Wishing to keep the holiday spirit rolling, I thought that it would be interesting hearing about this. Easter in the christian orthodox tradition has always a far greater weight than Christmas and it’s celebrations are always solemn in churches and joyous in the countryside.
One of the characteristic celebrations is the “Burning of Judas” which is also presented as the “Burning of the Jew” and at least in one place as the “Burning of the Nigger”. In the last days of Easter a stuffed doll in humanlike dimensions is being prepared, stuffed with inflammable material and often with fireworks. It is hanged, in some places shot upon and ultimately burned. All this is accompanied by insults, curses but also great joy from the children. In the past it was also a chance for an occasional outburst of the population as various ethnographic and literary sources tell us; the mob set fire to a house or two in the local jewish neighbourhood but usually it was reduced to stone throwing - almost never human casualties were noted but an occasional beating of a jew found nearby, wasn’t completely rare. Of course all these happened where jewish communities were present; lacking jews the “Burning of the Jew/Judas” took a more folkloristic turn with absolutely no physical violence involved and this is the form we find it today.
For details on how it is done and photos one can visit the Akanthou in Cyprus page, a page from Crete containing also anti-jewish carols, pages from Hydra and again from Crete. In the same page one can read the carols that small children sang in Volos cursing jews.
A source from the end of the 19th century tells us about the Burning of the Jew in a village in the greek Asia Minor:
It remains alive in my memory this custom from home, the burning of the jew.. […] I waited with anxiety this day. […] We thought and felt some kind of delight because we were taking revenge […] Friday night before Easter we would light up the fire and then throw the jew and he would be set ablaze and all the kids would yell like victors after a triumph with something wild together. […] The fire would become enormous, the flames would reach high and light ,the beach and the boats in see would see from far away the flames and would know than in Petroumi the christians burn the jew. That day jews would hide in their homes and didn’t dare set foot outside. They kept the children inside and didn’t even go to their shops. The children had such a fury, such hatred that searched a jew to burn him alive”.
Centre of Asia Minor studies, Oral Tradition Archive, Karia
This kind of physical violence, which disrupted the public order and the fact that this custom has pagan roots led the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church to condemn it unequivocally in encyclicals in 1891, 1910 and 1918. In these official papers it is condemned and repeated that this tradition: “…incites religious hatred and fosters fanatism.”; also it repeated that: “the observance of these traditions is going against the basis and foundations of our faith”. Although these encyclicals were never revoked, modern religious leaders have failed to repeat these concepts and even attended such events, indirectly approving them. On the other hand, persons like the spokesperson of the Holy Synod have recalled them in a recent article and claimed that they remain valid examples of the good nature of the Greek Church. Other local religious leaders like the former Metropolite of Alexandroupolis Anthimos, (who isn’t characterized by feelings of love towards greek jews), have issued similar encyclicals as recently as 2005. In his, independently of his other racist declarations, excellent circular he asks the communities of Chilis and Amphitritis: “Does the burning of Judas, which is wrongfully maintained in your communities, have anything to do with the Resurrected Jesus Christ which we will celebrate in a few days? […] For this I ask you and I urge you and I beseech these two communities of Chilis and Amphitritis to stop this unhistorical, uncivilised and unchristian custom. […] The Holy Synod of Greece has condemned with encyclicals in 1891, 1910 and in 1918 this atrocious custom.”
Of course later he also states why, in my humble opinion, really gets him mad:
“It is an insult to the holy Epitaph since it includes the immaculate body of the God of love, to forsake it during the procession and stay back to set fire to Judas! ” (exclamation marks follow faithfully the ones in the original).
The antisemitic character of this custom was obvious also to the Catholic Church which in the mixed orthodox-catholic island of Syros forced it’s abolition. We read: “this custom generated anti-Semitic feelings among the Catholics and was therefore abolished by Jesuit monks, despite public reactions”.
It isn’t only opinion of the Greek Orthodox Church that this is a custom that promotes hatred, but also of the scientific community. Professor of Modern Greek Language at the University of Thessaloniki F.Abatzopoulou, concurs that the “Burning of Judas” is the “most familiar and widespread manifestation of traditional anti-Semitism in Greece.” Korombokis and Kotinis also state that in Thessaloniki the custom was linked with traditional hatred towards jews based on religious grounds.
A special reference should also be made in the case of Dalmedico Abba who was the delegate of the jewish community in the ottoman held Chania in Crete. Member of the local Assembly in 1875 he proposed and apparently managed to approve the abolition of the “Burning of Judas” though there are doubts if eventually this decision was implemented. In any case it serves as an example of jewish opposition to the custom and it’s obvious antisemitic character through time.
So, in theory we have a situation where the Greek Church, despite local support to this custom, has officially taken a strong stance against it, the scientific community which also talks against it, the local Jewish Community which has protested against it, we are aware of the antisemitic feeling that creates since it’s well documented in literature and folklore and also Human Rights groups like the Greek Helsinki Monitor, each year protest against it. So where is the problem? The problem is that it still continues today since nobody actually wants to actively move against it. Even worse, it gets promoted officially by the Greek State through it’s National Tourism Organization. In it’s site there are several references, (here, here and here) when describing easter customs in various parts of Greece, showing it’s a widespread phenomenon. Unfortunately even some members of the Greek Church chose intentionally to ignore what the same Church has admitted; an example is the Metropolite of the greek island of Hydra. In 2005 the Central Jewish Board sent a letter to the Metropolite asking him to pronounce on this custom on the island of Hydra. Instead the office of the mayor responded, (!), that this custom was “connected with the greek War of Independence” without of course explaining how these two things are connected. The Central Board was not satisfied with this explanation and responded to the mayor; as far as I know it was also repeated this year.
To an extent it is possible to say that how, greek institutions and greek society, deal with this matter it is indicative of how the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and hate speech are treated in Greece. Although it is clear that the phenomenon is linked with antisemitic manifestations, although official sources like the Church of Greece have condemned it, although nobody denies that even today there are racist outbursts during the burning, although there are numerous documented incidents, it is still regarded as a matter of foreign interference! How is this? Even among known members of the greek blogosphere or among the known neo-Nazi groups like Crissi Avgi and LAOS the whole matter only appears when the State Department accuses Greece of anti-Semitism and lists the “Burning of Judas/Jew” as one of it’s manifestations. The protests of the greek jewish community simply don’t register! Nobody gives a damn about them; only when the americans make a generic statement, which even they don’t really pay attention, the greek society decides to talk about it! And I think it’s indicative the fact that the government member that is called to comment is the vice-minister of Defence as if we were talking about a foreign state and not about insults to greek citizens!
Anyway to complete the picture we need to state that the “guest of honour” during the easter celebrations isn’t only played by jews. In a twisted deviation of the custom in the village of Gastouni the jew is substituted by a black man and the whole ceremony is called literally “The Burning of the Nigger”. In other pages we also learn that the Roma are accused of forging the nails that were used to crucify Jesus, (no one remembers that there were no Roma in Palestine for centuries so it was physically impossible for them to do it). The oral tradition goes that this is the reason which do not settle in any land, a punishment for their presumed involvement.
I’d like to end this small post with a small discovery I made. One of the sites which lists all of the traditional customs for Easter and relative songs, that are often an open incitation against jews and roma, is this one. To my great surprise I found out that it is the site of the Regional Directorship of the Primary Education in Thessaly, (the organization that coordinates elementary schools in the greek region of Thessaly). The page is listed as a page which includes recommended material for Easter celebrations inside the schools. It contains things that are already known but it is simply amazing and disgusting that they are officially proposed to be taught at small children! Some of the things that the greek educational system considers that need to be taught in all schools, re-enacted in schools plays and be sang by children from 6 to 12 years old, include the following:
1)Of course the Burning of Judas/Jew with relative details.
2)The Easter carols which says:
“Σήμερον μαύρος ουρανός, σήμερον μαύρη μέρα, “Today black sky, today black day
σήμερα κόσμος θλίβουνται και τα βουνά λυπούνται, today the people grieve and mountains grieve
σήμερα βάλανε βουλή οι άνομοι Εβραίοι, today the wicked Jews decided
οι άνομοι και τα σκυλιά κ‘ οι τρισκαταραμένοι, the wicked dogs and the threefold cursed
για να σταυρώσουν το Χριστό, τον πάντων βασιλέα to crucify Christ, the king of all
3)The carols that accompany the Burning of Judas/Jew; they testify how these two figures are interchangeable to the public opinion, (the poem is in rimes so difficult to translate):
“Ράτσα, κεράτσα lady, milady
δώσ‘ μια κληματσίδα give me some vine wood
να κάψουμε τον Οβριγιό to burn the Jew
πόχει πολλή κασσίδα, that has a lot of filth
Οβριγιός φορεί φτερό the Jew wears a feather
στο κεφάλι τ‘ το ξερό…” on his mulish head…
4) In Easter, jars are broken “to the joy of Christ and ridicule of the Jews”.
5) Among the traditional customs it mentions that on Good Friday “no craftsman touched a nail because the gipsy nailed with nails Christ”.
It is completely unacceptable that small children learn how and why to hate Jews and Roma. It is simply appalling that these traditions are passed upon small children in the form of songs and there isn’t even recommended that the hatred towards jews should be minimized. It is simply frustrating and disappointing to see that the hatred towards jews, even at the form of traditions which are by the admission of the Church antisemitic, is passed from the elders to the younger with the blessing of the Greek State and the educational system which fails miserably even to understand that what it does is contrary to it’s mission or even to common decency. Maybe this is an exception? Evidently not since the Parents and Guardians Association of the 3rd Elementary school of Alimos has a site containing the same carols.
I’d like to expressly state that in no way I think that people who participate are raging racists who yearn to burn jews and since they can’t, they limit themselves to dolls. I’m sure that most of them consciously do not understand that what they do is wrong. The problem here is that the Greek State and generally people like the mayor of Hydra do know the racist nature of it, but still they choose not to act against it. This isn’t simply a case of jews being oversensitive; it is the Greek Church herself who has condemned it as an act against the christian faith and modern religious leaders describe it as atrocious.
Each time I think of anti-Semitism in Greece I think that the situation is hopeless. Not because the situation is so desperately violent, (even though each year that passes it becomes significantly worse), but because nobody seems to care. The same institutions that are supposed to work towards diminishing the hatred, are the ones who work actively to propagate it! When in school the textbooks often have antisemitic references or completely ignore jews and the Holocaust, when school actively perpetuates racist traditions and songs, when the school teachers are often completely ignorant on racism issues, when the system fails to pursue a policy of integration and often schools end up as the privileged place of nationalistic actions, how can we ever hope in a change? A quote says that “A pessimist is only a well informed optimist” - I think it fits perfectly in this case.
(Belated) Happy Easter to all…
PS. The greek Helsinki Monitor, a human rights group, recently protested on the Burning of Judas. Some facts which I state here derived from that report and I’d like to thank them – read about it here -> http://deviousdiva.com/2007/04/13/burning-judas/