Through many a dark hour I’ve been thinkin’ about this that Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss but I can’t think for you you’ll have to decide whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side. Bob Dylan
Judas ! Dylan fan (Manchester, May 17, 1966)
We made him and he betrayed the cause. Dylan fan
I think most of all I was angry that Dylan… not that he’d played electric, but that he’d played electric with a really poor sound system. It was not like it is on the record [the official album]. It was a wall of mush. That, and it seemed like a cavalier performance, a throwaway performance compared with the intensity of the acoustic set earlier on. There were rumblings all around me and the people I was with were making noises and looking at each other. It was a build-up. (…) It came as a complete surprise to me. I guess I’d heard Dylan was playing electrically, but my preconceptions of that were of something a little more restrained, perhaps a couple of guitarists sitting in with him, not a large-scale electric invasion. (…) we were still living the first acoustic LPs and I don’t think many people had moved on to the electric material. (…) It’s strange. But certainly that wasn’t the Dylan I focused on. Maybe I was just living in the past. And I couldn’t hear the lyrics in the second half of the concert. I think that’s what angered me. I thought, ‘The man is throwing away the good part of what he does.‘ (…) I think I was probably being egged on. I certainly got a lot of positive encouragement as soon as I’d done it. I sat down and there were a lot of people around me who turned round and were saying, ‘That was great, wish we’d have said that’ – those sort of things. And at that point I began to feel embarrassed really, but not that embarrassed. I was quite glad I’d done it. (…) It came at the same time as the revelation that someone else was claiming it was they that did the shout, and that intrigued me because I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do that. I supposed I rationalised it by saying, well, maybe two people in the auditorium shouted ‘Judas’ but I’m absolutely convinced that it was me that the microphones picked up. And, being a bit of an amateur historian, I wanted to set the record straight. (…) I don’t regret doing it because I think I did it for the right sorts of reasons. I felt betrayed by someone who’d formed a very big part of my life for two or three years. But, y’know, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think I would do it now. (…) Brilliant [laughs]. Absolutely brilliant. But that wasn’t the set that you heard in the auditorium. It didn’t sound like that. John Cordell
It has been reckoned to be one of the pivotal moments in popular music in the 20th Century, on a par with the riot at Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris ». (…) It’s funny – you wait 30-odd years for Judas to turn up and you get two at once. (…) I think being called Judas was the point. Betraying what? It’s quite ridiculous. (…) This was not a bad set, it was absolutely fantastic what they played. It was eye-opening and revolutionary. I’m so glad there is a record of it. (…) In essence, it’s the night that pop music became rock music. It was heavy metal, it was thrash metal, it was death metal, it was everything that’s come since then. I was totally aware, the moment it finished, I knew I had been present at something that was seismic. Dr CP Lee
The only reason tapes of those shows exist today is because we wanted to know, ‘Are we crazy?’. We’d go back to the hotel room, listen to a tape of a show and think, ‘Shit, that’s not that bad. Why is everybody so upset?’ Robbie Robertson
These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell. Bob Dylan
For those American Jews who lack any shred of integrity, the media should be required to label them at the bottom of the television screen whenever they pop up, e.g. Bill Kristol is “Jewish and an outspoken supporter of the state of Israel.” That would be kind-of-like a warning label on a bottle of rat poison – translating roughly as “ingest even the tiniest little dosage of the nonsense spewed by Bill Kristol at your own peril. Phil Giraldi
As the New Year 5778 begins, 88% of Israeli Jews say that they are happy and satisfied with their lives. This makes sense. Israel’s relative security, its prosperity, freedom and spiritual blossoming make Israeli Jews the most successful Jewish community in 3,500 years of Jewish history. The same cannot be said for the Jews of the Diaspora. In Western Europe, Jewish communities that just a generation ago were considered safe and prosperous are now besieged. Synagogues and Jewish schools look like army barracks. And the severe security cordons Jews need to pass through to pray and study are entirely justified. (…) The crisis is a function of growing levels of popular antisemitism spurred by mass immigration from the Islamic world and the resurgence of indigenous European Jew-hatred, particularly on the far Left. The same cannot be said of the American Jewish community, which at the dawn of 5778 also finds itself steeped in an ever deepening crisis. (…) While antisemitism is experiencing a growth spurt in the US progressive movement, and antisemitism is becoming increasingly overt in US Muslim communities, neither the Reform nor Conservative movements has taken significant institutional steps to fight them. Instead, both movements, and a large swath of the Jewish institutional world, led in large part by Reform and Conservative Jews, have either turned a blind eye to this antisemitism or supported it. Caroline Glick
Parfois, le traitre est celui qui est en avance sur son temps. Amos Oz
That’s what the Jews in Israel think because they have no notion of the limits of power. The fact is that all the power in the world cannot transform someone who hates you into someone who likes you. It can turn a foe into a slave, but not into a friend. All the power in the world cannot transform a fanatic into an enlightened man. All the power in the world cannot transform someone thirsting for vengeance into a lover. And yet these are precisely the real existential challenges facing the State of Israel: how to turn a hater into a lover, a fanatic into a moderate, an avenger into a friend. Am I saying that we do not need military might? Heaven forbid! Such a foolish thought would never enter my head. I know as well as you that it is power, military power, that stands, at any given moment, even at this very moment while you and I are arguing here, between us and extinction. Power has the power to prevent our annihilation for the time being. On condition that we always remember, at every moment, that in a situation like ours power can only prevent. It can’t settle anything and it can’t solve anything. It can only stave off disaster for a while. Shmuel Ash (Judas, Amos Oz)
Every so often in history, courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics. Amos Oz
And so that is indeed what the Jews possess in the deepest recesses of the Jew-hater’s imagination. We are all Judas. Gershom Wald (Judas, Amos Oz)
In front of me hangs Marc Chagall’s picture Crucifixion in Yellow. It shows the figure of the crucified Christ in an apocalyptic situation: people sinking into the sea, people homeless and in flight, and yellow fire blazing in the background. And with the crucified Christ there appears the angel with the trumpet and the open roll of the book of life [Rev 14.6]. This picture has accompanied me for a long time. It symbolizes the cross on the horizon of the world, and can be thought of as a symbolic expression of the studies which follow. Jürgen Moltmann
The sclpture, created by Russian Jewish artist Mark Antokolsky in 1876, is part of a collection of more than 150 artworks by 40 Jewish and Israeli artists who have used Christian imagery to challenge long-held taboos in both communities. It showcases the evolving attitudes of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli artists toward a figure whose place in Jewish history has been negotiated and reinterpreted over more than two millennia. It is a risky statement for an Israeli museum. Throughout history, Jews have traditionally shunned Jesus and his gospel. And while the Holy Land might be his accepted birthplace, for Jews in the modern state of Israel there is often resistance to learning about or even acknowledging Christianity. The Washington Post
We are talking about a 2,000-year-old tension between Judaism and Christianity and the fact that anti-Semitism grew in Christian thought and theology. (…) Israelis are funny about Jesus. But when we scrape the surface, we realize that there is a lot of Christian imagery all around us, even if we’re unaware of it. Amitai Mendelsohn
In the 19th century, the main issue was the Jewish artist feeling emancipated, and it was important for those artists to connect with their surrounding and the time. For Israeli artists, it’s also a kind of emancipation from the heavy Jewishness of their country. Ronit Steinberg (Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design)
Lorsque Jésus pense que tout le monde peut aimer tout le monde, peut être pensait-il à autre chose que ce que l’on a interprété. (…) L’amour prêché par Jésus tel qu’il est interprété, est quelque chose de tout à fait impossible. Le contraire de la guerre (…) n’est pas l’amour mais plutôt le compromis. (…) Mon père s’appelait Judas. Mon fils s’appelle aussi Judas. C’est quelque chose qui m’intéresse depuis mes 16 ans. De plus, cette traitrise de Judas, on peut considérer que c’était en quelque sorte le Tchernobyl de l’antisémitisme (…) Pourquoi Judas qui avait les moyens vendrait-il son maitre, son idole, son enseignant pour quelque chose comme 600 euros actuels ? Je trouvais que ça ne cadrait absolument pas. (…) Judas a cru en Jésus même plus que Jésus ne croyait en lui-même. (…) Le monde chrétien lorsqu’il l’a découvert a été choqué. C’est comme un électrochoc que de lire cela : le premier chrétien est mort ainsi, c’était également le dernier chrétien, et le seul chrétien. Un électrochoc dont personnellement je me réjouis. Je crois qu’il est bien mérité, peut-être également cela pourra-t-il un petit peu atténuer ce Tchernobyl de l’antisémitisme. (…) Personnellement je n’ai pas de préférence pour l’un ou l’autre des personnages, ou des idées de ce roman. Je vais d’ailleurs vous donner un petit truc : il faut vous mettre dans des visions très contradictoires. Je n’ai pas voulu écrire un manifeste politique ou un roman. L’écrivain doit pouvoir se mettre à la place de l’autre. Il faut pouvoir décrire avec la même ferveur, deux ou trois visions opposées. (…) Je suis évolutionniste. Je crois aux compromis (…) et le contraire du compromis, ce n’est pas l’idéal, l’idéalisme, mais c’est le fanatisme et la mort. Amos Oz
L’intrigue de Judas cherche moins à exploiter le décor de pierres blondes et les ruelles de Jérusalem qu’à abriter un huis clos entre trois marginaux : l’ex-étudiant Shmuel Asch qu’une séparation a conduit à laisser tomber sa thèse sur l’apôtre, le vieil historien Gershom Wald, et une veuve de 45 ans, Atalia Abravanel. Entre ces trois solitaires que tout sépare et qui appartiennent à des générations différentes, des relations précaires mais fortes vont finir par se nouer. Les développements didactiques consacrés à Judas, qu’Amos Oz mêle à son histoire, doublent le roman d’un véritable essai. L’entrelacs ne prend pas toujours et sature parfois le récit. C’est l’aspect le moins convaincant du livre, malgré l’intérêt de l’hypothèse prêtée à Asch d’un Judas fidèle entre les fidèles, poussant Jésus à monter sur la croix pour faire éclater sa divinité en espérant qu’il survive à son supplice. Le dévoilement progressif du secret qui pèse sur la maisonnée est en revanche très réussi. La vérité apparaît en pleine lumière au fur et à mesure que se modifie le regard sur les objets quotidiens (canne, café, lampe à pétrole) auxquels Oz a toujours l’art de donner une âme. Nicolas Weill
Attention: une trahison peut en cacher une autre !
A l’heure où en ce Nouvel an juif …
Et à l’instar d’un Judas « déçu par la ‘passivité de Jésus’ le livrant au Sanhédrin afin de provoquer une révolution armée contre l’occupant romain » …
Nombre de juifs de la Diaspora américaine ainsi qu’une minorité active de Juifs israéliens semblent déterminés à pousser Israël au suicide territorial face à ses ennemis palestiniens et arabes …
Contrairement à un nombre croissant de chrétiens ouvertement solidaires du projet sioniste …
Comment ne pas se désoler …
Derrière son long héritage revendiqué de Jérémie à Lincoln ou de Gaulle ou même Herzl ou Ben Gourion …
De la véritable apologie de la trahison du dernier roman de l’écrivain israélien Amos Oz …
Mais comment en même temps ne pas être conforté d’initiatives du côté israélien …
Rappelant contre ces innombrables représentations du Christ à travers lesquelles nos musées avaient réussi à le déjudaïser …
La longue tradition de représentations de Jésus dans l’art juif et aujourd’hui israélien ?
On a wintry day in Jerusalem in late 1959, Shmuel Ash spots an enigmatic job posting on a university campus board:
Offered to a single humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history, free accommodation and a modest monthly sum in return for spending five hours per evening with a seventy-year-old invalid, an educated, widely cultured man. He is able to take care of himself and seeks company, not assistance.
Ash, whose parents, we are told, “had lost their entire life savings in an instant, whose own research had stalled, who had dropped out of university, and whose girlfriend had suddenly married her former boyfriend,” decides to accept the position.
Ash moves to a house that is inhabited by two people, Atalia Abravanel, forty-five, and Gershom Wald, her seventy-year-old invalid father-in-law. They are haunted by the memories of two others who have a presence in the house: Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s dead father, and Micha, Atalia’s late husband and Wald’s son. As we learn later, Micha was killed in the 1948 war and his corpse savagely desecrated.
The 1948 war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine is called the War of Independence by Jews and Al Naqba, or the Catastrophe, by Palestinian Arabs. What is striking in Judas, Amos Oz’s captivating new novel, is that the Jewish Abravanels, both father and daughter, view the 1948 war as an unmitigated catastrophe. This is so in their own lives through the loss of Micha, and for Jews nationally by heaping misery on Jews and Arabs alike.
Oz’s story zooms in on the trio of the living, which has expanded to include Ash, then zooms out onto a quintet that includes the two living-dead with their tight hold on the living. Much of the book consists of conversations between Ash, Wald, and Atalia about religion, Zionism, and the legacy of the war, as well as increasingly intimate exchanges about their private lives.
Shmuel Ash is twenty-five years old. As Lord Byron once asked: “Is there anything in the future that can possibly console us for not being always twenty-five?” In the case of the stocky and bearded Ash, the answer is Atalia—the lady of the house. Ash, “shy, emotional, socialist, asthmatic,” falls deeply in love with her.
Ash is based on the nineteenth-century Russian literary archetype of the “superfluous man”: well-read, intelligent, idealistic, with copious goodwill, and yet utterly ineffectual. Ash can interpret the world but can barely change his own underwear. Like Goncharov’s Oblomov, he stays in bed until midday, a grown baby who dusts his beard with scented talc powder.
Ash is the novel’s link between the story that takes place in 1959 and the one about Jesus and Judas that took place in the first century. His academic research, which he had recently given up, was dedicated to the way in which Jews viewed Jesus. When he tries to explain his interest in the subject, he mumbles: “The figure of Jesus of Nazareth…and Judas Iscariot…and the spiritual world of the Chief Priests and Pharisees who rejected Jesus.”
In Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita, written in the 1930s, Jesus and Judas’s Jerusalem is woven onto Stalinist Moscow of the 1930s by the Master, who is writing a biography of Pontius Pilate. Oz uses a similar device: Shmuel Ash’s historical research transplants Jesus and Judas onto the divided city of Jerusalem of the late 1950s.
Oz has a formidable rhetorical talent that doesn’t always work in his favor. He is in danger of giving the impression that his novels are an excuse for delivering eloquent speeches about big ideas. Luckily, his novel is not just about abstractions. For one thing, the contentious life of Jerusalem—divided between Israel and Jordan—has a major part in the novel, and to great effect.
By describing Ash and Atalia’s long walks through its narrow alleyways, Oz brings a wintry wind into his powerful depiction of the city in December. For him, Jerusalem between winds is a place graced with moments of transcendence:
There was no rain, just a few gray tatters of clouds crossing the sky on their way from the sea to the desert. The morning light that touched the stone walls of Jerusalem was reflected back soft and sweet, honeyed light, the light that caresses Jerusalem on clear winter days between one rainstorm and the next.
Oz captures the way the harsh, blinding glare of Jerusalem summers is replaced in winter by a soft glow reflected in the washed building stones. (I have to confess that I am, perhaps, too susceptible to Oz’s evocation of Jerusalem. He and I attended kindergarten together and were raised in the same Jerusalem neighborhood, a place movingly, almost eerily evoked in Oz’s autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness.)
Oz is very particular about naming his leading characters: the name Ash is already a giveaway. Oz maintains without conviction that Shmuel, to the best of his knowledge, has no relation to the “well-known writer” Scholem Asch, who scandalized the Jewish world with his sympathetic trilogy written in the years of World War II on themes having to do with the life of Jesus. The conventional wisdom among Jews at the time was that there was a direct line between Christian anti-Semitism and the Nazi anti-Semitism calling for the elimination of the Jews. Scholem Asch’s trilogy, which depicted Jesus in a favorable light, was taken as a betrayal by many Jews.
Atalia is another telling name. The biblical Atalia of the ninth century BC is the only woman who became a ruling sovereign in Judea. In Athalie, Racine’s 1691 play, she is the epitome of a fiercely independent woman, as is Oz’s Atalia, the commanding lady of the haunted house who bears herself regally. Meanwhile, Abravanel strongly suggests the name of the descendants of the leading Jewish families who were expelled from Spain in 1492.
“Abravanel? Such an aristocratic name,” says Ash to Atalia, before adding, “If I remember rightly he was the only one to oppose the creation of the state? Or else he was only opposed to Ben-Gurion’s approach?”
Much like the symbolic names and the dual plotlines, Oz’s book is a novel of ideas, of the kind that Vladimir Nabokov hated. Then again, Oz is in good company, for Nabokov also hated Dostoevsky and Mann for this very reason. The book turns on three ideas deriving from three people: Ben-Gurion, Judas, and Jesus. “Ben-Gurion” is shorthand for the justification—or the lack thereof—of founding the State of Israel. “Judas” stands for the idea of betrayal, or rather the ambiguity of betrayal. And “Jesus” suggests Judaism’s refusal to deal seriously with the challenge of Christianity.
Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, shaped its strategy and its major institutions like no one else. Oz, instead of dealing with Israel as it is now, goes back to its foundation, arguing back and forth with its forefather. Oz recognizes Ben-Gurion’s ability to get under one’s skin, whether as a friend or foe. After all, Ben-Gurion quite evidently got under Oz’s skin. Here is the admirer Wald:
There’s no one like Ben-Gurion…. The Jewish people has never before had such a far-sighted leader as Ben-Gurion. Few understand as he does that “the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” is a curse and not a blessing.
And here is Ben-Gurion’s opponent Ash:
Ben-Gurion may have been in his youth a workers’ leader, a sort of tribune of the plebs, if you like, but today he heads a self-righteous, chauvinistic state and he never stops spouting hollow biblical phrases about renewing our days as of old and realizing the vision of the prophets.
Wald, the bereaved father who suffered from Ben-Gurion’s war, remains an admirer of Ben-Gurion. Ash, who belongs to a pathetic group of six dedicated to renewing socialism, is an opponent of Ben-Gurion from the left. Ash and Wald’s reactions to Ben-Gurion are not new. The interesting opposition to Ben-Gurion in the novel comes from an unexpected source: the late Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s father, who
tried in vain to persuade Ben-Gurion in ’48 that it was still possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs about departure of the British and the creation of a single joint condominium of Jews and Arabs, if we only agreed to renounce the idea of a Jewish state.
Abravanel is a thoroughly Mediterranean aristocrat, much at ease with his educated Arab friends and other educated people in the Levant, and rather estranged from his fellow Jews. He speaks Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, French, English, and Ladino but, tellingly, not Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews. His opposition to Ben-Gurion cuts deep—he is hostile to the notion of the nation-state. In discussing Abravanel’s ideas with Atalia, Ash asks her: “Don’t you believe that in 1948 we fought because we had no alternative? That we had our backs to the wall?” “No,” she replies categorically. “You didn’t have your backs to the wall. You were the wall.”
Is this internal Zionist talk in the middle of a work of art, to borrow Stendhal’s simile, “like a gun shot in the middle of a concert, something vulgar, and however, something which is impossible to ignore”? I don’t think so. The ideological talk here is like the cannon shots in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture: an integral part of the music, not an outside noise. By creating Abravanel, Oz has succeeded in establishing a credible upholder of views strongly held against the mainstream Zionism of Ben-Gurion. But Abravanel amounts to much more than an ideological opponent of Ben-Gurion. The question is whether his views amount to a betrayal. And here is where the comparison to Judas, the arch betrayer of history, naturally comes to mind.
There are many manifestations of betrayal in the novel. Shmuel Ash feels that he betrayed his mother and father by fantasizing about replacing them with a better class of parents. Indeed, he “always blamed himself for his disloyalty,” as if he were an enemy agent in the family, whereas his parents and sister felt that he betrayed them by betraying his calling as a religious leader to become a scholar. Betraying one’s parents is, in the writings of Oz, a big deal. Yet Ash’s betrayal of his parents doesn’t seem at all comparable with the evocation of Judas; Abravanel’s betrayal of Ben-Gurion—if it is in fact a betrayal—would. For Oz, notwithstanding this discrepancy, both betrayers seem to be in need, at the very least, of rehabilitation.
Indeed, Ash offers a radical reevaluation of Judas, who, he claims, “was the most loyal and devoted” of all of Jesus’s disciples. Ash believes that Judas “never betrayed him, but, on the contrary, he meant to prove his greatness to the whole world.” The Gnostic Gospel of Judas of the late second century already describes Judas as the only disciple to understand the true message of Jesus, while the other disciples are portrayed as lacking understanding. Moreover, in Ash’s view, the role of Judas in the redemptive scheme of humanity is to hand over Jesus to the Romans not as an act of betrayal, but as an expression of ultimate devotion.
During the Romantic movement, the theme of Judas as the true loyalist permeated literature. Even devout Catholic writers like François Mauriac and Paul Claudel contributed, if not to Judas’s radical reevaluation (from worst to best), then at least to Judas’s rehabilitation (“not so bad”).
Ash takes this idea even further: “Judas Iscariot was the founder of the Christian religion.” It would be wrong to take Ash’s half-baked ideas about Judas as the author’s own—Ash, we are told, wrote these words in his notebook “in a state of great excitement”—but bringing Judas into the novel is a way for Oz to deal with the ambiguity of betrayal, namely its susceptibility to reevaluation (or rehabilitation) from one generation to another. It is in the notion of betrayal, and not in Judas himself, that I suspect Oz is interested.
While Ash is an academic researcher, he is also an amateur private eye searching for Abravanel’s record. His investigation leads him to the State Archives in Jerusalem, where he meets a dour archivist, a certain Mr. Sheindelevich: “What is that you wish to know, precisely?” Mr. Sheindelevich asks. “After all,” he adds, “they all wanted as one man to set up a state, and they all knew as one man that we would have to defend ourselves by force.”
“Even Shealtil Abravanel?” Ash asks. The archivist tells him dryly: “He was a traitor.”
Ash reevaluates Judas, whereas Oz, to my mind, only rehabilitates Abravanel. He doesn’t side with Abravanel’s opposition to the idea of a nation-state in general, or to the idea of Israel in particular. What he does is to give Abravanel’s position legitimacy from a Zionist perspective.
A current exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is dedicated to the image of Jesus in Jewish plastic arts. In it, there is an imposing sculpture by Mark Antokolsky, a famous Jewish sculptor in tsarist Russia of the second half of the nineteenth century, titled Christ Before the People. The portrayal of Jesus in the sculpture is unique in not seeing Jesus from a critical Jewish perspective. Indeed, there is nothing wrong historically or conceptually with the idea that Jesus was, and remained, a Jew.* Jesus the Galilean Jew, the faith healer, was not a problem for most Jews. It is with Jesus Christ that the hostility begins.
No doubt, medieval Judaism produced nasty accounts of Jesus. As Wald puts it: “All these foul texts were written by narrow-minded little Jews because they were afraid of the attractive power of Christianity.” The standard account for the hostility of the Jewish attitude is suggested in the novel by Ash himself: “The Jews who wrote this polemic were certainly writing under the influence of their oppression and persecution by the Christians.” But Wald will have none of such explanations. “Surely if you want to challenge Jesus the Christian,” he says, “you have to elevate yourself, not descend into the gutter.”
Wald views the challenge of Christianity to Judaism in its possibility and promise of universal love. Wald, the bereaved father, does not believe in universal love: “Surely anyone who loves everybody does not really love anybody.” In my view, he speaks for Oz, for whom the main divide between Christianity and Judaism is the idea of universal love. Many Jews refuse to believe in the human possibility of such love.
Jesus is the Lamb of God, the sacrificial lamb of Passover for the sake of humanity at large. In the days leading to Passover in 1948, Micha, Wald’s son and Atalia’s husband, was a promising mathematical logician, aged thirty-seven. Because of his relatively old age and a severe kidney failure, he was exempted from taking active part in the war. But he volunteered and was killed in battle, sacrificing his life for the sake of the Jews in besieged Jerusalem.
Jewish martyrology was developed in competition with Christian martyrology. It therefore doesn’t include Jesus. The emblem of Jewish martyrology is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Willingness to sacrifice oneself may seem relatively easy compared to a willingness to sacrifice one’s beloved child. Gershom Wald, in recounting the death of his only child, refers to Abraham: “He grew up with me without a mother. He was only six when his mother died. I brought him up on my own. I took him myself and led him to Mount Moriah.” Wald rehearses the Israeli mantra that the death of those who were killed in the fighting of 1948 was not in vain. But then he starts to hear an inner voice: “I seemed to hear Shealtiel Abravanel asking me silently if I still believed that it was all worthwhile.”
Was it worth it? This hovering question can be seen as the bleeding scar of the novel. It doesn’t abate or get better with time. This horrific question is posed on all levels: personal—the death of Micha—and collective—the mutually inflicted pain by Jews and Arabs.
Shmuel Ash’s initiation rite in the haunted house takes three months. Eventually he is liberated from that gnostic maze by Atalia, who brings him his traveling bag one morning and insists for his own sake that he leave. (“If you stay with us any longer you’ll turn into a fossil,” she says.) His redemption means that he is ready to begin a new life, probably in one of the development towns in Israel’s south. There, he watches as a beautiful woman hangs a wet blouse. She is the opposite of Atalia, the unattainable widow, and suggests the possibility of a new beginning.
At the end of the novel, so beautifully translated by Nicholas de Lange, Ash wonders: Where to? What next? But we are left instead with that silent question of Abravanel’s—perhaps of the novel’s: Was it worth it?
“Judas” by Amos Oz: Curiosity, Desire, Betrayal, Loyalty…
The shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize (@ManBookerPrize) was announced in April with the following six novels making it to the top: Compass by Mathias Enard (France), A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin (Argentina) and Judas by Amos Oz (Israel). The winner will be announced on June 14, 2017.
I have already written about Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and also The Traitor’s Niche by Albanian author Ismail Kadare that had made it to the longlist.
I recently finished Judas by Amos Oz (born 1939) – professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and Israel’s most famous living author. Some of his other notable books are A Tale of Love and Darkness, Scenes from Village Life, Between Friends and My Michael. Judas has been translated into English by Nicholas de Lange, a professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Cambridge.
When I first saw the title and the cover of the book (top left version) and learnt about the reputation of the writer, I hesitated to read the work, thinking it might be too “elite”. It is indeed loaded with very big and important ideas going in all sorts of directions but what makes Judas accessible, ultimately, to one and all is its simple underlying “coming-of-age” template.
The book burgeons with (often quite provocative) perspectives – on the formation and identity of Israel, the Jewish views of Jesus, the Christian views of Judas, love and hate, power and nation states, the nature of allegiance and treason, etc. Since I haven’t written much on Judaism and the Jewish experience in history (just posts on a novel called For Two Thousands Years by Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian and metal sculptures of the body by Tel Aviv-based Ofer Rubin), I thought of picking this one up.
The period is 1959-60. The place is Jerusalem – a still-divided city (a battle in 1948 had made the Israelis capture the West and the Jordanians capture the East). Shmuel Ash is a twenty-five-old idealistic (and, at times, crazily emotional) student of history and religion who has been forced to abandon his MA thesis (on the “Jewish Views of Jesus”) – and with that the dreams of a future academic career. His father’s finances have collapsed, his allowance has been cut. His girlfriend Yardena has ditched him and married her former boyfriend – Nesher Sharshevsky, a hard-working hydrologist (specialist in “rainwater collection”). Adrift, without resources, Shmuel must urgently look for work.
Shmuel discovers a note on the campus noticeboard for a paid position. A companion is needed for an old man called Gershom Wald; he wants to be read to, argued with. The young student responds and is led to a strange house, where, along with the old man, he finds a woman in her 40s – Atalia Abravanel, Wald’s daughter-in-law – mysterious, attractive, haunted by ghosts from the past. Shmuel is taken by both the figures. Drawn to the former’s intellectual vigour and the latter’s sexual appeal.
As these three characters interact over the winter – against the hum of the domestic rituals of cooking and cleaning – they open themselves up and find themselves changed. Sweeping concepts in religion, history, politics are debated and discussed. Texts on the Jewish reception of Jesus are mixed with paragraphs on the Christian perception of Judas. According to the received wisdom of the popular mind, Judas – the ugly, greedy traitor – is synonymous with “the Jew” itself. All anti-Semitism in Western Civilisation, it is indicated in the novel…pogroms, the Inquisition, blood libels, the Holocaust…emerged from this reprehensible image in the New Testament. Gershom Wald points out: “And so that is indeed what the Jews possess in the deepest recesses of the Jew-hater’s imagination. We are all Judas.”
And yet, the role of Judas is also seen from a sympathetic perspective. For Shmuel Ash, Judas has an important role in the saga of salvation. By abandoning Jesus, selling him off, he actually gives him an opportunity to realise and display his greatness. [Such positive reassessments have been around for a long time. Saint Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican preacher (1350–1419) is believed to have asserted that Judas was on God’s side. A Biblical scholar named William Klassen wrote a book called Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? in 2004.]
There are other traitors in and around the story. Atalia’s father Sheatiel Abravanel is called a traitor for passionately believing in the brotherhood between Arabs and Jews, for having opposed Ben-Gurion’s radical nationalistic approach to the founding of modern Israel. Outside this piece of fiction, the author himself has been referred to as a traitor by his countrymen – for proposing a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. He has acknowledged this designation as a badge of honour.
The intense intellectual (and sexual) drama of Judas concludes in tender, touching moments. And although several tough issues remain (understandably) unresolved, one powerful observation is etched in the reader’s mind: “Every so often in history, courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics.” Why, Abraham Lincoln, the liberator of the slaves, was called a traitor by his opponents, the German officers who tried to assassinate Hitler were executed as traitors…
Read Judas – a multi-layered, multi-faceted narrative that superbly articulates the ambiguities and complexities of human life and culture – if you want to entertain yourself with an old-fashioned novel of ideas (particularly if you appreciate the traditions of Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann).
Part of a conversation between Shmuel Ash and Gershom Wald:
SA: All the power in the world. Take the combined power of the Soviet Union and the United States and France and Britain. What can you not achieve with such power, by any manner or means?
GW: I think that with such power you could conquer whatever you felt like. From sea to sea.
SA: That’s what you think. That’s what the Jews in Israel think because they have no notion of the limits of power. The fact is that all the power in the world cannot transform someone who hates you into someone who likes you. It can turn a foe into a slave, but not into a friend. All the power in the world cannot transform a fanatic into an enlightened man. All the power in the world cannot transform someone thirsting for vengeance into a lover. And yet these are precisely the real existential challenges facing the State of Israel: how to turn a hater into a lover, a fanatic into a moderate, an avenger into a friend.
Am I saying that we do not need military might? Heaven forbid! Such a foolish thought would never enter my head. I know as well as you that it is power, military power, that stands, at any given moment, even at this very moment while you and I are arguing here, between us and extinction. Power has the power to prevent our annihilation for the time being. On condition that we always remember, at every moment, that in a situation like ours power can only prevent. It can’t settle anything and it can’t solve anything. It can only stave off disaster for a while.
This stems mainly from a fear of centuries-old anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, where the crucifixion of Jesus was used as an excuse to persecute Jews.
“We are talking about a 2,000-year-old tension between Judaism and Christianity and the fact that anti-Semitism grew in Christian thought and theology,” said the exhibition’s curator, Amitai Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn said he was surprised at just how many Jewish artists throughout history, and today in Israel, have used Jesus and Christian themes as inspirations for their work.
It is a delicate subject for Jews everywhere, including in Israel, but artists by nature “are attracted to something that is forbidden for them,” he said.
Ziva Amishai-Maisels, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who specializes in Christian imagery in Jewish art, said that religious Jews, who might be opposed to such depictions, would probably stay away from the exhibition. “Those who do go might be stunned,” she said, “but I don’t think they will react badly.”
Some of the works, though, could offend pious Christians, she said. “They might feel the images are sacrilegious, but the wall texts are explanatory enough — if they read them, it should calm them down.”
While some of the older works by European Jews challenge Christian anti-Semitism or look at how Jesus’ Jewish roots could act as a bridge between the two religions, more-contemporary pieces explore Jesus as an anti-establishment figure who suffered at not being understood.
Ronit Steinberg, an art historian from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, said the appeal for Jewish artists in depicting Jesus has changed over the years, but all are tied together by a common thread.
“In the 19th century, the main issue was the Jewish artist feeling emancipated, and it was important for those artists to connect with their surrounding and the time. For Israeli artists, it’s also a kind of emancipation from the heavy Jewishness of their country,” she said.
There’s the “Yellow Crucifixion,” a 1943 Marc Chagall painting showing Jesus as a Jew. Hued in yellow, perhaps representing the star the Nazis forced Jews to wear, Jesus is strung from a cross wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl and phylacteries.
Another artist, Moshe Hoffman, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust, used his art to question Christianity’s role in the genocide. In one work, “Six million and 1,” Hoffman shows a Nazi guard attempting to pull Jesus from the cross to make him Jewish prisoner number 6,000,001.
Others used Jesus as a Jew to connect their Jewish identity to Christian surroundings. While Antokolsky was the first Russian Jewish artist to be accepted by his peers, he suffered an identity crisis from being Jewish and Russian.
As the exhibit, which is arranged chronologically, arrives at works from the past few decades, a theme develops in which Jewish Israelis use Christian iconography to question their political and national identity.
One such work is by Igael Tumarkin. His monogram is the metal frame of a standard-issue Israeli army cot twisted to form a cross. Flanked by material that appears to be a shredded Israeli flag, the piece was created in 1984 and was a protest against the war Israel was fighting in Lebanon at the time. The title, “Mita Meshuna,” means both “strange bed” and “strange death” in Hebrew.
Perhaps the best-known contemporary artwork on display is Adi Nes’s depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which substitutes Israeli soldiers for the apostles.
Nes’s photograph sold at Sotheby’s for $250,000, the highest an Israeli photograph has ever fetched. And the image has become a cultural icon for Israelis, suggesting perhaps that Christian themes are becoming more acceptable in Jewish culture.
As the New Year 5778 begins, 88% of Israeli Jews say that they are happy and satisfied with their lives. This makes sense. Israel’s relative security, its prosperity, freedom and spiritual blossoming make Israeli Jews the most successful Jewish community in 3,500 years of Jewish history.
The same cannot be said for the Jews of the Diaspora. In Western Europe, Jewish communities that just a generation ago were considered safe and prosperous are now besieged. Synagogues and Jewish schools look like army barracks. And the severe security cordons Jews need to pass through to pray and study are entirely justified. For where they are absent, as they were at the Hyper Cacher Jewish supermarket in Paris in 2015, assailants strike.
Western European Jewry’s crisis is exogenous to the Jewish communities. It isn’t the Jews who caused the crisis, which may in time cause the wholesale exodus of the Jews from Europe. The crisis is a function of growing levels of popular antisemitism spurred by mass immigration from the Islamic world and the resurgence of indigenous European Jew-hatred, particularly on the far Left.
The same cannot be said of the American Jewish community, which at the dawn of 5778 also finds itself steeped in an ever deepening crisis. And while antisemitism is a growing problem in America, particularly on university campuses, unlike their European counterparts, American Jews could mount and win a battle against the growing anti-Jewish forces. But in large part, they have chosen not to. And they have chosen not to fight the antisemites because they are in the midst of a self-induced identity crisis.
First, there is the problem of demographic collapse.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jewry, nearly 60% of American Jews intermarry. Based on the Pew data, the Jewish People Policy Institute published a report in June that noted that not only are 60% of American Jews who get married marrying non-Jews, only half of American Jews are getting married at all. And among those who are getting married, less than a third are raising their children as Jewish in some way.
Earlier this month, a study of American Jews was published by the Public Religion Research Institute. It found that not only hasn’t the situation improved since the Pew survey was published, the trend toward assimilation and loss of Jewish identity among American Jews has accelerated.
In 2013, 32% of American Jews under 30 said that they were not Jews by religion. Today the proportion of Jews under 30 who say they have no relation to the Jewish faith has ballooned to 47%.
Not surprisingly, the wholesale abandonment of Jewish faith by nearly half of young American Jews has taken a toll on the two liberal streams of American Judaism. According to the study, the percentage of American Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative Jews is in free fall.
Whereas in 2013, 35% of American Jews identified as Reform, today, a mere four years later, only 28% identify as Reform. The situation among Conservatives is even worse. In 2013, 18% of American Jews identified as Conservatives. Today, only 14% do. Among Jews under 30 the situation is even starker. Only 20% of American Jews under 30 identify as Reform. Only 8% identify as Conservative.
To be sure, the trend toward secularism and assimilation among US Jewry is not new. And over the years, Reform and Conservative leaders have adopted varying strategies to deal with it.
In 1999 the Reform movement tried to deal with the problem by strengthening the movement’s religious practices. Although the effort failed, the impulse that drove the strategy was rational. American Jews who seek spiritual and religious meaning likely want more than a sermon about tikkun olam.
The problem is that they also want more than a rabbi donning a kippa and a synagogue choosing to keep kosher.
This is why, as the number of Reform and Conservative Jews is contracting, the number of American Jews who associate with the Orthodox movement is growing. Between 2013 and 2017, the proportion of young American Jews who identify as Orthodox grew from 10% to 15%.
Moreover, more and more American Jews are finding their spiritual home with Chabad. Today there are more Chabad houses in the US than Reform synagogues.
Unable to compete for Jews seeking religious fulfillment, the Reform and Conservative movements have struck out for new means of rallying their bases and attracting members. Over the past year, two new strategies are dominating the public actions of both movements.
First, there is a selective fight against antisemitism. While antisemitism is experiencing a growth spurt in the US progressive movement, and antisemitism is becoming increasingly overt in US Muslim communities, neither the Reform nor Conservative movements has taken significant institutional steps to fight them.
Instead, both movements, and a large swath of the Jewish institutional world, led in large part by Reform and Conservative Jews, have either turned a blind eye to this antisemitism or supported it.
Take for instance the case of Davis, California, imam Amman Shahin.
On July 21 Shahin gave a sermon calling for the Jewish people to be annihilated. His Jewish neighbors in the progressive Jewish communities of Davis and Sacramento didn’t call the police and demand that he be investigated for terrorist ties. They didn’t demand that his mosque fire him.
Instead, led by the Oakland Jewish Federation, local rabbi Seth Castleman and the JCRC, they embraced Shahin. They appeared with him at a public “apology” ceremony, where he failed to apologize for calling for his Jewish colleagues, and every other Jew, to be murdered.
All Shahin did was express regret that his call for genocide caused offense.
On the other hand, the same leaders stand as one against allegations of antisemitic violence stemming from the political Right. In the face of an utter lack of evidence, when Jewish institutions were subjected to a rash of bomb threats last winter, Reform and Conservative leaders led the charge insisting that far-right antisemites were behind them and insinuated that the perpetrators supported President Donald Trump. When it worked out that all of the threats were carried out by a mentally ill Israeli Jew, they never issued an apology.
So, too, the Reform and Conservative movements, like the rest of the American Jewish community, treated the Charlottesville riot last month like a new Reichstag fire. They entirely ignored the violence of the far-left, antisemitic Antifa protesters and behaved as though tomorrow neo-Nazis would take control of the federal government. They jumped on the bandwagon insisting that Trump’s initial condemnation of both groups was proof that he has a soft spot for neo-Nazis.
The problem with the strategy of selective outrage over antisemitism is that it isn’t at all clear who the target audience is. Survey data shows that the more active Jews are in the synagogue, the less politically radical they are and the more devoted to Jewish causes they are. So it is hard to see how turning a blind eye to leftist and Muslim antisemitism will rally their current membership more than they already have been rallied. Moreover, the more radicalized Jews become politically, the more outlets they have for their political activism both as Jews and as leftists. No matter how anti-Trump Conservative and Reform leaders become, they can never rival the progressive forces in the Democratic Party.
Prospects for success of the second strategy are arguably even lower. The second strategy involves cultivating animosity toward Israel over the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.
Last June, the government overturned an earlier decision to build a passageway connecting the Western Wall Plaza with Robinson’s Arch, along the Southern Wall, where egalitarian prayer services are held. The government also rescinded a previous decision to have representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements receive membership in the committee that manages the Western Wall Plaza.
The government’s first decision was non-political. The Antiquities Authority nixed the construction of the passage due to the adverse impact construction would have on the antiquities below the surface.
As to the second decision, it is far from a matter of life and death. The committee has no power to influence egalitarian prayers for better or for worse.
And yet, rather than acknowledge that the decision was a setback but it didn’t harm the status of egalitarian prayer at the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements declared war against the government and dragged much of the organized Jewish establishment behind them.
The Reform leadership canceled a scheduled meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Jewish Agency Board followed suit.
Six hundred Conservative rabbis signed a letter to Netanyahu accusing him of betraying Diaspora Jewry and announcing they would be forced to reconsider their support for Israel.
Ambassador David Friedman, who had just taken residence in Israel a month before the explosion, used his first public remarks as ambassador to call his fellow American Jews to order.
Friedman said, “Yesterday, I heard something that I thought I’d never hear before. And I understand the source of the frustration and the source of the anger. But I heard a major Jewish organization say that they needed to rethink their support for the State of Israel.
“That’s something unthinkable in my lifetime, up until yesterday. We have to do better. We must do better,” he said.
But in the intervening months, the Conservative and Reform movements have not relented in their attacks. They have ratcheted them up.
The thinking appears to be that if they can make this problem look like a life or death struggle between Israel and progressive Jewry, they can both keep their dwindling bases engaged and attract members of the increasingly anti-Israel Jewish far Left.
The problem with this is that just as they cannot outdo the Democratic Party in their hostility toward Trump, so the Conservative and Reform movements cannot be more anti-Israel than Jewish Voices for Peace and other anti-Israel Jewish groups.
The question for Israelis is what this failure of the mainstream American Jewish leadership means for the future of Israel’s relationship with American Jewry. Jewish survival and continuity through the ages has been predicated and dependent on our ability as Jews to uphold the commandment of the sages that all Jews are responsible for one another. As the most successful Jewish community in history, Israel has a special responsibility for our brethren in the Diaspora.
The first step toward fulfilling our duty is to recognize the basic fact that while it is true that the American Jewish community is in crisis, the leaders of that community are in an even deeper crisis. And the key to strengthening and supporting the community is to bypass its failed leadership and speak and interact directly with American Jews.