Leading Article: An offensive campaign

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The Independent Online
THE POSTER campaign by 'Jews for Jesus' on a section of the London Underground network with a high proportion of Jewish travellers lasted two days before being withdrawn by the authorities. It should never have appeared. One of the obvious lessons of the affair is that London Underground Limited should have had a clearer idea of their customers' sensitivities than to allow a poster campaign that had been cleverly designed to be as offensive as possible to religious Jews, even if it had been approved by the Advertising Standards Authority.

This is not the first time that Jews for Jesus, a messianic sect, has been in trouble. Last autumn, an advertisement in the Times, urging that 'You don't have to be Jewish to celebrate Christmas, but it helps' caused considerable offence. No doubt they will try again.

It can seem that Jewish sensitivities on this matter are exaggerated. Some Jewish voices can give the impression that they would prefer it if any attempt to persuade a Jew of the truth of another religion were illegal. The Chief Rabbi urged after the last Jews for Jesus campaign that all religions should stick to 'cultivating their own gardens'. That is not a solution, either. But campaigns to convert Jews to Christianity do carry memories that should make any thoughtful person blanch when confronted with a Jews for Jesus poster. Conversion, throughout European history, has gone hand in hand with persecution, as an adjunct, an alternative or even both: Christians of Jewish origin have suffered greatly from anti-Semitism. To talk of the 'marketplace in ideas', as does Richard Harvey, director of Jews for Jesus, may be mistaken for all sorts of reasons. In the context of Christian-Jewish relations, it is simply grotesque, since that is a 'market' in which the company store has always been run by Christians.

There is a fundamental asymmetry built into all considerations of a market in religion involving Judaism and Christianity. It is very difficult to become a Jew and very easy to become a Christian. Judaism offers a religion for Jews: Christianity claims to be a religion for everyone. Neither claim can be abandoned without violating an essential property of the beliefs in question. Indeed, all religions that lay claim to universal truths must have an element of universal proselytisation in them.

The Council of Christians and Jews would, no doubt, like to see a complete, official stop to all attempts to convert any Jew, but no mainstream Christian body could adopt this as its official position, as the failure of the Bishop of Oxford's strenuous efforts in that direction have proved. It is not mainstream Christian churches that have worried Jewish opinion in this country. Jews for Jesus is a tiny and eccentric sect, and the Archbishop of Canterbury recently declined to take up the position of patron to the Churches Ministry among Jews that had been an accepted minor part of his job.

The Church of England's Decade of Evangelism caused some alarm among members of different religions, unfamiliar with the Anglican way of doing things, who supposed at first that it might be aggressive or even efficient. These fears have now been allayed. The campaigns of Jews for Jesus are very different because they are so precisely targeted.