Antisemitism is no joke
In the February 2020 ‘Welcome Week’ edition of Honi Soit, there was an insert purporting to be from the University of Sydney Union. On page 3, located next to the headline “Friday: Catholic Society presents Life Day”, an image was published of a placard bearing the words “Should we get the Jews back for what they did to our absolute boy? Yes or No?”. Next to the placard in the image was a “Yes” jar and a “No” jar. The image depicted a student placing a vote in the “Yes” jar which was full. The “No” jar was shown as almost empty.
This image was apparently intended to refer to the antisemitic trope that “the Jews killed Jesus”. This historical falsehood, implying that all Jews, for all time, are collectively responsible for Deicide, was for centuries used as a pretext for committing unspeakable barbarities, including mass murder, against Jewish communities all over Europe and elsewhere.
The Catholic Society had nothing to do with the image. In fact, it subsequently complained publicly about having been misrepresented and vilified in Honi. Nor did the insert come from the University of Sydney Union. It was a sham created by the editors of Honi, who say it was published as an attempt to satirise the Catholic Society, and presumably also the University of Sydney Union.
Gabi Stricker-Phelps, the NSW Political Affairs Officer of the Australian Union of Jewish Students, wrote to the editors of Honi, asking them to clarify who they meant by “absolute boy”. Her letter was published in the next edition of Honi under the heading “It’s Jesus you fucking fool”. She too lodged a complaint with the University about the antisemitic nature of the image in question, as well as the personally abusive heading placed on her letter by the Honi editors.
The editors of Honi say they were seeking to satirise and discredit the Catholic Society, mocking them by associating them with the anti-Jewish trope. One of many problems with that contention is that the Catholic Society has never had even the slightest association with anti-Jewish bigotry and in fact enjoys excellent relations with Jewish students.
Decades ago, the Catholic Church itself disavowed the myth that “the Jews” are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. In the declaration of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 entitled Nostra Aetate, and in subsequent official documents, the Catholic Church has acknowledged the unique link that binds it to the Jewish people; recognised that the gifts of God are irrevocable, and that the covenant made by God with the Jews therefore still stands; and condemned and deplored displays of antisemitism at any time from any source.
So, regardless of the claimed intentions of the Honi editors, the publication smeared the Catholic Society, and made light of an antisemitic trope which has an appalling, blood-soaked history. If the newspaper had published an anti-indigenous or anti-Muslim canard, intending to satirise it when it was in fact attributing it falsely to an innocent party, would we even be having a debate about whether they should apologise? Would it have been published it in the first place?
The reality is that despite the fact that all the major Christian denominations have long repudiated the “Christ-killer” myth and condemned antisemitism, one cannot expect nearly 2000 years of anti-Jewish prejudice to disappear overnight. The prejudice lingers in our culture and language, and is still frequently part of antisemitic abuse directed at Jews around the world. Publication of this image has unfortunately helped to perpetuate it.
More than that, the abuse directed against a prominent Jewish student leader on campus (and in the wider community) – merely for having the temerity to question Honi – is entirely unjustifiable. This is especially so given the cartoon’s publication in Welcome Week – a time when all new students should feel a sense of belonging on campus, not a time when Jewish students, or indeed any student, should be made to feel marginalised and vilified.
Of greater concern is the presumption by the editors that they understand better than Jewish students what is, or what is not, objectively antisemitic. We doubt the editors of Honi would presume to tell indigenous or Muslim students that the latter are inferior judges of what constitutes prejudice against their communities.
We would like to put this regrettable saga behind us, and have asked the Honi editors to give an unqualified apology for the hurt and offence caused by publication of the image and the subsequent letter. They have sadly found themselves unable to do so. Our view is very simple: antisemitism is no joke.