Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Anguish of the Jews (1)

Father Edward H. Flannery’s: The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism is a manifestation of Catholic grappling with the Holocaust and its implication. It is a book very much in the spirit of Vatican II (it was originally published in 1965 with a revised edition in 1985 that was re-issued in 2004). As the 2004 Foreword sets out, since Vatican II the Catholic Church has fairly comprehensively moved away from the “theology of contempt” for Jews.

At the start of his concluding chapter, Father Flannery writes:
As an historian of antisemitism looks back over the millennia of horrors he has recorded, an inescapable conclusion emerges: Antisemitism is the longest and deepest hate of human history (p.284).
Which rather depends on whether misogyny gets counted as a hatred. But, leaving that aside, one takes his point.

As he wrote in the Introduction to 1985 edition, Father Flannery (who died in 1998) clearly saw his book as an attempt to counter widespread Catholic ignorance of Jewish history, particularly the Jewish experience of suffering and oppression. A process he applies to himself as well as others (hence the revised edition 20 years after the first). He also makes it clear that the driving context is the Holocaust, Nuremburg and Eichmann trials.

He tackles the difficulties of the term ‘anti-Semitism’, which was first coined in 1879 to cover racial antipathy but then broadened to cover all forms of Jew-hatred, holding that:
The distinguishing mark of all antisemitism in the strict sense is hatred or contempt and a stereotyping of Jewish people as such. In the absence of either of these qualifiers antisemitism does not exist (p.4).
I use the term ‘Jew-hatred’ in part because of the current fad for clever-clever pedantry according to which Arabs “cannot be anti-Semitic because they are Semites” (a deeply stupid objection since Arabs and Jews do not identify as sharing a common Semitic identity, even leaving aside issues of the genetic diversity of both populations: a classic case of how ostentatious anti-racism perpetuates racial categories, the ideological equivalent of the point that the opposite of love not being hatred but indifference). Flannery uses the term ‘antisemitism’ instead.

Classical Jew-hatred
Flannery, quite correctly, does not count various Biblical episodes as antisemitism as such. Rather, they fit into the wider tensions and rivalries of the various periods. In the case of the story of Esther he accepts common scholarship holding that it belongs to the period the Maccabees and Seleucid rule, not of Persian domination (p.10). It was the conquests of Alexander the Great and the spread of Hellenistic culture that first brought the Jews to irritated (and worse) wider notice. The Jews often ostentatiously resisted Hellenisation: this was offensive to Hellenic self-confidence.
In Alexandria, a very Greek-city, a centre of Hellenic intellectualism and scholarship, there was a large, self-governing Jewish quarter and some Jews were very commercially successful. This did not endear them to Egyptians living under Greek rule, so began the familiar pattern of Jews as scapegoats for other frustrations. Starting in the C3rdBC, various writers began to retail belittling claims about the origins of the Jews and the misanthropic nature of their religions and beliefs. (Some of which—such as the Jews worshipped the golden head of an ass—were later used against Christians.)

With the conquest of Palestine by the Seleucids (enthusiastic Hellenisers), the tensions worsened: complicated by the rise of Hellenizers within the Jewish community. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r 173-163) attempted to suppress Judaism entirely, provoking the revolt of the Maccabees, which established an Jewish state for the next 75 years and lead to an enormous increase in Jewish self-confidence, and some very extravagant Jewish claims about being the source of Hellenic science, ethics and literature (p.14).

There followed a Hellenic literary counterattack in which accusations are repeated and occasionally added to. The first works which were specific attacks on the Jews date from this period, including the first accusation of ritual murder by Apion in his History of Egypt. With the rise of Roman ascendancy, Greek literary antisemitism faded, Jews being cast again as an oddity (but not with any greater accuracy in description of them).

Roman-Jewish relations were complicated. On one hand, the Romans repressed rebellion with great brutality. On the other, the Romans granted the Jews exemptions from the common rituals and observances that were a staple of Roman religious (and civic) life. This was a period of Jewish proselytizing: it was probably significant that it was an avid Hellenizing emperor (Hadrian) who provoked the final revolt in his attempt to suppress Judaism via banning circumcision, other cultic practices and creating a pagan city in Jerusalem (p.21). That revolt ended Jewish political authority but their wider privileges continued. There was also a certain amount of popular antisemitism during the early Roman Empire, with anti-Jewish riots in various cities (Pp21-2).

Roman intellectuals were particularly prone to display contempt of the Jews, including figures of the stature of Cicero, Seneca and Tacitus. After that, the cultural antisemitism of the classical period went into decline. Flannery notes that this antisemitism was not economic, theological nor racial but nevertheless was the origins of many of the accusations which were to be a continuing feature of Jew-hatred: a period that has tended to be somewhat neglected in histories of antisemitism as it does not fit to various preferred stories about Jews and Jew-hatred (Pp24ff).

Christian Jew-hatred
Just as classical antisemitism was waning, the Christian Church was increasing in power: this was the period of competition between church and synagogue and the rise of theological Jew-hatred. In the process, Christians found themselves subject to the same accusations previously made against the Jews:
At first, both were indistinguishable to the contemptuous Roman eye; accordingly both enjoyed the same privileges, both suffered the same opprobrium. Once the distinction between them became clear, however, the Church fell heir to many of the same charges that Jews alone had elicited in the past. It was now the Church that was a detestable superstition with absurd and extravagant rites, the new hater of mankind, the worshipper of the head of an ass, the ritual murderer, the devotee of debauchery and incest (p.28).
Flannery points out that the early Christian Church was very much part of the wider Jewish community. It was crystallization of Gospel universalism, along with the realization that most Jews would not become Christians (which, of course, encouraged moving outside the boundaries of Jewry), that led to separation and antagonism.

The greater the separation, the greater the antagonism; for the less and less connections bound and restrained and the less and less such connections would be sought or occur. (In our own day, prejudice against the same-sex attracted is strongly correlated with a lack of social connections to “out” gays and lesbians.)

Flannery argues that Jewish persecution of Christians occurred first, having numbers and connections to Roman authorities on their side, though early Christian writers were also prone to exaggerate the level of Jewish hostility. In 80AD, the Sanhedrin formally expelled Christian belief from having any legitimacy in the Jewish community (Pp30-1).

On the Christian side, the failure of Jews to accept Christ was more and more regarded as blindness and malice, seeping into the New Testament works—particularly the gospel of St John—that were written down at this time (p.33). One can see quite clearly religious leaders on both sides acting as “gatekeepers of righteousness”, setting and enforcing the limits of their religious community.

On whether the Gospel of John is antisemitic, Flannery concludes it is not since it does not fulfil his definition, though he agrees:
… it is replete with an anti-Judaistic theology and anti-Jewish pronouncement, prophetic in nature, that have made it a seedbed of anti-Semitism (p.33).
It would no doubt not occur to the good Father, but the Gospel of St John is also the Gospel which is most open to a “queer” reading and one wonders if that is not part of what motivates its discouragement of looking to Jewish practices and authority. Since St Paul was both, as Flannery notes, tolerant of “Judaizing” (p.30) and the only New Testament writer who has anything to say about same-sex activity, one wonders if there is not an internal Christian debate being manifested here. There is a long—if somewhat subterranean—tradition of queer Jew-hatred precisely because of the Jewish origin of the homicidal anathematization of same-sex activity (of which Gore Vidal is a contemporary manifestation).

Flannery’s quite relaxed willingness to read the New Testament in the context of the time—seeing the intensifying anti-Judaism the later the various books are committed to writing as reflecting contemporary circumstance (Pp33ff)—manifests the Catholic belief that Scripture is the product of the Church (understood as the body of believers) rather than the Protestant belief in the primacy of Scriptural authority.

As the church overtook the synagogue in numbers, the polemics between Christian and Jewish writers intensified (see previous point about “gatekeepers of righteousness”). They were, after all, claiming to be the possessors and true inheritors of the same prophetic and Scriptural tradition. Christian claims of Jewish hatred of Christians and Christianity intensified, with enough incidents of Jewish violence against Christians to give them some, though limited, credence (Pp34ff).

Christian anti-Judaism theology took form in this period, based on the Messiahship of Christ, the abrogation of the Law, and the vocation of the Church. It concluded that:
… the Church and Israel are synonymous; the Jews are an apostate nation, truant from its providential role of chosen people (p.39).
As Flannery notes, a thesis infuriating to Jews since it struck directly at their identity.

Flannery takes us through the patristic literature of the first to third centuries and its attitude to Judaism (which seems to be more the focus than Jews as such). The most ominous development within this tradition is the notion of the tribulations of the Jews as a divine punishment for rejecting Christ, which becomes a divine punishment for killing Christ. The accusation of deicide thus appears (Pp38ff). Flannery also identifies three points of threat from Judaism behind this literature:
… its appeal to the Christian masses caused strong Judaizing tendencies in the Church; its proselytizing continued unabated; Jews were associated with several of the Christian heresies (p.42).
Ritual distinction, competition for converts and doctrinal unity, in other words. None of which required Jew-hatred as such.

Flannery identifies the fourth century, the Constantinian century, as the crucial (and disastrous) century for Christian attitudes to the Jews. With the Christianizing of the empire, Jews lost ground badly:
… its privileges were largely withdrawn, its proselytism was outlawed, and in 425 the patriarchate was abolished (p.47).
The centre of Jewish scholarship moved to Babylonia, in Rome’s great rival the Sassanid Empire. Within the Empire:
…the choice for Judaism was plain: either continue a losing and perilous competition or retire into the world of the Talmud. The rabbinate opted for the latter alternative, considering it the price of survival (p.48).
So, in considering Christian complaints about Muslim bars on conversion, it is well to remember that Christians did it to Jews first.

Apart from the already mentioned issues, Flannery identifies the deterioration of Jewish image and status to:
The influx of the Roman middle class into the Church … brought with them the antisemitic opinions bequeathed by classical antiquity. A third source may be seen in the rigidly verbal method of scriptural interpretation used at the time, which took every unflattering reference to Jews in the Old Testament at face value. A denigration of the Jews assumed something of a dogmatic character. A fourth and most decisive factor was the full flowering of that theology which laid Jewish miseries to divine punishment for Christ’s crucifixion (p.48).
Flannery takes us through the burgeoning literature up to its peak in the preaching of St John Chrysostom whose preaching in his infamous Homilies Against the Jews he has no hesitation in characterizing as antisemitic:
All this is dwarfed by St John Chrysostom (c344-407) who, up to his time, stands without peer or parallel in the entire literature Adversus Judaeos. The virulence of his attack is surprising even in an age when rhetorical denunciation was indulged with complete abandon (p.50)
Denunciation which, as Flannery quotes, clearly involved attacks evidencing and encouraging “hatred or contempt and a stereotyping of Jewish people as such”. But where Flannery holds that St John, the patron saint of preachers, did the most long-term damage was his development of a very clear theology of Judaism: that God hated the Jews because they killed Christ. Flannery notes people have struggled to explain why St John Chrysostom was so intense in his denunciation.

For myself, I think a contributing factor was that he was such an avid adapter of Philo of Alexandria’s adaptation of classical natural law to the Judaic tradition of scriptural revelation. If you are, in effect, a “Judaizer” in one part of your faith, it becomes all the more urgent to emphasize how much you hate “Judaizing” in everything else. The horrible irony is even greater when one considers that Philo’s doctrine of divine punishment for practices, for the form of one’s activity, was easily extendable from sexual to religious practices.

St Augustine of Hippo, while engaging in what by now were standard denigrations (post-Christ, Judaism is a corruption; Judas is the image of the Jewish people; they bear the guilt of killing Christ; they have a carnal understanding of Scripture), developed a less virulent theology of Judaism, given the implications of St John Chrysostom’s teaching was that every attempt should be made to suppress Judaism. St Augustine’s notion of Jews as a “witness people”, witnesses “for the salvation of the nation but not their own” gave them a space within Christian framings of the human society, if a degraded one. Indeed, when one considers the theological and legal restrictions placed on Jews by the Christianised Roman Empire, one sees a pre-figuring of the Islamic concept of the dhimmi. St Augustine’s notion that obligation to love still applies to Jews was clearly more formal than substantive while his holding that Christians should still seek to lead them to Christ’s salvation just increases the similarity to the later Islamic notion of the dhimmi.

On the point of blaming the Jews for the death of Christ, what Flannery does not consider is that the only alternative to identifying the Jews as the killers of Christ was to identify the Roman state itself as the killer (Christ was, after all, killed by Roman soldiers under the authority of a Roman official by a Roman method of punishment incited by a group of priests): not a good option if the Roman state was now Christian. How could Christians support a deicide state? So, when a group of priests sat down with the Roman state to consider the question of who killed Christ, they agreed (even if it never became formal doctrine as distinct from increasingly standard rhetoric) it was—the Jews. Which was convenient for the Roman state, convenient for the priests but very inconvenient for the Jews: who, of course, were not present, nor consulted, nor able to speak on their own behalf. (Hardly the only time that the Church has treated a group thusly.) So, when St Augustine wrote:
The Jews held him, the Jews insulted him, the Jews bound him, they crowned him with thorns, dishonored him by spitting upon him, they scourged him, they heaped abuses upon him, they hung him upon a tree, they pierced him with a lance (Pp52-3)
he is mixing inaccurate categorisation (“the Jews” did nothing, some people who were Jewish did certain things) with straight contradiction of the Gospels (much of that was done by Roman soldiers under a Roman official following Roman practices).

Flannery notes scattered references (even in St John Chrysostom, St Augustine and St Ambrose) to positive Jewish qualities (p.54), the general tendency is for these anti-Jewish themes (particularly as articulated by St Augustine) to be repeated.

Various Christian Councils passed anti-Jewish decisions: forbidding Jewish-Christian marriage (unless preceded by conversion to Christianity); joint celebration of Passover; forbidding Christians to keep the Jewish Sabbath, receive gifts or bread from Jewish festivals (p.55). The Roman state was torn between its Christianisation and the previous precedent of tolerating Judaism. So Judaism was legal in the Empire, with a range of legal consequences from that. But Christianity was clearly preferred: Jewish proselytising and conversion to Judaism was banned; converts to Judaism became intestate but Jewish parents could not disinherit their children who converted to Christianity; Jews were banned from circumcising slaves or buying Christian slaves, which had the effect of driving them out of various trades and occupations (since uncircumcised slaves brought with them the burden of ritual impurity). Construction and repair of synagogues was regulated. Jews were barred from public office. The Jewish patriarchate was abolished. The language of law often incorporating denigration of Jews and Judaism (Pp57-8).

This religious and legal tension was reflected in popular violence from both sides, with the 414 massacre and flight of the Jewish community in Alexandria after Jews had killed some Christians being the worst outbreak (Pp59ff). Attacks on synagogues were frequent. Flannery includes the killing of Hypatia, the famous neoplatonist philosopher in 415 by anchorites in this by saying she is Jewish: something I have not seen in any other source.

Flannery identifies that:
… the principal source of Christian antisemitism was the Church’s theological anti-Judaism. It is apparent that there exists a certain level of theological negation or polemical intensity which, when reached, produces an effect that is no longer purely theological or polemical: ideological opposition has turned to hatred and stereotype—the life-blood of antisemitsm (Pp62-63)
Again, a point which is extendable. Though it was still better to be a Jew than a heretic (p.64). Flannery concludes that:
Christian antisemitism was rooted, finally, in the survival of a vibrant and often defiant Judaism. The refusal of the Synagogue to join the Church stood forth as a serious challenge to the Christian apologia, a scandal to the Christian faithful, and a source of worry to their pastors, alarmed by the Judaizing tendencies within their flock. Antisemitism thus was not rooted only in Christian doctrine but also in a pastoral zeal which resorted to every and any means to find … “a therapy for the Jewish disease” (p.65).
That both faiths claims exclusive election by the One True God gave them plenty to argue over: since monotheism encourages the view that not only is there a single truth, but that there is a single correct view of what is. But that Jews and Christians had a common history made Jews preferable to Christians than pagans (or heretics, since they were taken to be explicit, directly threatening, “deniers” of Christian truth).

With the collapse of the Western Empire, Jews entered a period of highly variable fortunes. In the Eastern Empire, the legal persecution of the Jews continued and tightened: the could not own a Christian slave, their property rights were narrowed, they were barred from public functions (except the decurionate) and practising law, they could not testify against Christians. Justinian’s laws even regulated the internal practices of the Jewish religion (p.68). Jewish resistance was at times violent and Jews became regular collaborators with the Empire’s enemies (Pp69-70).

In Latin Christendom, Pope Gregory the Great set the continuing Papal pattern of enforcement of the law (including protection of Jewish legal rights) coupled with rhetorical excoriation. In Visigothic Spain, King Sisebut imposed the choice of baptism or exile, creating the problem of insincere converts (a theme what was to recur in Iberian history). This repression included removal of children from non-Christian parents: something, as Flannery points out, was to be a long, sad part of Church history. Visigothic Spain had a continuing history of persecution of Jews (Pp75ff). Flannery puts this history down to the fact that the Jews were numerous, successful and assertive enough to raise Church fears for the Christian faith and royal fears of social disunity.

In the Merovingian Frankish kingdom, there were the normal legal disabilities, with some forced baptisms, until King Dagobert expelled the Jews. The Carolingian successors of the Merovingians were far more tolerant. Karl-lo-magne and his success Louis the Pious treated the Jews as well as their Christian subjects. This attracted the ire of Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons, who wanted the traditional Theodosian code restrictions placed on the Jews (he was apparently particularly disturbed that friendly relations between Christians and Jews were common) leading to years of dispute between clerics and dynasty which continued until the collapse of Carolingian power. In the long run, after Charles the Bald, the intolerance of Agobard and his clerical successors won out (Pp83ff).

Once again, we see priests acting as “gatekeepers of righteousness”, setting the limits of the religious community. This period saw ritual attacks on Jews and omission of the genuflection from the Good Friday service prayer for the Jews: a genuflection which was restored in 1956 (Pp86-7). The C8th and C9th were periods lacking popular of economic anti-Semitism but of juridical and legislative anti-Semitism (p.88).

As Flannery notes, Jews generally fared better under non-Christian rulers (p.81) though not without various travails. The Sassanids harassed the Jews in their territories who eventually responded by helping the Arabs in their overthrow of Sassanid rule (p.81). Muslim rule also oscillated: Muhammad shifted from hoping the Jews would accept him to attempting to suppress Judaism and Christianity entirely: his successor Omar expelled them from Arabia (which has ever since been officially a “country of one religion”) but they were permitted in the rest of the Muslim empire in a situation of clear religious, legal and social inferiority (Pp81-2).

This will be continued in my next two posts.

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