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Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović and Charges of Anti-Semitism

Jovan Byford

The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 17(Fall 2009): 1, 3-5.

Amiable Serbian-Jewish Relations

Most historical accounts of Serbian-Jewish relations emphasize that compared to many other European societies, and notwithstanding some less laudable periods in Serbian history, the relationship between Serbs and Jews over the centuries had been amiable.1 This fact is also emphasized by representatives of the Jewish community and by liberal public opinion. In fact, one of the reasons why recent manifestations of anti-Semitism have attracted so much interest and criticism is precisely because of the lack of an established, long-standing legacy of anti-Semitism in Serbian culture.

Jews Saved by Bishop Velimirović

Ela Trifunović-Najhaus, a Jew from Belgrade, sent a letter to the Holy Synod in 2001 in which she testified that during the German occupation Bishop Nikolaj dressed her and her mother in monastic attire and hid them in a convent in his diocese, risking his own life.2 The fact that the bishop saved concrete individuals, more importantly the family of a personal friend, does not and should not in any way undermine the valid criticism of anti-Semitic views which appear in some of his writing. A single act should not be used to divert attention from Velimirović’s broader perspective, which was demonstrably anti-Semitic.

“Biblical” Anti-Semitism

In the case of the management of Velimirović’s moral accountability, by far the most common strategy for legitimizing his anti-Semitism involves the argument that anti-Jewish proclamations apparent in the bishop’s writing originate directly from the Holy Scriptures. Shortly after the Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church announced the canonization of Nikolaj Velimirović, Deacon Ljubomir Ranković discussed the new saint’s contentious views in a debate on Radio Free Europe. He argued, “The anti-Semitism, let’s accept that term, of Bishop Nikolaj was on a theological, or rather, biblical level. That kind of anti-Semitism is present in the Bible itself.”3

Emphasis on the “theological” or “biblical” nature of Velimirović’s anti-Semitism implies that a contrast can be drawn between this legitimate form of criticism of Jews and some kind of “real” anti-Semitism, for instance that of the Nazis, that warrants moral censure. The distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, which is, in effect, a denial of prejudice, assumes that “biblical” anti-Semitism is an acceptable ideological position. The justification of Velimirović’s controversial stance towards Jews rests, therefore, on the distinction between, on the one hand, the seemingly legitimate doctrine of Christian anti-Judaism – said to be rooted in the Holy Scriptures and motivated by divine love for the Jews – and, on the other hand, the ideology of secular, Nazi anti-Semitism.

Scholarly literature on Christian-Jewish relations acknowledges the possibility, and even the necessity, of preserving the formal, theoretical distinction between anti-Judaism – as a theological abstraction – and the secular variants of racial and conspiratorial anti-Semitism.4 At the same time, Christian anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism are said to be tied by a profound historical connectedness which undermines the relevance and appropriateness of this differentiation in practice.5 G. Baum, for instance, argues:

 While it would be historically untruthful to blame the Christian Church for Hitler’s anti-Semitism and the monstrous crimes committed by his followers, what is true, alas, is that the Church has        produced an abiding contempt among Christians for Jews and all things Jewish, a contempt that aided Hitler’s purposes. The church made the Jewish people a symbol of unredeemed humanity; it painted a picture of Jews as a blind, stubborn, carnal, and perverse people, an image that was fundamental in Hitler’s choice of Jews as a scapegoat.6

In Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, Velimirović accredits Nazism to the secularization of Europe and portrays it as the outcome of Western civilization’s fatal departure from traditional Christian values. Yet, in the same book he asserts that the much-maligned secularization stems from Jewish influence and the fact that Europe “knows nothing other than what Jews serve to her.” The implication of this argument is that Nazism was not just a new “whip” brought on by the “innocent blood” of Christ, or yet another burst of the fire that “burns [Jewish] repositories of schemes against Christ.” It is also the work of the Devil and his disciple, the Jew.7

Attempts at refuting the accusations of anti-Semitism directed at Nikolaj Velimirović have turned one of the oldest premises of traditional Christian anti-Semitic rhetoric – the idea that Jews killed Christ and have drawn upon themselves eternal damnation that will end only when they repent and accept Christian teachings – into a seemingly acceptable, natural, and even normative aspect of Christian identity. The rhetoric of denial based on the drawing of a parallel between Velimirović’s anti-Semitic work and the words of the Bible has been shown to depoliticize and legitimize the bishop’s anti-Jewish stance by placing it under the banner of normal and acceptable “theological anti-Judaism.”

Ongoing Denials of Anti-Semitism

Velimirović’s ideological position continues to be unchallenged within the Serbian Orthodox Church. Most disturbingly, the spontaneity with which Velimirović’s supporters invoke denial suggests that normalization and legitimization of anti-Jewish sentiment have become entrenched in the routine of Velimirović’s remembrance. Bearing in mind Velimirović’s popularity in Serbia today, it is clear that apologist rhetoric is gradually becoming part of the ideological common sense, an outcome that cannot have a positive impact on Christian-Jewish relations in the country.

The continuing adulation of Nikolaj Velimirović involves routine repression of his anti-Semitism and a whole host of strategies of denial, the aim of which is to justify, play down, and rationalize his lamentable stance towards Jews. The way the bishop’s admirers talk about Jews allows them to construct themselves, their hero, and in some cases even the whole of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian people as being devoid of prejudice. By legitimizing and normalizing the discredited ideological tradition of anti-Jewish prejudice, denial and repression of Velimirović’s anti-Semitism perpetuates social inequality, while at the same time protecting the dominant group’s ideas, symbols, and authority against charges of intolerance.

The hero-worship of Nikolaj Velimirović and the favorable interpretation of his controversial work within Orthodox culture are not peripheral to the problem of anti-Semitism and are therefore not something that can be simply overlooked for the sake of mutual respect. Remembrance and uncritical reverence of Nikolaj Velimirović are the most powerful ideological sources of anti-Jewish prejudice in Serbian culture, from which much of contemporary anti-Semitism derives legitimacy and authority.

The “problem” with the persistence of Serbian anti-Semitism in Orthodox culture does not lie in the “sins” of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović. Although much of the current public debate between different “memory communities” in Serbia revolves around whether or not Velimirović was an anti-Semite, this issue is of little practical importance. Velimirović lived and wrote in the first half of the 20th century, reaching the pinnacle of his career in the period between the two World Wars. This was a period when conspiratorial anti-Semitism was at the peak of its worldwide popularity and anti-Jewish slurs were, in Billig’s words, the “polite currency of gentile conversation.”8

Contempt for Jews was also a routine feature of Christian theology, liturgical practice, and church life throughout Christendom. In 1938, a Vatican encyclical, which, somewhat paradoxically, was critical of the passing of anti-Semitic laws in Italy, argued that “Jews put to death their Savior and King” and invited upon themselves “the wrath of God” and “divine malediction, dooming them, as it were, to perpetually wander over the face of the earth.” The same document accused Jews of promoting revolutionary movements that aim to “destroy society and to obliterate from the minds of men the knowledge, reverence, and love of God.”9 These words are virtually identical to those that Velimirović wrote six years later in his Words to the Serbian People through the Dungeon Window. He, just like the authors of the encyclical, inhabited the world before the post-Holocaust political morality justifiably imposed limitations on expressions of intolerance and pushed anti-Semitism to the margins of political discourse. Thus, the fact that we find anti-Semitic language in Velimirović’s writing is not unusual. Nevertheless, it does cast a shadow over his integrity because a considerable number of his contemporaries, who may not have been as educated, knowledgeable, and eloquent as Nikolaj is said to have been, but who were just as devoted to their religion and their people, adopted a more commendable stance towards Jews and took a political stand which, in contrast to that of Velimirović, was unequivocally anti-fascist.

 

The Defense of Velimirović: More Troubling Than Velimirović

Still, the main problem with contemporary Christian-Jewish relations in Serbia lies not in what Velimirović was really like, but in his remembrance and his uncritical adulation. It is to be found in the attempts to justify and excuse his stance toward Jews and present it as normal, acceptable, and even necessary. The reluctance by church authorities to address the controversy surrounding his writings obscures the boundaries between the extreme and the mainstream in Serbian Orthodox culture and in so doing facilitates the promulgation of anti-Jewish prejudice and feeds political extremism. F

Notes:

1 H.P. Freidenreich, The Jews of Yugoslavia: A Quest for Community (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979); Z. Lebl, Do “konačnog rešenja”: Jevreji u Beogradu, 1521-1942 [Until the “Final Solution”; Jews in Belgrade 1521-1942] (Belgrade: Čigora, 2001); L. Sekelj, Vreme beščašća [The Age of Dishonor] (Belgrade: Akademija Nova, 1995).

2 Lj. Ranković, “Zvona zvone Vladici [Bells Toll for the Bishop],” Večernje Novosti, 21 June 2003; http://www.novosti.co.yu/code/navigate.php?Id=16&status=jedna&datum=2003-06-21&feljton=3655.

3 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2 June 2003.

4 J. Hellig, The Holocaust and Antisemitism: A Short History (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002); R. Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Antisemitism (New York: Seabury, 1974).

5 J. Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002; D. Goldhagen, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfilled Duty of Repair (New York: Knopf, 2002); R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (London: Holmes & Meier, 1985).

6 G. Baum, “Introduction” in R. Ruether, ed., Faith and Fratricide, 1-22.

7 Velimirović, Poruka, 194.

8 M. Billig, Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 250.

9 Goldhagen, Moral Reckoning, 85.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Jovan Byford, Denial and Repression of Anti-Semitism; Post-Communist Remembrance of the Serbian Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008).

Jovan Byford is a lecturer in psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.