Saturday, February 24

On the same page with Nazism: the campaign to deny the Jewish Jesus

Few of us thought activist Shaneel Lal could’ve possibly sat out the latest tragic chapter in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Predictably, Lal has shown no intention whatsoever of being constructive, rather leaning heavily into antisemitic tropes on their Instagram page since the Oct 7th pogrom. Their latest stunt demands special attention however: the denial of the Jewish identity of Jesus – yes, that old chestnut – a clear indication Lal has anything but peaceful solutions and the security of the Jewish community, in mind.

What Lal likely doesn’t know are the origins of this trope and some of the putrid regimes and organisations that have promoted it. But Lal is frequently close in complexion to the far-Right he often claims to rail against.

The Third Reich’s war against Jews went so far as to the transmogrifying of the narrative of Jesus Christ into anti-Semitic propaganda. An organisation, the “Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life” was set up in 1939 (and ran until 1945) seeking to inoculate German Christianity against the perceived contagion of Jewish influence, which they believed – or at least promoted – had insidiously seeped into Occidental culture over the centuries.

One of its directors, George Bertram, then professor of New Testament at the University of Giessen, encapsulated their mission as the “study and elimination of the Jewish influence” from biblical texts, but also the construction of a “pious German existence predicated on the eradication of this influence”. As eloquently elucidated by American scholar (and daughter of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) Susannah Heschel in her seminal work, “The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany,” the Nazi plan was to strip Jesus of his Jewishness and transform him into the world’s most conspicuous anti-Semite.

Situated in the Thuringian town of Eisenach, the institute operated in consort with eleven German Protestant churches which fervently sought to reconfigure German Protestantism under the malevolent tenets of Nazism. Its guiding force, theologian Walter Grundmann, wittingly joined hands with the Nazi regime and, later, the odious East German Democratic Republic (GDR), serving as an informant for the notorious state security apparatus, the Stasi.

For this new anti-Jewish Jesus, the institute weaved a bizarre narrative that rendered him a follower of an Indian faith in stark opposition to Judaism. In their surreal reinterpretation, they depicted Galilee, the heartland of Jesus’ ministry, as teeming with Assyrians, Iranians, or Indians who had been forcibly converted to Judaism. Out of this mendacious soup, Jesus emerged as a clandestine Aryan figure, relentlessly opposed, and ultimately martyred by the Jews.

Unsurprisingly this required the Old Testament to be completely purged, and the Christian Gospels thoroughly revised, with a fabricated genealogy for Jesus added that denied any Jewish heritage. Jewish names and locales were expunged, and any references to the Old Testament were manipulated to cast Jews in a negative light. In this perverse retelling, Jesus was recast as a martial Aryan hero, a warrior who combated the Jews, his words closely echoing Nazi ideology.

America’s Ku Klux Klan also felt the need to address the Jewish problem in their Christian faith, by saying Jesus was descended from Adam and was therefore part of the white, Aryan race.

A central irony of the far-Right – both today and yesterday – is that despite their assertions that Jews are a central part of some great replacement, both Christianity and Islam, literally replacement theologies, sought to replace Jews with their new respective faiths. This trope has proved extremely durable and is echoed in Hard-Left assertions that Jews are orchestrating genocide in Palestine – a claim that long pre-dated the current campaign in Gaza. Lal, by parading around placards claiming Jesus was not a Jew but a Palestinian despite the region being renamed Palestine over 100 years after Jesus’ death, cannot be doing so for anything other than antisemitic reasons: If we’re quick to label the cranks who bizarrely claim New Zealand was first settled by redheaded celts anti-Māori, surely Lal must be held to this same standard.  

Because it is not clear for what other reason Lal would promote such a demonstrably false message. Can we be convinced it’s an honest mistake? That he is well-meaning but sadly historically illiterate? Lal is a law student, so we must assume has a degree of intellect, and is a child of the internet, who can readily access information at any time. And it is not like the history of Jews, the historic Jesus, and Roman colonisation are some obscure fields, their details all but lost to time. So, why – instead of talking about his preferred solutions to the conflict, or the question of proportionality, or anything else – Lal would choose to reheat and promote tropes developed by the most reactionary incarnations of the Protestant church, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Third Reich to their followers?

Lal is a law student. But, of course, George Bertram was a professor….

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