BERLIN — It’s difficult to see what’s not anti-Semitic about the tradition that was filmed in the Polish town of Pruchnik over Easter.
On the ground, residents had placed a straw-filled effigy, complete with some of the most prevalent stereotypes about Jews, including Orthodox Jewish sidelocks and a large nose.
Then, children and adults began to beat the effigy with sticks, before burning their “Judas.”
With anti-Semitic attacks on the rise across Europe, there was widespread condemnation this week over the “revival” of a tradition to which Jewish organizations reacted with “disgust and outrage.” The Polish Catholic Church soon joined the chorus of critics, alongside the Polish interior minister, who called the incident “idiotic.”
But in fact, like the Dutch practice of blackface, it’s a tradition that has persisted rather than been revived.
In Greece, the burning of a Judas effigy has remained a tradition — a controversial spectacle most recently accompanied by a laser show. Similar traditions exist in parts of South America and the Middle East. Greece and other countries where such burnings are commonplace have rejected criticism by referring to the New Testament and Judas’s betrayal of Jesus.
While the Catholic Church taught for much of the past century that the death of Jesus was to be blamed on Jews, the experience of World War II and the Holocaust triggered a rethink and the abandonment of that interpretation within the church. But not all communities changed course.
In recent years, defending that practice as merely rooted in religion has become more difficult for them.
In 2015, for instance, right-wing extremist Polish groups burned a similar effigy depicting an Orthodox Jew in the city of Wroclaw to protest the European Union’s migration policy, shortly after the Islamic State’s attacks in Paris the same year.
The effigy bore striking similarities to George Soros, a Jewish investor and liberal donor, with the implied message that Jews like Soros were deliberately trying to destroy what right-wing groups see as Europe’s Christian identity.
One of the groups behind the 2015 protest was the All Polish Youth organization, which views itself as the successor of an outspoken anti-Semitic group before World War II.
Poland’s left-wing opposition has accused the right-wing Polish government of emboldening such far-right groups through its more extreme rhetoric. Last year, the right-wing Law and Justice party pushed a law through Parliament that was originally expected to ban all references implying that Poland or Polish people bore some responsibility for the Holocaust, which was committed by the Nazis on Polish soil.
The law drew strong condemnation from Israeli officials and Jewish groups, who feared that it could restrict freedom of speech and become a pretext to crack down on historians who urge Poland to examine some Poles’ involvement in the Nazi crimes.
Last summer, the Polish government finally changed course, caving in to domestic and international pressure to avoid being seen as anti-Semitic itself. But while the government has been careful to reject such criticism, the far-right groups it appears to have emboldened have not backed down.
Their anger has also been directed at the U.S. State Department, which offered a strong rebuke of the country’s Holocaust law last year. When U.S. Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher wished Jews a happy Passover on Sunday — before wishing a happy Easter to Christians — she faced an immediate backlash from far-right activists who accused her of a “provocation” and compared her to “traitorous Jews.”
Sunday’s far-right rhetoric bore some similarities to the Catholic Church’s anti-Jewish sentiments before World War II that accompanied the burnings of Judas effigies.
In a statement on Sunday’s incident in Pruchnik, the World Jewish Congress said: “Jews are deeply disturbed by this ghastly revival of medieval anti-Semitism that led to unimaginable violence and suffering.”
More on WorldViews: