Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Q&A with Ori Z. Soltes

Ori Z. Soltes is the author most recently of Jews on Trial: Judges, Juries, Prosecutors and Defendants from the Era of Jesus to Our Own Time. His many other books include Embracing the World and The Glory of Ukraine. He teaches theology, art history, and philosophy at Georgetown University, and he is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: In your book, you look at Jewish-related trials over more than 2,000 years. What were some of the biggest changes over that time period, and how did things remain more or less the same?

A: Two things change in the course of the book and the history that it depicts. Most obviously, Jews go from being an accepted minority by the Roman pagan imperium to a sometimes intensely disfavored minority by most medieval Christian states, to being nominally accepted in a post-revolutionary modern world but then radically disfavored by the late 19th-century due to the shifting view of Judaism as a race rather than a religion.

Indeed the historical narrative is complicated here and elsewhere by the too-often unacknowledged complication of defining Judaism--as religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, body of customs and traditions, etc.

Appositely, I deliberately continue to re-angle the precise way in which Jews are "on trial": Jesus is a Judaean, not a Jew; the Inquisition theoretically has nothing to do with openly practicing Jews, but with heretical Christians; Spinoza is a Jew tried by other Jews influenced by the Inquisition; Eichmann is a nominal Christian tried by Israeli Jews--and so on.

Part of this second issue is a function of the definitional complication to which I refer in relation to the first issue.

And in any case, this re-angling also wishes to make a point--which is what does NOT change over time: that the Jews seem always to be on trial in the court of world opinion, whether accused of mock-crucifying Christian children or spying for the Soviet Union or being suspected of being unable to offer a major Nazi a fair trial.

Q: You write about Jesus’s trial that there are “radical differences between the Gospels and the non-Gospel sources.” What are the most important differences, and what do they signify?

A: The most radical differences are a) Jesus' significance for the world of which he is part; b) the actual role of the Sanhedrin, and in general, the Judaeans, versus the Romans, in leading to his demise; c) the nature and specific role of the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, in the narrative.

If one recognizes that the Gospels take some time to achieve canonization--they are being written between circa 70 and 110 CE, and the entire NT does not achieve canonization until 395, at the Council of Hippo--and that during that time, nascent Judaism and Christianity are not only struggling with each other regarding who has the Truth vis-a-vis God and how to fulfill the Covenant, but are also struggling for acceptance by/from the pagan Roman authorities, then one realizes how and why, over the time between the trial and crucifixion and the final writing down of the various Gospels that end up making it into the canon, the perspective becomes skewed: Pilate becomes a virtual innocent, the Romans are white-washed and the Judaeans become the villains.

This is politically necessary if Christianity is to survive, much less flourish. And given the translation complication of distinguishing between "Judaeans" and "Jews," the villains over time become not the Judaeans but the Jews.

Q: The 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, you write, “had to be made an example.” What were the circumstances leading up to his expulsion from the Jewish community?

A: Alas, for Spinoza, his community was made up mostly of refugees from Spain and Portugal and from an Inquisition that had come to direct itself mainly toward the heresy of Judaizing, and was now living in a place that had successfully asserted its independence from Spain only a few generation earlier--but for whom the fear that this situation might change and revert to a Spanish, Catholic, Inquisition-dominated reality seems to have remained in force.

Moreover, as open as the Dutch republic was to diversity of religious perspective, there was clearly a fear on the part of the Sephardic rabbinic leadership that, should their community, or a notable member of it, be suspected of not being God-believing--that this would be too much for the Dutch authorities, who would step in and expel the community.

It was also just plain bad timing that Menasseh Ben Israel was in England by the time the proceedings came to a head. He may well have been wise enough to protect his former student from the narrow-minded madness of his colleagues.

Q: Moving to more recent times, you write that the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg “cut directly against the assertion that the American legal system inevitably leads to justice.” Why do you think that?

A: In analyzing everything that I have read about the Rosenbergs, I am firmly convinced that their trial was subject to improprieties and/or prejudicial blindnesses, and that their execution was rushed, offering no opportunity to mount a more potent defense or a second look at some of the evidence and its alleged implications--and that this would not have happened had they (and perhaps even more importantly, Judge Kaufmann and all the other key figures involved with their trial) not been Jewish.

This is NOT an argument for their innocence (or their guilt!); it is an argument for the unique impropriety of the procedure that led to their swift execution.

Q: You also look at the case of Jonathan Pollard. Why did you choose to include him in your book?

A: Pollard seemed a natural inclusion. He has been a most unusual Jew on trial for a crime that nobody doubts he committed. But as with the Rosenbergs there seems to me that the way he was handled from the beginning would have been different (and I try to demonstrate that in the book with comparisons to several other relatively recent spy cases) had the country to which he was handing over so much information not been Israel: the "Jewish" state.

There is more, such as the Iran-Contra affair and its place in the narrative of Reagan's presidency and the convenient role of the Pollard case in substantially redirecting adverse publicity from that Teflon character away from where it might more appropriately have been directed. But one needs to read the book to get the details!

Q: What has been the reaction from readers to Jews on Trial?

A: The response that I have encountered either verbally, or in the one review written by a Jewish reader that I have seen, has been enthusiastic--as a work that offers a broad and deep look at the history of Jewish-Christian relations through an important and somewhat different lens.

Not surprisingly, not everyone necessarily agrees with my conclusions regarding the Rosenbergs or Pollard, but I have not encountered anyone who disagrees with the overall thesis or has been other than--impressed, I guess--with the scope of the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on three largish projects at the moment. One is God and the Goalposts: A Short History of Religion, Sports, Art, Politics and War. The second is Tradition and Transformation: Definition and the Historical Challenge of "Jewish" Art. Both of these should be out in a few months.

The third is to finish writing (I am about 85 percent done) a book called Magic and Religion in the Greco-Roman World: The Beginnings of Judaism and Christianity. These and a steady stream of smaller projects do manage to keep me from slipping into the well of boredom.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here. Ori Z. Soltes is participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival at the Washington DCJCC, which runs from October 18-28, 2015.

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