After 2,000 years of waiting for the official verdict, the Jewish people have at last been cleared of collective guilt in the death of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI’s “Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection,” the latest volume of his opus “Jesus of Nazareth,” instead offers a redemptive take on the mob’s infamous invocation in Matthew 27:25, “His blood be on us and on our children” — the so-called “blood curse.” According to the Pope, “These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.” Christ’s blood is interpreted as “the purifying power of love,” not an eternal racial condemnation.
The New York Times notes that the Second Vatican Council came to a similar conclusion in 1965, but that Benedict is the first pope to declare personally that the Jews were not responsible for the Crucifixion. For a pontiff who has rescinded the excommunication of a notorious Holocaust denier and sought to repopularize the Tridentine Mass (which prays for the Jews to “be delivered from their darkness”), the “not guilty” verdict was welcome avoidance of controversy. Some Jewish groups, such as the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, have celebrated the exoneration as a forceful blow against anti-Semitism.
And yet I can’t help but question the impact of the Pope’s gesture. The Jewish world hasn’t exactly been listening with bated breath for someone to let us off the hook. Half a century ago, even before the Vatican II resolution, Lennie Bruce could already quip, “Yes, we killed him. My family. I found a note in the basement that said ‘We did it. Signed, Morty.’” Even then, it didn’t quite count as gallows humor. So if Jews don’t need to be told that we didn’t do it, who does?
Current anti-Semitism has many sources, and another historical myth — Holocaust denial — is among the most pernicious. Yet I refuse to equate fictionalization of the gas chambers with a misreading of Scripture. The first seeks to neutralize both inconceivable evil and the profound miracle of survival. The second was at most a pretext for persecution already fueled by a hatred of Jewish otherness, nonconformity, money (even when there was none) and political weakness. The blood curse was a powerful rallying cry during the Inquisition. But in the modern paradigm of prejudice, anti-Semitism is much more likely to spring from Elders-of-Zion-style conspiracy theories or the ongoing conflicts in Israel.
Regarding the former, I simply find it hard to imagine that legions of these bigots will be reformed by Benedict’s incisive textual analysis. Many of today’s most notorious anti-Semites — Nazis, al-Qaeida, the Ku Klux Klan — hate plenty of other people who have never been accused of executing a messiah. Certainly the most recent crop of outed haters, including designer John Galliano, actor Charlie Sheen and professional creep Julian Assange, are beyond the remedies of education and interfaith dialogue — or maybe even the need for them. As Anshel Pfeffer noted today in Haaretz, anti-Semitism has become deeply unfashionable in the circles these men inhabit. “If you don’t like Jews and think they are secretly plotting your downfall,” he suggests, “don’t drink in public places or have unguarded conversations with anyone; we will find you and run you out of town.” Anti-Semitism is probably endemic to the minds of the unstable. These cases, while deserving censure, indicate not a culture where such hatred is tolerated, but rather one where it has moved far beyond the pale of acceptability.
The second wellspring of anti-Jewish hostility is somewhat more intractable. For many, the existence of the state of Israel has engendered a new form of Jewish guilt. No longer charged with the crime of killing the Christian savior, we are faced with allegations of neocolonialism. Although I don’t automatically equate criticism of Israeli policy with hatred of all Jews, it is undeniably true that certain particularly virulent strains of anti-Israel rhetoric feed upon and propagate anti-Semitism. While the peaceful establishment of two coexisting states between Jordan and the Mediterranean would probably help, we may have to settle for more immediately achievable goals — supporting the meteoric rise of Arab liberalization, abandoning the pandering politics of the U.N. and discouraging the extremists of both camps.
And here I would like to turn once again to “Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.” While the media has focused on the Jews-aren’t-guilty section, another portion of the book may in fact be more relevant to contemporary challenges. Given the choice between saving Christ or Barabbas — a man who was apparently a “terrorist or freedom fighter,” according to Benedict’s reading — the mob chose the fearsome revolutionary. Violent confrontation, the Pope writes, is attractively “tangible,” but it cannot be the solution, even in defense of an ostensibly worthy cause. Egypt, Israel, the U.S. — given the freedom of political participation, we all must resist the temptation of today’s Barabbases. Only then can we confront the true blood curses of the modern world — murder, terrorism, oppression — and, perhaps, absolve ourselves of them as well.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Fridays.