The Easter holiday has never been particularly good news for Jews.
For much of the history of Christianity, Jews were seen as responsible for the event Good Friday commemorates, so it’s no surprise that this day stirred up some violence against Jews in the past. Some of the worst pogroms took place during Christian Holy Week.
The Catholic Church issued Nostra Aetate — an official declaration that living Jews cannot be blamed for the death of Jesus — in 1965, and while there haven’t been Easter pogroms in Europe for decades, some disturbing practices persist.
One of the more unsettling traditions is the “burning of Judas”: an effigy dressed as Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, is beaten and burned by an enthusiastic crowd. In theory, the dummy is meant to symbolize the historical figure of Judas, not a living Jew, but… well, it’s pretty easy to see how things might get out of hand.
You might have heard about the burning of Judas that took place in the Polish town of Pruchnik this past Sunday.
The crowd beat and burned an effigy of Judas sporting typical ultra-Orthodox garb and sidecurls. To Poland’s credit, the Polish church as well as authorities in the government firmly condemned the incident.
More curious, though — and unreported in the Jewish media — was the depiction of Judas that was shot and burned in Coripe, a village in Seville.
— Ángel López Hernanz (@angelopezh) April 21, 2019
This figure depicts the former president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont.
Why did these Spaniards choose to dress their Judas as the former president of Catalonia?
Puigdemont is not Jewish; he is Catalan, and as the president who attempted to declare independence from Spain in October 2017, he has become a symbol of Catalonia’s secession movement. Many Spaniards who oppose the independence movement hate him and everything he stands for. They see him as a traitor — a Judas, if you will — for his lack of loyalty to Spain, and a criminal for organizing an illegal referendum. It appears that in Coripe, they have a tradition of dressing up their Judas as a person who has “harmed Spain” in the past year.
But I believe there’s more to this year’s choice of effigy than a vulgar expression of political sentiment.
The idea that Spain’s treatment of Catalans parallels its treatment of Jews is not a new one. According to historian, essayist, and translator Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, the connection between these two forms of hatred has been explored since the 1980s by intellectuals and historians such as Javier G. Pulido and Paul Preston. In an interview with Eurozine, Gabrijelčič wrote: “Catalonia was one of the first industrial regions in continental Europe, while the rest of Spain lagged behind in economic development. As a result, Catalans became the object of prejudices linked to the negative aspects of modernization: they are [portrayed as] stingy, calculating, hypocritical, under the pretext of universal ideas–democracy, self-determination, federalism–and protect their own interests at the expense of the general interests of the nation. At the same time, they are accused of particularism and smug cosmopolitanism, aggressiveness and effeminacy, exploitation and phony victimhood. These are all well-known elements in the history of antisemitism.”
Indeed, the first Google Search autocomplete result for “Catalans are…” in Spanish reflects this connection:
For centuries, Spanish Christians attacked Jews in effigy because there were no living Jews left to murder. After the calamitous expulsion in 1492, Jews were forbidden to settle in Spain all the way until the late 19th century; and yet, up until the 1970s, there was a still custom to throw stones at the old Jewish quarter in certain villages in Spain. The region of León, in northern Spain, has a tradition that they still call “matar judíos” (literally “killing Jews”); these days it merely refers to drinking spiked lemonade during Holy Week, but one can imagine where it got its name. Residents of León were probably casually inviting each other out to “kill Jews” just last week.
And what do you think happens when Jews return to the place where they’ve been burned, killed, mocked, and tortured in effigy through all those centuries?
I’ve heard it said that the Catalans are the “Jews” of Spain; I protest that Spain did an excellent job of persecuting its actual Jews, but I can’t help but reflect on that parallel as I watch this particular Judas-burning ceremony. It doesn’t surprise me that they chose Puigdemont as their Judas this year. In November of 2017, graffiti scrawled on a wall in Nou Barris, Barcelona accused him of being a “traitor” and a “Jew.” The former president receives death threats on a regular basis–but he has never expressed himself violently or hatefully towards his political rivals. There was a video going around last year where a Spaniard walked up to him with a Spanish flag and dared him to kiss it. Puigdemont smiled graciously, kissed it without hesitation–multiple times–and said, “I have no problem with Spain.” This is not a man who deserves to see a video of his likeness being strung up, shot, and burned as the embodiment of betrayal.
That the residents of the village of Coripe felt a need to do this is not just sickening; it is telling, and damning.
There’s nothing wrong with re-enacting a historical event, especially in the context of religious ritual. The problem is when the character of Judas and the betrayal that he represents are conflated with real, living people, and the spirit of vengeance is then directed toward those people; when what is meant to be a spiritually edifying experience is leveraged to demonize political enemies or other human beings who may suffer real consequences as a result.