Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Yehezkiel the Presser, Bessarabian Bogdan and a former Chief Rabbi of Rome

Posted on: July 18, 2018

During the Kishinev pogrom in Easter 1903, a mob armed with kitchen and farming implements burst into the cottage of Yehezkiel the Presser. Approaching Yehezkiel with his hatchet raised, Bogdan took the time to ask him a question: ‘Who killed Jesus?’

Yehezkiel’s wife and daughters had climbed out on to roof and he hoped that they might make a getaway, so he played for time.

‘First of all,’ he said, ‘I think the answer to your question is the Romans. That Pilate, he was the one. All right, I know he wasn’t happy with the judgment. I know he went full Lady Macbeth with the washing of hands. You can blame the burden of governance if you like.’

Bogdan’s response came quickly as he swung his hatchet.

‘You killed Jesus,’ he said.

‘Here’s another thing,’ replied Yehezkiel. ‘The events you’re referring to, they’re not recent. By my calculations, they happened – what? Eighteen hundred and seventy years ago. Well, I’m fifty three, Bogdan. I wasn’t there. You know that as well as I do.’

‘Christ killer,’ answered Bogdan. ‘Child murderer.’

‘Believe me,’ Yehezkiel assured him, ‘I have every admiration for Jesus, whom you call Christ. It’s just a pity he didn’t write it all down himself because those biographers, you know, one of them says it’s Thursday and another one says it’s dinner time. Four evangelists, forty opinions. So I hear. But this was all far away, as well as long ago. Wonderful climate, they tell me, in the Holy Land. Not like Bessarabia. Brrr. The winter we had. Have you got cherries yet in your orchard? No? Well it’s early days.’

Bogsdan was now inches away. You might say that he eyeballed Yehezkiel but he was so much taller, he would have had to crouch to do any serious eyeballing.

‘Admit you killed Jesus,’ he advised Yehezkiel.

I’d be lying if I told you Yehezkiel didn’t consider saying it. Who knows? Bogdan might then spare his life. Or not. The point was, Bogdan had brought a crowd with him and Yehezkiel didn’t want to give them the wrong idea, so he said, ‘This I did not do.’

Bogdan then employed his hatchet so thoroughly that Yehezkiel had no opportunity to say ‘Shema Yisrael’.

He died. By some miracle, his wife and daughters got away.

*

You can no more say ‘This isn’t about Israel’ than Yehezkiel could say ‘It isn’t about the crucifixion’. Antisemites may be the adjudicators of what this is about.  You can say ‘The Romans did it and besides, I wasn’t there.’ You can say that Israel doesn’t bear all the guilt and besides, I’m not there.  Or you can say ‘Israel has all the power and bears all the guilt so I repudiate it.’ Historically, those who converted were allowed to live. If you are living and working in a milieu where Israel is considered the supreme evil, you might think that the right thing is to cut yourself loose from its rocky embrace.

You might think the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament and that converting is the righteous way. I’m the first to agree that the Christian scriptures are beautiful; well, second, if you count Yehezkiel; third really, because of Rabbi Lionel Blue. In the medieval disputations, there were Franciscan and Dominican friars who had started their education at the Talmud Torah but, following conversions, became fierce adversaries of Jews and Judaism.

Apostasy happens in modern times too. Israel Zolli who was the Chief Rabbi of Rome in 1945 was baptized and chose the name Eugenio in honour of Pope Pius XII, a controversial pope if ever there was one.

Renouncing and denouncing Israel is not like apostasy.  You can make a religious case against Zionism, as Neturei Karta and others have done.

This is where I get controversial. When you denounce Israel, Eugenio Zolli is watching with approval. Pablo Christiani and Nicholas Donin extend their ghostly hands to you. And maybe – but maybe not – Bogdan lets you live.

As for me, I’m a voter, like everyone else; the decisions of the Israeli government and the UK government are not my decisions  and not necessarily what I voted  for, but I want to be able to express pride in the two countries which are, in a sense, my two parents: England, the mother who bore me and Israel, the father who engendered me.

Rarely a day passes without someone – and very often it’s someone declaring their support for Mr Corbyn – without someone saying to me ‘But what about Israel. They did this and they do that and you’re complicit.’ It’s a fact that I’ve only ever been called a murderer since opening a Twitter account.

In one way, they are right. They say that this question of Labour antisemitism is all about Israel, and it is. In the way that the Kishinev pogrom was about the crucifixion, Labour antisemitism is about Israel. From their point of view, Zionism is the  πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον or primus motor, the uncaused cause of many ills.

I don’t buy that.

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