Opinion |

Jesus and the Israeli Right

The German myth of a resolute nation, uncorrupted by liberal Western culture, is devoutly preserved today by settlers in the West Bank hills.

זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell
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"Untitled," by Adi Ness, 1999.
"Untitled" by Adi Ness, 1999.
זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell

One of the fundamental problems of contemporary Israeli politics stems from the far right’s deep conviction of the justness of its cause. The religious messianic belief that characterizes most of its people – and the certainty that all of human history is directed by God to return the people of Israel to its Holy Land – is translated into effective political involvement in which the militant minority succeeded in taking control of a limp majority.

The success of the Education Ministry, which the right-wing has mostly controlled since 1977, to raise generations of ignorant people – who know nothing of general history, and even study Judaism from a narrow perspective that cultivates nationalistic fervor – ensures the perpetuation of this phenomenon.

Two cultural events that took place in Jerusalem recently had acute political significance. One was the exhibition “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art” at the Israel Museum; the other was a conference on “500 Years of Reformation: Jews and Protestants – Judaism and Protestantism” at the Leo Baeck Institute.

They exposed the roots from which the religious right stem, and opened a window to different thinking on Judaism in the modern era and of an alternative to insular religion purged of universal values.

The exhibition highlights the problems of Israeli society’s seclusion and the Jewish heritage of anxiety, which helps politicians inflame spirits and raise the walls ever higher.

A landmark in the study of Israeli art, the exhibition uncovers an issue that hasn’t received appropriate attention: the attitude to Jesus in Israeli and Jewish art from the 19th century onward. Jews feared the image of a man who symbolized the pogroms and suffering of those who lived under the cross’ threatening shadow. This response created the silencing screen that curator Amitai Mendelsohn wishes to breach.

In the catalog, which is based on comprehensive research, Mendelsohn points to both Jesus’ image and the physical and spiritual significance attributed to it over the years. It’s only natural that Jewish artists who grew up in Western culture couldn’t ignore the weight of the religious symbols – which left a heavy mark on art, even in the modern age.

But Mendelsohn’s analysis of artworks from the 1870s to the present day raises a fascinating artistic discussion and clarifies political insights, which ultimately determined the Jewish nation’s fate and still influence it to this day.

The Enlightenment era brought about a revolution in the attitude to Jesus in Christian and Jewish cultures. In the 19th century, he turned from a symbol to a historical figure, the subject of academic studies, and the issue of his Jewishness came to the surface. The Jewish Enlightenment movement (mainly the one that developed in Germany) sought to return Jesus to Judaism, with the intention of building a bridge to the Christian world and, as Mendelsohn says in the catalog, create an entry ticket for Jews into the family of nations.

From the second half of the century, Jesus started to appear in Jewish art as a man of morality who identifies with the weak and rejected, and then – with the rising spirit of nationalism – as a representative of the Jewish people’s collective suffering. In the 20th century, but mainly in its second half, he was adapted to the Zeitgeist and became a symbol of an antiestablishment individualist, embodying the suffering of modern man.

These observations, along with others that arise from the exhibition, will even interest those who aren’t art lovers. Jesus and Christianity in general are almost entirely excluded from the public discourse in Israel, remaining only in academic or artistic realms, because of the problematic link between religion and nationality in Jewish history, and between religion and state in Israel.

Jesus’ “conversion” was never accepted by the rabbinical establishment and – as evidenced even today – that taboo has not been removed. Through historical perspective, it transpires that “the religion of reason,” with the moral, universal attributes – which was intended to distinguish between the sacred and secular and between religion and state, and which German intellectuals like Moses Mendelsohn, Abraham Geiger and their followers wanted to establish – remained a footnote in Israel.

But unlike the fervent belief of the Israeli religious right, this historic development is not related to the finger of God. At the conference at the Leo Baeck Institute (one of the remaining pearls in Jerusalem’s intellectual crown), one could learn about the Lutheran revolution’s effect on Jewish history. The nationalistic and messianic seeds that were buried in Protestant theology had an influence on the rise of modern nationalism, and partly on Zionism too.

The conference provided the context for the birth of the Hasidic movement, whose mystical characteristics are taking control of religious thought and the political right here. Especially relevant was Dr. Ofri Ilany’s lecture on the German intellectuals who embraced the Bible at the end of the 18th century, and not always for a purely scientific purpose. For them, biblical Judaism symbolized an authentic primeval nation, which was portrayed as a contrast to the classic universal model that was customary in the dominant French culture.

The gung-ho Israelite tribes who, thanks to a divine promise, managed to destroy another nation and conquer its land, were seen as a model for the revival of German nationalism. As we know, this ideal was realized in Germany in the 20th century: behind the efficient modern technology hid the iron cross.

But the lesson hasn’t been learned. The German myth of a resolute nation close to God and nature, which preserves the strength of youth and hasn’t been “corrupted” by liberal Western culture, is today devoutly preserved by the settlers in the West Bank hills. Here they despise Moses Mendelsohn, but are unaware of the Protestant theological infrastructure at the root of their worldview.

The danger intensifies when theology becomes a political ideology and when a growing sense of divine mission, which overcomes universal norms, overflows to the Knesset and the army, too.

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