The Same Old Story

Barabbas: A Novel of the Time of Jesus.
by Emery Bekessy.
Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston.
New York, Prentice-Hall, 1946. 324 pp. $2.75.

There is here no subtlety, no clever invention, no sense of historical justice. It is difficult to say whether Bekessy is primarily interested in contrasting Barabbas—who represents violence, hatred, and physical salvation—with Jesus—who, of course, represents love and humility—or in writing a hate-book against Jews. References to Jewish priests are always accompanied by lurid adjectives: even tough Barabbas “almost shrank from the cold light that gleamed in the [High Priest’s] eyes as he spoke”; the power of the priesthood rests on “violence, hatred, harshness, mercilessness, impatience, arrogance, idolization of one nation and one race [reviewer’s italics], killing and warfare.”

The old canard that interprets the Chosen People concept as an anticipation of the day when Israel will enslave the world is here revived, and the enslavement is made contingent upon vicarious atonement by a Messiah. We read that “it has become a habit among the Jews to kill their prophets,” and then are treated to a description of the Jews arresting Jesus, trying him, condemning him, inflicting all sorts of obscenities upon him, and finally blackmailing the helpless Pilate into accomplishing their wishes. We learn that Pilate wanted to save Jesus because of the procurator’s love for Mary Magdalen, but was prevented from doing so because the Jews, who were favorites in Rome at the time (!), would have had him removed. Lest we miss the point: after the crucifixion, Pilate “felt oppressed by shame, tormented by disgrace for this city, this nation, himself.” And Bekessy’s literal message—lest anyone should dissociate the Jews of that era from those of today—is: “Don’t you think that some day the world will lose patience with you and exterminate the whole pack of you?”

To make the Jewish case even worse, Jesus is bowdlerized into a meek figure who doesn’t even drive the money-changers out of the Temple; such a universalist that not only does he not limit his ministry to the Jews, but “he recognizes no historical tradition, no native land”; so forgiving that he preaches only love and never even reprimands the Pharisees.

The author’s anti-Semitic zeal is exceeded only by the banality of his style—and his ignorance. He reverses the facts and makes the Sadducees lenient and the Pharisees severe in their approach to Jewish law; a Maccabean is involved with the priests and Barabbas in a revolt (how this Maccabean escaped the Herodian liquidation of that family is not explained); Barabbas’ army (an army overlooked by Jewish historians of the period, and by Josephus as well) is so great that the Romans fear for their lives even in Jerusalem and travel only in full centuries; Roman soldiers use the ancient Chinese foot-tickling torture; the cold in Jerusalem is unbearable in winter (!)—children pelt Roman soldiers with snowballs in March; sleet descends just before Passover (April).

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Why was the book written, why was it printed, and why was it selected by the Religious Book Club (which has on its editorial advisory board such persons as Harry Emerson Fosdick, John Foster Dulles, Bishop Oxnam of the Methodist Church, and President Charles Seymour of Yale)?

The answer to the first question is indicated on the dust cover of the book itself, in the description of Bekessy as an “Austro-Hungarian writer, journalist, and publisher who came to this country in 1940.” His late departure from what was then Hitler-occupied Europe may well be significant of his political and social orientation. And the fact that Andreas Hemberger, his collaborator, remained in Vienna until his death in June 1946 adds a few more strokes. These circumstances, plus the internal evidence of the book itself, leave one to decide whether Bekessy is an out-and-out anti-Semite who was expressing himself, or a “neutral” intellectual writing what he knew would appeal to Jew-haters in Europe (where the book was written)—and in the United States as well.

Prentice-Hall published the volume for what probably seemed to them a very good reason—that it would sell. Novels about the life of Jesus do sell very well, and a partial reason may be that they almost inevitably carry with them a “pure,” “idealistic,” even “high-minded” anti-Semitism that any Christian familiar with the Gospels can not only accept easily, but righteously champion—all the work of Protestant textbook commissions and anti-defamation leagues and American conferences of Christians and Jews notwithstanding.

As to the motives of the liberal and well-reputed Religious Book Club—they must remain a mystery. The very advertisement appending their approval (full-page in the Times book-review section of November 17, and during the week following) was so patently anti-Semitic in its tone that without even having read the book itself, the Club’s officers should have been offended and warned. Is it too much to ask that the Religious Book Club withdraw its endorsement? In any case, caveat emptor.

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