A full room of students, faculty and members of the Keene State College community recently attended a program where the controversial title asked, “Was Jesus a Nazi?”
The title was created by KSC History Professor Nick Germana, who said, “The idea is to try to emphasize that the historical identity of Jesus is one that, in the particular period that Professor Heschel will be talking about, is an ideologically constructed identity.”
During the presentation, on Wednesday, March 28, in the Madison Street Lounge, Historian and Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Susannah Heschel, spoke about her research of Nazi theologians and the depiction of the historical Jesus. Germana explained that, more often than not, in the United States today, Jesus is depicted as an “arianized” figure, with traits such as pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. “That image is embedded with all sorts of statements about cultural identity and values,” Germana said. Chloe Nixon, KSC student and President of Zeta Chi Rho, The Holocaust and Genocide Studies Honors society, explained that she helped with the set up and planning of the program.
Though Nixon noted that she joined the planning of the program after the title was created, she said she really hoped
“nobody was offended by the title.” Nixon noted that the title of the program was controversial but, with the addition of its subtitle, “It [the combined title and subtitle] suited it well.”
Cindy Cheshire, the Campus Minister for the Newman Center, which works with KSC students, said she attended the event after, “I saw the poster and I was very upset.”
Cheshire added about the title, “I don’t think disrespectful or offensive titles are ever a good strategy.”
However, Cheshire continued by stating that the title was misleading, but the presentation was an “excellent work of scholarship,” by Heschel. Cheshire said that she was interested in many of the topics discussed during the presentation. Nixon said that Heschel’s personal story of being a historian interested her. ”Many people told her the subject was not worth studying and then she continued to pursue it,” Nixon said.
Heschel explained in her presentation that, as a historian, “This particular topic is one that I came to, in a way, by chance.” The Dartmouth professor explained that she traveled to Berlin, and visited a center for anti-semitism, where she found publications from the time of World War II written by German theologians.
“I started going through these books and I found out what they were writing about was vulgar, horrible anti-semitism. I was taken aback, I was shocked and I wondered who published this. It turns out on the title page, it was published by the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence in German Religious Life,” Heschel said.
Despite claims of fellow colleagues that this institution was unimportant or “forgotten and lost,” Heschel said, through her own research, “I started to see the names of people who were involved in this institute and who were producing this anti-semitic propaganda and I saw that there was quite a bit of it that they had produced.”
Heschel said that she discovered the institution was “celebrated” when it was active.
Heschel called the beliefs of this institution, which was made up of church ministers, scholars and other people of influence, a “seesaw theory,” where Judaism was presented as negative to elevate Christianity. Heschel later explained that the institute which she had researched wanted to “de-juda-ise Christianity.”
KSC senior Jake Douville stated that he thought the title did not have much to do with the program.
Douville said, however, “There were some points made that did connect to the title,” noting how the speaker explained how religion and ways of life were affected during the 1930s time period, which Heschel researched.
Douville, who attended the lecture for his Comparative Government class, said he thought the presentation was very informative. “She [Heshcel] talked about some very interesting things,” Douville said.
“One thing that was interesting to me, was the whole denial of how Jesus was Jewish and their version of the New Testament. They took out words and references. It just seems weird. There was clearly proof that he was Jewish,” Douville said.
Heschel explained that the German Christian Movement, a faction of the Protestant church which also helped fund the Institution, believed that the Old Testament was a Jewish book that should not be read. “The New Testament also had to be changed,” Heschel explained, “They had to redo the gospels and take out any positive jewish reference. Jesus was not Jewish. So, that was eliminated and they published their own New Testament, purged of Jewish references.”
When reflecting on her own research, Heschel said, “I consider this [her discoveries] an utter and complete perversion of Christianity in every way. I think it’s also one of the most shameful things a person can do. In gathering the material about this, I was very upset by this project.” Heschel continued, “It made me very angry and very upset and, as soon as I finished this book, I decided I was never gonna work with the Nazi period again.”
Heschel added, “On the other hand, I wanted to expose it. I was horrified and I was upset that their were so many historians that have written so many, hundreds and hundreds of, books about the churches and Nazi Germany who have never written about this.”
Heschel said during the conclusion of her speech, “I thought the Bible was the greatest and most powerful force for eliminating bigotry,” Heschel added, “It shocked me that the Bible could be used for such nefarious purposes.”
Despite those who thought the title was controversial, Nixon said, “I was really happy with the program.”
Nixon explained that she thought the lecture offered a “wide appeal of perspectives” that students would not find in class. Nixon said she thought Heschel spoke about the topic in a way where students who hadn’t studied the time period could learn and know about it more.
The lecture held in the L.P. Young Student Center was sponsored by the History and Genocide and Holocaust Studies Honors Societies at KSC.
Pam Bump can be contacted at email@example.com