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Jewish World Review May 7, 2001 / 14 Iyar, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Civility and deicide

What does it mean when Christians — or Arabs — accuse Jews of killing their messiah? -- THE notion of the Jew as the slayer of the Christian messiah has served as the underpinning for two millennia of Jew-hatred.

For those who follow the propaganda releases of the Palestinians, the latest rhetorical bomb thrown at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon comes as no surprise.

In an editorial posted on the Web site of the Fatah Party movement — the political base of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and the leading element of the Palestine Liberation Organization — the editors of “Fateh [sic] Online” said that Sharon’s polices “remind us of what his predecessors did to Christ.”

Coming from an organization that has previously stated its belief that Jesus was a Palestinian Arab, that seemed only typical.

The screed is nothing all that special, coming as it does from a group that has routinely falsely accused Israel and the Jews of every crime under the sun. Attempting to get some traction from traditionally Western anti-Jewish libels, the Palestinians and other Muslim groups with a grudge against Israel have no shame about employing the charge of deicide, as well as digging up chestnuts like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

This vile stuff is understandable if we see it as part of an ongoing Arab war against Israel and Jews. But how then do we account for the rash of incidents in which prominent Americans are being quoted saying the same things?

The latest examples of this trend are Charlie Ward and Paul Weyrich. The two have little in common. Ward is an African-American who is a former college football star and now a valuable player for the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks. Weyrich is white, over 50, and one of the gurus of the modern political conservative movement in this country via his Washington-based Free Congress Foundation. Ward and Weyrich are also both fervently religious Christians and share a particularly troubling interpretation of the Christian Gospels.

Ward told a reporter for The New York Times’ Sunday Magazine that Jews were a “stubborn” people, and had “persecuted” Jesus and contemporary Christians. Weyrich posted an Easter message on the Free Congress Foundation Web site (, in which he, too, blasted “the Jews.” Weyrich’s missive said that “Christ was crucified by the Jews,” because Jews were disappointed by Jesus and consequently “put [him] to death.”

Both Ward and Weyrich were blasted for their charges. Both, predictably, were also able to wriggle out of serious trouble.

Eventually, a shidduch was arranged between the always publicity-hungry Simon Wiesenthal Center and Ward; the center promised Ward a tour of their Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Ward also said he would have a dialogue with Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who is well-known for his interfaith work with conservative Christians.

Ward was also defended by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who turned down a request by the American Jewish Congress that the athlete lose his job as the official spokesman of the state’s “Born to Read” literacy program. Though Bush said he disagreed with Ward, he went on in a moment of obtuseness to say that he would not condemn the former Florida State University superstar simply because he had said something that was not “politically correct.”

Going even further — in a way that belied his reputation as the smarter of the brothers Bush — Jeb also said he “absolutely” still considered Ward a “role model.”

Similarly, Weyrich was granted absolution for his indiscretion. When conservative columnist Evan Gahr broke the story of Weyrich’s deicide missive in American Spectator magazine, one leading Jewish conservative rallied around Weyrich and sought to punish Gahr.

Author and columnist David Horowitz defended Weyrich against charges of anti-Semitism and fired Gahr as a contributor to his own Front Page Magazine Web site while pelting the journalist with bizarre insults for having the nerve to put Weyrich on the spot.

Though neither of these stories attracted much interest in the national press, they still deserve thoughtful attention.

The problem here isn’t so much that these men have a theological problem with Jews. It’s not news that Christians and Jews have very different tenets.

But in a democracy where believers of all faiths are equal before the law, there has been an unspoken contract of civility, according to which no one may question the authenticity of his neighbor’s faith.

Questions of faith have been subsumed in what Jewish writer Will Herberg called a “naked public square,” in which secularism reigned supreme.

However, that concept has recently been swept away by a rising tide of religious faith that has influenced every sector of American society, including all denominations of Judaism. We live today in a time in which spirituality is lauded, not denigrated, and where it is acceptable,even fashionable, for public figures to openly express their beliefs.

In a world sorely lacking in the meaning such spirituality can provide, that is to the good. And despite the complaints of radical secularists, our political life has not been damaged by the willingness of candidates from both major parties to talk about their faith. Liberals may have to learn to be more tolerant of the open expression of Christianity in public life and not see every such statement of faith as a standing threat to minorities.

But if, in the course of such openness, the exclusive nature of some faiths is paraded, then the situation is no longer so benign. While rigid secularists are wrong to long for the days when faith was not openly discussed in all facets of American culture, we need to be prepared for some of the side effects of this religious renaissance.

That brings us to the question of deicide. The notion of the Jew as the slayer of God has served as the underpinning for two millennia of Jew-hatred. It is the core of what Jewish writer and thinker Joel Carmichael has called “mystical anti-Semitism” in his 1992 book The Satanizing of the Jews.

In the last century, this virus of hatred spread from traditional Christianity to the Nazis, and then to Stalin’s Russia, where it morphed into something far more dangerous than Jews had ever faced before. And, like the hardy virus that it is, this germ has now spread to the Muslim world, as we have seen with the Palestinians.

While the idea that the Jews “killed” Jesus was once entrenched into Western culture, it is no longer so in this country. The Catholic Church, in particular, has sought to teach its parishioners to regard Judaism and Jews with respect and to shun the “Christ-killer” stereotype. Many Protestant churches have similarly sought to change people’s hearts on that issue. But just as it would be foolish to obsess about anti-Semitism in an America where it has become a marginal phenomenon, it would be equally short-sighted to ignore the deicide charge when it pops up in mainstream culture or international politics. Talk about “Christ-killing” cannot be isolated from anti-Jewish hate.

This ought not to be an excuse for reversing our new openness towards the influence of faith. But it is even more important for all Americans to understand that however they may personally interpret the Gospels, flaunting their ideas about Jesus’ death in public statements may open the floodgates to anti-Semitism.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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