The attitude of Judaism toward Christ was that of reservation and hatred. He wasn’t even referred to by his name but rather as ‘that man’, and the crucifixion and the birth of Christianity were seen as a source of endless persecutions. But the creation of Zionism generated a new attitude toward Christianity (previously discussed in this blog). The formation of the ‘new Jew’ generated a novel approach: no longer a perspective of a persecuted minority but rather a new modern secular point of view. Some Israeli writers adopted a positive viewpoint towards Christ or stressed the importance of Christian motifs in Israeli culture.
However, Amos Oz’s Judas provides an altogether difference perspective of Christianity. He examines the story of the crucifixion from the point of view of Judas Iscariot, the man believed to have extradited Jesus for money, leading to his death. It is a rich and complex novel with breathtaking descriptions, linking the interpretations of Judas to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the years following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Shmuel Ash, a young, sensitive man who is slightly confused, drops out of college and gives up on his research on Judas Iscariot. He is hired to keep Gershom Wald company; Wald is an old, sick man who needs to constantly argue about something. As Wald learns about Shmuel’s research, he delves into an extensive analysis of Jesus and Judas. Atalia, a beautiful and mysterious woman, is living with Wald, and Shmuel falls in love with her. The reader finds out that she used to be married to Micha, Wald’s only son, who was brutally killed in the War of Independence. Atalia’s father, Shealtiel Abravanel, is part of a small group of Jews living in Israel who have rejected the idea of a sovereign Jewish state, looking for alternative solutions. Ben Gurion, he thinks, was messianic, and his insistence on establishing a state led to nothing but disaster. Abravnel forms a deep friendship with local Arabs and is seen by the Jewish majority as a traitor, an ‘Arab lover’. But after Micha’s death, he remains at home with Atalia and Wald until his death.
The explicit question of the story is: What is betrayal? Oz provides various answers. Judas wasn’t a traitor but rather Christ’s most ardent believer. Though initially hired to spy on Jesus, he turned into a fierce believer who naively thought that Christ would resurrect while on the cross. When this didn’t take place, he sank into despair and committed suicide. Judas, who some Christians see as the prototype of a Jew, was mistakenly seen as disloyal. Oz is not the first to argue that Judas was wrongly accused of treason. The perception that he was part of a divine plan has existed from the early centuries to modern times.
In an Israeli context, Abravanel is the traitor: After all, whoever dares to think differently, to cast doubt on popular stance, is often seen as disloyal. This is true especially when human sacrifices are needed for the survival of the group.
But the deeper topic of the novel is Jewish self-perception: How do Jews deal with the years-old concept that they are traitors? On an explicit level, Jesus and Judas are seen from Israeli eyes; on a hidden level, we see Jews examining themselves in light of the Christian faith. Wald and Ash, both Israeli, one old and the other young, address the notion that being Jewish is being treacherous, betraying one’s belief for money. Throughout the novel, they refer not only to Judas but also to being ‘Jewish’—an adjective referring to the entire group of which they are a part.
Shmuel, the younger of the two, provides a universal argument for dealing with the stereotype: People who are different are often seen as traitors. “‘Anyone willing to change’, said Shmuel, ‘will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death by change and don’t understand it and loath change. Shealtiel Abravanel had a beautiful dream, and because of his dream some people called him a traitor’”. Judas didn’t betray but instead was transformed. He turned from a spy to a believer who led Christ to the crucifixion. Shmuel expresses a common belief—somewhat naïve, in my view—that reservation from anyone different, strange or unfamiliar is a source of antisemitism. In an Israeli context, it makes the general public perceive people with unique views as traitors.
Unlike Shmuel, Wald sees the stereotype of a treacherous Jew in the context of the Christian world, both in the past and today. “Millions of simple Christians think that every single Jew is infected with the virus of treachery”, he says, telling Shmuel about an incident that occurred 50 years ago in Vilna: He was reading a Hebrew newspaper on the bus. A nun sitting next to him approached him with tears in her eyes: “But he was so, so sweet, how could you have done that to Him? I made a supreme effort not to respond that at the moment of the crucifixion I happened to have a dental appointment”. In Wald’s mind, the pervasive hostile attitude towards the ‘treacherous’ Jews is as vital today as it was years ago.
The Israelis, Oz argues, carry the stigma of being Jewish traitors, just as Jews did prior to Zionism. In this respect, no fundamental difference exists between the ‘new Jew’ and the Jew of the diaspora: Both feel the need to refute a guilt derived from simply being Jewish.
But still: now, unlike in former generations, Israelis dare raise the issue of coping with this negative stereotype. Their explanations may not be entirely convincing, but I find it hard to imagine a novel like that written decades ago, not even by Amos Oz.