It's a curious thing about the Jews. Whenever we get attacked, we get blamed for having provoked the attack and being aggressors rather than victims. This strange phenomenon did not begin with Israel's current war against Hamas. It has as unending series of precedents. It was true in the pogroms that followed the black death where the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells of Europe. It was true of the Tah v'Tat massacres of 1648-49 in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by Bogdan Chmielnicki's Cossacks. Till today, many Ukrainian and Polish historians hold the Jews accountable for inciting the most savage slaughter of Jews outside the holocaust, maintaining that Jewish administrators of estates engaged in persecution of the peasants in their midst, even though there is not a shred of evidence to support the slanderous allegation. And it was especially true of the holocaust where Hitler repeatedly portrayed the Jews as parasitic connivers out to embroil all of Europe in war. His most famous quote on the subject was in a speech to the Reichstag on January 30th, 1939: "Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevising of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" So the Jews provoked the holocaust, just as Israel provoked the launching of 600 rockets against its kindergartens, hospitals, and family homes by Hamas.
Why is it so easy to blame the Jews as aggressors even when it is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are the innocent victims? Unfortunately, the allegation traces itself all the way back to the New Testament's claim of Jewish deicide in the death of Jesus. The Romans, a brute nation, are portrayed as benevolently trying to save Jesus while the Jews are portrayed as bloodthirsty killers who want a docile and peace-loving prophet dead. And don't think that because the Arabs are Muslims that they are not affected by this slander. The New York Times reported on its front page just this past Saturday (January 9) that Sheik Eid Abdel Hamid Youssef, a government-appointed preacher in a 1000-year-old Cairo mosque, inveighed against the Jews: "God has inflicted the Muslim nation with a people whom God has become angry at and whom he cursed so he made monkeys and pigs out of them. They killed prophets and messengers and sowed corruption on Earth. They are the most evil on Earth."
Yes, original Jewish culpability begins with the greatest lie ever told, that the Jews were responsible for killing G-d incarnate, which is why Jesus himself tells the Jews, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning," (John 8:44) The Roman proconsul Pontius Pilate emerges as a peace-loving humanitarian who is goaded by the Jews into killing Jesus:
"What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked. They all answered, "Crucify him!" "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!" When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said... All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt: 27: 22-25)
Nowadays we tend to have a somewhat rosy view of the Romans. In an ancient world populated with barbaric hordes, Rome was the light. We owe the Romans the decorum of the Senate and the beauty of surviving ancient monuments. The truth, of course, is that the Romans were a warlike people who lived and ruled entirely by the sword. The real Rome was not the splendor of the Coliseum but the barbaric gladiatorial combat that took place within it. The Romans had a civilized outer veneer, but scratch the surface and you had an empire whose principal engine consisted of brutal soldiers imposing the Roman will on weaker adversaries and slaughtering them en masse if they rebelled once conquered. As Hyam Maccoby says, it would be hard to find two nations more unlike each other in the ancient world than the Romans and the Jews. The Romans celebrated conquest and military prowess; the Jews championed justice and their prophets preached an eventual era of eternal peace. Urban life for Romans was centered on the cruelties of the arena with its gory spectacles, while the Jews looked towards the Temple of God in Jerusalem.
As for Pontius Pilate, he was the cruelest proconsul ever sent by Rome to Judea and crucified tens of thousands of innocent Jews for the most minor infractions. King Herod Agrippa I wrote a letter to the Emperor Caligula about Pilate's "acts of violence.... provocations, corruption... continual murder of persons untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, endless and unbelievable cruelties."
Philo wrote of Pilate's "violence, robberies... continuous executions without even the form of a trial, endless and intolerable cruelties." Josephus, in Antiquities, shows that Pilate's excessive murders and brutality were so severe that they eventually got him recalled to Rome in the year 36.
Even Jesus himself uses Pilate as an example of barbaric cruelty which will be visited upon his disciples unless they repent:
"There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-3)
As for the claim that the Jews, rather than the Romans, hated Jesus, Matthew writes that just five days before his crucifixion the Jews gave Jesus a very enthusiastic welcome to Jerusalem.
"A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road... and shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" (21:8-9).
Is it really believable that the Jews would turn against Jesus so quickly, from lionizing him to demanding his immediate execution, in under a week?
How and why the later editors of the gospels got away with ingratiating themselves with the Romans by portraying the Jews as sadistic god-killers while the Romans came out as benevolent humanitarians is a mystery to which I am devoting an entire book slated for publication later this year. But it set the stage for the tiny State of Israel till today being portrayed, against all the evidence, as an inhuman aggressor while its adversaries are always weak and innocent victims.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published 'The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Rediscovering Desire and Reigning Passion for Life.'