Antisemitic Discourse in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: An Overview
Leon Volovici

In October 2000 our Center will organize a workshop on “Jews and Antisemitism in the Political and Public Discourse in the East European Communist and Post-Communist Countries,” with the participation of researchers (sociologists, political scientists, and historians) from those countries and from Israel. Based on a joint project initiated by Leon Volovici, the papers already prepared will constitute the starting point for the workshop. At the June 1999 conference, “The Dynamics of Antisemitism in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century,” Dr. Volovici presented an overview, abridged here, of the topics connected with antisemitism in this area.

(Under construction: essay will follow soon)

Self-Description and the Antisemite: Denying Privileged Access
Berel Lang
Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

In a recent review of a comprehensive history of Europe, the reviewer pointed out certain blatant distortions in the book’s account of European Jewish history — but concluded that since the book’s author had denied being antisemitic, this explanation of the distortions could be ruled out: “On that matter,” the reviewer wrote, “we have to take the author at his word.”1 In a letter to the editor (published, no doubt, because of its brevity), I asked a simple question about this conclusion: “Why?” The question seemed to me obvious, not only as it applied to that book’s author, but to any writer or speaker who asserts that he or she is not antisemitic or an antisemite. It is not that self- descriptions of this sort should not count as evidence at all, but that they are at most only partial evidence (in both senses: fragmentary and self-interested) to be considered in judging the presence or absence of antisemitism.

On the surface, this thesis will seem no more than a commonplace. After all, a large number of public figures who by any reasonable measure were clearly antisemitic have, for a variety of reasons, explicitly rejected that description. (I think here, at an extreme, of Eichmann’s memorable line, that he had “nothing personal” against the Jews.) Such denials, when confronted by independent and contradictory evidence, are no more persuasive or interesting than other mistaken or deceptive self-descriptions, which are, after all, a familiar part of our moral and psychological landscape. But a conceptual issue is at stake here that goes more deeply into the ascription of antisemitism than the fact that certain antisemites (like many other people) may lie or deceive themselves about their private feelings.

The issue I refer to here is part of a broader one in the theory of knowledge; it concerns assertions which claim “privileged access” — that is, the group of statements made by speakers who are supposedly in a position of special (in the event, final) authority so far as concerns their truth or falsity. In the statement, “I feel warm,” for example, the speaker might of course be lying because of a wish to deceive the person(s) being addressed. But putting this possibility aside (it applies, after all, to any statement), we would not ordinarily consider responding to that statement by disagreeing: “No, you’re mistaken; you don’t feel that way.” And we would not venture this response even if everyone else in the room had just been commenting on how cold the room was. (Someone might suggest that the person who “felt warm” was ill (or ironic), but these are different matters.)

The presumption at work here is that where feelings are concerned, it is the bearer of the feelings who knows best — not only best but definitively; they’re his or her feelings, after all, nobody else’s. Even if someone lies about those feelings to others, it is still the person who feels them who knows better than anyone else what those feelings truly are. But does this same authority of “privileged access” extend to a person’s judgment of being antisemitic? It is just this claim that the book-reviewer referred to above implied, and it is also just this claim that analysis of the concept of privileged access in matters of self-description demonstrates to be unwarranted.

To be sure, the question cannot be avoided here of exactly what actions or words, and how many of them, are required to meet the “standard” of antisemitism; there is an evident problem as well in applying that single term to individuals as distant from each other in the expressions of their antisemitism as (for example) Hitler and T. S. Eliot. It is also clear that as for any theoretical criteria applied to practical circumstance, there will be boundary-line cases about which doubts remain; there is no simple litmus test to produce immediate and certain findings. One point that does emerge clearly, however, against the background of the concept of privileged access is that the “title” of antisemite cannot be ascribed either exclusively or decisively as a function of feelings, not even as the measure of a disposition to act or to speak in a certain way. The reasons for this view should now be apparent: For one thing, as already noted, if antisemitism were judged on that basis, then the “feeler” of antisemitic feelings would indeed have the last word on his own status. And more than this, not feelings alone, and not even words, are in fact decisive for such judgment; they can be assessed only in conjunction with the actions that accompany them, and these, too, can be judged only in a context of the whole.

The positive side of this argument adds still greater weight to the negative side, as pertinent not only to issues of antisemitism but to the status of self-descriptive statements in general. It is commonly recognized, for example, that other people are at times more accurate interpreters of our actions than we are ourselves: we often intend (or believe we intend) to say or to do one particular thing — and discover when someone else points it out to us that we have done or said something quite different. Even at the level of intention, the person whose intentions they are is not necessarily the only or the best judge. We are all familiar with apologies or excuses that end with the phrase, “...but my intentions were good.” And here, too, the audience, especially if they have heard the same refrain from the same person many times before, might well be skeptical. It is not only that people sometimes deliberately misrepresent their intentions, but that at times they are not the best or even good judges of what those intentions are.

If antisemitism then is not simply a set of feelings or a state of mind (to which privileged access would hold the key); and if, furthermore, people can sometimes be mistaken about what exactly the intentions behind their actions are — then it should not be surprising to find that someone could deny being antisemitic, and yet be judged from the outside, by others, to be just that. Required for this reversal of judgment is no more than what is required for any judgment of someone’s state or condition: the gathering of evidence. This would of course include self-descriptions by the person being judged, but also much more: accounts of conduct and actions (including other words) in which the person has engaged.

It is only by such broader criteria, for example, that the cliché that recurs in self-descriptive denials of antisemitism — “But some of my best friends are Jews” — can be understood as not at all inconsistent with being antisemitic. There is nothing in the concept of antisemitism to prevent the antisemite from making exceptions for some Jews; when that happens, it is just because they were exceptions — which invariably means that they are not like the “others,” that is, like the much greater majority of Jews — that the antisemite accepts them. But for us to be able in this way to override the denial of being antisemitic requires the possibility of appealing to other external evidence, not to the person’s words alone, and certainly not to the person’s feelings about Jews. For this, again, is the point: antisemitism is not only or decisively a state of mind or a psychological disposition. For one thing, no one has clear access to these (not even the person whose they are); and for another thing, by themselves, so long as they do not manifest themselves in words or actions, they hardly count as antisemitic or anti-anything. Where antisemitism matters is in the acts or conduct for which the concept (and term) stand. And although the person responsible for those actions may well also provide an interpretation of them, that remains but one account among several possible ones.

This skeptical analysis of statements in the form, “I am not an antisemite,” has the odd consequence that someone might say that he or she was an antisemite — but turn out to be mistaken about that. We might prove, in other words, that also this self-description, was, on balance, without a basis in fact — for here, too, there is no privileged access: If we have rejected privileged access in this area as such, that rejection would apply no matter what a particular self-description asserted. Such instances as these are rare, of course; when they do occur, they appear more as a parody or ironic joke than anything else. But the possibility cannot be ruled out (I’ve known at least one person like this, a good friend, in fact), and it is in any event a small price to pay for understanding the basis on which we feel entitled to reject the much more common claim of privileged access as it is used to support denials of being antisemitic. If antisemites were as transparent in their denials as was the English author/diplomat Harold Nicolson when he wrote that, “Although I loathe antisemitism, I do dislike Jews,” we would have no need for this, or indeed for any, clarification. And certainly for many instances of antisemitism, self-descriptions and acts appear in close harmony; nobody is in doubt about the fact itself. But there are also instances of denial which base themselves on the claim of privileged access — and there is no need, I have argued, to accept those denials, certainly not at face-value.³


1. Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); reviewed by Tony Judt, The New Republic, 27 October 1997.

Convert or Desecrator?
The Image of the Jew in the “Jephonias Episode” in Icons of the Dormition
Alifa Saadya

In some early Christian texts, one encounters an image of the Jew as one who hates all things Christian and who maliciously seeks to desecrate all things holy. This stereotype was transmitted in Christian art, literature, and legend over the centuries, but as Jews and Christians entered into a fruitful dialogue of respect, particularly in the period following the Second Vatican Council, such images are being reexamined and are no longer accepted with complete equanimity as part of the legacy of Christian culture. For Christian educators an opportunity to promote a new and realistic portrait of the Jews arises when studying the history of Christian culture.

Let us look at a mythical figure present in an early Christian legend, a Jew who is miraculously converted to faith in Christ during the funeral procession of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The figure appears in some depictions of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary — a frequent subject for Christian icon painters over the centuries. Popular interest and appreciation of this specialized art form has been increasing over the past few decades, and with the opening of the former Soviet bloc countries, many more examples of iconic art have found their way into Western markets. The art of icon painting, following traditional patterns, is being explored by numerous Western artists. Since both Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians observe the Feast of Mary’s Dormition (or Assumption), icons depicting this theme are fairly common.

For Orthodox Christians, of course, icons are not mere paintings, but rather, “windows on heaven.” Innovation was discouraged in these works of art, and set symbols and depictions were the rule. Yet within the rigid framework, the often anonymous artist achieved wonders of color and emotion. The vast majority of icons depict scenes from the life of Christ, of his mother Mary (called “Theotokos” or “Mother of God”), and the saints (including, of course, figures from the Jewish Scriptures, and apocryphal works).

Icons of the Dormition of the Virgin

According to some ancient traditions, the mother of Jesus “fell asleep in the Lord” around the year 48 C.E. and was buried near the Garden of Gethsemane. As Christian theology developed, Jesus’ mother came to be regarded with great reverence, and we know that by 450 there was a church built over the traditional gravesite. By the sixth century, the Feast of the Dormition (the “falling asleep” or koimesis) was established as one of the major festivals of the Church, and legends about the death of Mary were recorded: it was believed that the apostles, scattered throughout the world to spread the gospel, were miraculously gathered at her bedside, and because of her privileged position as the mother of Christ, she was said to have been assumed bodily into heaven in a manner similar to the Old Testament figures Enoch and Elijah.1

Icons thus depict her death or funeral with the apostles gathered round the bier, with Christ above her holding her soul (shown as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes), angels, and sometimes at the top we see Mary enthroned in heaven.

The most common variants include all these elements, but one version depicting her funeral shows a figure in the foreground with outstretched arms, whose hands have been cut off by a sword-wielding angel.

According to Elisheva Revel-Neher, in her study of The Image of the Jew in Byzantine Art, the figure is that of Jephonias, a Jew. During Mary’s funeral procession, he contemptuously reached out to touch her catafalque or attempted to overturn her body.2 The Jephonias legend first appears in apocryphal texts of the fifth and sixth centuries, and three successive elements are present: his hands touching the fabric and becoming stuck, the appearance of an angel who frees him by cutting off his hands, followed by his repentance and conversion with the restoration of his hands. The story of the “Passing of Mary” was attributed to the apostle John, and while a major theme of the account is the hatred of Jews for all things Christian, nevertheless, it allows that Jews are capable of conversion. According to Revel, the earliest known artistic depictions of the legend are from Cappadocia around the ninth and tenth centuries, with subsequent examples from much later periods. What is significant is that by the end of the thirteenth century, a change occurred: the full legend, in which the character eventually repents and has his hands restored is abridged to indicate only the desecration and its divine punishment.

 Dormition of the Virgin  (Late 16th c. Novgorod tradition)

The early Jephonias legend seems to me to parallel the story of St. Paul, a persecutor of the early Christians who was struck blind while en route to Damascus, and having been converted, had his vision restored and then became the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Some historians link the Jephonias legend to the biblical story of the death of Uzzah in II Samuel 6:1–8. In this account, King David wished to move the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Abinadav to Jerusalem. Placed on an oxcart, at one point it threatened to fall when the animals stumbled. When Uzzah reached out to hold it, “the anger of the Lord was kindled,” and he was struck dead. Jewish commentators on the story emphasize that the sin in part lay in the fact that the Ark was not to be transported by oxcart but carried on poles by the Levites as commanded by God in the book of Numbers. In Christian tradition another element arises: Mary is poetically referred to as the “Ark of the Covenant” — the bearer of Christ, who represents the “new covenant” and hence her body itself is holy, even in death, and thus a desecrator is deserving of divine punishment.

While the Jephonias legend appears fairly frequently in Eastern European icons of the Dormition, in Christian art of the West it is rare, with more emphasis on the assumption and Mary’s “coronation” as Queen of Heaven.

Save for art historians, and those who study the early Christian Church, what makes this rather obscure legend of interest now? It is not solely due to the increased interest in iconography, and the fact that modern icon painters in the West sometimes reproduce this image seemingly without considering its implications. Rather, it is its presence — you guessed it — on the Internet.

A few examples show that the elements of latent antisemitism can be found.

A website dedicated to Ukrainian culture (http://WWW.UGKC.Lviv/Gallery.Gallery.
entrance.html) offers a dazzling collection of medieval icons, including the Dormition painted by the Master Olexiy aroun1547, now in the Lviv National Museum. Fa detailed description of the elements present in this masterpiece, the writer adds that the “scene in the foreground follows apocryphal narrations about a Jewish priest Auphonius [sic] who had an evil intention to desecrate Mary's body. But the Archangel Michael cut off his hands which grew fast to the Virgin's bed.” Note that there is no mention of any subsequent conversion and healing.

The University of Dayton, a Catholic university in Ohio, hosts “The Mary Page” ( Its webmaster is Fr. Johan Roten, director of the Marian Library, an important resource for academic researchers in Mariology. This popular website offers a question-and-answer section for visitors, mainly dealing with subjects such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary, various pious practices, and Church teachings about her. The following question and its response are posted on this site:

What is the meaning of the cut-off hands in representations of Mary's dormition?

The image you are referring to is more than just Mary's dormition. It is in fact a depiction of the funeral procession. The gruesome scene of bloody hands stuck to the linen covering the body of Mary is a typical feature and is called the Jechonias [sic] scene. One, two, sometimes three unbelieving Jews attack the bier in an attempt to profane the body of Mary. Immediately the hands wither, are torn from their bodies or cut off by an avenging angel. The scene is patterned after 2 Sam 6, 6-8 describing the translation of the ark and an attack similar to the one mentioned here. Mary, being Mother of the Redeemer, is understood as the ark of the covenant. Her body, even in death, is sacred. Well, the scene also sadly partly reflects a not so latent anti-Semitism!

A third example comes from the website of St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend, Indiana ( theotoko.htm). The section of the site about the Theotokos includes a detailed description of the icon of the dormition, including the following: At the very bottom of the icon, often times we find a man who is having his hands cut off by an angel. The man represents a Jew who dared to touch or wanted to overturn the body of the Theotokos. Two names have come down through the centuries as to who this person was. One tells us that the fanatical Jew who dared to touch the body was named Athonios. Another tradition tells us that the Jew that tried to turn over the holy body was a man named Jephonias.” Fr. Christ Kontos, the priest at St. Andrew’s, in response to an email I sent him, emphasized that the Jephonias legend only appears in some Dormition icons, and only as a small foreground figure. For the faithful, he added, the important part of the image is that of Mary, and therefore most have little interest in the historical background of the icon.3

A good example of the two-edged sword of latent antisemitism, the Jephonias legend could easily find its way into a feast-day sermon, but in which version — that of the repentant convert (not in itself an antisemitic image), or the desecrating Jew who hates all things Christian?³


1. Pope Pius XII formally declared this to be a belief binding upon Catholics in 1950 in the bull Munificentissimus Deus. For a brief description of the controversy surrounding this declaration, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).2. Elisabeth Revel-Neher, The Image of the Jew in Byzantine Art, tr. from French by David Maizel (Oxford: Pergamon Press, Studies in Antisemitism Series, 1992). Several versions of the legend exist; the Jew, sometimes said to be a priest, or a “fanatic,” is also called Athonius, or Auphonias. The apocryphal fifth century Transitus Mariae (“The Passing of Mary,” attributed to the apostle John) can be read online at Wheaton University’s CCEL site: anf08-111.htm. This document is thought to be an Orthodox re-working of a previous Gnostic version.3. Fr. Christ Kontos to Alifa Saadya, email 20 July 1999. I would like to thank Fr. Kontos, and also Fr. Johann Roten of the Marian Library for their assistance.


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