On Jan. 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Vice President Pence tweeted, from his official account, a message honoring “the 6 million Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust who 3 years after walking beneath the shadow of death, rose up from the ashes to resurrect themselves to reclaim a Jewish future.”
Ostensibly a message of respect and reflection, the tweet provoked a firestorm. Many Jews saw it as an egregious show of disrespect, because it erased Jewish history by refiguring it as a Christian experience. The tweet employed the vocabulary (“martyrs”) and structure (“resurrection”) of Christianity to contain the experience of Jews, making it a message that reflected Pence’s own religious views rather than the historical experience of Jews.
Pence’s religious views matter here, because he holds an evangelical notion of Judaism, one that sees Jews as nothing more than instruments in an apocalyptic narrative that seeks the return of Christ. What at first appears to be a well-intentioned, if bungling, message turns out to have an insidious intent: to signal to his base that accommodating gestures made toward Jews are being made in the service of Christian aims.
Pence’s message has a strong historical precedent, one stretching back to the 12th and 13th centuries in major European cities in France and Germany. At that time, Jews were simultaneously protected and restricted by Christian rulers, who perceived Jews as objectionable nonbelievers but nevertheless God’s original “chosen” people and living relics of the church’s foundations in Judaism.
This understanding of Jews as inferior but worth protecting played out in the public venue of art. As historian Nina Rowe has shown, art produced under Frederick II in the 13th century declared the subordination of Jews to Christians, and it did so in a way that was similar to Pence’s tweet.
In the highly visible arena of Strasbourg Cathedral, viewers saw juxtaposed sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga — that is, female personifications of the church and the synagogue, or Christianity and Judaism. Both of these beautiful life-size figures, which still exist, have willowy proportions and elegant bodies. Yet while the church stands upright, confident and gazing with a clear-eyed purpose, the synagogue bears a broken spear and the tablets of the Ten Commandments while casting her blindfolded eyes toward the ground.
These sculptures were used to exemplify the necessity of Jews to the narrative of Christianity: Christianity emerged from Judaism, but Judaism is eternally a mere prologue and forever subordinate to Christianity. The medieval viewers of Strasbourg saw Christianity calling out to the Jews to recognize their subjugation and purpose, and hailing Christians to recognize their salvation. The goal was to include Jews within a Christian worldview while humiliating them and making them bear witness to Christian authority.
This mixed treatment of Jews — protected but derided — stemmed primarily from an End-Times-oriented worldview: At the time of the apocalypse, Christ would return to a Jerusalem held by Jews, Jews would convert to Christianity and Christ would then rule all people. But there were also pragmatic calculations. Jews served a necessary function as moneylenders in the market economy, making it impossible for Frederick II to simply dispose of them. Art thus became a powerful tool to remind the public that while Jews were necessary, they were nevertheless inferior and ought to be treated as such.
This same sentiment animated Pence’s Holocaust remembrance tweet. He turned his Twitter account into the modern southern facade of Strasbourg Cathedral. Pence, a self-proclaimed “evangelical Catholic,” was making a grand proclamation to Jews, evangelical Christians and especially his fellow Christian Zionists about the place of both religions in the world.
Many Christian Zionists believe we live in the end times, and so see their mission as preparing for them. Pence was playing to this sentiment by refiguring — again — the idea of the inferior but necessary Jew. Rather than expressing sympathy about one of the great tragedies of human history, he was exploiting its remembrance to advance his religious views.
Pence is entitled to his religious views, but it is important for us to understand precisely what he believes and how it influences both policy and rhetoric. While in office, Pence has forged ties with Christian Zionists, who believe in a utilitarian approach toward Jews in service of Christian aims. What are the policy implications of that partnership? Do Pence’s views represent those of the Trump administration? If so, what does it mean for an administration governing in an era of rising anti-Semitism?
These are the questions we should be asking instead of criticizing Pence for being a bumbler.