Anti-semitism, real and imagined
A couple of weeks ago I joined about a thousand other Aucklanders on a march down Queen Street to protest Israel's attacks on Gaza. A day or so later, I did a google search to see how the media had covered the event, and discovered a post at NZ Conservative, a blog maintained by a group of Catholics with views firmly on the right of the political spectrum.
According to NZ Conservative's source, a mysterious group called 'Kiwi Friends of Israel', the march down Queen Street was characterised by wild anti-semitism, calls for terrorist attacks, Islamic fundamentalism, and conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks.
It was rather hard for me to reconcile the account of the march on NZ Conservative with my experience of the event. The claims that the march was an exercise in verbal Jew-bashing are particularly risible, because protesters repeatedly and loudly repudiated such attitudes. When protest MC John Minto condemned anti-semitism and noted that ten thousand Israelis, many of them Jewish, had recently marched through Jerusalem against the attacks on Gaza, he was loudly applauded by his fellow protesters. Another speaker, an Islamic scholar from Egypt, echoed Minto's remarks, and also attracted loud applause. The chant 'Allah Akbar' was heard from some marchers, but NZ Conservative's claim that the words are ipso facto an endorsement of terrorism was nonsense - usually they are simply an affirmation of faith and solidarity with fellow believers.
Large protests will always attract the odd crank, but it's wrong to generalise the odd crank into the official message of a protest. I did notice a fool wandering down Queen Street with a T shirt that read '9/11 Was an Inside Job', but I saw no evidence that anybody supported his opinion.
Many of the people I saw on the demonstration would be very hard to reconcile with the stereotypes thrown around on NZ Conservative. I noticed CK Stead, a man many would consider New Zealand's most distinguished living writer, making his way carefully down the street. I haven't hitherto considered Stead either a jihadi or a loony lefty. His oft-expressed views on subjects like Maori nationalism and the education system would seem to put him on the right of the political spectrum.
If the bloggers at NZ Conservative want to find anti-semitism, then they should train their guns on Bishop Richard Williamson, the leader of the ultra-conservative splinter group which has just been welcomed back into the Catholic communion by Pope Benedict XVI. Williamson, who is based in Britain and commands the following of around 150,000 souls, has been for decades been one of the most tireless and high-profile promoters of Holocaust denial and Jewish conspiracy theories. He regards the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a work of non-fiction, maintains that only a couple of hundred thousand Jews died during World War Two, and blames Hitler's enemies for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing as well as the 9/11 attacks and the 'myth' of Auschwitz. Wiliamson's propaganda has enthusiastically disseminated by the sort of neo-Nazi groups that love to turn anti-semitic theory into murderous practice.
The decision to welcome Williamson into the Catholic communion has outraged Jewish groups and liberal Catholics, who suspect that the Pope wants to use Williamson's flock to strengthen the extreme right of the church. NZ Conservative does not appear to share those misgivings: instead of decrying the latest addition to their church, they have been focusing their attention on the evil Friar Burns of Wellington, who splattered a mixture of paint and blood on a memorial to Yitzhak Rabin during an anti-war protest. I would have thought Burns has less blood on his hands than Williamson.
According to one of the bloggers at NZ Conservative, the outcry against Williamson is the work of people who 'hate the Catholic church'. As far as I am aware, the issue has appeared on the media radar because of a press release by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which was set up to try to bring Nazi war criminals to justice and to expose instances of contemporary anti-semitism. I don't mean to suggest that this group is always correct (it was wrong, for instance, when it characterised Hugo Chavez as an anti-semite) but I am not aware of any evidence that it has an anti-Catholic agenda.
In a new statement, the Catholic church has defended its wooing of Williamson with the claim that Holocaust denial and anti-semitism are not 'doctrinal issues', and are therefore, apparently, of secondary importance. I find this a very strange view, because it seems to imply some Chinese Wall between religious and political views - a division which the church seems happy to deny at other times (for instance, when it enters political debate around the issue of abortion).
And how exactly can a sincere commitment to Christian theology be squared with a commitment to anti-semitism? I admit I'm rather ignorant of the finer points of the New Testament, but I was under the impression that Jesus himself was a Jew. Perhaps, though, the good Bishop Williamson will drop by in the comments box and correct me on that score.