Abraham's Knife: The Mythology of the Deicide in Antisemitism

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Introduction to Abraham's Knife

Vienna, City of My Nightmares

This book began in Vienna, although I didn’t know it at the time. In the summer of 1966 my husband rescued me from the incessant demands of a house, a toddler and a new baby to take me along to a biophysics congress in Vienna. While he talked science with his colleagues I was free to roam about Vienna’s streets, sit in cafes and explore museums. The museums of Vienna were numerous and fascinating and I rated them in excellence on a level with the opera, the coffee and the pastries.

Nevertheless, despite these amenities, and the sudden, blessed freedom from diapers and crying babies, I was not at ease in Vienna. I was fairly ignorant but not ignorant enough to enjoy my bliss. I knew Vienna had once had a large Jewish population which had been not only large, but also extraordinarily creative, productive and important in the economic and cultural life of the city. I saw no signs of sorrow or regret over the almost total disappearance of this population. I use the word disappearance purposively because as far as the Viennese were concerned, the Jews seemed to have vanished from the life of their city abruptly and somewhat magically, as at the wave of a conjurer’s wand or in the shifting of the scenery, between one act and another of a theatrical drama. It seemed rude and inappropriate to suggest that some very energetic human intervention had been needed to arrive at Vienna’s practically Judenrein condition.

And yet I knew that there had been such energetic human intervention, that Nazism had flourished in Austria and that at least a good fraction of the Viennese had played a far from passive role in the process of divorcing Vienna from its Jews.

I walked about Vienna feeling like a very small fly who had somehow slipped into an immaculate and well-screened house. Just because the fly- swatter was not evident did not mean that it could not be brought into play at a moment’s notice, and in my illicit peregrinations about the city, I kept alert. No wonder Theodore Herzl had decided on the necessity of a Jewish state, I thought. He had lived in this city.

One morning, in a small art museum, I found myself facing a large painting by Hieronymus Bosch. It was a vivid, detailed and graphic depiction of hell and all the multifarious possibilities it offered for the torment of human bodies and souls. Although Bosch had painted this canvas in the 16th century, I was convinced he was bearing witness to the reality of Auschwitz more truly than any other work of art I had ever encountered. He gave me something to think about later as I sat in Demels eating my Sachertorte with whipped cream.

Here in Demels I had escaped from a nightmare. The dark chocolate cake, heavy and rich; the smooth refinement of the coffee cup and saucer; the polite, restrained chatter of the customers reduced the unbearable reality of the Bosch to a mere shadow and echo of itself. Still, I continued to see obscene images reflected from the sugar bowl and the cream pitcher. Some nightmares are tenacious.

Another day I entered another nightmare. Or was it another one? Perhaps it was one continuous nightmare whose episodes only seemed discrete. In a museum of Austrian folk art I saw Jesus hanging in bleeding agony on cross after cross after cross. This was not the gentle, saccharine Galilean shepherd whose image I had seen in many books and churches but a writhing, twisted, almost demonic figure who might have come straight out of Bosch’s hell. The workmanship was cruder but the emotion behind it was akin. And there were other bloody pictures too, pictures of saints suffering the many gruesome varieties of martyrdom. Having expected a cozy, cheerful, gemütlichkeit kind of folk art, I was stunned. Besides all the fat roses and curlicues, there was this too, the demon-god being tortured on the cross.

And this image must have been in the heart of the Austrian peasant when he heard the word “Jew” or looked at the face of one. All this inchoate emotion and obsession with blood coming to focus on the person of a real, live Jew. I began to think that it was not remarkable that antisemitism had flourished in Austria but rather that Austrians had been able to bear the presence of Jews amongst themselves to any extent.

But why were we Jews associated in the Christian mind with so much blood and terror? What had they to fear from us? Could it be that the mythology of the Gospels, their claim that the Jews were behind the crucifixion of Jesus, and that they were a deicide people, was still so powerful nearly two thousand years after the supposed event? An incredible thought for one brought up in proximity to polite Christian circles where Christ-killing had never seemed to be the issue, only some sort of ill-defined social repulsiveness of the Jews to the extent that they remained unassimilated and different from their Christian neighbors.

I returned home to Boston and babies, the tortured figure on the cross fading as do all nightmares in the morning light, and forgot what I had learned. Or rather pushed it into that far reach of the mind where all uncomfortable notions fester, neglected and unresolved.

A number of years later I was rummaging haphazardly through the Jewish history stacks of Widener Library at Harvard when I came upon the diaries of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a former official in the British colonial administration of Palestine and a friend of Haim Weizmann. The diaries went home with me to satisfy my burgeoning Zionist curiosity about what it was like there in the early days. There I was, reading innocently, about politics and personalities in twentieth century Jerusalem, London, etc. when I came upon the following entry for the 14th of April, 1919:

Weizmann tells me that when he met Clemenceau with a view to enlisting his sympathy with the National Home, that he found him unsympathetic and remarked, “We Christians can never forgive the Jews for crucifying Christ,” to which Weizmann remarked, “Monsieur Clemenceau, you know perfectly well that if Jesus of Nazareth were to apply for a visa to enter France, it would be refused on the grounds that he was a political agitator.”

As in Vienna, I was amazed. Once again something ancient and ugly was thrusting itself forth in a presumably modern, civilized milieu. That Clemenceau said these words was particularly shocking because during the Dreyfus affair which had split France into two contentious and vehement camps for years, Clemenceau had stood with the pro-Dreyfus party, stood for reason and justice against the reactionary forces embodied in the Army, the Church, and the antisemitic movement. Clemenceau was the last man I would have expected to throw the epithet “Christkiller” at Weizmann, even in a polished manner.

I retorted, “Nonsense, Monsieur Clemenceau. Nonsense.” Clemenceau remained standing there, dignified and cool, an elder statesman with an ancient irrational agenda, confronting Weizmann and me. “What if he means it?” I thought. “What if I took him at his word? What then? I would have to begin afresh, look at everything anew, revise my world view. Jews, Christians- it would all be turned inside out. I might even have to write a book.”

Weizmann smiled his man of the world, eminent professor smile and replied, “Monsieur Clemenceau, you know perfectly well, that if Jesus of Nazareth....” Answering him rationally, on the historical plane, as Jews always want to answer these accusations. Weizmann’s reply was graceful and clever but Clemenceau was unsmiling, aloof and unforgiving.

Perhaps he means it, I thought. Perhaps they all do.

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© Copyright Judith Civan 2005

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