Religion,  Uncategorized

Fear in Oxford

This is a cross-post by Joseph Weissman

The Daily Telegraph carries a depressing story today about Dr Tali Argov, a Jewish Israeli lecturer at Oxford who claims she was discriminated against after converting to Christianity:

They moved to England in 1996 and in 2000 Dr Argov, then studying for a PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was offered the full-time post of Lector of Modern Hebrew at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies. The centre is independent but its students are part of the traditional Oxford college system.

Dr Argov said she was welcomed and appreciated but the “honeymoon” ended after her husband was baptised into the Church of England in 2005, after which time “all those kind, heart-warming gestures disappeared overnight” and she was “considered guilty by association”.

Dr Argov also converted from Judaism to Anglicanism in January 2008, having become “actively engaged” with St Mary Magdalene church in the centre of Oxford, but did not dare tell her parents until after the event.

“It is very rare for an Israeli Jew to convert to Christianity and I was aware that not only would this be frowned upon but many Jews would believe I was a traitor who had betrayed the faith.”

Dr Argov said her conversion was “not met with much understanding” in the Jewish community, and that groups of colleagues started “looking at me strangely” and would fall silent when she approached.

She told the five-day hearing on Monday that she applied for a lectureship post but was told by a Fellow at the Centre: “Don’t bother – you will be kicked on your teeth.” The post allegedly went to a less well-qualified candidate.

Dr Argov said she was later “humiliated” when she was the only full-time member of staff left out of a photo shoot for a “glossy promotional brochure”.

Later she was old she could no longer use her office, had her pigeonhole for letters removed and was given a lesser title on her university ID card, meaning that she lost her email account and library admittance although these were later reinstated.

Dr Argov claimed she was “sidelined” by not being invited to a fundraising event in London, and although she and her husband were allowed to attend, they were “made to feel extremely uncomfortable”.

She said was greeted with a “limp handshake” from Peter Oppenheimer, then the Centre’s President, who then “appeared to sneer in our direction”, while other Fellows “would walk past us as if we were not there”.

In 2008, Dr Argov says she was told her lectures had to be vetted in advance, which she called “a professional slur and an attempt to suppress my academic freedom”.

“My concern was that members of the [Hebrew and Jewish Studies] Unit wished to vet my courses in order to ensure that, having converted to Christianity, I would not make any criticism of Israel or its political or cultural agenda.”

I can recognise and sympathise with Dr Argov’s predicament. Here is a woman who has made a personal faith decision which does not affect her professional capabilities, and yet she has seemingly had a horrific time in her department because of her beliefs. Dr Argov clearly feels ostracised, although ultimately it will be for the tribunal to decide upon this matter.

Update 9/9/10:

the tribunal has ruled:

“Dr Argov had “made serious personal allegations that we reject, and that she has on occasion refused to acknowledge the plain written evidence which was before her and the tribunal”. Based on careful examination of the evidence and on the fact that they “found her to be an unreliable witness,” they dismissed all of her complaints of discrimination. It found inter alia that “The alleged discriminator, Dr Ariel, did not know of [her] religious faith at the time he made the allegedly discriminatory decision.

Imagine if Geza Vermes had been shunned by his fellows because of his decision to move from Christianity towards liberal Judaism. Would his peers see fit to monitor his lectures in case he made a disparaging remark about the Church?

There are many Christians like Vermes who decide to convert to Judaism – indeed many of these are prominent in anti-missionary circles, such as YY RubensteinGavriel Sanders and Benyamin Klugger. They are at liberty to convert without any fear of social consequences, and actively encourage others to convert this way.

But in any case, you can’t launch a pre-emptive strike against someone based upon what they might believe about God and how theymight act upon these beliefs, nor how their beliefs might affect their professional conduct – especially when you’re not really sure what these beliefs are.

What can we say?

Sure, if the decision goes Dr Argov’s way (which I hope it will if she is telling the whole truth), we can conclude that her colleagues should have acted in a more professional manner, and hope that justice is done.

But what of the underlying fear – of conversion, of persecution, of objectification? Do we ignore this?

I wouldn’t want to, because I think this would be most insensitive. I understand the fear of what converts might do or say, and I empathise, but I can’t sympathise when it spills over into discrimination or even into bullying. Certainly, many Jewish people within Argov’s department will have good reason to be concerned about Christianity, and it is this issue which needs untangling.

From the article, it’s clear the problem isn’t criticism of Israel per se, but criticism of Israel from a theological perspective.

This is understandable: for centuries, Christian preachers agitated about the Jews as a “worldly” people, whereas Christians were “heavenly”. This justified the underlying assumptions behind the Crusades: the Jews have broken their covenant established in the Old Testament, and so have no right to the Holy Land. The Jews in mediaeval Christian thought were a witness-people, forever guilty of deicide, as ordained by Augustine’s god.

Sadly, as these attitudes find their modern-day expressions in the contemporary “post-religious” argument over Zionism, it is understandable that Jews are wary about those amongst them who become Christians.

Will they follow the lead of some Left wing atheist Jews, who have devoted their lives to anti-Israel activism? That has most certainly not been my own experience of the politics of Jewish Christians.  Moreover, with the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians becoming institutionally anti-Zionist and underpinning this attitude with theology, as I will go on to argue I think Jewish Christians will in fact find themselves in an increasingly more difficult position.

It’s true that many Jews have seen conversion to Christianity as a way to escape persecution. Following the pogroms of 1391 incited by local bishops, almost half of Spain’s Jews became Catholic converts, and flourished in Spanish society without worrying about any socio-religious barriers. This lasted until 1449, when Toledo introduced racial laws forbidding Spanish Catholics from marrying Jewish-blooded Catholics.

From 1478, Spain began to identify any “Judaising” Jewish converts – Christian Jews who stayed indoors on Saturdays, or had family meals on Friday nights, or sang in Hebrew at home. Hundreds were put to death, and conversos were even unfairly accused of murdering a Spanish lad, the Holy Child of La Guardia. Only in 1492 does the Inquisition turn to the Jews and expel them. (Ironically considering its victims, the Inquisition’s high priest Tomas de Torquemada was the nephew of a famous converso, Juan de Torquemada.)

Still, the impression Jews would have would be that Christianity was implacably anti-Semitic. Even when Jews converted, Christians persecuted their blood. The Toledo blood laws would re-emerge again in Nazi Germany. Many churches implemented the Nuremberg Laws, expelling Jews, mischlings and those with Jewish spouses from being vicars.

Practically, every time Jews have suffered from discriminating Christian theology, Jewish Christians have suffered too. Thus Jewish Christians should have no logical reason to advance anti-Semitic religious ideas. Paradoxically however, Jewish Christians are often shunned because they are assumed to share the same theological beliefs as Christianity’s greatest bigots, which I think is an unfair accusation.

There are historical reasons why Jews fear converts to Christianity. In the Middle Ages, Christian missionary institutions employed Jewish converts to preach in public disputations against rabbis, whilst arguing that Jews were socially and religiously inferior to Catholics. Raymond de Penyaforte – the monk who trained Pablo Cristiani for the Barcelona Disputation – typified this attitude.

Is it possible to express one’s beliefs in Christ without evoking painful memories of discrimination? I think so, and I don’t think a painful history should restrict and constrain modern discussions about spirituality.

It is important to realise that Christian theology is flexible and evolving. It is also not monolithic. In modern times, many Jews feel that they are ‘targets’ for conversion, not least due to the sometimes-careless language employed by over-zealous emissaries. Cognizant of the history we have just considered, they may also think that Christianity itself is inseparable from a theology which objectifies Jews, and that anyone professing a belief in Christ is attaching himself to an institution hostile to Jews by default.

Current Jewish Christians argue against replacement theology. The two most famous Messianic Jews Mark Kinzer and Michael Brown both have their own ways of  powerfully combating supercessionism in churches. Interfaith theologian David Rudolph argues that contemporary Jewish Christians are the front-line against anti-Jewish bigotry in the churches. I do my bit when I can, albeit as an amateur.

Even then, I doubt this is enough to remove the fear.

Another solution is for us to appreciate the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his excellent book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer distinguished between the ‘cheap grace’ of belonging to an institution church and the ‘costly grace’ of sticking to Christ-like convictions. Bonhoeffer’s beliefs led him to smuggle Jews out of Germany to Switzerland, to establish the Confessing Church against the churches conforming to the Nazis, and to attempt to overthrow Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was an inspiration to Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement and Desmond Tutu in the anti-apartheid struggle. Bonhoeffer is remembered and celebrated whereas conformist clergy are forgotten by history. May we continue to hope that Bonhoeffer’s expressions of Christianity shine a light for our contemporary churches. Doubtless, there have been many like Bonhoeffer throughout the ages, who have cast out fear with perfect love.

Will replacement theology one day become a minority opinion in churches?

Will Jewish Christians be welcomed into the Jewish-Christian interfaith debate, or excluded so as not to upset the apple-cart?

Will Jews and Christians maintain social and political prejudices against the religious “other” underpinned by historical trauma or theological constructs, or will this one day be jettisoned?

Perhaps these are questions not for amateur bloggers like myself, but for professional academics and theologians – and indeed by Dr Argov and her colleagues. However, in a practical manner, these are also issues which can be solved by men and women of goodwill.

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