On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility

If, like me, your primary form of entertainment is reading the news, becoming angry, yelling, and then drinking to try to forget about what you just read, you may be aware of the stupid offensive bullshit that Mike ‘If I’m in another room with a woman alone I might rape her, IDK’ Pence tweeted for Holocaust Memorial Day. If you have somehow escaped this and are blithely unaware, I am sorry to do this to you. Behold:
Pence

This right here, is a veritable parfait of wrong in that there is just layer upon layer of inappropriate, with a bonus cherry of apocalyptic Christianity on top. So, let’s talk about this.

Eagled-eyed readers (LOL) will note that every single thing this man has just said about the Jewish victims of the holocaust is set out here in Christian imagery. (There is a separate conversation to be had here about how this tweet also ignores the Romani, gay, and disabled victims of the Holocaust, of course. I am trying to cut down on my rage posting by just focusing on the largest and most glaring parts of the evil that is spewed by this administration, right now though. I’m tired, OK?)

Let’s start with the phrase ‘Jewish Martyrs’. This is just a whole lot of Christian bullshit being dumped at the feet of Jewish people. Martyrdom, you will have noticed is a big fucking deal in Christendom. They absolutely love a bit of dying for Christ, so they do.

The martyrdom fetishisation is built into Christianity in the Bible, and more specifically in the Acts of the Apostles where your boy St. Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons in Jerusalem, broke everyone off to a sweet ass vision of Christ waiting for him in heaven. ‘How was Stephen going to get to heaven in order to hang with JC and be a blessed-ass martyr?’, you might ask.

Well, he was stoned to death.

‘Why was he stoned to death?’

Stephen
St. Stephen by Carlo Crivelli, sporting some very fetching rocks.

Oh, uh, he said some super offensive shit about Jewish people. TO WIT: ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.’ (That’s Acts 7:51-53.)

I MEAN WHY CAN’T THESE JEWS JUST BE CHRISTIAN, AMIRIGHT?

The idea of dying for Christendom really took off from there, and John of Patmos included in the Apocalypse a vision of everyone who had been martyred for Jesus enjoying a thousand year reign of peace under Christ before the end of the world. YAY! So other Christians took that and ran with it.

You will note that all of this business a) is explicitly linked to being Christian, and b) is also pretty fucking anti-Semitic. So that’s cool.

And yeah, martyrdom as something to strive for is an explicitly Christian ideal. You’ll note here that the interest in getting yourself killed for your ideals pops up in the New Testament – AKA the bit of the Bible just for Christians. As soon as that got written down, it inspired other Christians who also wanted to get invited to the thousand-year Jesus party to have a go at the martyrdom gig. Whether you are St. Margret getting fed to Satan in the shape of a dragon by the Romans, St. Adalbert getting himself killed by being a bit of a dick to the pagans one too many times in Pomerania, or blog fav St. Leocritia converting to Christianity from Islam and then insisting that she get killed in order to make a point – martyrdom is the whole joint.

It is also not a part of the Torah or an idea that Jewish people strive for.

Now, to be clear, Jewish people certainly DO have a concept of martyrdom – which is called Kiddush Hashem, or sanctification in God’s name, and martyrs are described as kadosh, or holy. And there have been a lot of Jewish martyrs over time. Abraham himself was martyred by Nimrod by being thrown into a furnace, and let’s be real, it hasn’t exactly got a lot more chill for Jewish people from that time.

Now these Jewish martyrs are considered by the Talmud to have a place in HaOlam Ba, AKA the World to Come, AKA whatever is going to happen after this world is destroyed. However, the Talmud is also really clear that devote Jews aren’t supposed to be chasing that. Instead, according to the Ethics of the Fathers 4:17, they are supposed to keep in mind that ‘[o]ne hour of return and good deeds in this world is more beautiful than all the life of the World to Come’.

You aren’t supposed to be trying to get yourself killed in terms of the Jewish view. Instead you should be trying to stay in this world and improve it for everyone around you.

For a Christian dude to stomp into a day of Holocaust remembrance and start spouting off about martyrs is therefore remarkably un-fucking cool. Jewish people don’t want to be martyrs. It’s not their deal. They want to live long lives where they can contribute mitzvahs and help their communities and the world be a better place. The victims of the Holocaust had martyrdom thrust upon them. This experience has nothing to do with the knowing Christians being thrown to the lions and getting excited about their place in heaven.  Framing Jewish persecution through a Christian understanding of relation to the divine is completely dismissive and another form of erasure. So, you know, cool.

Moving right the fuck on, Pence is out here making EXPLICIT REFERENCE TO THE RESURRECTION IN THIS STATEMENT.

Now I am not sure if you are aware of this or not, but Jewish. People. Do. Not. Recognise. The. Resurrection. Mike. Because they are Jewish. They are – stay with me here – not Christians. As far as the Jewish understanding of the world goes they are still out here waiting for the Messiah. That is rather the whole point.

What the esteemed Vice President (ugh) is expressing here is so remarkably tone-deaf and exhausting not only because it is anti-Semitic as hell, but also because it is a medieval world-view that I was really hoping that we would have moved on from by now.

What I mean by that, is this is a worldview in which Jewish people only exist in relation to Christians, and as a prop within a Christian universe, to achieve Christian ends. The Pences of the world don’t actually care about Jewish people or the incredible persecution that they have suffered, because they are a part of the team that has created that suffering.

Jews being marked
Just a not at all creepy interaction between some Jewish people (right) and a gentile.

I’ve written before, at length about the long and proud history of violent anti-Semitism in medieval England which culminated in the total expulsion of Jewish people altogether. However, please know that this is in no way just an English fascination. Long before the Nazis were ever dreamed into existence by the worst collection of mediocre white dudes ever to put on an arm band, there were the Rhineland massacres, known by Christians at the time as the People’s Crusade (lovely). Long story short, in 1096 when the first Crusade was originally being preached fools were like ‘Why go to the Holy Land to massacre unsuspecting unbelievers? We have some RIGHT HERE!’ and began to attack the established Jewish communities in their own kingdoms. They went from town to town on the Rhine and had themselves a series of pogroms, where they murdered people, drove them to suicide, or forced them to convert. In Speyer twelve Jewish people were murdered, and the Bishop eventually saved the rest in exchange for a considerable ransom (just like Jesus would have wanted). In Worms 800 Jewish people were killed. In Mainz, it was a thousand people. This went on, and people hit Trier, Cologne, and Metz as well.

In the fourteenth century when Christians were looking for someone to blame for the death around them, they decided that Jews must be poisoning water supplies – as you do – and the pogroms started over again. In 1348 the Jewish communities of Toulon and Barcelona were attacked. In 1349 it was Erfurt, Basel, Strasbourg, as well as attacks across Aragon and Flanders. In 1370 there was the Brussels massacre. In 1389 my own homies, the Praguers got in on the action and burnt the Jewish quarter to the ground after having locked the gates. When all was said and done it is estimated that some 400 to 500 Jewish Praguers were killed.

While all of this is horrifying, please believe that stuff did not get better in the modern period. The halcyon days of the Spanish Inquisition are a firmly modern event, and never officially abolished until 18 fucking 38. Think about that. Basically, any time Christians have had the upper-hand over Jewish people they have used it to make Jewish lives precarious, frightening, and othered. It is this history that led to the very modern and industrialised anti-Semitism of the Holocaust.

While you sit with that, you may be wondering why it is, that if Christians are so eager to kill as many Jewish people as they can get their hands on as and when, Jewish people have always been a part of western society. Part of the medieval answer is a technical discussion about money lending and the sin of usury, which we have hit before. The other part is about the expectation of the Apocalypse.

Again, as previously discussed, in order for the Apocalypse to occur, and for Christians to attain their longed-for heaven, it is necessary for the Antichrist to take over Jerusalem, have a generally wild time, sway all Jewish people into following him, and THEN for Christ to return and all of the Jews to see the theoretical error of their ways and convert. This will lead to John of Patmos’s afore-mentioned martyr-party and the thousand-year reign of peace before the final judgement.

Space Lamb
John of Patmos’s imagined end of the world party. (AKA van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. AKA Space Lamb.) Note the martyrs entering top right, and carrying their palm fronds.

Mike Pence absolutely believes this to be true, and he can only relate to Jewish people through this religious construct.

The horrors that Jewish people have endured at the hands of wave after wave of persecutors? Lamentable, sure, but then again, it’s really their fault for not believing in Christ and all of that. In fact, none of that really matters, provided that there are enough Jewish people hanging about – preferably in Jerusalem – that they can play the necessary role and trigger the end of the world. If Mike Pence is going to talk about Jewish people, you bet your ass he is going to do so in language that explicitly references Christian cosmology, and more to the point Christian apocalyptic cosmology.

He is out here talking about martyrs and the resurrection from the ashes. He is talking about the end of the universe. He is telling the Jewish community that they only exist to fulfil this promise. Hell, this bastard is probably looking forward to it.

As upsetting as all of this is, it is essential that we pay attention to it. When we remember the Holocaust it is our responsibility not only to bear witness to the incomprehensible horrors that our society allowed to flourish, but we need to know how it is that we got there and why. Pence’s attitude here shows that he still only relates to Jewish people in terms of their utility to his own world view. When a man in power tells you that, listen.


For more on medieval religions, see:
Islam was the party religion, or why it is lazy and existentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On the medieval separation of church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
A short history of Jan Hus, the Protestant leder you’ve never heard of, or Martin Luther jacked Hus’s whole style

For more on Apocalypticism, see:
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
Look up – this church is judging you

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

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