Some months ago the interfaith Council of Christians and Jews issued a statement criticising Anglican vicar Revd Dr Stephen Sizer for linking to anti-Semitic websites (detailed here). The matter was brought to the attention of the police but was not taken any further. Since then, however, further claims have been levelled against Revd Sizer and covered by several newspapers.
Over the weekend the issue was raised again at the national level, this time by Archbishop Cranmer, a widely-read UK political blog. Cranmer published a letter to the South East Gospel Partnership written by Revd Nick Howard (son of the former Tory leader Michael Howard) and James Mendelsohn, a senior law lecturer at Huddersfield University, in which they set out why they believe Revd Sizer to be anti-Semitic and call for the evangelistic partnership to disassociate itself from him. It is a serious charge and merits careful scrutiny.
This latest event in a long-running saga raises two important points.
Anti-Semitism aside for the moment, there is little doubt Stephen is strongly anti-Israel (consider his association with some of these people, hardly Israel's champions), which raises a second issue: that there is now more than ever a serious debate to be had within the church concerning at what stage anti-Israel sentiment and activity spills over into anti-Semitism.
Israel should not, of course, be excluded from criticism. Far from it. Yet it is vital to note that the State of Israel constitutes approximately 50% of all the world's Jews. Moreover, Israel is a Jewish state, established as a safe haven for Jews in the wake of a European Holocaust that led to the extermination of six million Jews. As such, any criticism of the Jewish State must reflect and be sensitive to these realities. Thus comparing, for example, Israel to Nazi Germany, or Gaza with the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, or the IDF with Herod's soldiers, are surely odious and cross a line Christians claiming to be peacemakers should not be crossing.
If Christians on both sides of the debate are to engage with and discuss the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a theological perspective seriously, rather than simply shouting at each other from the sidelines, we desperately need some ground rules setting out the nature of what is and is not acceptable anti-Israel rhetoric and activism.
Recently I met with Stephen to discuss various issues, and raised the above points with him unequivocally, so this isn't about me taking a potshot from behind the safety of a blog. What is increasingly clear is that the accusations of anti-Semitism are not going to subside and Stephen will eventually have to debate his critics publicly, not through a blog or sympathetic forums, but in a critical environment (if even for his own sake). For the wider church, however, there is still time to discuss in private and reach a settlement on how to carry out a quality and nuanced debate that does not draw on unacceptable anti-Israel rhetoric and activism leading to accusations of anti-Semitism. The Church has too long and shameful a history of its treatment of the Jewish people to permit that.