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Good Friday Renews Focus on Roots of Anti-Semitism : Tolerance: Religious leaders say Christians should renew efforts to put Jews' role in proper historical context.

April 14, 1995|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

As a boy growing up on Chicago's South Side in the late 1950s, Rabbi Daniel Landes remembers his beatings and bloodied noses on Good Friday.

The same boys he played street football with the rest of the year would hurl taunts on Good Friday. They called him a dirty Jew. They accused him of crucifying their Lord. Then they kicked out one of his teeth.

"I didn't know what crucified meant," said Landes, who is senior rabbi at Temple B'nai David-Judea in Los Angeles and director of education at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which monitors anti-Semitism worldwide. "I knew the word Lord, but what could I possibly do against God?"

From the cruel taunts of children to pogroms, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest, trial, abuse and crucifixion to be read today in churches throughout the world have served as a fountainhead of anti-Semitism.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, some biblical scholars and religious leaders say the time has come for renewed efforts by Christians to put the Gospel accounts in their proper--and Jewish--historical context.

If this is not done, they fear that the Passion Narratives will remain a source of latent anti-Semitism at best--and a warrant for a virulent, even fatal, strain of anti-Jewish hate at worst.

"It will be a smoldering fire in the forest," said biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, whose book "Who Killed Jesus?" has just been published. "The right wind from the right direction can ignite it."

Clearly, the vast majority of Christians today who revere the Gospel accounts are not anti-Semitic and do not see in the Gospels a license to hate Jews. Good Friday, for all its introspection and sorrow, is for Christians but the darkness before the dawn of Resurrection, the anticipation of God's reconciling forgiveness and love.

Nonetheless, concern over the impact of the Passion Narratives comes at a time when Jewish agencies report disquieting signs of rising anti-Semitism in parts of Eastern Europe, as well as in Spain and South America.

Instead of the discrimination against Jews that has been officially sanctioned and promoted by the fallen Communist regimes, the latest expressions are welling up from the grass-roots level. Resurgent nationalism, economic hard times, racism and alarm over the pace of change are seen as the principal culprits.

But Christian and Jewish leaders say that such expressions of hate against Jews would not be possible without a history of anti-Jewish stories and religious imagery in Christian churches.

"New converts to Christianity as well as those who are rediscovering their Christian faith after decades of suppression in Eastern Europe are reading the New Testament as an anti-Jewish book," said Irvin J. Borowsky, founder and chairman of the American Interfaith Institute, headquartered in Philadelphia.

Indeed, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, speaking last month on anti-Semitism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that although many modern factors were responsible for the rise of Nazi Germany--including racism, economic greed and nationalism--the impact of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death cannot be ignored.

"There is little doubt," Bernardin said, "that classical Christian presentations of Jews and Judaism were a central factor in generating popular support for the Nazi endeavor."

To be sure, Christian churches have come a long way since the 9th through 11th centuries, when a Jew was brought into the cathedral of Toulouse each year and given a symbolic blow during Holy Week, which runs from Palm Sunday through Easter.

In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council issued a historic statement, Nostra Aetate, which declared that Jews as a people are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, and they should not be seen as accursed or rejected by God.

Protestant churches issued similar statements. Lutherans have repudiated the 16th-Century anti-Jewish statements of their founder, Martin Luther, who among other things called for the burning of synagogues, destruction of Jewish homes and the confiscation of their sacred writings. And just last month, the Alliance of Baptists urged its members to seek dialogue with Jews instead of trying to convert them.

In one of the most significant symbols of change, Pope John Paul II established diplomatic relations with the state of Israel in late 1993--a final sign that the Catholic Church had forever rejected the theology of "perpetual wandering," which held that Jews were condemned to be without a homeland because of their role in the death of Jesus.

"The changes in the church have been real. I think they're significant and I think there's been a great deal of goodwill," Landes said.

Today, for most Christians, the blame for the Crucifixion does not rest on Jews as a people, but on all humanity because of its sinfulness.

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