woensdag 25 januari 2012


Is it inappropriate to speak of ‘the Judeo-Christian tradition’? One can hear that phrase more often nowadays, especially from the side of Dutch populist politicians. But at the same time other people protest against that combination of words, so it is not that obvious to make the connection.

The protest is quite understandable for who knows a bit about the history of Christian crusades, pogroms and discrimination against Jews. But I thought that phrase also to have something nice, because if after so many centuries two traditions discover their commonalities, isn’t that laudable?

But since last week I tend to find it a bit more inappropriate than before to use the combination ‘Judeo-Christian’ as a matter of course. That’s because someone who in earnest can not be suspected of wanting to enlarge gaps, held a lecture and made clear how wishful the phrase may be, while the endorsement by historical facts is completely absent.

The speaker was the renowned art historian Gary Schwartz, and he made his point by a closer look at the romantic image of ‘Rembrandt the Jews Friend’. He described the creation of that image - actually a myth - in the nineteenth century.

In France this was done by attributing to Rembrandt, in line with the French republican tradition, a kind of socially progressive character. This could be derived, according to the myth, from the unconventional artistry and humanity with which he painted his many portraits. In Germany, at the end of the nineteenth century, Julius Langbehn presented the painter as spiritually congenial with the Jews. Rembrandt’s affinity with the Jews would mainly lie in his love for the earthly and popular character of the Jewish tradition, not its intellectual aspects, which Langbehn did not like at all.

It seems that the core of the affinity between Rembrandt and the Jews in the twentieth century is sought in the combination of earthly simplicity, earnest and resignment to fate which is imputed to both parties. In that vein H.W. Janson in his standard work History of Art from 1962 writes that Rembrandt had a special sympathy for the Jews “as the heirs of the biblical past and as the patient victims of persecution”.

Schwartz told that when he went to study, the image of Rembrandt as humane friend of the Jews was almost unquestioned. And that maybe that image played a role in his choice for the study of the history of art. But paradoxically, precisely Schwartz was one of the first to have occasion to question the myth.

The turnaround for Schwartz came when he considered in more detail some of Rembrandt’s paintings, such as the Christ portraits and the Hundred Guilder Print. In the latter (see figure) a striking feature is that the immediate entourage of Jesus is portrayed as a bit more Dutch than the jawing bystanders in the periphery. Besides Schwartz points to a copy of that picture with an anti-Jewish poem written by Rembrandt’s friend Hendrik Waterloos. Schwartz thought: yes, that’s the way Christians view Jews, in the 17th century probably in a no less ambiguous way then in the 20th century. And there is little reason to believe that Rembrandt thought much different about Jews than his friends did.

The idea remains attractive: to believe that Rembrandt had much interest and affection for the Amsterdam Jews. And more generally: that Judeo-Christian is an integrated combination. But caution remains necessary.

Also see Rembrandt's Heads

dinsdag 17 januari 2012


What, up to now, the Palestinians did not manage to get done the Israeli women may at this time succeed in: the initiation of a certain collective self-reflection in the large secular Israeli majority. Indeed, the driving force behind the Israeli actions and demonstrations in recent weeks is the indignation about the status of women in the Israeli public domain.

From that indignation originated the demonstrations held in Beit Shemesh for the eight-year-old girl who on her way to school was spit on because she would be immodestly dressed. And the same indignation is behind the actions of liberal and modern orthodox women against segregated seating on the bus for men (in the front) and women (in the back). Equal rights for women equally is the reason for the efforts of women to to pray with the Torah at the Wailing Wall.

This type of conflict is hardly new, it lurks in Israel for decades beneath the surface already. It goes back to an at the background always-present tension between a secular majority and an (ultra-)orthodox minority, which has a monopoly on defining the Jewish spiritual identity.

The curious thing about this tension is that the secular majority is, to be sure, spiritually far removed from rabbinic thinking, but still allows the religious establishment to prescribe (sometimes literally) the law in many areas. For example on marriage, the construction of cemeteries for the more liberal religious currents, or the separation of men and women on the bus.

On the side of the secularists there always were pragmatic and sentimental reasons to take this position. By sentimental reasons, I mean a certain mental laziness, which tends to leave the control of the Jewish spiritual inheritance to those who dress in the most outdated way and act accordingly. That’s easy, it gives a sort of historical security and appeals to rather vague but at the same time attractive feelings of communal sense.

The pragmatic reasons have to do with the security situation in Israel. It has long been thought that the country could afford no fundamental discussion about the position of orthodox Judaism. That might disrupt the national unity which is so badly needed in the fight against a hostile environment, and even lead to civil war. The idea was: first to improve the security situation, only then to fight the internal battle.

But for some reason it’s happening yet, on a larger scale than before the battle with the religious establishment is entered into. Apparently the country can afford now, people feel safe enough. Or the ultra-orthodox group is now simply too big and too bold and crosses too many borders.

Opposite those border crossings the philosophical laziness of the average secular Israeli is no longer sustainable, whether pragmatically or sentimentally inspired. The situation is forcing many of them now to think for themselves, to determine their own position in spiritual matters.

If this is the prelude to more reflection in Israël on people’s own spiritual identity, that would seem to me very laudable. Resurrection from the lethargic spiritual indifference might then call into question that other Israeli indifference which looms large: the indifference for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the plight of the average Palestinian. Then the order of priorities is just reversed.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line