Monday, August 20, 2012

"Hey JC, You're Alright By Me"- in which we travel thousands of miles to see a play we might find racist

An American, an Israeli, and some Brits walk into a bar in Nottingham…. There’s no punch line (yet) because it hasn’t happened yet. This may well happen when I go meet my friend, Ori, who is from Israel, and we go to see Jesus Christ Superstar in England. We’ve purchased our tickets months in advance, and have been excitedly planning our trip. In our anticipation about the show, we’ve been discussing many aspects, but one that is intriguing to us is that the play can be viewed as anti-Jewish.

In my discussions with Ori, I find that a lot of notions ingrained from my WASP upbringing, that I hadn’t even realized were biased, are essentially…ummm…wrong. First of all, in our discussions, I was using the term “anti-Semitic”. Ori has corrected me a couple of times, and I will now try to use the term “anti-Jewish”. Secondly, growing up in the Bible-belt here, when we talk about something in the New Testament, we just say, “In the Bible”. This has led to some amusing exchanges, as Ori and I try to discuss whether something is in the Bible or not, if I am referring to the New Testament as the Bible. So I will try to say New Testament, when we are talking about…umm, yeah, the New Testament. Which is probably what we will be talking about, given the subject matter of the musical.

Ori and I have both watched the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, but not the 2000 version.  I think although Ori finds the original lyrics troublesome, she felt especially offended by the portrayal of the Jewish clerics and the Jewish masses in the film. I will let her elaborate more.

So, welcome, my first guest blogger, Ori!  We have discussed a bit here and there about Ori’s reactions after seeing the film, and have realized that this is an important and interesting topic. I am going to make a list of questions or perhaps brief comments, and Ori can elaborate about her perspective and conclusions, and add any additional comments, or even questions for …umm…whoever may read this post, (maybe those Brits in the joke which hasn’t happened yet).

Directed to Ori:

- Do you want to include any background about yourself? I mentioned you are from Israel. Anything else? If not, that’s OK, of course.

- Will you discuss the term "anti-Jewish", as opposed to "anti-Semitic"?

- You have mentioned that when you first saw the film, you had an initial gut reaction about the racism in it that was later confirmed for you by reading other people’s similar opinions. Will you elaborate on why you feel the film is racist, and your feelings of realizing that others feel this way too?

- One of my reactions to hearing you say that the Jewish clerics were portrayed negatively was, “Well, that is how they were portrayed in the New Testament. It’s not the play’s fault.” Almost immediately, I realized the inherent bias I am showing there. First of all, even though I am no longer Christian, I realize I still hold this assumption that the New Testament is a more or less a historically accurate (albeit embellished with supernaturalism) telling of events. I had NEVER thought about how the New Testament itself can be read as anti-Jewish, and its portrayals may not be at all accurate in many ways. (I’m being stupid, but honest.)

- Do you find the New Testament to be anti-Jewish? Are there Jewish versions of the Christ story? How would you prefer the clerics and the crowds in JCS be portrayed?

- You have said the film is especially offensive, but that the racism is embedded in the lyrics. I found a quote by Tim Rice, discussing how he wrote Judas:
He did what he did, not because he was basically evil, but because he was intelligent. He could see Christ becoming something he considered harmful to the Jews. Judas felt that they been persecuted enough. As far as what Christ was saying, general principles of how human beings should live together – Judas approved of this. What Judas was worried about was that as Christ got bigger and bigger and more popular, people began switching their attentions from what Christ was saying to Christ himself. They were saying that Jesus is God, here is the new Messiah, and Judas was terrified because, a.) he didn’t agree with it – he thought Christ was getting out of control and it was affecting Him, and b.) Judas reckoned that if the movement got too big and people began worshipping Christ as a god, the Romans who were occupying Israel would come down and clobber them. – Superstar lyricist Tim Rice  source

When I read this, I got the impression that Tim Rice, at least here, at least in this one aspect of his intentions for Judas, wanted to make Judas protective of the Jews. Does that make his lyrics less offensive at all?

-I’ve read three complaints, in this article, and other places that some consider JCS blasphemous, some consider it anti-black, and some consider it anti-Jewish? Do you have any comments about the first of those two?

- Is there anything else you want to add, or discuss?

Ori's Response

First of all, I want to thank you for letting me be a part of this post. The questions are perfect. I assume the subject was thoroughly discussed in 1973, but I wasn't alive then, so I'm very happy I get to discuss it now. OK, I'll dive in.

-         I'm glad you asked about background, because I feel I need to provide some anyway, and you just gave me an excuse.

I was born and raised Jewish in Israel (which is the perfect excuse for my poor English and lack of eloquence. I hope I can be coherent enough). I was a child of two Holocaust babies (which might explain my enhanced sensitivity to this issue). My mother was very religious and forced the entire family to do silly things like pray, eat kosher food etc.

I was always secular. I'd tease my mother about her ridiculous ways even as a small child, while trying to keep a balance between my mocking and being given up for adoption.
I think the most important thing I can say is that everything I will say from now on is personal: I'm not a rabbi or scholar of religion, and not an authority on anything. Whatever opinions or thoughts I express are representative of me alone (even if I've seen a lot of them expressed before by others).

-         The "anti-Semitic" vs. the "anti-Jewish" thing. That's my own fussiness getting in the way. Wikipedia may not be the most accurate source, but its definition of the term "Semitic" is sufficient for this discussion: "The term Semite means a member of any of various ancient and modern Semitic-speaking peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including; Akkadians (Assyrians and Babylonians), Eblaites, Ugarites, Canaanites, Phoenicians (including Carthaginians), Hebrews (Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Ahlamu, Arameans, Chaldeans, Amorites, Moabites, Edomites, Hyksos, Arabs, Nabateans, Maganites, Shebans, Sutu, Ubarites, Dilmunites, Bahranis, Maltese, Mandaeans, Sabians, Syriacs, Mhallami, Amalekites and Ethiopian Semites." I have no idea how this term came to mean "anti-Jewish". Since "anti-Semitic" is the commonly used term, we can use it. It just bothers me in the same way that hearing Tim combine his Latin and Greek words bothers me. I can live with it, and I'm not really that anal about it, but it's just not accurate.

-         Two questions for the price of one. I'll start with the one that asks why I think the film is racist. In order to respond to that I need to define how I see "anti-Semitism" (or "anti-Jewism"). In an article about the character of the Jew over the centuries, a history professor (whose name I can't add here because I can't find how he spells it in English anywhere) explains that the church isolated the character of the Jew and represented the Jew as a demon; a diabolic devilish evil entity. According to him, the church claimed the Jew embodies evil forces and must not be placed among the "good" creatures of the world. Here's a link, if you can read Hebrew (or just feel like staring at some Hebrew scribbling): source

The Hebrew version of Wikipedia which talks of the character of the Jew in Nazi propaganda was edited and some parts didn't make it into the English translation. According to Wikipedia, among other representations of the Jews, they were seen as parasites, pests, long nosed rodents (rats, for example). In caricatures drawn in the 1940's they are represented with a curved nose, and described as greedy murderous rapists. See Der ewige Jude, "The Eternal Jew" or "The Wandering Jew". 

(Cover of the film "The Eternal Jew", released in 1940)

These tales, by the way, are reinforced by my grandparents and other holocaust survivors. I apologize for only drawing on Hebrew sources; sources are not as easy to find in English. You'll just have to trust me, or not.

I hope this clears the matter of why I think the film is racist. Jesus' followers aren't Jews. They're Christians. The only actual Jews you see in the film are the clerics. The very sexy clerics (I doubt the real clerics had abs like the movie clerics, but I'm not complaining). You see a group of clerics, two of which get a prime spot in front of the cameras; the others just repeat what the front two are saying. The "head of the order" - tall and funny-hatted with the deep voice, and the shorter, lean, thin-voiced "counselor", whispering his opinions and advice in the ear of the "head guy". I don't even know where to begin. These characters are so stereotypical and caricaturesque it makes me want to puke. The thing that hits home for me, and removes any doubt from my mind is the depiction of the "counselor" character with long narrow snake-like hat and conniving expressions, his low voice and slithery secretive behavior. The Jews in the film come up with a secret plan to destroy Jesus, who is infringing on their territory, (while they plan, the "head guy" says to his little assistant "we need a more permanent solution". Sound familiar?) The clerics pay Judas for his help. They don't just pay. They pay well. Why? Because they can. Because they have the money to pay for it.

These scenes in which the Jews are plotting and planning a murder are reminiscent of all those movies where the powerful king has an evil counselor bending his ear and controlling him. The counselor is always the evil demonic character who must die or be imprisoned by the end of the film in order to reach a happy end.

While I was looking through those scenes in search of a good image to add to the post, I noticed a subtle light shift going through the scene. When the "head guy" speaks and the "counselor" listens the faces are lit up and all expressions are visible. When the little guy opens his mouth, the scene becomes much darker. The scene is on YouTube here, in case you want to check it out:

To sum up, according to the film, what are the Jews? Rats. Snakes. Conniving plotters, murderers, power thirsty and fame hungry. It reminded me of all those Nazi newspaper caricatures I've seen in the Yad VaShem Museum. It actually physically hurt.

Now for the second part of the question. Whenever I have any thought or opinion, I always assume it's just me, and keep it to myself, the way a minority of one would. I felt very strongly about this subject, but said nothing, until Mary posted an article that reaffirmed my views. This is the reason I feel comfortable enough to do this post thing.

-         When we were discussing this issue and you said this is how Jews are portrayed in the New Testament, I was greatly surprised. I confess, I have never read the New Testament, and I didn't know it went back that far. Judaism has a lot of sects (or groups, or currents, I don't know what to call them), and each has its own version of religion. Being secular and atheist I don't know that much about versions of the Jesus story, aside from what being a part of a religious family and spending a year in a religious school could teach me. As far as I know, for Jews the bible ends at the end of the first part. The Jesus story doesn’t exist. In fact, I'm pretty sure in most religious communities here it's forbidden (as is the Qur'an).  

I wouldn't be so harsh on the New Testament for being a racist book. It was written as a sequel to the Jewish bible, and that book has racism written right into it. I've known quite a few religious Jews who are wise, enlightened, kind… and very racist, as a result of the bible. And the needle on the offensive meter goes to 100%…

To clarify: I work for an office that serves only the religious market, and a lot of the people I work with are wonderful people. However, they occasionally make the most racist comments in a very offhand way; as if they were absolute truths everyone has already acknowledged. I'm going to get killed over this, aren't I? 

As for how I'd like them to be portrayed – I have no idea. Probably less caricature-like. How would you like them to be portrayed? 

-         About the lyrics: I don't think the lyrics themselves are racist. Had I just heard the soundtrack, I would have had no problem with it. But having seen the film, I couldn't think of any way to represent it which isn't extremely racist. I honestly hope I’m completely visionless and the new production will not be racist at all, but I have strong doubts about that.

I think having a black Judas (am I allowed to use "black"? I don't mean to be offensive) can be seen as an anti-black thing. I love the character. I don't think they could have made Judas look any better than he did (even if he seemed a bit jealous of Jesus' success to me). Still, in spite of how "good" he is in the film, historically his character is the infinite backstabbing traitor no matter how you portray him. I think it doesn't matter how Judas is played, it's always going to seem to some people as an anti-whatever the person who played Judas was (so I suppose in this new production it'll be seen as anti-young white wealthy male. I don't think there's a term for that. White-ism?).

I have to say, before I'm remembered as the most negative person in the world by anyone reading this post that I can't see a way in which this musical can be completely without racism, due to the story it's based on. Besides that, I think the film is a masterpiece, I love the music, and I'm completely addicted to the soundtrack. Sorry for going on so long (and being offensive). I can't wait for the joke to happen; I know it'll be fun and funny.

Ori, I think your English is impressive, and is more eloquent than many native speakers (myself included)! I’m glad you are willing to write such a comprehensive explanation of your views! I only have minor disagreements, and those may be simply based on my ignorance. First, I thought that the masses of followers in the movie were considered Jews, and only Jesus’ apostles or close friends were considered Christians. I’m not sure if that is because they called Jesus “king of the Jews”, or if I just read that in a movie synopsis somewhere.  Either way, it is largely irrelevant, except that some people think the “masses” were considered fickle, first showering Jesus with affection, then later turning on him. But that seems to be other people’s complaint, not yours.

I see what you are saying about the black Judas, but I do not think casting a black actor for Judas was racist or even a bad idea. (I don’t think it’s offensive to say “black”, especially when the article we are referring to used the term “black”.) I think we should not even notice the skin color of the actor. Can you imagine if they had intentionally NOT made Judas black? If they had said, “Carl, nailed it. Your voice is incredible and you show such depth of character and would be perfect for this role, but we’re not going to have a black Judas.” THAT would be racist. Also, given that Judas is really the protagonist here, I think we should definitely try to move beyond any accusations of casting the black man as the evil character.

The things that interest me the most about your post, are the ways in which racism from all angles may be all around us, and we don’t even notice it, be it in the remarks of your coworkers, or in a sacred text, or in songs or in this film.  The fact that we don’t notice them isn’t just indicative of our ignorance or lack of sensitivity, it is a telling sign that what is imperceptible to some may be outright painful to others. When someone tells me something is hurtful, I want to be more aware of it now, even if I hadn’t noticed it before, and hope to not do things to contribute to that hurt. I was going to say it is also a way of saying the offended person is always right, but I don’t think this is an issue of right or wrong and it it’s not something that can be argued and intellectualized. It’s just an issue of empathy, and I thank you for helping me understand your feelings.

I'm never confident about my level of English around native English speakers. I doubt I'll ever get over that, but I'm glad this arrangement seems to have worked (and glad you think it's impressive. Thank you).

Regarding the masses: they started out mostly Jewish, but in the end they weren't. Since I can't back my understanding of the story with any real authority, I won't go into it. Suffice it to say - they were Jewish in the beginning (so was Jesus), and they didn't end up as a current of Judaism, but rather a completely separate religion. 

I agree with you that denying someone work because they're black is obviously racist, and I don't think they were anti-black when they chose him for the part. I just think it can easily be seen as anti-black by some people who aren't us. 

I completely agree with your statement about offensiveness. It's not about who's right or wrong, it's about how the people we communicate with feel about what we're saying, and how we choose to deal with it. If we don't want to offend people, we won't use certain words that offend them (or we will use those words, if we don't mind offending them so much).

Anyway, thank you for this invitation to co-post with you. I must admit I've never done anything like this before (I have an obscure blog somewhere, but I've never written anything opinionated in it. It was mostly for silly prose or trip updates), and I'm feeling a little afraid of what might happen as a result of some of the things I wrote. I'm sure everything will be ok, though. 

This was fun we should do it again sometime. 

If you're still with us, thanks for reading! Ori and I would love to hear thoughts on this subject and continue this discussion. Leave comments!! Big thanks to our friend, Cyn, for proofreading this for us, and helping us both with our less-than-perfect English.


  1. I've never seen the play or movie yet. So I don't know how useful my comments will be. To me (a white American raised Christian, now married to an atheist Jew.) I don't necessarily see the portrayal of the priests as a stereotype for all Jews.

    From my prospective (and memory of the Bible) every character in the story is either a Jew or a Roman. So there are good and bad Jews being shown, just as in life there are good and bad people of every race/religion/etc.

    At the point in history being portrayed, all of Jesus's followers are Jews. It is not until after his death and resurrection that he tells the disciples to spread the word amongst the gentiles -- that his followers are something new and not Jewish.

    However, not being a member of a minority or persecuted group I can't know what it feels like to be a member of a group and then see it portrayed in a way that hurts you. It is possible that I am blind to the racism inherent in many situations, including this story. (I can think of other cases where the racism in something is obvious and offensive to me even though I'm not the target. Maybe this is more subtle so I'm not as in tuned to pick up on it.) Maybe the ministers in the church I grew up in were better at making the story not racist. I never understood why Christians would hate Jews since the God Chrisitans worship was/is Jewish.

    Now, knowing that Ori, and others, find it racist I will have to give this some more thought.

  2. Thank you both for writing this post: this topic fascinates me and I want to understand it. My ideas on this (as on most things) are a work in progress but here's where I am at the moment.

    Currently atheist, I grew up in a loosely Christian environment. The Christianity at home was implicit rather than explicit and rarely discussed, but I attended a Church of England primary school where the faith was overtly, if cosily, woven into every day. Perhaps I just wasn't listening very closely, but I am fortunate enough to recall no anti-Jewish sentiment whatsoever. It wasn't until I began to learn some history and to investigate Christianity more deeply as an adult, that I became aware of the view, held by some, of the Jews as "Christ-killers" and its role in the persecution of the Jewish people.

    So I certainly appreciate the potential for race-sensitive issues around JCS.

    Our copy of the film still hasn't arrived, so I still haven't seen it (at least not for forty years!) but I will now be trying to watch through Ori's eyes as well as my own.

    I have to say I agree with all of sdlibrarian's comments. It is my understanding too that this is a story about Jews (the first Christians arising with the spread of the resurrection story) with goodies and baddies like any gripping tale. I think the lyrics convey well the fear that Jesus was stirring in some of his contemporaries, but it's hard to see how the scheming clerics could have been portrayed in this telling of the story as anything but "the bad guys". So I suppose then that the question is, did the filmmakers achieve this end by using an offensive stereotype? I concede that Ori is better placed than me to judge this. From my point of view, watching the brief film clip given above, I so far see darkly plotting characters in absurd hats certainly, but not the powerful caricature that Ori describes as having been present in despicable wartime propaganda. However, as has been said, sometimes our biases are so ingrained that we don't even notice them and we must listen when others point them out. I feel sad that Ori's family history and intimate knowledge of anti-Jewish propaganda mean that she can't help but make painful connections. I can't imagine how difficult that must be and I thank her for sharing her feelings with us.

    Regarding the film's black Judas, perhaps it's too easy for white me to say, but I tend to agree with Mary that his race shouldn't matter. Apart from anything else, though we are traditionally encouraged to think of Judas as evil (possession by Satan is postulated in some versions of the story in the NT) JCS portrays him in a very different light, regarded as far too sympathetic by some Christians. If we insist on making a connection between the race of the actor and the part, which way should we jump? I think this was always going to be a highly subjective point.

    The blasphemy charge is obvious and to be expected. In JCS, Jesus is painted as little more than a charismatic but deluded human being. I find this telling of the story from an earthly perspective all the more poignant and distressing for that but, of course, it was always bound to offend some Christians.

    I look forward to learning more about this topic. Thanks again for the post. Also, for educating us about the difference between "anti-Jewish" and "anti-Semitic".

    And, naturally, I very much look forward to playing the role of "A Brit" in The Joke!

  3. You made me wonder about where the term anti-Semitic came from. A German bigot in the 1800's came up with the term to make hating Jews sound more acceptable. Even though it means "anti-Jewish," I can see why some people don't like it considering the origins, as well as the inaccuracy. I saw a couple articles complaining it should not be used because it refers to Arabs as well. One Jewish person said it should be used because it is the only term that refers to this specific prejudice.

    The bit about confusion at what you both meant by "the Bible," reminds me of when I found out the Catholics had a different Bible than the Protestants. And if you really want racism, look at the Mormon Bible. Whew.

    I was raised by very religious Baptist parents (though they converted to a more liberal Lutheranism when I was a teenager.) I learned quite a lot about the Bible, going to Church 3 times a week (more during revivals and Vacation Bible School.) I don't actually remember hearing much about Jews when I was growing up, though. We learned about them, of course, and what life was like during Jesus' time, and there was a sort of pity that the Jews didn't realize that Jesus was the Messiah and because of that they would go to Hell. (I'm so glad I'm an atheist now.)

    I was impressed that Ori wrote a piece on anti-Semitism without mentioning Shakespeare. It seems like whenever the historical portrayal of Jews is mentioned Shylock is the first thing everyone jumps on. (Bit of trivia: The Germans broadcast The Merchant of Venice as propaganda.)

    Mary and Ori, I am really looking forward to hearing about your opinion of the JCS production, especially since they changed the time period.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    sdlibrarian, I think you've hit on something very important here- "However, not being a member of a minority or persecuted group I can't know what it feels like to be a member of a group and then see it portrayed in a way that hurts you." That's one of the main reasons I wanted to do this post, to make a minority voice heard, and I think this is the ...(hmmm. I almost used the term "ultimate solution")... best resolution in these situations. Even if I don't see something, or don't see something as racist, when the offended person is telling me it is, I need to take their word for it. To quote my beloved Lemony Snicket, "Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink."

    Elaine- I actually like parts of the Bible, I mean New Testament, about Jesus. I like the stories about his humanity more than the supernatural ones. I hope to re-watch the film and reread the gospels before seeing this in Nottingham. I really look forward to each of our roles in that bar joke.

    Cyn- Thank you so much for editing for us!!! You were so helpful.

    I totally had forgotten about the "pity the Jews" attitude I've encountered too. Bleh. I'm embarrassingly unfamiliar with a lot of Shakespeare and don't know Merchant of Venice.

    I obviously can't wait to see this production. Maybe Ori and I will write an update, once we see it. I don't remember if you have seen the film, Cyn? I don't think that they've actully changed the time period for this production. The film (and the stage version I've seen) have some anachronistic elements, so I suspect the riot gear is just one of those.

  5. I've seen some other very interesting comments in other places, as well as here. Cyn, I love that you did this research, I was wondering how the term became what we know it to be today.
    Yes, the merchant of Venice is pretty bad. Every time I crack open my big book of "Shakespeare's big book of everything" (I think it's called "the complete works", or whatever), I avoid that one. Eh, he was never in my top 3 poets/bards/writers.
    I love these comments. They're interesting and fun. I was a bit terrified when we posted this, but I feel better now.