Israeli Jesus: More Popular Than Ever

Odd as it may seem to outsiders, Jesus is no stranger to contemporary Israeli culture; a culture built on secular Jewish principles.

To be sure, it is Jesus the literary figure (and not Jesus the Son of God) who makes occasional, and almost always memorable, appearances in Israeli literature (Abraham Kabak’s 1938 Hebrew novel Bemishol Hat-sar or In a Narrow Path, for example, and Pinchas Sadeh’s Hahayim Kemashal, an immensely popular philosophical memoir of the late 1960s). And in the visual arts, portraits of Jesus appear frequently in the now-iconic paintings of Israeli artist Reuven Rubin.

Last month, one of these appearances made its way into the Israeli daily news. Briefly edging out reports of diplomacy, civil strife, and governmental corruption, the story centered on the controversial staging of an Israeli play with Jesus as a central character.

The Arab-Hebrew Theater of Jaffa was about to perform Amos Kenan’s controversial play Friends Talk about Jesus when it was shut down by protests.

As background, let me explain that I’ve dubbed the play “controversial” not to condemn it (a strategy used often in the American media), but because the history of this play is actually one of significant contention. The play, written in 1971, is a biting satire of Israeli politics and culture in the “euphoric period” after the 1967 War. It is especially harsh on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The play’s title is a parody of a by then already well-known Israeli genre Friends tell about X, in which fallen military heroes were remembered and eulogized. In Kenan’s play, Jesus returns to the Land of Israel in various “incarnations” or manifestations; among them as a Palestinian child traumatized by war and occupation. In 1972, the Israeli State censor refused to let the play be performed. The case went to the Israeli High Court of Justice, which upheld the ban. In the troubled period before the 1973 War, Israeli Jews were not open to Kenan’s call for self-criticism.

In the case of the proposed 2009 production of the play, it was a different sector of the Israeli population that objected. As the theater was in Jaffa and represented both Jewish and Arab theatergoers, Christian Arab residents of the town protested vigorously. Their claim: that the play “portrays Jesus in a negative light… it hurts the feelings of Christians in Jaffa and throughout the world.”

The political stakes here were high. Israel’s approximately one million Arab citizens are active participants in the life of the state; though many of them feel that their citizenship is not “first class” but rather “second or third class.” Among “Israeli Arabs” (itself a contested and contentious term), there is a high degree of identification with the Palestinian Arabs of The West Bank and Gaza. Recent Arab-Jewish riots in the coastal city of Acco (Acre) have exacerbated Arab-Jewish tensions within the country as a whole. For these reasons, officials were relieved when the play was cancelled.

The theater management did not want to alienate the communities (Jewish and Arab) in which it operates, and the government (both local and national) was happy to avoid yet another shock to Israel’s delicate ethnic and religious body politic. Though it might seem paradoxical or even counterintuitive, Israeli Jewish officials are very reluctant to offend the religious sensibilities of the state’s non-Jewish minorities. A striking example of this sensitivity is the 1989 Israeli ban on a proposed Hebrew translation of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses—for fear that it would offend Israel’s large Muslim minority, about fifteen percent of the population. The ban was first suggested by Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and backed up by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. To this day, no Hebrew translation of the novel has been published; though translations of Rushdie’s other novels, particularly Midnight’s Children are very popular with Israeli readers.

In the midst of the current controversy about his play, the health of novelist, critic, and playwright Amos Kenan declined. Known for his brilliant satires and fiery temperament, Kenan had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for the past few years. He died on August 4 in Tel Aviv.

Friends talk about Jesus may not be performed on the stage in the foreseeable future, but Jesus will not soon disappear from the larger Israeli cultural state. In fact, Jesus has just been brought back into the cultural conversation by two recent scholarly books: Tsvi Sadan’s Flesh on Our Flesh: Jesus of Nazareth in Zionist Thought and Netta Stahl’s Tselem Yehudi, both published in 2008. Sadan’s book examines Jesus in the pre-State (pre-1948) period, while Stahl’s work chronicles the cultural history of Jesus in Modern Israeli literature and thought.

Judging from the strong public interest in these books, the Israeli conversation about Jesus is only just beginning.

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