherine Chatterley

Uprooting Antisemitism Through Scholarship and Education

Speech Delivered at Jewish Foundation of Manitoba's Women's Endowment Fund

Dr. Catherine Chatterley, May 11, 2012


[Editor's note: The following is the speech delivered by Dr. Catherine Chatterley at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba's Women's Endowment Fund luncheon endowment fund luncheon in May this year at the Fort Gary Hotel. [For more information about the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba or the Women's Endowment Fund at the Jewish Foundation go to]

Good Afternoon. I would like to begin by thanking Marsha Cowan and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba for giving me this beautiful honour to speak to you today about a subject that is very important to me and also to be part of promoting this wonderful fund that supports women and their children in our community. It really is a very great honour and a privilege to be given this opportunity today and I thank you for it.

Today’s presentation was not an easy one for me to write. Trying to be inspirational over a lovely lunch in the Provencher Ballroom about a subject as destructive and dangerous as antisemitism is a challenge indeed. However, talking about education and scholarship and how we might work together to create a more humane future is a pleasure.

How does one uproot a phenomenon that is over 2000 years old, so deeply embedded in Western culture, and so protean in nature that it continues to evolve outside its European context? Some say it cannot be done. I believe that there is good reason to be optimistic today: for the first time in over 10 centuries, we have youth who are not, since birth, indoctrinated by theological teachings inherently biased and hostile toward Judaism and the Jewish people. The significance of this new secularized reality cannot be under-estimated. In the West, we live in increasingly diverse societies and in Canada we at least claim to value the concept of universal human rights. All of this is good news for those of us intent on removing antisemitism from our society.

However I must tell you the equally important bad news: based upon a decade of experience teaching university students, most of whom are not Jewish, I can tell you that while the dominant Christian stereotypes of previous generations are reduced in power the economic mythologies and conspiratorial themes are gaining ground. These antisemitic tropes are well-established Western myths too but they are now reactivated in relation to the Jewish state, in other words all of this supposed Jewish control and manipulation is done in the service of Israel. I have not met a single student in ten years who is unfamiliar with this anti-Jewish mythology and that should tell us, unfortunately, how common and widespread it is.

The question must be asked: what other people is accused of killing God, working against the interests of common humanity, generation after generation, of running a worldwide conspiracy to control and then destroy the planet, of starting and financing wars today and in the past, of controlling world financial institutions and the international market? I ask my students: are Aboriginal peoples accused of these things, Africans, Americans of African descent, the Chinese, Indians, the Roma, the Scots, Arabs, Persians? No. The truth is that no other people is accused of these things—no other people in history has been perceived to have this kind of cosmic power, this need for world control, and this degree of bad faith and evil intention. Why? Why is this the case? Why the Jewish People?

For an explanation, we must look to history. For millennia the Jewish people have faced hostility toward their unique tradition of ethical monotheism, with its elaborate structure of 613 laws and all sorts of proscriptions designed to promote good behaviour. Judaism is a religious tradition that has often been at odds with its surrounding environment as Jews have for most of their history lived under foreign rule in their own land or as a minority in other lands. Many forms of anti-Jewish hostility have existed in antiquity, and Bible tells us that this hostility led to war and even to genocidal violence. In the history of the Islamic world, hostility against Jews and Judaism led to periodic violence and to a permanent second-class position in all Muslim societies. Dictated by Sharia law, this dhimmi status was also shared with Christians. Both were non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim state.

Antisemitism, by contrast, is not a common form of human hostility or even hatred, or a form of racism the way people think it is. It is a unique, complex, millennial phenomenon that few people actually understand. Antisemitism is the specific product of the rancorous divorce between Judaism and the Jesus movement of the first century, which evolves into what we know as Christianity. The impetus of antisemitism is theological—that is its uniqueness and its strength. The character of “the Jew” (which I place in quotation marks to distinguish this character from real existing Jews) is a fiction produced by theology. And augmented by European mythologies that grow out of this same theological tradition—the accusations of the blood libel and host desecration are two examples. In theocratic societies, like those of pre-modern Europe, theology affects every aspect of life. The rigid Christian conceptualization of the Jews as a deicide people, those who rejected and killed Christ, led to the systematic exclusion of Jews, as a collectivity, from mainstream Christian society, to their deep and abiding marginalization, eventual demonization, and to their uniquely peculiar positioning in Western societies as middlemen associated with the despised money occupations. What we see in the history of antisemitism is a compounding of stigmatization and hatred, which over time results in the production of a composite character that integrates religious and economic themes in a powerfully reinforcing manner.

As my second book illustrates, the theology of the Church and its teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism resulted in the construction of what I term the antisemitic imagination during the period of the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 CE), a phenomenon that continues to evolve over centuries and remains with us today. The continent of Europe was Christianized by approximately 1000 CE, albeit unevenly and idiosyncratically in many places. It is during these specific centuries that antisemitism becomes a popular mass phenomenon and the character of “the Jew” enters the collective imagination of Christian Europe. This vivid, image-obsessed imagination was Catholic and it was fed incessantly, both visually and aurally, through painting, sculpture, woodcuts, reliefs on buildings, passion plays, religious holidays and services, stories, sermons, liturgy, folk-tales, hymns and songs.

This medieval Christian imagination had a character at its center that appeared to have the power and determination to control the world, to manipulate and control rulers, and to influence events, thereby wreaking utter havoc in society. That character, that figment of the European imagination, was “the Jew.” For Europeans, he was the tormentor and killer of Christ—the Savior of universal humanity, according to Christian theology—who continued until the end of time to work against the Church, against its Gospel and its congregations. He was the ritu

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