Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Dialogue with a Troll

There's nothing like a blog-post about Israel to bring the loons out of the woodwork. So when Dr. Philip Blosser (aka. Pertinacious Papist) circulated a video demonstrating UCLA college student's appalling ignorance about Israel, it came as no surprise that his comments box would be infested by a troll.

That said, insofar as the consecutive stream of comments compile a number of issues, rumors and/or allegations in a single place, I've decided to use this as an opportunity to address them.

Jesus in the Talmud

"Which religion reveres Jesus as a prophet and honors His Virgin Mother? Which religion condemns Jesus as a conman, now spending eternity boiling in excrement, while claiming his mother got pregant [sic] by a Roman soldier?" Or, as another alternative, he could have asked, "Which religion honors Jesus as Isa ibn Maryam (Jesus, son of Mary, the sister of Moses), and slays his followers as infidels."
The short answer is, "The Talmud." But then, what exactly does the Talmud say about Jesus? -- The Talmud is a vast collection of rabbinic discussions about, well, practically everything: Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. It has been the subject of much disputation, criticism and censorship in Jewish-Christian relations, particularly in Medieval times.

Anti-semites have referred to Jesus' alleged portrayal in the Talmud in their invectives against the Jewish people (and/or Judaism). They commonly refer to the work The Talmud Unmasked; The Secret Rabbinical Teachings Concerning Christians by Justinas Pranaitis (1861-1917), a Lithuanian Catholic priest and Professor of the Hebrew Language from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Pranaitis was called as an expert witness in the famed the blood libel case of Menahem Mendel Beilis in 1912 -- he was, however, publicly humiliated when the defence demonstrated his ignorance of some simple Talmudic concepts and definitions.

Extremists like David Duke and Michael Hoffman have made frequent use of the Talmud to denigrate Judaism as a perverted or immoral religion. In response, the Anti-Defamation League chargs that such attacks are the fruit of erroneous translations or selective quotations in order to distort the meaning of the Talmud's text, and that "fabrication of passages is not unknown." See the ADL's report, The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics (2003).

A recent serious (non-crackpot) academic treatment of the subject is Peter Schäfer's Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton UP, 2007), which claims that, far from being unreliable distortions of the historical Jesus, the Talmud's stories "represent a deliberate and sophisticated anti-Christian polemic that parodies the New Testament narratives" in a deliberate campaign to assert Judaism's superiority over Christianity. Some have criticized Schäfer's scholarship -- Joshua Kulp finds that "in cooking up 'a well designed [rabbinical] attack,' Schafer exaggerates the evidence" and that his "interpretations of rabbic texts are simply incorrect." (Shofar: Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies Vol. 27, No. 2. 2009). If one does accept Shafer's concusions, we can conclude

Rabbinic Judaism and orthodox Christianity did not evolve in igonorance of each other. From the beginning, these two nascent orthodoxies, more sisters than mother and daughter, vied for influence and narrative sovereignty. Anxiously defining themselves, they listened to one another, echoed each other, and fashioned themselves against each other. ["Talmudic Jesus" Benjamin Balint. First Things Jun/Jul2007, Issue 174, p41-44].
Contra Schafer, one should also explore Gil Student's "The Real Truth About the Talmud", an exhaustive exploration of the various charges against the Talmud -- in particular the following sections:It is not the intent of the troll in Dr. Blosser's comments box to engage in a serious academic discussion of this topic. Rather, he wishes to dredge up from 2,000 years of history some (alleged) remarks made by Jewish teachers about Jesus and Judaism, in order to denigrate the Jewish people and foment further discord between Jews and Christians -- a deplorable tactic, and attitude in itself.

The troll would be further disappointed to learn that Jesus' alleged portrayal in the Talmud represents the sum-total of Jewish teaching about Jesus. Excluding such groups as the "Jews for Jesus" and other Jewish converts to Christianity, one might say that Jews don't have a single, formal and authoritative teaching about Jesus, save that most of them are in fundamental disagreement with the claims made by the Church as to his divinity.

In the twentieth century, there have been various, and fascinating, attempts by some Jews to wrestle with Christianity and its claims. See David Hagner's The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus (Wipf & Stock, 1997)
; Matthew Hoffman's From Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Stanford UP, 2007); the scholarship of Geza Vermes or Jacob Neusner's A Rabbi Talks With Jesus -- a remarkable book made popular by Pope Benedict XVI's detailed exploration of it in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth).

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Muslims or Jews - which are more hospitable to Christians?

For a religion that slays Christ's followers as infidels, those followers certainly seemed to have been treated far better under under the yoke of dhimmitude pre-1948. How else to explain all those ancient Christian communities in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq?

If the author is willing, perhaps this might be an opportune time to suggest the works of Bat Ye'Or, including: The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude : Seventh-Twentieth Century. Likewise, you can read a number of her lectures on the myth of a 'tolerant pluralistic Islamic society' on her website,
It makes you wonder why so many purported followers of Christ betray such slavish devotion to that sh*tty little country halfway around the world. By the way, whatever became of that 40 percent of the Holy Land that counted itself Christian? Did Christian (sic) Zionists have anything to do with their displacement?
It is possible -- or rather, true -- that Israel was complicit in the displacement of the Palestinian population following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and that a portion of the refugee population were Christians. But does this really come as a surprise, considering that Christians in the Middle East tend to identify themselves as Arabs. Displacement of populations and the creation of refugees is a sad but all-too-common consequence of any war.

That being said, I don't think you can render blame squarely on Israel without acknowledging the role of the Arab states seeking Israel's destruction. One cannot grapple with Israel's complicity in Palestinian-Arab suffering and the creation of the Palestianian refugee problem without likewise acknowledging the Arab states' complicity in the Jewish exodus (and/or expulsion) from Arab lands. Consider that the number of Jews fleeing Arab countries for Israel in the years following Israel's independence was nearly double the number of Arabs leaving Palestine.

The causes of the Christian exodus from the Holy Land is hotly debated. Blame is by and large attributed to Israel and the socio-economic conditions within Palestine as a result of its policies. At the same time, you could certainly find a role played by Islamic extremism (see Jonathan Adelman and Agota Kuperman's examination of the Christian Exodus from the Middle East). Likewise, in pointing to the establishment of roadside checkpoints and the infamous "security fence" (or wall, in some areas) as a source of hardship for the Palestinian Christian community, one is obliged to recognize that it was born by practical necessity.

It may well be that Americans and Christians will invariably find themselves in the crosshairs of the vile Mohammedans. But America's one-sided support for the Zionist state has done nothing but create and incite extremists in their camp.
As far as "one-sided support [of Israel]" is concerned, I'll refer you to this analysis of the topic.

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What does it mean that Christians "had it better" under Saddam Hussein?

How many Christians lived in Iraq before the U.S. launched its invasion and occupation of that poor country? How many live there now? Gee, you think there's a connection?
Prior to the Gulf War in 1991, the Christian population of Iraq numbered approximately 1 million. The Baathist regime kept a lid on anti-Christian violence and subjected some to "relocation programmes". Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Christian population fell to an estimated 800,000. (Iraqi Christians' long history" BBC News, November 01/10).

Some Iraqi Christians rose to the top of Hussein's regime -- notable among them Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who, in his own words, "had the honour to work with the former regime and with the hero Saddam Hussein," (2007) -- howebeit in a more recent interview portrays himself as a Arab natonalist occupying a "political position" whose "moral duty" was to defend the decisions of Hussein:

"I don't say that I am a great man and that I was correct in everything that I did. But I am proud of my life because my best intention was to serve Iraq. There were mistakes though, there were things that were not completely correct."
"Paradoxically, Christians were more protected under [Hussein's] dictatorship," remarked French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Catholic News Service 2003). That is a sentiment shared by many or most Iraqi Christians. As one Iraqi Christian put it in 2007:
"When Saddam was in power there was no fighting. Saddam loved the Christians. We were safer with Saddam; now we just leave the country."
One may question whether Saddam had any "affection" for Christianity, but there is no disputing that Christians under Saddam Hussein enjoyed a higher standard of safety, security and an overall standard of living than they do in present-day Iraq. Terrorist intimidation, kidnappings and outright attacks (such as the frequent bombings of churches and mosques) are directed particularly at Shiite and Christian minorities, and the Iraqi government appears powerless to protect them.

So, Christians had it better in Iraq.

But at what price?

That's the question. Considering the record of atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein's regime against other non-Christian segments of Iraq's population: the wholesale destruction of villages, deportations and mass executions of Shiite Kurds during the 1988 "Anfal" genocide campaign and the Halabja poison gas attack; crackdown on Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in the North in 1991; An estimation of casualties from various sources on Wikipedia runs as follows:

According to The New York Times, "he [Saddam] murdered as many as a million of his people, many with poison gas. He tortured, maimed and imprisoned countless more. His unprovoked invasion of Iran is estimated to have left another million people dead. His seizure of Kuwait threw the Middle East into crisis. More insidious, arguably, was the psychological damage he inflicted on his own land. Hussein created a nation of informants — friends on friends, circles within circles — making an entire population complicit in his rule". Others have estimated 800,000 deaths caused by Saddam not counting the Iran-Iraq war. Estimates as to the number of Iraqis executed by Saddam's regime vary from 300-500,000 to over 600,000, estimates as to the number of Kurds he massacred vary from 70,000 to 300,000, and estimates as to the number killed in the put-down of the 1991 rebellion vary from 60,000 to 200,000. Estimates for the number of dead in the Iran-Iraq war range upwards from 300,000.
Indeed, whatever stability and security Iraqis enjoyed under Hussein's dictatorship was obtained by way of secret police, the torture (even of women and children), government-sponsored rape, murder, deportation, forced disappearances, assassinations, chemical weapons and genocide. (For documentation see: SADDAM HUSSEIN: crimes and human rights abuses Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London. November 2002).

And this is precisely why I am unable, while acknowledging that the Christian population in Iraq probably did enjoy a relatively higher and secure standard of living under Saddam Hussein, to derive any kind of conclusion along the lines of: "Saddam Hussein should have remained in power."

* * *

Which Mideast democracy, recipient of untold billions in U.S. military and financial assistance, banned "The Passion of the Christ"?

Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was never formally banned by Israel. This is not to say, however, that groups like the Anti-Defamation League didn't lobby for its banning. However, Israeli distributors did not seek permission to market the movie, according to the country's Film Censorship Board, the official arbiter of what cinematic fare is fit for public viewing (Los Angeles Times March 15, 2004). The concern was that it would probably not do well because of the controversy. Case in point: Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ opened with a comparative level of controversy and fizzled at the box office. We may take issue with it, but Jewish movie distributors are entirely within their rights to reject a film.

That said, a BBC News report does indicate that the film was shown in various venues around Israel:

An art house cinema in Tel Aviv will show the movie within three months. The film will be followed by a post-screening seminar to examine the depiction of Jesus. Pirated copies of the film have been circulating in Jerusalem. During Easter, there were nightly private showings in East Jerusalem hotels, where most of the Christian Arab population lives.
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At this point, the troll goes on to embark on a broader indictment of European nations (and presumably Germany in particular) for "imprisoning those who dare to question any aspect of the orthodox Holocaust account", and the United States for "meddling incessantly" in the affairs of Islamic nations, "while claiming any blowback it suffers (q.v., 9/11)stems from those nations' extremist elements." One could engage these matters further, but time is valuable and this post has gone on long enough.