Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Wandering Jew

Phil Burpee
Phil Burpee - Given the troublesome nature of the times, and especially the volatile relationship between and among the three great houses of the Sons of Abraham, the Christians, Moslems and Jews, it is well perhaps to hearken back to certain foundational motifs which still arguably motivate a great deal of what passes for geopolitics these days. Because it tends to be the foundational race motifs that noxiously bubble up when populism and jingoistic noise come to replace discourse and reasoned debate. This is understandable and not surprising, but it is no less dangerous for that exactly because these enduring and vindictive themes have been the source of crusade, pogrom, inquisition, annihilation, banishment and war for many centuries, and they have lost none of their volatility today. Consider the following.

     It is said that on the first Good Friday, after Pilate had washed his hands of the troublesome Nazarene and given him over to the Jews for due punishment according to their laws and not Rome’s, and released instead the thief Barabbas, that Jesus was scourged and made to shoulder his own cross for crucifixion through the streets of Jerusalem to the place called Golgotha – the Place of Skulls. On his way he stopped briefly outside the door of a shoemaker, one Ahasverus, and asked of the cobbler that he might rest a moment in his doorway on his weary way. The shoemaker scoffed and spurned him, saying, “Move along you charlatan, you troublemaker – you’ll get no rest here.” - and smote him sharply upon the back. And Jesus, it is said, turned his doleful gaze upon the shoemaker and said to him – “Oh, fellow – I will have my rest, but you will have none till I return in glory.” And so he moved along, and the shoemaker felt compelled then to follow and witness the torment of Christ. And so it came to pass that Ahasverus was indeed not to die, but was rather condemned to wander from land to land, year after year, century after century, finding no rest, no hearth and no peace. Indeed there are many apocryphal reports of encounters with the shoemaker down through the centuries wandering Europe and the Holy Land, ever gaunt and restless, seeking a death he might not have. And so the Wandering Jew entered the subconscious foundations of the Christian world, and the curse was solidly affixed.

     Well, it’s a funny thing about curses – we humans love them. The whole thing of a self-fulfilling and self-generating sentence being laid upon somebody we’ve got it in for is very appealing, especially if the times call for some suitable scapegoat. Once somebody is cursed it becomes a ready rationale for any bad thing that might befall that person or group. Plus the lifting of a curse typically involves some invocation of a deity, pagan or scriptural, and as such any sense of responsibility on the part of the human players is comfortably avoided. It is sobering to reflect that an official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church ascribed race guilt for the death of Jesus Christ to the entire Jewish people right up to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 – which is to say that the purported conduct of the Pharisees and the braying mobs before Pilate in the condemnation and killing of Jesus two thousand years ago had been officially attached to all Jews - man, woman and child, living or dead - ever thereafter. Consider that this was a doctrinal tenet, as well as a deep folk belief, during the rise and assumption of power by the Nazis in 1930s Germany – a heretofore deeply pious and Christian state. See then how the accursed become somehow less than fully human and so likewise deserving of any ill fate that might fall upon them. These are highly, highly incendiary ideas. And they are by no means extinguished – perhaps quite the opposite.

     Cut to the present day.

     Islam had not really fizzed much on either the civilizational infrastructure or the general consciousness of the Western world, or what used to be rather quaintly called Christendom, since the forces of al Saladin were turned back at the gates of Jerusalem by the crusaders under Richard the Lionheart and various other monarchs duly drafted by God to uphold the ‘true faith’. Once the Moslem armies had been halted and the Knights Templar set up to secure the Holy Land and guard the eastern approaches to Europe, we came to content ourselves with the knowledge that the followers of the Prophet were harmlessly roiling away over there in the desert sands far from our concerns, except for a several-century foray into Spain which was finally repelled by Catalonian Christian princes and generals who later went on to subdue and ravage the Americas from California to Tierra del Fuego. Until the advent of the internal combustion engine, that is. And suddenly we were neck-deep right back in it, redeploying military forces to secure the black gold oozing from out of the very sands which had yielded Jehovah/Jaweh/Allah and all the various bearded patriarchs. And lo, the infidel had returned to affront the faithful and the pious. And so, inshallah, he would be made to pay.

     2001 WHAM! BAM! The Twin Towers fall.

     2003 Saddam Hussein falls.

     2007-2016 Theo van Gogh slain. Charlie Hebdo attacked. ISIS rises. Syria implodes. A million refugees enter Europe fleeing war. Borders which had been secured between ‘us’ and ‘them’ since the Crusades suddenly rupture, and then are sequentially and firmly re-secured. A pregnant moment hangs in the cultural discourse of a civilization – then the hue and cry comes full-throated. A new threat is amongst us. To the barricades!

     2017 Donald Trump is inaugurated. Marine Le Pen is elected (speculative). Nationalist reactionary parties are poised for electoral successes from Sweden to Germany to Holland to Hungary. The white Christian races are imperilled. Voices of righteousness and warning are raised. The Moslem intruder is caught floodlit against the wall of separateness, clustered in his ghettoes and planning the subversion of the status quo. It is time to rise and reclaim the birthright.

     But wait – there is something familiar in all this. Something redolent of past excitations. Some familiar, spectral figure is missing here – another footloose agent of depravity and culpability. Oh – it is the Jew. How quiet things have suddenly got. It almost seems like the heat is off. Maybe it’s even weirdly refreshing for a change – the usual caustic venom is being injected elsewhere into the body both politic and cultural. Has he been forgotten? – forgiven maybe even? Hmmm…. I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. The only place the Jew has been moved to is the back burner. Let there be no doubt that the forces currently winding up to some form of fury in both North America and Europe are the very same ones that motivate, at root, the skinhead squadrons patrolling the streets of Moscow and the marble-mouthed apologists for anti-Semitic innuendo in the pronouncements of such folk as Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders and Frauke Petry and Steve Bannon. Yet there is a different structural play going on here. And it brings us back to Ahasverus, the shoemaker – he who is condemned to wander till the Day of Judgment.

     The threat implied by the Moslem is the threat of the horde, ready to sweep all before it – ancient and not-so-ancient memories and panics of Attila and Genghis Khan and the Red Scare and the Yellow Peril and rats and plague and creeping madness, etc., etc. And indeed there are over a billion and a half followers of Islam and they are just over there across the Bosporus – looming, in the popular mind, ready to overrun the homelands. This is not the case with the Jewish folk, whose numbers are historically small, and whose threat has been rendered insidious rather than overwhelming. It is the lurking Jew you cannot see who is the whispered worry – waiting to snatch your baby and extract its blood, infesting your banking houses, carrying in his heart the stain of deicide, still refusing to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Messiah, craving after diamonds and filthy lucre, ever argumentative and contesting the will of God, conniving, obsequious, shirking. This is the half-hidden threat to the integrity and wellbeing of our civilization – cursed by the church, shunned and feared by the peasant, accused as responsible for any and all passing socio-economic ills of the day. Indeed, if such a bogeyman had not existed so embodied for the last thousand years and more, it would have been necessary to make one up.

     There is, though, another element to the parable of the Wandering Jew. For it is generally agreed by those who pay attention to such themes, and any cursory scan of the internet will so confirm, that in fact it is not just the shoemaker who is condemned to wander till Christ’s return in fire and glory, but rather it is the entirety of the Jewish people who must pay for their ancestors’ purported persecution of the Messiah with an indemnity of unwelcome and unsettlement. And how quickly we are reminded of this. How surprised ought we be to hear of a rash of anti-Semitic vitriol and vandalizing of synagogues and graveyards in the U.S. of late? How shall it be that the targeting of one group of unwelcome followers of the Book, our Moslem sisters and brothers, by none other than the President of the United States shall not result in an outbreak of the more deep-set and predictable bile traditionally spewed forth in consideration of the Jews? For this is the abiding ancient germ of condemnation – strip it all away and it remains as it was and ever shall be. The Jew must pay for his treason before God.

     History tells us many things, however often they are ignored. Yet we know all too well just what happens when the banshees of accusation and targeting are loosed upon the Jewish people. Islam, by way of contrast, is monumental and able, in the populist perception, to overwhelm by sheer weight of numbers. It is also alien in having sprouted late from out of the Abrahamic tradition, yet coalesced into such a remarkable and unnerving ethos – supplicative, intransigent, teetotal, lethally condemning of apostasy, unapologetically patriarchal, profoundly disinterested in the separation of god and state, mercy a discretionary offering. Awkwardly, however, Jesus was a Jew. And this terrible irony continues to ignite a deep socio-spiritual neurosis within the murky crevasses of western civilization. We are all, within the faith tradition of our civilization, Semitic peoples. And so anti-Semitism can only be properly assessed as a form of self-loathing and incipient fratricide. For surely, what greater hatred is felt than that towards a treacherous brother? Cain and Abel live on. What a mess.

     Anti-Semitism is our default social pathology. That won’t change anytime soon, especially as we continue to cling to cultural and metaphysical precepts established amongst fractious Bronze Age tribes of the eastern Mediterranean and thereafter set into scriptural traditions deemed transliterative of the very word of God. It was thought that perhaps establishing the state of Israel in 1948 as a homeland for the Jews, carved out of Palestine, might provide an answer of sorts. Perhaps the remaining Jews who had survived the Holocaust might all go home now, just as was hoped for the emancipated blacks of the United States with the establishment of Liberia in West Africa. Maybe the ‘problem’ could just be shipped overseas. History indicates that this is not so easily done. Expulsion is expulsion by any other name. And besides, Israel itself figures prominently in the mindset of literalist Christians, especially in the U.S., for it is the intended site of Armageddon, the End of Times, the Second Coming of Christ with flaming sword to herald Judgment Day and the final immolation of those remaining Jews who refuse still to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Those who bow down accordingly will be taken up into Glory. Refresh your memory of these things with a brief scamper through the Book of Revelation: - “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.”

     Appallingly, we see these themes at work in Washington and Berlin and Paris, and too Moscow, where the grim Orthodox Patriarchs sullenly condone through their silence the rampant targeting of Jewishness. Ought we to be surprised that a widespread targeting of Moslems in the U.S. and Canada and Europe suddenly gives rise to a fresh round of anti-Semitism? No, we should not. Because for the last two thousand years it has always been so. We anticipate in the facile groupmind that monolithic Islam will be sent packing in due course just like the Mongol hordes and the Nazis and the Commies before them. The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theme works very well for opportunist demagogues. Just watch upcoming electoral cycles. But then, having dispatched the Islamic hordes, what of the Jews? What indeed. Oh, what indeed.

     And what of the Wandering Jew – that foot-weary rambler of the ages? Well, he will get his rest in the due course of prophecy. Yet his will be the bleak rest of oblivion. No longer cursed to wander the haunted roads and byways of distant lands, he will lay down finally and close his eyes – wearied beyond measure, and thankful now for the wretched and pathos-filled gift of nevermore. Or so it is imagined in the course of scriptural manifestation. Verily, it is written.

     What depravity. What filthy myths. What a miserable misuse of our potential as free human beings. How shamed we should be to still buy in to these rotten and impoverished Abrahamic fairy tales. And see how the hatred lives on. For the curse is the curse of credulity, and a thousand years might as well be a minute in the closed fever-mind of he who believes he is divinely favoured above others. If we cannot throw off these shackles it is a toss-up whether or not we can survive – nuclear weapons coupled with messianic fatalism is a very shaky operating system. As is said, where astrology ends, astronomy begins – where alchemy ends, chemistry begins – and where religion ends, philosophy, which is the love of Sophia, she who is wisdom, begins. It is time to throw off the childish things and step into our maturity before it is altogether too late.

Phil Burpee
March, 2017

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