Jim Russell wants to talk about jobs, not Jews

Have you been following this story about Jim Russell, who is running for Nita Lowey’s seat in Congress?

He’s well known as an anti-immigration advocate from Hawthorne. Now he wants to talk about the economy as he aims for Washington.

But the Republican Party has pulled its support for him — although he still may appear on the ballot — because of an “essay” he wrote in 2001.

The essay will be described in many ways. Controversial. Racist. Anti-Semitic.

I read the whole thing — all 16 pages — twice. To me, it was like reading early Nazi propaganda.

I don’t normally throw around that particular N word. I hate it when politicians and commentators casually describe opponents as Nazis or Communists. I think those labels should be saved for the real deal.

But the N word is what comes to mind when I read Russell’s “The Western Contribution to World History.”

His whole point is that European contributions to Western civilization are being destroyed because Europeans are getting too close to non-Europeans.

Everything started going wrong, he writes, when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and married a Persian princess. He became “the first apostle of multiculturalism and demonstrated the ethnocultural dangers of empire-building.”

He later laments that people in “so-called underdeveloped nations” are living longer because of Western medicine and that Western advances in transportation have reduced the West’s isolation. “As a result,” he writes, “we must develop a heightened awareness of alternate social isolating mechanisms, such as physical appearance, if we wish to enhance our prospects for survival.”

So get to work, Dr. Mengele.

Russell also embraces eugenics (“improving” the human gene pool), promotes psuedo-scholars with far-right and Nazi backgrounds, and offers that “Welfare does away with natural selection.”

And, boy, he doesn’t like the Jews.

He writes: “From Samuel Morse, Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi to Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Philo Farnsworth came great inventions with the potential to enlighten and fortify our People. Yet this potential was never realized. Instead these inventions were hijacked by Mayer, Thalberg, Warner, and Cohn et al who sought to utilize our media for their financial gain, or worse, to manipulate our opinions and behavior.”

Sounds like a page from Mein Kampf.

Russell later praises Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot for for seeking to “preserve our culture.”

He drops in Eliot’s conditions for an “optimal society,” including “The population should be homogeneous” and “…reasons of race and culture combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

And there’s this: “There is now afoot a conscious effort to de-Europeanize and to re-Judaize Christianity, through scriptural revision, internal treachery and external pressure.”

During a press conference yesterday and an appearance today on Phil Reisman’s radio show, Russell simply refused to address the points he made in his article. He clumsily changed the subject or said that certain points were being overemphasized or taken out of context.

He said he likes the way minorities dress well at church.

But he’s still running for Congress.

He wants to talk about jobs.

‘Can ya tone down all the yelling for crucifixion, maybe?’

As the story goes, the villagers of Oberammergau, a small town in Bavaria, first put on a Passion Play in 1634, possibly in hopes that God would save them from the bubonic plague.

The Passion Play has been performed every decade, more or less, since. Only villagers participate.

The play is famous, of course, for its longevity, the remarkable commitment and faith shown by generations of villagers and — for some — the play’s contributions to European anti-Semitism.

Many Jewish and Christian scholars have long criticized the play’s traditional depiction of “the Jews” as bloodthirsty Jesus-killers. Many of the same issues have long been debated about other Passion Plays, including Mel Gibson’s movie version.

The Oberammergau Passion Play is being performed this year, through October (the photos are from a dress rehearsal in May). Village leaders in Oberammergau have made changes to their play in an effort to appease international concerns.

And now a collection of Christian and Jewish scholars are weighing in on how they’ve done.

The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations has released a report on the 2010 version of the Passion Play.

The Council is a collection of several dozen academic centers in the U.S. and Canada dedicated to improving relations between Christians and Jews. Its members are very knowledgeable of and sensitive to the history of anti-Semitism in Christian traditions.

The current chair of the Council is Elena G. Procario-Foley, the Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Iona College.

An ad-hoc committee’s report, adopted by the full membership, credits the play’s scriptwriters for their “effort to attend to history more carefully.”

The report likes three broad aspects of the script: “(1) Jewish society in Jesus’ day is presented as variegated and vibrant; (2) Jesus is clearly shown to be a Jew; and (3) the relationship between Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate is nuanced. Other positive features of the script were also noted.”

But…

The report finds that Jewish opponents to Jesus “are unjustifiably depicted in such extreme terms” that viewers may leave with a negative impression of the Jews in general.

The report notes: “Caiaphas, the script’s principal antagonist, as well as Annas, are unnecessarily and baselessly portrayed as fanatics driven to see Jesus crucified.  As a result the depiction of Pilate is somewhat skewed as well.”

It suggests that the script be rewritten in very specific ways.

One example:

*****

Here is one historically reasonable approach to their interaction: if Pilate and Caiaphas agreed to remove Jesus from the scene to prevent an anticipated Passover riot, why crucify him instead of quietly assassinating him? The answer: to make a public example of him to discourage any other potential troublemakers. This seems to be more a Roman calculation than a priestly one. Caiaphas could therefore be shown to resist Pilate’s preference for a public execution of another Jew.

*****

And another:

*****

Although it is logistically and dramatically tempting to have large numbers of actors cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion, in the interests of historical accuracy and the avoidance of antisemitic tropes it would be better not to make this the focal point of the play. A dozen or so lower-status priestly characters (in contrast to ordinary passersby who might come upon the semi-private scene early in the morning as they are going about their Passover errands) would be preferable.

*****

These are not minor suggestions, but calls for major editing.

Philip A. Cunningham of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who co-coordinated the study, says: “This report is important because it involved both Jewish and Christian scholars who are biblical experts, historians, and theologians. It is not merely an exercise in arm-chair criticism, but a collegial review that appreciates the significant improvements that have already been made and offers explicit proposals to take this reform even further.”

Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of the department of interfaith affairs for ADL, says: “The scholars report is a monumental step forward in proving how Christians and Jews can work together to benefit both faiths.”

We’ll see how the report is received.

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File)

‘Catching up’ with the pope’s preacher

I couldn’t help notice that Father Raniero Cantalamessa has been in the news the past few days.

tjndc5-5f09fmxx0khlhhtfba3_layoutCantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the “preacher to papal household” or the guy who preaches to the pope.

On Good Friday, he sort of compared recent criticisms of the pope to anti-Semitism, a link that has drawn international attention and some criticism.

I interviewed Cantalamessa back in 2007 when he was passing through New York and found him to be a kindly and good-natured fellow, almost unnaturally modest for a guy who, you know, preaches to the pope.

When I asked him if he gets nervous or feels pressure to deliver four-star homilies, he said nah: “”No, no, not really. It is a grace. It is a blessing. I am not promoting a message of mine. It is the message of Jesus.”

On Friday, toward the end of a long homily dealing with several themes, especially violence, Cantalamessa mentioned a letter he received from a Jewish friend. He quoted from the letter:

*****

“I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism. Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours are undoubtedly different, but we both live with Messianic hope that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter.”

*****

On his blog, Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican described the moment like this: “As the word “antisemitismo” at the end of that sentence echoed out over the vast hall, over the silent throng, the battle over this Pope and this pontificate seemed to me to take on a new and deeper dimension.”

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee — who recently met with Catholic and other Jewish leaders at the Vatican — told the AP: “It’s an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault.”

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the papal preacher’s parallel could “lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic church.”

Now Cantalamess is expressing regret if his remarks offended Jews, the victims of sexual abuse or anyone else: “If, against any intention of mine, I offended the sensibility of Jews and the victims of pedophilia, I sincerely regret it and ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both.”

What does this episode mean? That emotions are easily stirred when it comes to criticism of the pope, even in the context of a sex-abuse crisis that has gone on for quite a while.

Critics of the church are quite angry. Defenders of the pope are increasingly angry. More angry words seem likely.

John Allen wrote the other day about how hard it is (impossible even?) to cover what’s been happening in such a way that will satisfy anyone. At a time when partisanship of all kinds seems particularly fierce, critics and defenders of the Catholic Church and/or Pope Benedict seem to be digging in for lasting conflict.

Allen writes:

*****

What’s striking about much of the reaction I’ve received, however, is that it’s not focused on the content of what I’ve said but rather my alleged motives for saying it.

For one camp out there, my first point amounts to a “hatchet job” on the pope, making me complicit in a campaign led by The New York Times and other media outlets in trying to bring him down or to wound the church. For another crowd, point two is tantamount to a whitewash in favor of the pope. As one e-mailer put it to me succinctly, “Don’t you ever get tired of being an apologist for the Vatican?”

All of which makes me wonder: On an issue about which people feel so passionately, and one which so easily feeds all sorts of broader agenda about the church, the papacy, the media, and so on, is there actually a constituency for balance? Is there room for middle ground?