Anti-Semitism is a virus of the mind that lodges itself so deep in the understanding that many of those who are poisoned by it would be shocked to discover that they are carriers. So argued Jonathan Sacks in his fascinating conversation with me for Confessions. And the person the former Chief Rabbi pointed to, as an example of this, was professional atheist Richard Dawkins.
The story of Anti-Semitism begins with Christian theology, and the way in which early Christians, in breaking away from Judaism, came to regard Jews as that against which they had to define and distinguish themselves. In other words, Jews became the representative ‘other’ within a culture saturated with Christian theology. And so, whenever there is a crisis and people look for some group to blame, it is the Jews that so often get held responsible. Black death? It was the Jews. Banking crisis? Goldman Sachs. Coronovirus? Zionists.
In other words, Anti-Semitism is a way in which our basest fears are formatted by assumptions that are deep within our culture. As Tom Holland has pointed out in his recent book, Dominion, Christian cultural assumptions remain far more powerful in shaping our cultural outlook than we often recognize in the secular West. And atheism is no guaranteed prophylactic against them. Which is where we come back to Dawkins. This is the sort of thing, from The God Delusion, about which Sacks rightly complained:
It’s probably the most properly basic anti-Semitic trope of them all: New Testament God, the ‘Christian’ God = good, kind, merciful. The Old Testament ‘Jewish’ God = homicidal psychopath. To be clear, Jonathan Sacks is not interested in silencing the Bible from criticism. But why is the God of the Old Testament singled out for his criticism? The God of the New Testament is not a different God. As Sacks reminds us, the fact that atheists like Dawkins specifically pick out the Old Testament God as the bearer of all these negative attributes does show how deeply lodged the basic assumptions of anti-Semitism remain alive and well in our culture.