Monday, January 07, 2008

Bigotry chopping

Earlier, I discussed how the term anti-Semitism is abused. I've noticed that many writers avoid the term when referring to religiously motivated events such as the Crusades, where Jews could escape persecution through conversion, at least in theory. The bigotry underlying these events is called anti-Judaism, as opposed to the racial doctrine of anti-Semitism developed in the nineteenth century (when the latter term was actually coined). Many academic scholars make this distinction, which I find problematic.

One example is Jeremy Cohen in his recent book Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen. Cohen links the historical treatment of Jews at the hands of Christians to evolving interpretations of the Christ-killer myth. For much of the first millennium, the Church followed the view of St. Augustine, who held the Jews responsible for Jesus' death but attributed their sin to ignorance rather than complicit guilt. Under this view, Jews were to be tolerated in the hope they would eventually "see the light." By the time of the Crusades, however, harsher interpretations of Scripture had taken hold in the Christian world.

Cohen discusses the influence of the Christ-killer myth on modern anti-Semitism, including the set of beliefs underlying the Holocaust. But he declines to apply the term anti-Semitism to most of the medieval anti-Jewish bigotry. According to Cohen, "one should guard against simply assuming an uninterrupted continuity between medieval anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism in every conceivable mode of religious expression" (pp. 208-9).

I have two basic objections to the term anti-Judaism. First, it's too neutral-sounding. It lacks the negative connotations which anti-Semitism acquired after the Holocaust. Second, the distinction between religious and racial persecution gets pretty muddy when you look at history. Many of the medieval stereotypes of Jews--hook noses, red hair, horns and body odor--had distinctly racial overtones. (How would conversion get rid of any of those things?) By the time of the Inquisition, converting to Christianity was no longer an escape; indeed, the converts were the ones in the most danger.

Pat Buchanan's response to charges of anti-Semitism illustrates the confusion that can result from identifying anti-Semitism purely with a racial ideology. According to The Nizkor Project, Buchanan told a Christian newspaper in 1992, "I am as aware as any other Christian that our Savior was Jewish, His mother was Jewish, the Apostles were Jewish, the first martyrs were Jewish.... So no true Christian, in my judgment, can be an anti-Semite."

That's a good start. But the medieval Church was also perfectly aware that Jesus and all of the early Christians were Jews. That knowledge did not stop them from persecuting the people who continued practicing the faith that Christianity was supposed to have supplanted. If you define an anti-Semite as "one who thinks all Jews who ever lived are bad," then these persecutors were not anti-Semites. But that distinction is of little consequence to the victims.

Calling this persecution anti-Judaism seems inadequate. In today's society, opposition to a religion is not regarded as inherently bigoted. Religions themselves tend to be "anti" other religions to some extent. Where do we draw the line between bigotry and mere disagreement?

Anyone is entitled to critique a religion. But religions are made up of people, not just ideas, and there comes a point when abstract criticisms begin to spill over into stereotypes. Cohen provides an example in a quote from Protestant theologian Karl Barth, normally an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism:
Who is this Judas, the man who will maintain his freedom in face of Jesus for the sake of something better, the man for whom Jesus is for sale...? Obviously he does not bear this name for nothing. Within the apostolic group...he obviously represents the Jews..., he merely does that which Israel has always done in relation to Yahweh. He merely does that which has always made Yahweh's rejection of His chosen people inevitable.... Israel always tried to buy off Yahweh with thirty pieces of silver. (p. 259)
Nowadays, many Christians have become great friends of the Jewish people. The challenge facing Jews today is how to combat theologically rooted anti-Jewish ideas without attacking Christianity itself. While I don't agree with Buchanan's cavalier dismissal of Christian anti-Semitism--the past needs to be acknowledged before we can move on--the Christian establishment has taken great strides in healing the wounds between the two religions.

The final chapter of Cohen's book examines several movies about the Passion, including Mel Gibson's controversial film. (Gibson has long identified with Traditionalist Catholics who reject Vatican II, though his own views on the matter aren't clear.) These movies use a variety of strategies to avoid the impression that they're attacking all Jews. Sometimes they downplay the Jewishness of Jesus' opponents, or else overplay the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples. Gibson and his defenders emphasize the theme that "we are all sinners." But a core of hostility toward traditional Judaism lurks in the Gospels, no matter how you spin it.

Film critic Michael Medved is perhaps the most prominent Jew to defend Gibson's film. Around the time of the film's release, he took Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to task for calling the movie anti-Semitic. Medved's reasoning for defending the film--which by his own admission deeply contradicts his beliefs--is interesting:
By what right do Rabbi Boteach and his many outspoken allies in the Jewish community demand that Mel Gibson and his innumerable supporters among Protestant and Catholic clergy should reject their own religious tradition to accept a Jewish version of the death of their savior?.... For reasons that defy rational explanation, Rabbi Boteach insists upon picking an ugly public fight with believing Christians who view their own sacred books in the same way the Rabbi views the Torah - as the inerrant word of God.
In fact, many devout Catholics and Protestants found much fault with Gibson's interpretation of the Passion story. For example, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) organized a committee to review the screenplay prior to the film's release, the committee concluded:
Certainly films can present Jesus' suffering and death in a powerful way. But they must remain faithful to the church's current understanding. "The Passion of the Christ" does not. Gibson, in fact, rejects those teachings as well as modern biblical scholarship and thus stands outside of official Catholicism today.
After the film was released, the USCCB backed down considerably, but they still felt the movie's depiction of the Jewish leadership was overly harsh. The point is that there are many ways for devout Christians to approach the Passion story, and criticizing the way they portray Jews in a particular account is not the same as asking them to give up their traditions. I agree with Medved that we need to be sensitive to the fact that even ideas which offend us may stem from deeply held religious beliefs, no less sincere than our own. But considering how much damage has resulted from the Christ-killer myth throughout history, these concerns should not just be dismissed under the mantle of ecumenicism.

The Nazis based their anti-Semitism on centuries of hatred by Christian oppressors, even if the Nazi leaders were privately anti-Christian, and even if they brought the anti-Jewish ideas to an extreme the medieval Christians never envisioned. Wherever it comes from and whatever term is used to describe it, anti-Jewishness is basically a single phenomenon. That fact should be recognized before we start making fine distinctions, or else we risk not seeing what's in front of us.

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