The magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral in the centre of Strasbourg, France, is deservedly on the itineraries of most visitors to the city – home of a number of important European institutions.
On the outer façade of the cathedral there are two statues of idealised young women – Ecclesia and Synagoga, in place for almost 800 years.
Ecclesia, representing Christianity, is grinning in triumph while Synagoga, representing Judaism, has her head bowed in defeat and wears a blindfold to symbolise her inability to see the “truth” of Church teachings.
While the Strasbourg statues are slightly unusual in that this Jewish woman is depicted as of comparable beauty to her Christian counterpart (by contrast with depictions elsewhere), the images serve as stark reminders of the reality of Christian teachings of contempt towards Jews and of historic antisemitism in Europe.
Of course, over the centuries, there have been evolutions in Christianity and in teaching about, as well as actions towards, Jews, with dramatic changes in recent decades.
These changes – along with important developments in other segments of society in Europe and globally – were at the core of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism’s 10th biennial international conference held in Paris in August-September.
Researchers from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia discussed antisemitism and local and international responses to it, and grappled with issues of definitions, the means of collecting and analysing data and the role of transnational and government initiatives in addressing the problem.
State-sponsored and state-inspired anti-Jewish activity in a number of Muslim-majority countries as well as in Venezuela under the Chavez Regime, were graphically detailed and analysed, allowing us to appreciate the challenges it represents.
The nexus between self-described “progressives” and extreme reactionary, quasi-fascist groups who perceive one another as having common interests in opposing “the West” (or crucial elements of Western society) featured in most of the presentations from Europe. Researchers noted the extraordinary betrayal of anti-racist, feminist or other principles by the new antisemites of the European Left.
Some European and South American delegates outlined significant failures of legal institutions, governments and organs of civil society to implement rules, regulations and standards in cases where these were breached by individuals defaming and threatening Jews.
The place of Jews in the minds of Europeans, imagery of Jews promoted by a variety of Muslim sources and utter ignorance of Jews and Judaism in important swathes of the globe were canvassed.
My own experiences in Southeast Asia and Oceania were contrasted dramatically with those of researchers working in Eastern Europe. Issues in Australia and New Zealand were found to be in many ways similar, though also in significant ways different, from those in Western Europe and North America.
While the insulting, historically ludicrous and morally offensive equating of Jews/Israelis with Nazis remains a fringe phenomenon in Australia, it was sad to hear how mainstream it is becoming in some countries – with political considerations outweighing basic human decency.
Perhaps even more disturbing has been the way individuals have suffered virtually no consequences when they have made comments which are self-evidently hateful and bigoted, when these comments were directed at Jews. The intellectual acrobatics performed by apologists for antisemitic colleagues in academia, civil society organisations and even governmental bodies would be amusing if not for the effect of the intolerance they defend.
There was not much support for the contention that Europe is pervasively, or irredeemably, anti-Jewish, but no doubt was expressed that there are many examples of behaviour being defended, glossed over or ignored.
In medieval symbolism, the Jew was blindfolded to represent unwillingness to see truth. It seems in contemporary Europe, there are all too many who willingly turn a blind eye to prejudice, bigotry and hatred – as long as the victims are Jews.