A Nice Jewish Boy's Christmas in Israel/Palestine

01/06/2017 05:15 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2017

I have just returned from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Despite being a nice Jewish boy, I shadowed the thousands upon thousands of Christians on a pilgrimage to commune with their savior. My experience of trailing the steps of Jesus is a triptych, likely with a different optic from my Christian brothers and sisters. Each of the three acts of my journey was nonetheless instructive in the age of Donald Trump’s compulsory Christmas that he and his followers insist upon to combat an ostensible war on Christmas. This war is, of course, pure projection. Instead, the mantra of a mandatory “Merry Christmas” has sinister undertones. It sounds once more a triumphalist Christianity that has underpinned too much of the long history of Christian persecution.

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Act I: I came to Jerusalem to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic treatise on anti-Semitism, Anti-Semite and Jew, sponsored by Hebrew University’s Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. The conference participants all stayed in the YMCA Three Arches hotel, one of the few places in the Jewish state with a large Christmas tree at its front door. This magnificent Christian edifice was built by the same architect who built the Empire State Building, Arthur Loomis Harden. It was dedicated in 1933 with the words “Here is a spot whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.” This was a powerful statement in the same year that Hitler came to power in Germany.

The Sartre commemoration was held in a new building at Hebrew University, the Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, whose glass and metal modernism panoptically overlooks the town of Issawiya. Translated from the Arabic, the village’s name means, “the place or sect of Jesus.”

Sartre’s treatise was written in the fall of 1944, in the months between the liberation of France and before the liberation of Auschwitz. Despite his fame, it was published in 1946 by a little-known press, his regular publisher, Gallimard, passing on the manuscript. Sartre was crying out against the "strange silence," – as Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Mounier termed it at the time – of the Jewish Holocaust and the hush surrounding the tragic fate of the few thousand Jewish returnees from the death camps. Their story was swallowed in the collective French national mourning and newfound relief on the morning after the Nazi occupation. Sartre was singular in singling out the Jewish experience suffered as a result of French collaboration in the Nazi persecution.

This silence about the Jews permeated much of Nazi occupation. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas later maintained in an article, “Useless Suffering,” it was this total dereliction that made the Holocaust different from other cases of genocide and mass murder. Post-Holocaust the lesson for Levinas should be that all cases of mass brutality should never be rationalized. “Never Again” means the end to all theodicy arguments that excuse the suffering of innocents. Our responsibility is to respond to the cry of useless suffering anywhere and everywhere.

Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew made clear that the failure to respond meant that the executioner’s guilt falls on all our heads. Sartre was thus a prophetic voice who repeatedly sounded the call of this collective responsibility. The German existentialist Karl Jaspers had termed it our “metaphysical guilt” in his reflections on The Question of German Guilt.

Anti-Semite and Jew merits celebration at our historical juncture because it sparkles with insights not only about anti-Semitism, but all forms of racism. Anti-Semitism is a “passion,” Sartre maintained. By this he meant that to assert or even passively echo Judeophobic or racist canards is not to advance an opinion among other beliefs. All defamation is knitted into a worldview that is ultimately Manichean. It bisects the world into good and evil, beautiful and ugly, black and white, us versus them. This Manicheanism finds Otherness fearful. The Self (both collective and individual) is then defined against this abject Other.

Summing up his analysis in Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre stated:

The Jew only serves him as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin. The existence of the Jew merely permits the anti-Semite to stifle his anxieties at their inception by persuading himself that his place in the world has been marked out in advance, that it awaits him, and that tradition gives him the right to occupy it. Anti-Semitism, in a word, is fear of the human condition. The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be a pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt—anything except a man.

Donald Trump’s slogan that he will make America great again gives voice to this desire.

Sartre’s analysis highlights rural Frenchmen as more prone to Manichean authoritarianism. Not unlike the Brexistentialist voters pointed out by Simon Critchley on the eve of the Trump election, their enemy takes the form of globalization that erodes the certainties of their past, even as it sometimes eviscerates their jobs and way of life. Mythic Jews or Blacks or Chinese or Hispanics or Muslims personify the nightmares of these people’s real existential struggles, just as Israel sometimes does today, especially in too much of the Arab and Islamic imagination.

Sartre insightfully argued that Jews inevitably had to wrestle with how they are seen by Others. Being Jewish was not only a matter of self-definition. For Jews were also those who were perceived as such. “The root of Jewish disquietude,” Sartre consequently noted about modern Jews, “is the necessity imposed upon the Jew of subjecting himself to endless self-examination.” This imposes its own complex on Jews, who like all others often flee in the form of what Sartre termed “bad faith” or self denial, which he chastised as “inauthenticity.”

The authentic Jew, on the other hand, would recognize the ways that Jews were stigmatized. Wrote Sartre,

He knows that he is one who stands apart, untouchable, scorned, proscribed—and it is as such that he asserts his being.

Jews must accept that part of their fate is to take on this “martyrdom.”

This formulation could be construed as Christological, as I suggested it was in my book, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question. But this Christological imagery can also be embraced, as it was by the German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, who read the passages in Isaiah about the “suffering servant” as the reverse side of Jewish election. Levinas, too, followed this line, arguing that Judaism was therefore an ethical optic, demanding a response to all forms of useless suffering.

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Act Two: The next day, I went to the Israel Museum to see the exhibit, “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli art.” I went as an homage to one of my Hebrew University mentors, Ezra Mendelsohn, who died suddenly last year. Curated by his son, Amatai Mendelsohn, the show opens with a trinity of huge canvases. They set the exhibit into the broader context of Jesus in Jewish art. The first was a painting by Maurcy Gottlieb, arguably the founder of modern Jewish art and the subject of Ezra Mendelsohn’s last monograph. From 1878-1879, Christ Teaching at Capernaum depicts Jesus dressed in a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. In the key trope of the exhibit running through many of the works, Gottlieb’s Jesus is a Jewish teacher. In Gottlieb’s painting he preaches before a patently Jewish crowd. To make the point unmistakable, Maurcy paints himself in the forefront of the work listening attentively to Jesus’ sermon. Jesus’s true message is as much Jewish as universal. All these Jewish artists emphasized this point.

The second massive work is by Samuel Hirszenberg, The Wandering Jew (1899). Transforming this anti-Semitic motif into a representation of Jewish suffering, Hirszenberg’s central character flees across the canvas in the shadow of huge crosses drawn across a dark, post-Impressionistic landscape, strewn with dead bodies. Hirszenberg’s bearded Jew is clearly imperiled and desperate. He stares wide-eyed at his viewers in disbelief or even madness, flummoxed at their indifference to his suffering. The painting telegraphs another take home from the exhibit: Jewish artists used Christian iconography to elicit empathy and to critique the dominant culture that persecuted them.

None did so more powerfully than Marc Chagall. His Yellow Crucifixion (1943) stands alongside The Crucified (1944) as the first images the viewer confronts when entering the exhibit. During the Nazi era, Chagall repeatedly painted images of Christ wearing tefillim (phylacteries), often wearing a prayer shawl, and thus obviously Jewish, set against the backdrop of Jews being massacred. He did so to elicit support from Christians in an era of anti-Jewish persecution.

Zionists, too, took up the iconography of Christian art and specifically the image of Jesus and reworked its symbolism to depict Jewish suffering and Zionism as the mode of Jewish redemption. The exhibit documents this in works by Reuven Rubin, among many others. More recently, Israeli artists have used this imagery to critique Israeli society. Igael Tamarkin used the cross and wounds of Christ to depict the wounds inflicted inside Israel on the Bedouins, for example. More recently, the imagery has been used as a critique of Israeli militarism, triumphalist Zionism, and the suffering foisted on the Palestinians.

Set inside the Israel Museum this Christmas, the exhibit is transgressive. Like Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, it forces self-reflection because it shows how the image of Jesus, once an icon who legitimated Jewish suffering as a result of triumphalist Christianity, could be repurposed by Jews to elicit empathy for Jews and other Others.

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Act III: The following day, I trekked to Bethlehem to join a colleague, Nina Fischer, for a tour. I was closing in on the historical Jesus. Obviously, today Bethlehem is no longer a Jewish city, but primarily Christian (40%), Arab, and Muslim. When I told an Israeli friend where I was headed, I was informed that it is no longer permitted for Israelis to enter the territories that are under Palestinian legal jurisdiction. But I was armed with my American passport.

Taking a bus from outside the Damascus gate, we drove the thirty minutes through heavy traffic with blaring horns as a soundtrack, protected by the driver’s Barcelona F.C. soccer icons as fetishes. At points, he carved out a second lane along the sidewalk to help us reach our destination. We passed through the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, where there is building everywhere as Palestinians seek to transform the landscape into an ordinary city, just as Israelis do on the other side of the wall.

Bethlehem, with double Beit Jala’s population, was bustling. One of my first sights was a memorial decorated with photographs of Palestinian heroes put into detention or prison by Israelis, featuring Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and Marwin Bargouti: the past, present, and potential future of Fatah. As we navigated the densely populated streets, vendors ushered us into their stalls and stores and complained about how few tourists were making their way to the city even though it was only days before Christmas. This complaint was no different from the storeowners in Jerusalem.

The square that houses the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born – and in this sense ground zero of Christianity – was much less packed than many of the streets of the city. The square is overlooked by a large mosque and fittingly bounded by the Bethlehem Peace Center. Outside the historic church, located in one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, one finds the same kitsch nativity scene everywhere available in the Christian world.

But to enter the Church of the Nativity is to be transported into an ancient world. Scaffolding covers much of the church now, as there is a recent restoration effort afoot. Beyond it, there is stunning beauty, like the newly discovered mosaics two feet below the current floor. The iconography of the Church is primarily Christian Orthodox. It is softly smoothed at points by the touch of millions and millions of seekers over millennia. Stepping down into the location of the manger, one finds only a hole in the ground marking the mythic space, plated by a silver star and lit by lamps whose flames illuminate the darkness. On this visit, it embodied the nothingness – the space of human freedom – Sartre maintained was the core of the human condition.

After lunch at Afteem’s, a well-known locale established by refugees from Jaffa in 1948, we made our way to the section of the Israeli West Back separation wall made famous by guerilla graffiti artist Banksy. He first made news here with a massive cartoon inked onto the wall titled, “Santa’s Village,” which was a depiction of a Christmas tree, like the giant one outside of the YMCA and the Church of the Nativity, enclosed by a cement barrier. Other images, one after the other, most powerfully for me the insurgent tossing a bouquet of flowers, all convey the same message: Israeli occupation is oppressive and demands insurrection, which appears as the only way to overcome it. The scrawl across the wall everywhere conveys this same point, sometimes eloquently, sometimes crassly.

While I had seen the wall from many viewpoints, walking beneath its watchtowers and cameras here was haunting. The resonances with the most famous of walls – the Berlin Wall – were evident. This wall is the residue of a Cold War tactic. Like the Cold War, it is about bifurcating the world into us and them and grounding it in a binary logic. The logic of the separation barrier is to incorporate as much land into Israel while locking out as many Palestinians as possible. But the result is that it recklessly bisects villages, families, and farms even as it protects the ever-expanding Israeli settlement building condemned by the U.N. Security Council on the same day as my visit to Bethlehem.

As the sun set, I bid Nina goodbye at the checkpoint that I was forced to cross back into Israel. It was nearly empty going in that direction. But I could imagine what it was like as thousands crossed to work in the morning. Now they were returning with weary faces, wearing work boots from their jobs building Israel, coming home for supper. The checkpoint reminds one of a cattle cage. It is stifling. But crossing these crowds returning from Israel back into Palestine also makes one wonder how the wall itself works as a protection barrier, since tens of thousands cross into Israel daily from the territories. Surely then the wall is as much about locking people out as locking them in, surely as much about a physical display of power, as it is about psychologically locking away their useless suffering from view.

It was a short walk for me. But one can only imagine the daily inconveniences, hassles, and humiliations this imposes. You can get a good visual sense, albeit obviously extreme, from episode 8 of the new must-watch Israeli series, Fauda, now available on Netflix, where one of the central characters is forced to strip when she desperately heads to visit her daughter in Hadassa Hospital when she is injured. Behold these men and women, I had been reminded the day before by Israeli artists.

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This triptych from my visit to Israel/Palestine was an odd pilgrimage for a nice Jewish boy. But its theme was appropriate for the season when Christmas began the same night as Hannukah. Donald Trump’s repeated incantations of “Merry Christmas” in his celebratory stops across the country, coupled with promises to fight the war against Christmas, is the Christian analog to his compulsory patriotism and his call to make America great again. Compulsory Christianity is medieval. It was the bedrock of the persecuting society.

Trump’s Christianity is Constantinian, muscular, imperialist Christianity. It invokes a Jesus in whose name Jews were persecuted for centuries. The trail I followed in the Holy Land was walked by the Jesus who responded to the suffering of those marginalized by power and who feels this suffering still in His mystical body. This is the Jesus who is at once most Jewish and most Christian and most Islamic and most universal.

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