This week we remember the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the destruction of Jewish synagogues across Germany which marked the move from oppression to outright violent persecution on a systemic basis under Hitler, and which led to the Holocaust.
People of my generation were brought up seeing film about the Holocaust, hearing from survivors, and listening to the experiences of relatives who were soldiers involved in the liberation of the concentration camps. It is incomprehensible that in the twenty-first century, still within living memory of those events, synagogues are attacked again. Antisemitism is alive and well in the UK.
I sat in last month’s debate in the House of Lords on the issue of religious oppression and violence in this country. I am familiar with the subject having spent many years travelling to places where Christians are persecuted with extreme violence, but I did not expect to witness the extent to which religious hatred has become apparent in our own country against a whole range of religious communities, but especially also against Muslims. It should be no surprise that when antisemitism is on the rise, other minority groups also experience hatred.
This is a country that has deep roots in what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, has described as “a tradition of civilised discourse”. I am proud of the rich heritage of democratic free speech that we enjoy in the UK. When I travel across the Anglican Communion, I am reminded so often of the treasures of freedom of expression that are the envy of so many countries.
However, we cannot afford to take these freedoms for granted. The horrifying rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia should be a national shame.
The challenge we face is one that is global, generational and theological / philosophical, and not just a question of politics and security. All our communities contain histories, texts and pockets of practice that demand vigilance from those of us who are leaders that we may condemn hatred unequivocally and foster good relations at every turn. I have spoken publicly about the Christian Church’s own shameful history of antisemitism. The point is, all faiths and none need to reflect with humility about our own responsibilities towards building up a culture of civility.
We live in unprecedented times when hatred can be stirred up almost instantaneously through a misinformed speech or a provocative social media post. Persecution of minorities is not solved by the banning of inappropriate thinking, or even by suppressing their expression. In doing so we drive the hateful and the destructive underground and give it some status.
Such thinking must be challenged openly and clearly to show not only its wickedness but also its foolishness.
The freedom to challenge all sectors of society, when expressed in reasonable and measured and courteous ways, is essential for us to have open debate about what is right and wrong. There is a tendency to think that by banning all statements of absolute (except the statement that criticises the banning of absolutes) we can stop people being offended! We need to be able to say things that are difficult for others to hear, provided that they are not said as an incitement to hatred.
What kind of society are we looking for? The statistics on religious hatred have lifted the lid on how divided the UK is becoming. What may we do to replace invective and violence with respect and civility; to disagree well by acting for the good of the other? Such a mandate feels like the business of loving one’s neighbour and loving the stranger, even the enemy. This 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht is an opportunity to reflect soberly on the importance of freedom of speech and the valuing of all our minority groups today.