Alex Hearn

The Passion Play brings Christian antisemitism to Trafalgar Square

Stagings of Easter story in public places continue to normalise old themes of prejudice

April 11, 2023 17:43

In recent years, the notoriously antisemitic Easter play depicting the crucifixion of Jesus known as The Passion Play has been revived. It is performed in public places, with a recent one in Trafalgar Square by Wintershall, supported by the London Mayor and his office.

Hundreds attended, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whose photos showed the disciples wearing tallit — prayer shawls — for the Last Supper. Totally out of context, the only point of using these religious garments was as visual shorthand to indicate Jewishness. Jesus was not wearing one.

The livestream recording had thousands of views by the next day. It showed the disciples putting on their tallit specifically for the meal and then discarding them afterwards, like oversized napkins.

The Jesus character puts the tallit directly onto Judas alone as a focal point of the scene, highlighting the Jewishness of the traitor.

In The Passion Play, Judas betrays Jesus, a characteristic which the early Church said represented all Jews. The Nazis infamously adopted this theme for the “stab in the back” myth, blaming the loss of the First World War on Jewish betrayal.

I sometimes walk past Trafalgar Square with my young son. How would he have felt seeing Jews represented that way? How would I explain to him that Christianity still blames Jews for the death of their deity, and is responsible for inflicting thousands of years of suffering on us as a result?

A recording of the Wintershall performance from Trafalgar Square in 2021 shows a kippah-wearing high priest demanding blood, while threatening and manipulating the reluctant Roman governor Pilate in order to kill Jesus. The script was the same this year, although the kippah was removed.

Occasionally, my son wears his kippah when we are out. How would people have reacted to seeing that same symbol of Jewishness, had we walked past at that moment? And how would that have made him feel?

Sadiq Khan’s post gushed about the play being “fantastic” and a “powerful Easter story”. For me, it was religious hatred as public entertainment, supported by the authorities.
Linking Jews with these stereotypes has a long and violent history.

For centuries, The Passion Play was one of the most antisemitic texts in Europe, inciting massacres against Jews at Easter. Hitler saw it twice in the 1930s, and later said it was “vital” that it continued to be staged to portray “the menace of Jewry”.

I hadn’t expected to see an ancient antisemitic play with demonising elements still intact on the streets of London in 2023. It has also been performed elsewhere.

The Dean of Worcester, Canon Brian McGinley, took part in one, saying he was “privileged” to play one of the “scheming priests” who was “seeking the downfall of Jesus”. He posted a picture of himself with the other priests dressed with tallits on their heads. The picture next to it was the crown of thorns on a pillow.

Deacon Paul O’Connor posted a photo of these “duplicitous priests” wearing tallits as fancy dress, to give their deceit a distinctly Jewish identity. Bishop John Inge boasted that “hundreds watched” as these ancient antisemitic stereotypes were perpetuated.

There is no organised Jewish community left in Worcester to offend because they were killed and expelled hundreds of years ago. Yet the religious authorities there are still fantasising about the bad things for which Jews are supposedly responsible.

What is the point in the church recanting on “the Jews killed Jesus” accusation or admitting their role in normalising the Jew hate that formed the background to the Holocaust when their officials openly incite the old bigotry? When I raised the issue on social media, one response was, “shut up Jew”, with similar sentiments using more polite language.

The antisemitic cultural heritage in our society has yet to be properly confronted. This is why Jews are living in a climate where antisemitism has once again risen. It is The Passion of Antisemitism.

I understand how important Easter is in the Christian calendar, but the resurgence of The Passion Play in public places with antisemitic tropes needs to stop. The use of Jewish items of worship to identify bad characters is unnecessary to the story and doesn’t help the safety of Jews or encourage positive Christian-Jewish relations.

It would be easy not to depict bad people as Jewish in the play — simply stop purchasing Jewish religious objects to demonise Jews.

The Easter story would not suffer by being told in a more culturally aware and sensitive manner. And Jews wouldn’t feel like they had to explain Christian antisemitism to their children when out on a casual walk.

April 11, 2023 17:43

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