Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Religion cannot be separated from the religious. Although the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘religions’ as ‘particular system[s] of faith and worship’, these systems must surely be spectrums: how could they exist without the perspectives of their followers? Yes, a god could exist without followers, and a religion might depend on belief in and the worship of that god. But God isn’t religion. From the foremost expert to the newest convert, each believer’s interpretation of his religion is just that – an interpretation.
I might think that I can no longer be a Christian because I don’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, but for many Christians that wouldn’t present an insurmountable problem. Some might disagree with my understanding of the doctrine; others might not have heard of it, at all. The exact wording of authoritative texts is, of course, often wielded in attempts to explicate these matters, but that exactness is paradoxical, owing to issues of authenticity, translation, and – therefore – again, interpretation.
Some religions are traditionally disparate. Manifestations of others are continually shaped by the culture of their locations, or secular and political influence. But, frequently, there are over-lapping sets of tenets that mainstream followers of a religion feel to be fundamental to their faith. Those sets aren’t easily categorised into one neat package, however – in much the same way that we struggle to define ‘game’, or ‘opera’.
If we can’t know what a religion definitively represents, and we allow that its followers espouse varying interpretations of what might be the case, then our thoughts – both about religion and the religious – become complicated. If uncertainty is hard for believers, it is, no doubt, harder for those who can’t appreciate that the beauty of faith could be that it depends on belief in something that cannot be known.
Treating people equally, regardless of their qualities over which they have no control – race and gender, for instance – seems almost indisputably good. Respecting their views seems an essential part of a good society. But, being born a certain way is usually deemed to be quite different from choosing to hold a certain view. Some followers of some religions do believe that religiosity is an inherent quality: something one can’t attain, or abdicate from. That can lead both to the attractive idea of a God-given faith, and to menacing eugenics. And, again, it can only ever be a viewpoint. Nobody has yet provided a conclusive argument for a god’s existence (sorry, Descartes and dad), so, to those who don’t believe, the standpoint that ‘God says so’ or ‘God has done this’ is not just weak, it is irrelevant.
But, to live together in successful society, we need to tolerate others. And, to many Britons today – YouGov claims 50 per cent – the religious are indeed ‘others’. As well as supporting people’s right to believe what they choose (of course, that right is thankfully somewhat difficult to suppress), we should also support their right to propagate their beliefs – as long as doing so does not incite violence.
Little of this feels relevant to the past week’s headlines about Israel and anti-semitism, however. In fact, I’m convinced that the consideration of Jewish tenets has nothing to do with the aggrieved championing of the (insidious and counter-productive) Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that followed Matthew Hancock’s attempt to block this anti-Israeli behaviour within Britain. Similarly, religious enquiry seems unrelated to the anti-semitic attitudes reportedly afflicting Oxford University’s Labour Club. Anti-semitism is not a considered argument against Judaism or its followers’ interpretations of their faith; it is base, unthinking hatred.
Having some awareness of twentieth-century history, I am always surprised when I learn of instances of anti-semitism in our country. Having some awareness of twentieth-century history, I realise how stupid this is of me. If I were Jewish, had grown up in a more religiously mixed area, or had more British Jewish friends, my surprise might have subsided by now. I do have lots of left-wing friends, however. And many of them seem uncomfortable about Israel. Some support BDS, or anti-Israeli Christian charities. Some assume there were pernicious intentions behind the genesis of the Israeli state. Some probably agree with the messages of the ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ tube flyposters. And some might even have time for the extreme opinion that the Netanyahu government’s approach is fascistic, and, therefore, somehow comparable to that of the Nazi regime.
To respond to the vileness of that comparison would take more words than I have space to include, and fewer than I am sufficiently eloquent to write. And I won’t try to outline the history of the Jewish people, or the land of Israel. But those who suggest that the current state simply should not exist are surely ignorant of what that would mean (and not just for Israelis). Ignorant also are those who fail to comprehend that its citizens – including Jews, Muslims, Christians, those who don’t wish to be described by their faith, and atheists – all benefit from being democratically able to influence and denounce their government’s decisions.
And ignorant are those who cannot see that Israel is bonded by millennia of anti-semitism. In Britain, this ignorance comes mostly from those who haven’t seen the relaxed way in which men and women wander the old stone streets, and start-up scenes, of Jerusalem in all forms of religious dress. Or haven’t talked with recent French Israeli immigrants, who have left their families for a country where they can’t speak the language, in order to feel at home practising their faith, without fear.
Every nation state is man-made. OK, some Jews believe that Israel was given to them by God, but this, again, is not a sufficient argument to convince those who do not believe in such a god. Anti-semitism itself, however, is a reason to approve of Israel, and to understand the integration of Judaism – and the freedom of all religious expression – into its structures. To become anti-semitic through opposition to Israel is, at best, grossly ignorant.
But it is not surprising. Contradictory fashions constantly clash in our bubbles of prescribed thought. This happens when groupthink limits an ability to discern complex nuance. It happens in the effort to work out how transgender politics fits into male-inclusive feminism. And when the wrongness of sexual assault seems at odds with positivity about immigration. It happens when Stop the War endorses Putin’s pugnaciousness, and Jeremy Corbyn maintains that making friends with Hamas is a necessary act of peace.
And it happens when hatred of someone for their religious views has nothing to do with religious views at all.