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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2009
Number 70
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Oy Vey Is Mir

Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion by Jeremy Cohen, New York: Oxford University Press.
A Review Essay by Robert Michael

In his novel, The Last of the Just, Andr Schwartz-Bart has a character say: “Yeshua, [Jesus] was really a good Jew you know, sort of like the Baal Shem Tov a merciful man, and gentle. The Christians say they love him, but I think they hate him without knowing it. So they take the cross by the other end and they make a sword out of it and strike us with it! They take the cross and they turn it around, they turn it around, my God.” (The Last of the Just, New York 1960, 365-67)

For two millennia, a predominant ideology with Christian belief has concentrated on the Jews’ enduring “sins” and “crimes.” Jews were an inherently evil people who slaughtered their prophets, betrayed and murdered their true messiah/maschiach, persisted in their stiff-necked perfidia, a people who never failed to express their greed, their treason, their murderous rage at Christ and Christians. Christian thinkers and theologians, politicians and prelates, playwrights and poets have expressed antisemitic attitudes toward Jews that have incontestably influenced average Christians. In the earliest centuries of the Christian era, mild pagan antagonisms developed into historical and theological beliefs that the Jewish people were abhorrent and that any injustice done to them was justified. Jews became the archetypal evil-doers in Christian societies. This anti-Jewish attitude was (and perhaps still is) a permanent element in the fundamental identity of western Christian civilization.

The Christian Church, the new Israel ordained and sanctioned by God succeeded the cursed and rejected old Israel (Jews) morally, historically, and metaphysically. Although all Jews should not be massacred, they must be punished for their “sins.” As Jacob Neusner wrote, “At no time before our own century did Christianity contemplate Judaism as an equal, identify in Judaism a medium of salvation distinct from the Church, find in the Torah as read by sages a message both true and also original, or in any way accord to Judaism a place within that tradition of truth that the Church alone nurtured.” (Jacob Neusner, “Christian MissionariesJewish Scholars,” Midstream, October 1991, p. 31).

These religious antagonisms elaborated by the theological and popular writings and preachings of the Church’s great theologians and popes, exploited by Christian authorities, enhanced by the sermons, theology, liturgy, laws, art, and literature of the Church stirred in most of the faithful an automatic hostility toward Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness and continued into the modern period with only continued into the modern period with only minor deviations. (See Frederick Schweitzer, “The Tap-Root of Antisemitism: The Demonization of the Jews,” Remember for the Future: Jews and Christians during and after the Holocaust, Oxford 1988) Put another way, Christianity has maintained the same anti-Jewish themes over most of its history and served as the ideological and emotional support for modern Antisemitism.

Just as Christian theology denied Jews salvation in the next life, so it disqualified Jews from legitimate citizenship in Christendom. In a sense, Jews were ostracized from full human status. Some protective Roman legal traditions, some Christian feelings of charity, and the Jews’ profoundly ambivalent role as suffering examples of the consequences of offending God provided Jews with a precarious place within Christian society. But until their emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews had only very tenuous legal and moral rights to exist. The Jews had to plead with Christian authorities kings and princes, bishops and pope to protect them. Sometimes this worked. Other times, the authorities turned their backs on the Jews or collaborated with those Christians intent on cursing, expropriating, expelling, or murdering Jews. Blaise Pascal, a Christian reformer who saw some good in Judaism but stood solidly with the Christian anti-Jewish tradition, unintentionally condemned his own point of view when he stated that, “We never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when we do it out of religious conviction.” (Blaise Pascal, Oeuvrs Compltes, Paris 1954, Pense 794)

A recent examination of Catholic Antisemitism questions the relationship between Christian beliefs and the outrageous “excesses and perversions” of Catholics in their ideas and behaviors toward Jews. The author asks why Christian rhetoric so easily serves anti-Jewish hatred, even for men like Adolf Hitler, “Whythe cross seem [s] so readily wielded as a sword?” (James Carroll, “Boston’s Jews and Boston’s Irish,” Boston Globe, 12 January 1992, p. 65) In an earlier post-Holocaust study of American opinion, Charles Glock and Rodney Stark discovered that even at a time of growing ecumenical harmony led by the Catholic Vatican II Council, about half of the Americans interviewed--both Catholic and Protestant, both lay and clergy believed that:

  • All Jews were responsible for crucifying Christ, and they could not be forgiven for this act until they converted to Christianity.
  • God punishes Jews because they reject Christ.
  • The Jews were responsible for their own suffering.

The researchers concluded that far from being exclusively secular, “the heart and soul of Antisemitism rested on Christianity.” Fully 95 percent of Americans got their secular stereotypes of Jews from the Christian religion. (Charles Glock and Rodney Stark, Christian Beliefs and Antisemitism, New York 1966, p. xvi, 50-65, 73-74, 105, 185-187) Christianity, as other religions, stands as the focus of prejudice because “it is the pivot of the cultural tradition of a group.” (Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, New York 1988, p. 446) This group, the Christians, is unlike any other group in Western history; it has been the controlling in-group over the last 1700 years.

In Christ Killers, Jeremy Cohen, an authoritative and insightful historian, has written a text dealing with what he considers the most essential Christian anti-Jewish myth. He means myth in two senses: First, the standard one referring to a false belief. Second, and more important, Cohen refers to myth as a fundamental “story that expresses the ultimate truths and values of a community.” The myth of all Jews, collectively, as Christ killers is a sine qua non, a “that without which” Christianity cannot exist.

Although Cohen does not use the following analogy, it explains as well as any the role of Jews doe Christians in general, for Christian Antisemites in particular. Picture the scene in the Night at the Opera where Groucho Marx stands on a stage in front of the theater curtain arguing with a dour tenor named Lassparri, who has humiliated Harpo, struck him, and fired him. (On a small stage, not unlike what Jews are traditionally accused of doing to Jesus Christ by Christian Antisemites.) From behind the curtain, a club slams Lassparri on the head and knocks him out. Harpo appears from behind the curtain, revives the tenor with smelling salts while Groucho comments on how kind Harpo’s behavior is. (Christ’s forgiveness of the Jews while he hangs on the cross.) Once Lassparri has regained consciousness and is sitting up, Harpo again whacks him on the head and knocks him out a second time. (Christian revenge on the Jews for their “hateful assassination of Christ.”)

In this drama, unfolding before the audience’s eyes and hearts, the evil-doing is Lassparri; Harpo is taking his just revenge twice over. The audience, sympathizing with the initially mistreated Harpo, is first merely pleased with his slamming Lassparri. Once Harpo wakes him and knocks him out again, the audience roars its approval.

So with the drama of Christ’s Passion, not on a small stage with a few actors lasting a few minutes, but writ in the largest venue possible, on a world-wide stage with millions of Christian and Jewish participants lasting two millennia and counting. The Passion has established most clearly that in the drama of Western Christian culture and civilization, the “bad guys” are the Jews. Just as without evil, we cannot know good, and without good we cannot discern evil, so, without the Jewish “villain,” “good” Christians would float through the air without a definitive anchor. Once defined as evil-doers in league with the Devil, there was/is no escape for the Jews or hardly any (reactions to the Holocaust such as Nostra Aetate, which Cohen critiques as allowing “much of the Christ-killer myth [to remain] intact,” have begun to change this relationship for the better but there is a long way to go.) Jews, the Lassparris of Western Christian civilization were, and still are for many, arch-villains, and so anything, or almost anything, done against them would be “justified,” if not celebrated.

Cohen shows that for Jews and Christians both, the keys to salvation lie in blood sacrifice, whether Passover lamb or crucifixion, that even before the Gospels were written, Paul, or one of his disciples, demonstrates that Jews were guilty of crucifixion and opposition to the true faith of Christianity. The second-century bishop Melito of Sardis portrayed the Jews not just as a people unfaithful to God, but as the exemplar or all the unfaithful, just as later Christians discerned in Jews the originators and sustainers of all heresy.

It was during the High Middle Ages when the Jewish condition fully deteriorated. We learn that even Peter Abelard, the famous defender of Jews from the collective guilt of deicide, still maintained like many Christians up to the present that, unbaptized, Jews would find themselves in hell once they died. Abelard, the forcibly castrated Catholic outsider, was the best of the lot. Other Churchmen like St. Thomas Aquinas and Peter the Venerable and Raymond Martini as well as devotional literature were circuitously or directly hostile to Jews as demonic vampires in league with the devil to destroy, to crucify and recrucify, Christians and Christianity and Christendom. These theological attacks on Jews fed into political assaults and physical violence. The result thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Jews slaughtered. As Cohen points out, these tendencies were also obvious in the Dreyfus Affair and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Covering the essential anti-Jewish defamations, accusations, and myths, Cohen spends a lot of time on literature and the arts time well spent. His efforts seal his point that the Christ-killer myth was spread from Churchmen down to the faithful by means of painting, sculpture and drama, keeping the issue and Jew-hatred alive in the most vivid manner and at the most basic emotional level. Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Carrying of the Cross” (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent), one of the few relevant paintings Cohen omits from his book, shows Jesus en route to Golgotha spiritually transported beyond the frenzied Jewish mob portrayed as despicable, dehumanized Jewish monstrosities (except for St. Veronica).

Cohen and I agree that the Jew has become the archetypal alien in Christian civilization, an outsider “whom the insiders stereotype as malignant.” It is obvious that the Nazis murdered others in addition to Jews. But whereas the Nazis killed non-Jews only when it served the practical purposes of the Third Reich, they intended to murder all the Jews for being Jews, that is, as the only essentially evil people, and idea that did not appear from nowhere, but from ancient, medieval, early-modern, and modern Christian Antisemitism. For, as in Christian eschatology, the Jews were considered allied with the Antichrist whose evil nature served to establish the positive identity of the insiders. (See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, New York 1980) As the late Klaus Scholder observed, Hitler’s major goal was to extirpate the “root of all evil, Judaism.” (Klaus Scholder, “Judentum und Christentum in der Ideologie und Politik des Nationalsozialismus, 1919-1945,” Historical Society of Israel, Jerusalem 1982, 197-198) The distinction between how non-Jewish enemies of the Reich and Jews were to be treated was made clear in a speech by Heinrich Himmler to SS leaders at Poznan on 4 October 1943. Himmler, widely known as a racist, nevertheless appeared to believe traditional Catholic defamations about Jews such as ritual murder and here distinguishes between the National-Socialist policy toward the inferior Slavic peoples, the dehumanized Untermenschen, and the regime’s more radical attitude toward the inhuman, satanic Jews, die Unmenschen. About the Nazi policy toward non-Jews, he stated, “What happens to the Russians, what happens to the Czechs is a matter of total indifference to me. Whether other nations live in prosperity or croak from hunger interests me only insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture . We shall never be brutal or heartless where it is not necessary....We Germanstake a decent attitude toward these human animals.” He contrasted this policy with his attitude of secrecy and regard to “the evacuation of the Jews, the annihilation of the Jewish people” was the glory and moral duty of the Reich. “We had the right, we had the moral duty toward our people, to kill this people which wanted to kill us. Our inward being, our soul, our character has not suffered injury from it.” (“Document PS-1919,” Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, 29:110-73. Heinrich Himmler, “Speech to SS-Gruppenfuhrer at Posen Poland, October 4, 1943,” U.S. National Archives document 242.256, reel 2 of 3) In other words, the Nazis dehumanized the Slavic peoples into slaves, but they “dehumanized” the Jews into devils, and in this they sensed the bi-millennial Christian tradition and felt they were doing their duty. They did not wake up one morning and decide to murder all the Jews.

Like the Christian theologians who have railed against Jews and the Jewish spirit for nearly two millennia, Hitler regarded the Jews with an odium theologicum as the models of all evil, the most sinful of sinners. Hitler’s practical behavior was like that of the Crusaders. Hitler himself chose as his official portrait of 1938 one that depicted him as a medieval knight on Crusade. (Robert Waite, The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler, New York 1985, 4-5) They had been Christian warriors on whom the Churches’ precarious distinction between protection and degradation was lost. Their behavior put the lie to the distinction commonly made between medieval Christian anti-Judaism and modern Antisemitism. Although in theory, Christian theology held that “Jewish sin” ought to be expugnable through baptism, often times, Crusader intent was not conversion but the expulsion or destruction of the Jews, Jewishness and Judaism.

What differentiated Crusaders and the Nazis was that the Third Reich was technologically highly efficient, it controlled a powerful nation, it was led by a brilliant Fhrer with no moral restraints when it came to Jews, and it was completely devoted to achieving its Final Solution of the Jewish Problem at all costs, even self-destruction. Yet all the other elements were already in place thanks to theological Antisemitism and the Churches: the anti-Jewish climate of opinion, the devastatingly hostile ides forces, the negative ideological and emotional groundwork, the administrative procedures and the calls for murder. (See Raul Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews, New York 1977, 121) Both Christian triumphalism and National-Socialism regarded the Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish spirit as hateful and dangerous, and therefore these satanic people, this evil religion, and this demonic ideology had to be destroyed. Tamas Nyiri, an observer of the Holocaust in Hungary, wrote, “The Holocaust is no theological accident. The anti-Judaism of the Middle Ages is shockingly close to Hitlerian racism.” (Tamas Nyiri, “In Lieu of a Preface,” in Sandor Szenes, Befejezetlen mult: Keresztenyek es zsidok sorsok [Unfinished Past: Christians and Jews, Destinies], Budapest 1986, and in Asher Cohen, “Review,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 1988, 104-06) Messianic crusader that he was, Hitler transformed, like his fierce medieval predecessors, Christian ideology into action. He catalyzed the brooding anti-Jewish antipathy of the great mass of the Christian populace into terrifying actuality.

Leaders of Christian opinion paved the way for the Nazis in the first place through their influence on the faithful. Did not many, if not most, Christian Europeans stand in silence tacitly approving at least the first half of the Holocaust, the “mild” phase of discrimination, expropriation, and exile because it matched the millennial demands of Church theologians, prelates, and popes? Did not the Nazis and their collaborators carry out the requirements of the most radical of the Christian theologians, St. John Chrysostom and Martin Luther, both of whom argued that Christians were at fault in not slaying the Jews? (For Luther, see Robert Michael, “Luther, Luther Scholars, and the Jews,” Encounter, Fall 1985, 339-56) Thus the Jews were forced to try to live through a war dominated ideologically by a deep-seated, religious hatred, which in turn had its origins in theological antagonism between Jews and Christians concerning the authentic interpretation of the most sacred of experiences birth, death and resurrection. Although Christian Antisemitism was not alone sufficient to cause the Holocaust, in many ways it provided the necessary ingredients. Theological anti-Jewishness was so strong before and during World War II, and shortly thereafter, that even the leading Christian opponents of National-Socialism within Germany Pastors Martin Niemoeller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were at one time or another caught up in it. (For Niemoeller, see Robert Michael, “Theological Myth, German Antisemitism and the Holocaust: The Case of Martin Niemoeller,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies: An International Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987, 105-22)

Cohen’s analysis of the Oberammergau Passion Play is, like the rest of his book, insightful. He points out that despite the attempts to purify the play of its anti-Jewish elements both before and after Vatican II nevertheless “the linkage between Cain, Judas and Christ killing remains,” as does the emotional conflict between Jesus and the Jews, as if Jesus were not a Jew, and the climactic crucifixion, as if Nostra Aetate had not been issued.

Near the end of his chapter on “Crucifixion on the Screen,” Cohen analyzes Mel Gibson’s snuff film, The Passion of the Christ. David Edelstein reviewed the film a few years ago: “This is a two-hour and-six-minute snuff movie The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre that thinks it’s an act of faith. For Gibson, Jesus is defined not by his teachings in life by his message of mercy, social justice, and self-abnegation, some of it rooted in the Jewish Torah, much of it defiantly personal but by the manner of his execution.” (David Edelstein, “Jesus H. Christ: The Passion, Mel Gibson’s Bloody Mess,” Slate [The Washington Post and Newsweek] 24 February 2004. Cohen pretty much agrees. He notes not only the atonement, birth, and salvation involved in the film, but also the film’s aggravation of the conflict between good Christians and evil Jews.

Cohen ends his book as he began observing that Christians need Jews, requires them to give the Passion meaning. The Passion narrative necessitates both a hero and a villain, a Christian Jesus of Nazareth and a Jewish Judas Iscariot, a Christ and a Satan. In the words of my old Yiddishe momme, Oy vey is mir.

Robert Michael is a contributing editor. His books include “Holy Hatred,” “The Dark Side of the Church,” “Judenha,” “Dictionary of Antisemitism,” “The Holocaust,” “Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German” and “Concise History of American Antisemitism.”

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