Anti-Semitism, Holocaust Denial, Hurt Feelings: The Bible’s Prophetic Tradition

Rob Kall, the editor in chief of OpEdNews (OEN) recently published a provocative edition of a weekly Zoom call among editors and contributors to his website. It was provocative because the remarks of one of the participants about fascism and the Jewish holocaust caused several other attendees to take offense and vehemently accuse him of holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. The discussion that ensued led Rob to wisely recommend caution in approaching such sensitive topics.

In my capacity as a theologian of the specifically Judeo-Christian Tradition, the conversation made me realize that the type of criticism that offended so many on the OEN call was entirely biblical. It was consonant with the tradition of Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus of Nazareth who because they denounced the rich and powerful among their countrymen, were roundly accused of being self-hating Jews.

My hope is that summarizing the offending remarks on the one hand along with the outraged responses to them on the other, might highlight the value of the biblical tradition in helping us transcend national and institutional loyalties that prevent frank self-criticism and acceptance of historical fact.

Offending Remarks

Begin by considering the provocative remarks in question. In paraphrase, they ran as follows:

“I never use the word ‘fascist,’” the provocateur said. “I never use the word ‘holocaust’ either. That’s because the simple use of those words implies that one accepts the assumptions of Zionists and right-wing Jews. I refuse to do that, because the words suggest that in the 1930s, the German Jews were entirely innocent, when they weren’t – not by a long shot.

“I mean, no one hates any person or group without reason. For instance, the Shylock character in the “Merchant of Venice” wasn’t simply a product of Shakespeare’s imagination. Shylock had a foundation in reality – in people’s experience.  And like Shylock, elite Jews in Germany gave Germans plenty of reason for hating them. In turn, Hitler used that legitimate animosity towards the few to tar all Jews – even the poorest and most exploited – with the same well-justified brush.

“Let me explain.

“The fact is that the period from the end of the 19th century to WWI was a very prosperous time. Working class expectations for social mobility were on the rise. However, to move up the social ladder – to become an attorney, for instance — one had to belong to certain clubs (like guilds) in order to get clients. Wealthy Jews who were the bankers, attorneys and physicians, controlled the clubs in question; and they wouldn’t let working class people in. That created a lot of bitterness towards Jews in general.

“Before that, under feudalism and until the end of the First World War, the people who owned the land were the nobles, the clergy, the burghers and yes, the Jews. Wealthy Jews were not peasants. They had privileges. For instance, they could carry weapons. They also bought leases to the estates of the nobles (sometimes the size of entire counties). They managed those estates for a profit.

“In other words, wealthy Jews were the interface between the peasants and the nobles.

“At the same time, the nobles mistrusted the Jews I’m describing because (again) they were the bankers, attorneys, and physicians. The nobles resented having to trust the Jews for all those essential services. For their part, the peasants mistrusted the Jews just referenced because they were always in debt to them as their landlords.

“Then following the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany experienced tremendous inflation that drastically devalued the German mark. The Jews were blamed for that too because they controlled banking. The fact is that Jewish bankers engineered the inflation to bring down the actual costs of repaying the debts demanded by the Versailles treaty. That served the interests of the wealthiest Germans who, like the wealthy today, kept their money not in savings accounts but in stocks, bonds, and real estate. Unlike working class savings accounts, the value of stocks, bonds, and real estate float with inflation. So, inflation helped the rich Germans stay rich, but completely wiped out the country’s workers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. 

“Finally, there came the Great Crash of 1929 that impoverished everyone. So, by the time Hitler came to power in 1933, the Germans, the Poles, the Hungarians and the Austrians were all ready to explode. And, of course, Hitler lit the match with his identification of all Jews as the root of their problems.”

Defensive Responses

Responses mainly from Jewish participants in Rob’s Zoom call came thick and fast.

They included the following:

  • I disagree. People do in fact hate individuals and groups for no reason at all. And Jews in Hitler’s Germany represent a case in point. They were completely innocent. To hint otherwise is simply anti-Semitic and leads to holocaust denial.
  • I don’t think there were very many Jews who managed property for the feudal lords. Yes, there may have been a few Jews who had a lot of power, and there is something to the Rothschilds, and now we have the Zionists that I absolutely hate. However . . .
  • You’re talking about Jews as if they were somehow monolithic. Most Jews were poor.
  • Yes, my own ancestors were holocaust victims and I assure you that they had nothing to do with what you’ve just described.
  • My grandmother was dragged off to Auschwitz with her husband and three children. Their entire village was leveled.
  • I’ve heard these tired arguments before – you know: the Jews keep to themselves, they wear odd clothes, speak their own language, etc., etc. It’s all part of anti-Semitism. I don’t buy any of it.
  • You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re nothing but an anti-Semitic holocaust denier. You’re basically saying that “The Jews deserved what they got in the holocaust. That makes you uncivilized; you should get off this call.”
  • I hope you’re recording all of this, Rob, so we can go back and see who’s misrepresenting what.

Biblical Perspective

Of course, it’s probably futile for a member of the goyim like me to comment on the dialog just summarized. Frankly, I’m unqualified to do so. My relatives and loved ones weren’t the ones slaughtered in Hitler’s crematoria and gas chambers. They weren’t among the peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives were cruelly wasted and destroyed by the Third Reich.

Instead, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out again and again, my Christian religious cohorts were the very ones who incinerated Jews during the week, went to confession on Saturday, were given absolution, received Holy Communion on Sunday, and then returned to their gruesome work the following day.

Yet, it must be acknowledged that my religious tradition is also specifically Judeo-Christian. Its central figure is the Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a reformer of Judaism and had no intention of founding the new religion that ended up defaming Jews as God killers – and who finished by supporting Hitler’s genocide. Jesus was not a Christian; from his birth to his death, he was a proud and faithful Jew.

In a sense, then, especially as a theologian in this tradition, I too am somehow a spiritual Semite. Whether they realize it or not, all Christians are. So, in that capacity, please indulge the attempt that follows to shed some biblical light on the dialog centralized here.

What really happened in the Zoom conversation just summarized mirrored exactly the traditional dynamic between on the one hand Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus, and on the other, their contemporaries, especially among the elite in Amos’ 8th century BCE and in Jesus’ first century of our era. Both Amos and Jesus (as typical Jewish prophets):

  • Denounced their nation’s elite in no uncertain terms
  • Predicted that their crimes would lead to destruction of the entire nation
  • Were vilified as unpatriotic, self-hating Jews
  • Were threatened with ostracism, imprisonment and death
  • And were often (as in the case of Jesus) assassinated for their prophetic words      

Put otherwise, the Jewish prophets were social critics – the kind of clear-eyed seers who weren’t afraid to blame the powerful in their own nation for crimes that brought harm, ruin, death and destruction to the entire nation. The prophets did not blame the widows, orphans, foreigners, peasants, unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, or the hobbled and ill. Instead, they unstintingly impugned the equivalents of Germany’s Jewish one percent while recognizing that the crimes of those few inevitably brought ruin, pain, exile and death even to the innocent among their own people. It’s simply the way the world works.

For his part, Amos criticized the wealthy for breaking covenant with Yahweh, their God, the traditional protector of widows, orphans and resident non-Jews. Instead of caring for the poor, the one-percenters, he said, lay on beds of ivory, lounged idly on soft couches, drank the finest wines, anointed themselves with precious perfumes and oils, lived in their luxurious summer houses while underpaying and overcharging the peasant poor. They victimized everyone, even the most innocent. Such crimes brought harm, the prophet warned, to everyone, even the most innocent. Once again, that was simply the law of cause and effect.

Jesus did something similar under the Roman Empire. His prophetic criticism was directed not towards his people’s poor majority; he didn’t blame them. No, he unrelentingly criticized their Jewish exploiters. However, at the same time he knew that the crimes of those powerful would cause untold suffering for everyone. So, he predicted the absolute destruction of Jerusalem where forty years after his death more than one million innocent Jews were slaughtered and nearly 100,000 of his blameless compatriots were captured and enslaved.

To repeat, that’s the way the world works. The blameworthy crimes of the powerful cause suffering, death and massacre for the innocent majority.

Conclusion

Despite what I said about being unqualified to comment on words that seem cruel and insensitive to victimized Jews, I do know something about being tarred with a broad brush. As a Roman Catholic and former priest, I could easily be accused of being part of a worldwide pedophilic ring represented by the priesthood and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It would even be true to say that the ring has connections to an even wider movement of pedophiles among the world’s elite whose iceberg tip revealed (e.g. in the Epstein scandal) connections with the CIA, mi5, mi6, Mossad, and Mafias of various types throughout the world.

All of that would be true even though I never personally encountered any hint of pedophilia in all my more than 20 years preparing for and direct involvement in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It remains true despite the innumerable saints, martyrs, and holy men and women I’ve known personally and from the otherwise hallowed history of the Catholic Church.

The point here is that as an American, and much more as a former priest, I’ve been deeply associated with horrendous institutional delinquencies that I’d rather not discuss, because they hit too close to my spiritual and cultural identity. In other words, I find in my own community, uncomfortable truths that parallel the “accusations” against the Jewish 1% in Hitler’s Germany. I feel resentment at their very mention.

Nonetheless, and despite my hurt feelings, truth remains truth. And in the spirit of Amos and Jesus, I must face the facts and draw appropriate conclusions. Doing so draws me out of ghettoized consciousness and self-defensive denial. It creates room for self-criticism, dialog and recognitions that might head off further community disaster.

Jesus as Self-Hating Jew!

Readings for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: NEH 8; 2-6, 8-10; Ps. 19: 8-10, 15; I Cor. 12: 12-30; Lk. 1:1-4; 4: 14-21 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012713.cfm

Last week I published an editorial on my blog site that was picked up by the Lexington Herald-Leader (http://www.kentucky.com/2013/01/19/2482073/ky-voices-the-chosen-people-are.html) and by OpEdNews (http://www.opednews.com/articles/Unconditional-Support-for-by-Mike-Rivage-Seul-130118-813.html.) It was about Chuck Hegel and the criticism he has endured from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and people like Elliot Abrams, the former Undersecretary of State for Human Rights in the Reagan administration.

Hegel had been nominated for Secretary of Defense by President Obama. Abrams and the others had criticized the nominee for being insufficiently supportive of Israel and therefore unfit for the “Sec Def” position. Hegel’s critics were looking for “unconditional support” for Israel, and didn’t find it in President Obama’s candidate. Their criticism was so effective that Hegel has since been forced to apologize for his past criticisms of the Jewish-Zionist Lobby.

Many Christians probably felt vindicated by Hegel’s groveling before his Jewish critics. After all, they might reason, Israel is God’s Chosen People; they deserve unconditional support.

However, today’s liturgy of the word underlines the point I tried to make in my op-ed: the phrase “God’s Chosen People” does not primarily refer to a national entity, but to the poor and oppressed.

Biblically speaking, it is true that Israel did fit that profile at the time of its origin – in Egyptian slavery (13th century B.C.E.) – and later during its captivity in Babylon (6th century B.C.E.). They were oppressed as well as when Israel was under the control of the Assyrians (8th century), Persians (6th century), Greeks (2nd century), and Romans (1st century). Then, precisely as oppressed, they were the object of God’s special love and protection.

At Mt. Zion, Moses enshrined in the law protection of people like them – slaves, widows,orphans, immigrants, the imprisoned, and the poor.

That’s the Law that the scribe, Ezra is recorded as reading to the people for hours in today’s first reading. They had just returned from exile in Babylon. For them “The Law” (the first five books of the Bible) was a source of joy and strength. After all, those books recounted what for Jews was the liberation of all liberations – from Egypt under the leadership of the great rebel hero, Moses. With Ezra in charge, they were celebrating the end of a long and painful experience in the geographical area that is now “Iraq.” Ezra reminded the assembled people that in their return to the Promised Land, they were experiencing Exodus all over again. Indeed, he said, it was a time for celebration – eating rich meats and drinking sweet drinks.

Today’s second and third readings pick up on Ezra’s theme – that God favors the poor and oppressed. However both Jesus and Paul do so emphasizing the point that Yahweh’s favored ones are not always Jews. When Jesus said that in his hometown synagogue, it enraged his former neighbors. (Their response reminds me of Elliot Abrams and the AIPAC demanding “unconditional support” for Israel.)

By the way, did you notice the strangeness of the reading from Luke’s gospel today? It starts out with the very first verses of Luke, verses 1-4. There the evangelist announces his intention – to carefully draw on the oral traditions of eyewitnesses and present an orderly researched account of what Jesus said and did.

But then the reading suddenly jumps ahead to Luke chapter 4 and presents Jesus’ preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. That gives the impression that Jesus’ first significant act was that Nazareth sermon. Perhaps it was – since Luke’s “infancy narratives” belong more to the realm of poetic imagination than of history.

Today’s reading also leaves out the response of those who heard Jesus’ words in Nazareth. (And that’s where the theme of “chosen people” becomes relevant.) Verses 22-30 tell us that the Nazarenes were outraged by Jesus’ implied criticism of Jews and his openness to non-Jews. After all, he had charged that prophets like Elijah and Elisha found more receptivity to their work in Lebanon (Sidon) and Syria than they found among Jews in Israel.

“Who does this guy think he is?” the Nazarenes asked indignantly. “We know his family; he’s nothing special. Yet here he is speaking critically about his own people! He must be one of those ‘self-hating Jews’.” Luke says Jesus’ hometown citizens were so outraged that they tried to kill him. (Chuck Hegel is in good company!)

Jesus’ words before the Nazarene’s attempted assassination do not merely underline the identity of God’s chosen as the poor and oppressed rather than exclusively the Jews. The words are also central in terms of Luke’s definition of Jesus’ entire project. In fact they connect that project with God’s very identity as described throughout the Jewish Testament particularly by the prophet Isaiah whose words Jesus quotes: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”

Did you notice the importance of the word “because?” It absolutely identifies the “Spirit of the Lord” with Ezra’s good news to the poor about release from captivity and recovery of sight? Jesus is saying we know that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon” him because he brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind. Jesus goes on to say that his commitment to the poor is what will define his entire mission. (The implication here is that anyone who brings good news to the poor, those in captivity and the blind embodies the Spirit of God.)

Today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Greeks in Corinth continues that theme of Isaiah, Ezra, and Jesus. Only Paul does so in terms of a familiar yet powerful metaphor – what he calls the “Body of Christ” enlivened by the “One Spirit” of God. For Paul followers of Jesus constitute the way the Master is present today long after Jesus’ death. As that presence, we are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongue. And Paul specifically says it makes no difference whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.

What does make a difference though is one’s social standing. Paul goes out of his way to say that the “less honorable” and the “less presentable” in Christ’s body are to be more honored and cared for than the more presentable and more honorable according to the standards of the world. The weaker parts, he says are somehow “more necessary” than the stronger parts. This could hardly be a clearer reference to the poor and those who are normally neglected and looked down upon. Here Paul is following the thrust of Jesus’ words and deeds by turning the social order upside-down. The poor and oppressed come first in God’s order.

Today’s readings are calling us to grow out of our nationalism that understands Jews or Americans as God’s favorites. They call us to become citizens of the world – or in Jesus’ words to be cured of our blindness.

He wants us to finally see, the readings suggest, that the Jews as such are not God’s people. Neither are Americans. In God’s eyes, (despite the protests of our politicians and talking heads) our country is not the greatest in the world. For in the body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American, Afghani, Iraqi or Cuban.

Instead, true followers of Christ recognize that our allegiance belongs to the Body of Christ. This means that our care should be showered on the widows, orphans, undocumented immigrants, beggars, and social outcasts – LGBTQs, victims of AIDS, mothers on welfare, and on Mother Earth herself. These are the poor and oppressed. These are God’s people.

Our presence at this Eucharist represents our pledge to put the needs of those groups and individuals before our own.

Given the numbers of those who claim to be Christian, if we followed through on that pledge, how drastically different our world would be! Don’t you agree?

Jesus before Pilate: His heroic refusal to name names

Readings for “Christ the King:” Dn. 7:13-14; Ps. 93:1-5; Rv. 1:5-8; Jn. 18:33b-37 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112512.cfm

This is the feast of Christ the King. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus declares his kingship during his interrogation before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Standard interpretations of the scene (such as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) present Pilate as a spiritually sensitive seeker.  It seems that Pilate had some appreciation of Jesus’ innocence and was trying desperately to free him from the rabid hatred of his Jewish adversaries.

So Pilate’s questioning of Jesus takes on a theological tone. His questions though arrogant are intellectual almost gentle and respectful. They seem sparked by genuine curiosity. Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the end Pilate ponders the imponderable, “What is truth?”

The standard account goes on to say that only his personal weakness causes the Roman procurator to have Jesus scourged – to appease the fanatical Jewish leaders demanding Jesus’ blood. Yes, he was weak, but in the end the Jews were the ones principally responsible for Jesus’ death.

That’s the familiar picture: Pilate the intellectual, spiritually sensitive, looking for a way to set Jesus free, but too weak to assert his authority in the face of powerful and hateful Jewish leaders.

Problem is, the picture is profoundly at odds with the historical record. It also ignores the real reason representatives of empire engage in interrogation. As for the procurator’s personal character, Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Tacitus, tell us that Pontius Pilate was an absolutely brutal man. He had no fear of Jewish leaders. He despised them. In fact he took pains to provoke them. For instance, he knew the Jewish prohibition against idolatry and the making images, and yet he routinely paraded through the streets of Jerusalem statues of the Roman emperor who claimed to be a God. On several occasions, Pilate had his soldiers enter the Jerusalem Temple itself provocatively profaning it by their very presence.

No, Pilate was brutal. And his questioning of Jesus in today’s gospel had nothing to do with theological interest. He cared not at all for Jesus or establishing innocence. Quite the opposite. Pilate was just doing his job. If the questioning actually took place at all (and it’s doubtful that it did), it was at the hands of an imperial administrator doing what administrators do in all such circumstances from first century Jerusalem to twenty-first century Kabul. They arrest, interrogate, torture, and execute.

After all, Pilate had in his presence a man identified by local informants as a terrorist. In fact, this one (like innumerable others Pilate had questioned) claimed to be King of the Jews – obviously an insane “rival” to Caesar. What a laugh – an uneducated laborer from Nazareth!  So Pilate would have been all about arresting this “militant,” interrogating him for information about accomplices, torturing him when the initial interrogation failed, and then butchering the fool.

Moreover Jesus’ silence before Pilate had nothing to do with humility. It was instead about Jesus’ refusal to name his accomplices. So the torture began. To humiliate him, the soldiers stripped him naked – again, standard operating procedure then and now. For the soldiers this was fun.  No doubt they made crude jokes about Jews and circumcision. (Do you hear echoes of Abu Ghraib here?)

Still Jesus said nothing. So they beat him nearly to death. Thirty-nine lashes (almost no one survived that). And yet Jesus refused to name names. So they gave him the “crown of thorns” treatment. It was like water-boarding today. Still nothing – no names. It was entirely heroic on Jesus’ part.

Then they applied the final torture – the “third degree” following the first two: the scourging and “crown of thorns.” This was the ultimate torment reserved for insurrectionists – crucifixion. They’d send a detachment of soldiers to copy down any final disclosures. But Jesus said nothing to help them. His silence and acceptance of suffering and death literally saved his friends. They had been disloyal to him, explicitly denied him; they had been cowardly and weak. They had sinned against Jesus. Yet he gave his life for them. His friends would never forget that. Jesus’ heroic death saved them from their sins. It saved them from Pilate.

However, the truth is that Pilate was probably not aware of any of this. He was used to applying the third degree. The record shows he had crucified literally thousands in his time. A lot of them had claimed to be messiahs sent from God.  For him executing such delusionaries was no big deal. In fact, scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that Pilate took no notice at all of Jesus. The whole world was not watching, Crossan says. Jesus wasn’t even a blip on Pilate’s screen. The “trial before Pilate” was probably pro forma at best – possibly even a fabrication of the early church to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. After all, by the time John wrote his gospel in the final decade of the first century, Christians were anxious to court favor with Rome. In the meantime, they had been excommunicated from Judaism, and had nothing to lose by alienating Jews.

Strange then that we should be celebrating Jesus as a king today who became a victim of torture and extra-judicial capital punishment. But that’s really the point. I mean our faith tells us that Jesus was the kind of king who reigns in the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside-down.  Jesus’ kingdom, God’s Kingdom, is truly not of this world. For instance, Jesus says, its citizens don’t respond to violence the way empire or the kingdoms of this world do. Its ethic is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Or as Jesus put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . . .“  No, in the Kingdom of God non-violence reigns. And in his behavior before Pilate, Jesus himself shows the way.

As for the personal character of Jesus’ kingship . . .  God’s head of state is not what at all what the world expected. In the eyes of Roman imperialists, Jesus represented the dregs of humanity. He was a Jew – a people the Romans despised. He was poor and probably illiterate. He was unemployed and traveled about with slackers who had given up gainful employment. At least one of his companions (Simon the Zealot) was a self-declared insurrectionist. Jesus was known as a glutton, drunkard and companion of sex workers. And he was irreligious. The holy men of his own people had excommunicated him and accused him of being possessed by the devil.  Some king indeed!

And yet, according to today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel, this king as “Son of Man” will stand in judgment over all the world’s empires from the Egyptians to the Romans and beyond. According to today’s reading from Hebrews, Jesus’ blood is his “Red Badge of Courage.” It will be his ID card when he returns to judge and destroy the empires that routinely kill people like him. Paradoxically however, what destroys the empires in question is Jesus’ non-violence, his refusal to name names, his followers’ refusal to employ violence even to save their king, his own acceptance of death rather than retaliate.

What a mystery that is! And how difficult it is for us to accept and live by Jesus’ radical non-violence. We so believe in violence, force, guns, and bombs. However until we accept non-violence, we will, like everyone else, continue making this world a version of hell rather than of God’s kingdom.

How can we reverse our belief in violence and embrace Jesus’ alternative? What does non-violence look like in our families, in the workplace, in politics and economics?

(Discussion follows.)