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Denial and Repression of Antisemitism

Jovan Byford

Chapter Five. “He was merely quoting the Bible!”

Denial of Velimirović’s Antisemitism

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1The previous chapter highlighted the frequentcy with which the narrative of national self-glorification and the rhetoric of literal and comparative denial appear in ecclesiastical and nationalist discourse, whenever the topic of antisemitism is raised. Bearing in mind the prevalence of this broader strategy of denial, it is not surprising to find that generalized claims about the absence of antisemitism among Serbs are also invoked when accusations of anti-Jewish bigotry are directed specifically at Nikolaj Velimirović.

2In the article “Serbs and Jews” quoted extensively in the earlier chapter, the exposition of denial of antisemitism concludes with an explicit defense of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović. The author, Vladimir Dimitrijević, refutes the criticisms of the bishop by claiming that “[i]n our quasi-democratic press it is frequently mentioned that Bishop Nikolaj was an ‘antisemite.’ This accusation is senseless as was the accusation made by the communists—that Nikolaj was a follower of Hitler. Every honorable man knows that the holy Serbian teacher and educator of the Serbian people could not have been a racist, because this is not in the tradition of the people to which he belongs” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 78). Similarly, in response to a criticism of Velimirović in the daily Danas in April 2003, a reader from Belgrade, Nada Bunjak, substantiated her defense of the bishop with the assertion that “in Serbia before the war Jews were well-respected and valued; my family had the best business relations with Jews and in the former Serbia [sic.] no one thought ill of Jews, let alone speak ill of them” (Bunjak, 2003).

3During the interview conducted for the purposes of this study in the summer of 2003, the writer and politician Vuk Drašković also invoked the tradition of Serbian hospitality and benevolence when he noted that he does not “believe that Nikolaj was an antisemite”:

This antisemitism, and this is the most interesting thing, has no foundation in the Serbian Church and the Serbian people. When, during the time of the Inquisition, they were murdering Jews in Spain and other countries of Western Europe whenever they caught them drinking wine, saying: “you drink the blood of Christ”—here in Serbia, which was under Turkey, under Islamic occupation, Jews were greeted without any negative feelings. In fact many sang in choirs in Orthodox churches. I regret that from time to time in the Orthodox Church one may notice some individual expressions of antisemitism. That is against God and our tradition.

4Finally, Slobodan Mileusnić, curator of the museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church and a leading experts on Serbian saints, attempted, during our conversation, to exonerate the bishop by constructing him as part of the broader category of “Orthodox Serbs” among whom antisemitism is an unknown phenomenon:

Bishop Nikolaj, just like the whole of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the whole of the Serbian people—for the Church is not merely the clergy—has an extremely correct stance towards Jews, and it is well-known that some of the suffering [endured by the Serbs and the Jews] in the past is also similar. This was especially the case during World War II. One could say that [the suffering of Serbs and Jews] went hand in hand. The two people fell to a common enemy—we do not have the exact number of victims but we know that it was horrific, that it was genocidal, that it was unprecedented and a martyrdom. Today, the relations between the two people are good. The Serbian Orthodox Church always denounced antisemitism and all the writings and other things that went in that direction…

5The above quotations contain several themes examined in the previous chapter. Mileusnić invokes literal denial of antisemitism among Serbs, while the justification of this generalized claim is based on the familiar notion of common suffering between the Serbs and the Jews. Likewise, Dimitrijević mentioned the “tradition” of munificence and added to his argument a dose of “condemnation of the condemners” when he attributed criticism of Velimirović to the “quasi-democratic press,” which follows the dishonorable tradition of the “communists.” Vuk Drašković not only argued that antisemitism is against “our tradition,” but also used this argument to distance himself from “individual expressions” of prejudice, which in this instance did not include Nikolaj Velimirović.

6The extract from the conversation with Slobodan Mileusnić is noteworthy also because this was the only occasion, during the hourlong interview, that Mileusnić commented on the widespread criticism of Velimirović. He otherwise showed considerable reluctance to give his view on specific aspects of the bishop’s contentious writing. Mileusnić evaded the issue of the Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window by arguing that he “never studied the bishop’s writing of that historical period” and recommended that the interviewer should talk to “individuals more competent to speak on this matter.” The roots of the visible caginess expressed during the interview might be sought in the embarrassment which Mileusnić endured in 1992, when he was dismissed from the post of editor-in-chief of Pravoslavlje following the publication of the article “Jews once again crucify Christ,” which alleged that Christians are being persecuted in Israel (“Jevreji ponovo raspinju hrista,” 1992). Although there is no evidence that Mileusnić shared the hateful views expressed in the article, or was directly responsible for its publication, it appears that in the aftermath of this experience, antisemitism became a subject which he feels is best avoided.

7On the other hand, Mileusnić’s refusal to comment on Velimirović’s views on Jews—which, he suggested, requires specialized knowledge of the bishop’s work and is therefore beyond the realm of everyday casual conversation—was not accompanied by silence on the issue. Rather than saying nothing about the bishop’s stance towards Jews, Mileusnić filled the conversational space with themes inherent in the common sense of national self-presentation, the culturally available narrative which can be summoned when accusations of antisemitism need to be dealt with.

Rising above the criticisms: Refusal to engage in controversy as a form of denial

8The avoidance of questions about Velimirović’s position on Jews, apparent in the interview with Slobodan Mileusnić, is a common strategy among Velimirović’s supporters. Some of them cite the refusal to engage in the debate as the preferred approach, although the justification for doing so differs considerably from that offered by the late curator of the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In May 2003, in a speech reported on Radio B92, Bishop Amfilohije Radović refused to be drawn into the argument regarding Velimirović’s antisemitism, not because he regarded himself insufficiently competent, but because “attacks on Bishop Nikolaj” are “shameful and unworthy of consideration.” Others appear to draw inspiration from what is believed to have been Velimirović’s own approach to criticism. As early as in 1986, in the postscript to the book The New Chrysostom by Artemije Radosavljević, Atanasije Jevtić noted that Bishop Nikolaj never responded to accusations that he is a “heretic,” “bigot,” “freemason,” “English,” or “German agent,” “collaborator,” “enemy of the people,” “clerical nationalist,” etc. and therefore that neither should his followers. Instead, Jevtić argues, they should follow Bishop Nikolaj’s example: “through inner peace, and through Christian forgiveness, [Velimirović] demonstrated to his slanderers what he referred to many times as ‘the love for Christ, the love for fellow man and love for the people’” (Jevtić, 1986e, p. 51). Several years later, on the occasion of the reburial of Velimirović’s remains in 1991, historian Milutin Veković cited a similar reason for refusing to enter into confrontation with the “the spiritually blind, simple souls, retards, political poltroons, and Satan’s apprentices.” He quoted a passage from Velimirović’s book Prayers by the Lake: “Lord, bless my enemies. I too send them my blessings and will not curse them. The enemies are the ones who push me further into your arms… Just as the hounded animal finds cover quicker than one that is not hounded, so I, hounded by enemies, found the safest cover, under Your tent where neither enemies nor friends could make me lose my soul” (Veković, 1991, p. 54).

9The contention, apparent in the quoted statements, that Velimirović’s spiritual superiority and adherence to the principles of Christian forgiveness and tolerance somehow prevented him from responding to criticism, overlooks the fact that the bishop eagerly polemicized with Rabbi Isak Alkalaj in 1928, just as in a letter written in 1946, he confronted his critics over the meaning of the 1935 sermon in which he praised Hitler (see Chapter 3). In fact, Atanasije Jevtić invokes Velimirović’s letter containing the defense of the controversial sermon, only a few paragraphs after stating that the bishop never responded to criticism. Clearly, what is presented as a tactic of non-confrontation and “righteous silence” is in fact an argumentative device, deeply embedded within the very same polemical context which its users are supposedly eager to avoid being drawn into. Similarly, the proclaimed adherence to “inner peace” did not prevent Atanasije Jevtić from writing a number lengthy texts of polemic with Velimirović’s critics (e.g., Jevtić, 1986e, 2003b), in the same way that Veković’s high-minded refusal to “curse” his enemies did not prevent him from labeling them “spiritually blind Satan’s apprentices.” The refusal to engage in the dispute is therefore a form of “offensive rhetoric.” The focus on the moral dichotomy between on the one hand the calm and honorable followers of Christ seeking refuge under God’s “tent” and on the other hand the aggressive and bellicose “slanderers” and “enemies” who “hound” the righteous, diverts attention from the actual subject of controversy—namely Velimirović’s antisemitism, while at the same time exonerating his reputation by maligning the critics.

10In July 2003, in a regular column in the magazine Pravoslavlje—in which he purports to be answering readers “questions on matters of faith and religious life”—the then editor-in-chief, Protopresbyter Ljubivoje Stojanović, elaborated on the benefits of non-confrontation. He was responding to a letter from a reader who was “puzzled by the existence of certain objections [to the canonization of Nikolaj Velimirović] and by ‘accusations’ directed at him.” The reader sought advice on how to “respond to the allegations regarding all manner of things” (Lj. Stojanović, 2003, p. 26). In the response, Stojanović recommends to the readers to ignore accusations: “it is unnecessary to wear ourselves out with empty discussions, in order to defend the Holy Bishop from ‘attacks’… The lack of understanding among the indecisive, which sometimes manifests itself as malice, must not provoke hate within us towards them. We must also be careful, in ‘defending” the bishop, not to identify ourselves with those who, in attacking him try to conceal their weakness of faith” (p. 26). He goes on to suggest that “we will not defend ourselves from the attacks, we will not respond to the insults, but we will always demonstrate the secret of our strong faith which lies in the purity of our conscience” (ibid.). Just like in earlier examples, the debate is deemed to be pointless because of the “other side’s” “indecisiveness” and “malice.” Stojanović writes that critics “either will not or cannot understand or genuinely accept” the bishop’s sanctity (p. 26). Those who are unsympathetic towards Velimirović are said to be “rash,” “malicious,” or to have taken things “out of context.” Although the identity of the critics is not revealed, Stojanović hints at the intended target when he notes that “the living Church is above all unions, forums, and committees” (p. 26). This is an allusion to the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Forum for the Monitoring of Antisemitism, affiliated to the Union of Jewish Communities of Serbia, and to the group of intellectuals who, in the autumn of 2002, issued a press release citing Velimirović in a negative context.

11The contrast—in terms of integrity, strength of faith, and sincerity—between Velimirović’s critics and his followers, is also accentuated through the advice to the readers of Pravoslavlje to adopt a moral high ground on this matter. Because criticism of the bishop is attributed to weakness of faith and character, the columnist advocates rising above “rashness” and “malice,” refraining from “insults” and “disputes,” and calls for patience with those who are “insecure in their faith,” as they are not “our enemies.” Stojanović also advises the readership that—when faced with criticism—they ought to abide by the Evangelical principle of “come and see for yourself,” rather than adopt the approach of “shut up and listen.” He proceeds to argue that “we are least likely to persuade them by imposing our view and by treating theirs with disdain, because in doing so we would be reflecting their weakness of faith” (p. 26). While these comments might be seen as a subtle criticism of those within the Serbian Church who, in Stojanović’s eyes, defend the bishop a bit too eagerly, in the end it is critics—the human rights organizations, the intellectuals, and the liberal media—who are portrayed as zealots, impatient to impose their beliefs on others. Admirers of Velimirović, in contrast, are presented—at least in a normative sense—as tolerant, calm, and armed with the kind of self-assurance characteristic of those who have God on their side.

12In substantiating the claim that disputes should be avoided, Stojanović also “externalizes” his position on Velimirović. He says, “We are reminded of this by our Holy Fathers and teachers who say, ‘every word can be contrasted with another, but no word can be compared to life itself’” (p. 27). Criticisms are thus associated with empty “words” of interested and ideologically-minded critics, while the belief in Velimirović’s sanctity and the assumed purity of his character are regarded as reflecting the reality of “life” itself. It is this distinction between “life” and “words” that gives Stojanović the grounds for optimism. When interviewed for the purposes of this study, Stojanović concluded: “I am an optimist. People will eventually realize the significance of Nikolaj Velimirović.”

“Tiny mosquitoes” and the mighty “eagle”: Who has the right to remember Nikolaj Velimirović?

13The self-righteous stance adopted by Velimirović’s supporters in relation to the evil and morally and intellectually inferior critics is underpinned by the fundamental and unwavering belief in the bishop’s unsurpassed greatness and importance. The following extract from Artemije Radosavljević’s The New Chrysostom offers an illustration of the level of hero-worship among Velimirović’s admirers:

There is no doubt that no Serb has ever written as many brilliant books as Bishop Nikolaj, books on which the Serbian Church and the Serbian people will live spiritually for many centuries to come. On the world stage, both in terms of the quantity and the quality of books written, Nikolaj stands shoulder to shoulder with Origen, St John Chrysostom, and the Blessed Augustine. In terms of the breadth of topics which he covered and the ease with which he had done so, he has hardly any rivals in the world. (A. Radosavljević, 1986, p. 22)

14The assumption regarding Velimirović’s unprecedented greatness is often viewed as imposing limits on the capacity of ordinary mortals to understand and evaluate his work. Shortly after Velimirović’s death, his disciple Dimitrije Najdanović wrote that “Bishop Nikolaj was not just a colossal writer, a giant whose size cannot be evaluated or depicted. He was of almost unsurpassable greatness in terms of his life, his everyday existence, every inner or outer move or action; He was a giant in terms of the whole of his being and his existence” (Najdanović, 2001, p. 85). A similar argument can also be found in the writing of another of the bishop’s disciples, father Justin Popović. In 1966, on the tenth anniversary of Velimirović’s death, Popović compared ordinary people, the Serbs, to “tiny mosquitoes,” and contrasted them with the mighty “eagle,” Nikolaj Velimirović. Popović spoke about ordinary mortals as “tiny little candles,” insignificant compared to “the Sun [that] floats over the Serbian sky, the other sun, that is Bishop Nikolaj. We are ticks, Serbs of today, nothing but ticks who cannot see the sun” (J. Popović, 1998, p. 9). He prefaced another sermon full of praises for the bishop by saying, “Oh Lord, what have I, a small and insignificant worm, done to deserve this opportunity to speak about this magnificent light…” (cited in Stanišić, 1976, p. 15). The implication of these words of humility, which were followed by uncritical reverence of Nikolaj Velimirović, is that ordinary mortals can never fully appreciate the greatness of the “New Chrysostom.”

15More recently, the bishop of Šabac and Valjevo, Lavrentije Trifunović, alluded to the incomprehensibility of Velimirović’s work when he mentioned “the English journalist and writer Stella Alexander”—author of Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945, published in 1979—who “tried seventeen years ago to comprehend, collect, and review the Holy Bishop Nikolaj’s rich literary and spiritual work.” According to Bishop Lavrentije, Stella Alexander “gave up after a while admitting that ‘Nikolaj is an ocean that I can neither comprehend nor describe’” (Trifunović, 2003, p. v).

16The stipulated limits to the ability to understand and assess Nikolaj Velimirović are sometimes confined only to those who are critical of the bishop. It is not just suggested that no one can fully appreciate Velimirović, but that those who disapprove of him are particularly inept at evaluating and appraising the merits of his religious philosophy. In From All-Man to the Man of God, Radovan Bigović suggests that Velimirović “is a very multifaceted, complex at moments, even a controversial person, who so far has been respected, underestimated but never adequately appraised. It will take a long time before this can be achieved. Because of his magical personality and complexity many have stumbled over him. Some out of ignorance, some out of malice. Few people have had so many slanderers and enemies who wanted to destroy and undermine them…” (Bigović, 1998, p. 47). Although Bigović defines the inability to “adequately appraise” the bishop in general terms (in that presumably Velimirović had not yet been “adequately appraised” by anyone), the only ones who are specifically cited as having “stumbled” over his “magical personality” are “the ignorant,” the “malicious” “slanderers,” and the “enemies.” Similarly, in 1987, Bishop Amfilohije Radović quoted Justin Popović’s sermon cited earlier and noted that we must take Popović’s dictum on Velimirović for granted because “our eyes cannot see what the eyes of the holy people see. That which the holy Elder of Ćelije saw, many Serbian eyes, blinded by prejudice and passion, still cannot see. That is why the words of the holy Elder of Ćelije are a great truth about a great man” (A. Radović, 1987, p. 29). Once again, the inability to see what “the eyes of the holy people see” is initially attributed to everyone (“our eyes”), only to be confined later in the same sentence to “many Serbian eyes” that are “blinded by prejudice and passion.” More recently Amfilohije Radović proposed that Velimirović’s merit cannot be discussed or questioned because “we are not worthy of that,” before once again imposing the division between supporters and critics by suggesting that, precisely because no debate on this issue is possible one can only be “with [Velimirović] or against him” (cited in Tomanić, 2003).

17Finally, Protopresbyter Milan Janković, the secretary of the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church and editor of a three-volume collection of documents relating to the life and work of Nikolaj Velimirović—who declined to be interviewed for this study but provided a written response to five questions posed by the author—suggested in his answer the following: “Let’s be clear about one thing: for the last hundred years, those who hate Bishop Nikolaj, those who envy him, who are incapable of understanding all that He, Holy and Great, speaks and writes about, only they speak about the controversy surrounding his writing. When hearing about the antisemitism being imputed to him, a normal person does not know whether to laugh or to cry. Whether to cry over the hatred or laugh at the ignorance.” Accusation of antisemitism is imputed to those who “are incapable of understanding” the “Holy and Great Bishop.” Moreover, critics are contrasted with the “normal person” who is driven to tears and laughter. This construction not only portrays the favorable stance towards Velimirović as the only normal and rational one, but also presents the alternative position as one that is so removed from reality that any form of dialogue or attempt at persuasion is futile. The “normal person” can only laugh or cry.

18Implicit in the above arguments is that only practicing Orthodox Christians, those who can “see,” and who are not “blinded” by passion and prejudice have the ability and the right to accurately judge Velimirović’s genius. Bishop Amfilohije Radović’s suggestion that, when trying to assess Velimirović’s importance, we must accept the verdict of Justin Popović, implies that the latter’s status as one of the “holy people” with superior faith gives him a privileged vantage point over this matter. The aforementioned claim by Ljubivoje Stojanović that “weakness of faith” prevents the critics from “realizing [Velimirović’s] greatness” insinuates that having faith is a necessary prerequisite for assessing and understanding the bishop. In the same vein, during our conversation in the summer of 2003, Deacon Radoš Mladenović defended his refusal to comment on Velimirović’s antisemitism by stating the following:

Don’t be angry, but my answer will be very clear and very short. I don’t think that these attacks warrant a response. Instead Nikolaj should be presented the way he was… I will not respond to [critics of Velimirović], they are educated ignoramuses who don’t understand a thing; they never came here to experience the immanent spirit of Orthodoxy, the immanent spirit of Žiča Monastery and its monastic life, to experience Bishop Nikolaj from the period when he was at Žiča. Instead they are putting him on trial, condemning him from a distance.

19For Mladenović, the only way of seeing Nikolaj “the way he was” is by experiencing the “spirit” of Orthodoxy at the monastery in which Velimirović once officiated. Mladenović reiterated this point on several occasions during the interview, by inviting the author of this book to spend a few days in Žiča before reaching a conclusion on Nikolaj Velimirović. Presumably, this was because, as the example of “educated ignoramuses” demonstrates, the bishop cannot be adequately understood “from a distance” but only from “within.”

20This division between “insiders” and “outsiders,” those who are “with” or “against” the bishop, is crucial to the pro-Velimirović discourse because it elevates the Serbian Church to the position of the only relevant and legitimate arbiter of Velimirović’s integrity. The bishop of Raška and Prizren, Artemije Radosavljević, made this point explicitly, when he wrote in the journal Jefimija in 1993:

To speak of Bishop Nikolaj from any aspect is not easy. Not because there would be nothing to say, but because it would be hard to capture him with words. What we say about Nikolaj might be good, but it would not be Nikolaj. Plenty will remain outside our words, formulae and definitions. This is why Velimirović can only be somewhat captured and understood if viewed and appraised by the Church and within the Church, given that he grew out of the Orthodox Church and became embedded in it. And God’s Orthodox Church alone has the perfect criteria and standards with which people and their deeds can be measured. Those criteria and standards are the eternal and, in the Church, omnipresent godlike personality of Lord Jesus Christ. Only he is the only true and unerring measure of all people and all things” (A. Radosavljević, 1993, p. 9)

21During the conversation held in the summer of 2003, Branimir Nešić from Dveri went as far as to argue that any remembrance of Nikolaj Velimirović that strays from the official line should be prohibited. Angry at the accusations of antisemitism directed at the bishop, he said that “I think that there should be a people’s court that would suppress and punish the stupidities that some people come up with, so that people would realize that they cannot talk nonsense.” While it is unlikely that Nešić advocated the creation of an actual Serbian Orthodox equivalent to the Spanish Inquisition that would deal with what he views as blasphemous and heretical comments about Nikolaj Velimirović, his reaction illustrates the extent to which the dispute over Velimirović’s posthumous reputation involves a battle not just over the content of memory, but also over the right to remember.

The letter from “a Jewish woman”: Bishop Nikolaj as the savior of Jews

22Another strategy used to defend Velimirović from accusations of antisemitism include the building of his credibility as someone who not only did not hold any prejudice against Jews, but in fact did everything he could to rescue them from their tragic fate at the hands of the Nazis. The claim regarding Velimirović’s humanitarian effort during the war is of relatively recent origin. In October 2001, Ela Trifunović nee Najhaus, a resident of Belgrade, wrote a brief letter to the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church in which she requested from the ecclesiastical authorities written confirmation that she had spent eighteen months during World War II in hiding at Ljubostinja Monastery. The confirmation was needed, the letter explained, so that Trifunović could apply “for a pension which the German government pays to Holocaust survivors.” The letter revealed that the author’s father, “Aleksandar Najhaus, a dentist who before the war had lived in the town of Trstenik,” was “a great friend and adopted brother [pobratim] of the bishop, doctor Nikolaj Velimirović.” Shortly after the beginning of the occupation, Bishop Nikolaj is said to have “advised her father to flee,” before “risking his own life” to save Dr. Najhaus’s wife and daughter. Velimirović is said to have hidden the child—the author of the letter—in a sack, dressed her mother in a nun’s attire and taken them both in a carriage through a number of German checkpoints before hiding them in Ljubostinja. The fugitives remained there for a year and a half, until Velimirović obtained false personal documents enabling them to leave the monastery and survive the war.

23Since the first appearance of this letter—the authenticity of which has been confirmed by the representatives of the Jewish community (see A. Lebl, 2002)—Velimirović’s supporters have endeavored to popularize its content. The book Holy Bishop Nikolaj of Ohrid and Žiča, published on the occasion of Velimirović’s canonization, includes a transcript of Najhaus’s letter under the title “Bishop Nikolaj saved Jews—a letter from a Jewish woman” (Jevtić, 2003a, p. 179). The letter appears in the book among numerous other testimonies to Velimirović’s good character and moral greatness. The publishers even reproduced Ela Najhaus’s original signature on the page, as well as her full address, presumably to enhance the credibility of the reported testimony and prove that the letter is genuine. The letter was also published in the February 2003 issue of the religious journal Žički Blagovesnik under the same title, “Bishop Nikolaj saved Jews—a letter from a Jewish woman.” In the issue of another journal (Hrišćanska Misao)—published once again around the time of Velimirović’s canonization and under identical title—the letter was printed in a textbox embedded within a favorable article on Velimirović. Although the longer article did not reflect on the controversy surrounding Velimirović’s writing, the editors nonetheless printed the letter, as a reminder of the bishop’s good nature. The second edition of the book Bishop Nikolaj and the New Testament on the Jews by Predrag Samardžić also includes a transcript of Ela Najhaus’s letter (Samardžić, 2004, pp. 89–90).

24The reason behind the frequent inclusion of this letter in various Orthodox Christian publications can be sought not just in the general desire to popularize Velimirović’s kindness, but also as a response to the controversy surrounding the bishop’s claims about Jews. The event described in the letter functions in a similar way to the martyrdom myth examined in Chapter 3. By continuously reminding the public of the charitable act towards the Najhaus family the Church is effectively appealing for the bishop to be judged on this particular commendable action, not on his Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window. The image of the “Jewish woman,” Ela Najhaus concealed as a child in a potato sack, is meant to obliterate from memory the image of another Jewish woman, “Rebeka Natan,” the epitome of evil described in Velimirović’s book Indian Letters, which, incidentally, he wrote shortly after rescuing the young Ela and her mother from certain death. Moreover, the promotion of the story of Velimirović’s valor turns the representation of Nikolaj as the savior of Jews into a rhetorical resource that can be invoked when the critics voice charges of antisemitism. At a public panel discussion devoted to Velimirović’s stance on Jews which Dveri organized in December 2004, the host Boško Obradović read Ela Trifunović’s letter as part of his introductory address. He described it as a “response” to accusations against Velimirović and one of the “basic arguments” in his defense. Similarly, shortly after Velimirović’s canonization, Deacon Ljubomir Ranković wrote in Večernje Novosti:

Accusations of antisemitism are unfounded. In his orphanage in Bitolj, the bishop accepted children of all nationalities, Muslims, Gypsies, Albanians, Turks, and Jews. Between the two wars, rich Jewish traders helped the bishop with the publication of his books and the renovation of monasteries. Ela Trifunović-Najhaus, a Jew from Belgrade, following the accusations of antisemitism, sent a letter to the Holy Synod in 2001, in which she testifies how Bishop Nikolaj dressed her and her mother in monastic attire and hid them in a convent in his diocese, risking his own life. (Ranković, 2003b)

25Ranković made the identical claim in an article published a week later in the weekly magazine Vreme (Ranković, 2003c), as did Bishop Atanasije Jevtić in a statement to the daily Politika around that time (Kuburović, 2003). During the interview conducted for this study Ljubomir Ranković also invoked the letter in this way. Moreover, he endeavored to substantiate the veracity of the claim about Velimirović’s act of compassion by suggesting that he has a copy of the letter. He kept saying “I have it,” “I will show it to you.” And yet, in spite of these claims of in-depth knowledge of the letter’s content, in the article in Novosti Ranković writes, inaccurately, that Ela Trifunović sent the letter “following the accusations of antisemitism,” implying that the writing of the letter and the accusations are causally related. The misinterpretation of the motive for the letter (which was linked to a claim for a pension) reveals that the correspondence from “a Jewish woman” is not just a valuable asset in the overall discourse of apologetics but also something that in the mind of Velimirović’s supporters has become an inextricable part the polemic surrounding his reputation.

26The letter was also alluded to by other interviewees:

Antisemitism of Bishop Nikolaj? You will find in that text by Ela Najhaus that she says that Bishop Nikolaj smuggled her in a sack, risking his own life and sucking up to the Germans. (Deacon Radoš Mladenović)

Here’s one of the controversies: They say that Bishop Nikolaj was an antisemite, that he wrote some bad things about Jews. In the most recently published book—I read it in the original—is a letter from a Jewish woman, I can’t remember her name. In that letter, written by a Jewish woman, she says and admits that Holy Bishop Nikolaj hid her in a sack and placed it among other sacks on a horse-drawn carriage, dressed her mother in a nun’s dress, and took them both out of Nazi-occupied Belgrade, risking his own life. They remained in Ljubostinja until the end of the war, [Nikolaj] ordering the nuns to look after them. He also saved her father, according to the woman’s testimony. In any case he was in Dachau. This letter and the fact that he was in a German concentration camp says enough, it clearly suggests that Bishop Nikolaj did not hate any people, and of course he did not hate the Jewish people. (Branimir Nešić)

27Branimir Nešić’s response reveals the way in which the martyrdom myth and the image of Velimirović as the savior of Jews are used concurrently to address accusations of antisemitism and repress controversy. Bishop Nikolaj could not have been an antisemite for two reasons: he was in Dachau, and he saved Jews. Discussion closed.

28Important moral objections can be raised with regards to the way in which the events related to the fate of Ela Najhaus and her mother are used in the context of denial of antisemitism. As Aleksandar Lebl notes, routine repetition of the rescue whenever Velimirović’s credibility is challenged is profoundly misleading. The fact that the bishop saved concrete individuals, more importantly the family of a personal friend, does not and should not in any way undermine the valid criticism of antisemitic views which appear in some of his writing. Lebl points out that “there is proof that the greatest antisemites, including Hitler and his accomplices in the Holocaust as well as Ante Pavelić and other Ustasha leaders, out of whatever motive, saved a certain number of Jews, while at the same time being responsible for the death of others, sometimes millions of them” (A. Lebl, 2002, p. iv). Lebl does not allege that Velimirović was in any way responsible for the death of Jews, but highlights an important broader issue. A single act should not be used to divert attention from Velimirović’s broader perspective, which was demonstrably antisemitic. Noting a similar tendency in representations of the stance of the Catholic Church towards Nazi Germany, Daniel Goldhagen (2002) refers to this strategy as the “prettifying procedure,” where the audience is “mislead with concrete stories and memorable images” of relatively rare instances of commendable conduct which are used to conceal the far more common instances of contempt for the Jews (p. 59). In Velimirović’s case the episode described in the letter by Ela Najhaus, qualifies Bishop Nikolaj for the status of what Hilberg (1993) calls a “selective helper”: someone who assists specific individuals (often friends or former business associates) as an extension of the bonds which existed before the war (p. 213). And yet in popular representation, this event is often treated as representative of Velimirović’s overall stance towards Jews. In the above quotations Nešić interpreted the letter as proof that Nikolaj “did not hate any people, and of course he did not hate the Jewish people,” while Ranković uses it to support the claim that “objectively” there is no antisemitism in Velimirović’s work. In the book Bishop Nikolaj and the New Testament on the Jews, Predrag Samardžić is referring to Najhaus’s letter when he notes that “it is a fact, and there are living witnesses to support this: the Bishop only did good for everyone, and this includes Jews” (2004, p. 12). In an article published in Danas in July 2002, Branislav Skrobonja, editor of the publication Glasnik Kosova i Metohije, went as far as to claim that one of the reasons why in 1942 German authorities moved Velimirović from Ljubostinja to Vojlovica, “where the conditions were a lot worse,” was that they discovered that he was “protecting a Jewish family” (Skrobonja, 2002). This claim is not based on any historical evidence but its aim is clear: to link the myth of martyrdom to the story of the rescue, and present Nikolaj as someone who suffered because he helped Jews.

29The most serious manipulation with the fate of the Najhaus family can be found in the aforementioned book by Predrag Samardžić, where he makes the following claim:

We have received information that Nikolaj was about to be included among the Righteous Among the Nations by the Jewish state, for his role in the rescue of Jews during World War II, for which there is incontrovertible evidence according to the strictest criteria. However, his inclusion among the Righteous gentiles was slowed down by this anti-Serbian and anti-Orthodox campaign, concealed behind Nikolaj’s alleged antisemitism, to which you, “comrade” professor, made a significant contribution. (Samardžić, 2004, p. 141)

30This paragraph (in which Samardžić is addressing the author of this book) is profoundly misleading. It mentions Nikolaj Velimirović’s inclusion among the “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest accolade awarded to those who helped Jews during the Nazi era, not as something that Samardžić considers to be desirable or deserved, but as something that seemed inevitable until it was delayed by the ongoing “anti-Serbian and anti-Orthodox campaign.” And yet according to information obtained from the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem in March 2005—and therefore three months after Samardžić’s book was published—Velimirović was not only never considered for this honor, but was never even recommended for it by anyone. Although the origin of Samardžić’s claim remains a mystery, its intention is more transparent. Like other similar efforts, it reinforces the view of Nikolaj as a hero and a savior of Jews and places the events in Trstenik, along with the martyrdom at Dachau, at the centre of his war-time efforts. In the same vein, the somewhat vague headline “Bishop Nikolaj saved Jews”—which habitually precedes the transcript of the letter—might be interpreted by readers as suggesting that this was Velimirović’s principal preoccupation during the war.

31The reference to Velimirović’s status as a benefactor and savior of Jews, as well as the argument that his writing cannot be satisfactorily appraised, especially by those “outsiders” with inadequate strength of faith, can both be said to have significant repressive qualities. Both are a form of “topic change,” a way of minimizing the relevance of controversy as an object of memory. And yet, in recent years, the attempts to keep Velimirović’s antisemitism off the conversational agenda have coexisted with a greater willingness by the bishop’s supporters to openly and often spontaneously discuss the controversy in the media, in public appearances, and in newspaper articles. This became acutely visible in the interviews, conducted for the purposes of this study, with a number of Velimirović’s supporters. Interviewees were told that the researcher, who is resident in the UK, is conducting a study on “the role of Orthodoxy in contemporary Serbian society” and that part of the project involves the examination of the “role of Nikolaj Velimirović in present-day Serbian culture.” The project was deliberately described in a way that did not explicitly mention, as the main focus of research, the controversy surrounding Bishop Velimirović’s personal history. This minor deception was motivated by the desire to allow the respondents to choose whether or not they would engage in the debate about the controversies surrounding Velimirović’s work.

32Rather than sidestepping the issue, most of the interviewees engaged in very elaborate expositions of denial. The willingness of the respondents to speak about contentious matters confirmed van Dijk’s observation that denials “can be pre-emptive,” “focusing on possible inferences of the interlocutor” not ones that are explicitly made (van Dijk, 1992, p. 91). On the other hand, the willingness to openly deal with criticism of Nikolaj Velimirović, in an interview situation that was in no way adversarial, can be said to be illustrative of an important aspect of moral accountability management. Denial of prejudice is not merely a discourse of justification, but also self-justification. The need to evade blame and disapproval associated with accusations of prejudice is not just a feature of the way individuals argue with those who do not share their views, but of the very way in which they think and remember. In other words, in the broader social context marked by the proliferation in critical discourse, controversy has become so deeply embedded in the discourse surrounding Velimirović’s life that denials are now an intrinsic part of the memory of Bishop Nikolaj.

33Some attempts to directly address the controversy surrounding Velimirović’s antisemitism, in particular that found in the book Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, have been apparent since the late 1980. From the very early days, supporters occasionally trivialized the book’s significance, claiming that Bishop Nikolaj never wanted his sermons to be published. At the time of the publication of the first edition of the book in 1985, Bishop Lavrentije Trifunović explained the delayed publication of the controversial sermons by revealing that Velimirović attached to the manuscript a note, stating “not for publication” (Trifunović, 1998). On several occasions since then—when called upon to reflect on the books antisemitic message—Atanasije Jevtić invoked Bishop Nikolaj’s alleged moratorium as a means of undermining the significance of the book. He noted for instance that Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window was not “actually uttered as a message to the Serbian people,” but was “merely” a “collection of casual notes, written on toilet paper, notes which Nikolaj never intended for publication” (Jevtić, 1986a, p. 12). Yet the distancing from the book’s message is only partial. Only a few sentences after referring to the work as a collection of “casual notes” for private consumption, Atanasije Jevtić described it also as a work whose “theological, philosophical, historiographic, and literary value should not be undermined by politically motivated misinterpretations” (ibid.).

34Another form of distancing involves the argument that controversial passages from the book, which are regularly quoted in critical literature, had been “taken out of context.” In 1987, nationalist historian Borivoje Karapandžić argued that Velimirović’s critics, the “atheistic journalists in Yugoslavia, out of the 172-page book, quote just one sheet of paper, two pages, which the communist press satanically picked out in order to denigrate the bishop as an antisemite and an enemy of Judaism” (speech delivered in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1987; cited in Janković, 2002b, p. 203). Ljubomir Ranković said in the interview that “you cannot throw away 12,000 pages on account of this one page from Words to the Serbian people.” In Bishop Nikolaj and the New Testament on the Jews, Predrag Samardžić speaks of the “incriminating words” are “in proportion to Bishop Nikolaj’s overall opus just a speck of dust” (Samardžić, 2004, p. 116; see also Jevtić, 1986a; Krstić, 2002). Protopresbyter Milan Janković stated in his written response to my questions that “certain gentlemen (let us call them that) base their hatred on what appears on two pages, in only a couple of sentences of the seventy-seventh sermon [in Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window] and they spit their hatred like a snake in all directions.”

35This distancing appears to suggest that Velimirović’s supporters implicitly acknowledge that, in isolation, the controversial passages in the book appear prejudicial. However, by claiming that the infamous quotations present de-contextualised exceptions whose meaning has been deliberately “taken out of context” and subverted so as to portray the author in a negative light, supporters play down Velimirović’s stance on Jews as a marginal aspect of his life’s work. Crucially, by limiting the distancing to “just one sheet of paper, two pages” out of Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, the rest of Velimirovic’s work where antisemitic claims are also to be found is conveniently absolved from criticism. This is similar to the strategy employed by Slobodan Mileusnić who refused to comment on Velimirović’s antisemitism on the grounds that he “never studied the bishop’s writing of that historical period” (see earlier quotation; emphasis added). In all of these instances, Velimirović’s controversial views are presented as isolated incidents and as such are treated as being of little interest and, therefore, as “forgettable.”

36The widespread tendency to argue that critical perspectives on Velimirović stance on Jews are the result of the misinterpretation is often followed by attempts to provide the “correct” and appropriately “contextualized” reading. As we will see, the favorable interpretation on which supporters insist involves the renegotiation of the boundaries of the term “antisemitism” and the management of a semantic distinction between the seemingly unobjectionable creed of Christian anti-Judaism on the one hand, and the anti-normative ideology of secular, Nazi antisemitism on the other.

The two kinds of antisemitism: The rhetoric of interpretative denial

37Research on the rhetorical and argumentative aspects of language and communication frequently points out that terms used to label and categorize social phenomena should not be regarded as predetermined, natural phenomena, with decidable and demonstrable referents in empirical reality, but as contestable, fluid, and locally contingent entities which are constituted in social interaction (Billig, 1987; Billig et al., 1988; Edwards, 1997; Wetherell and Potter, 1992). The socially constructed nature of categories reflects their inherently argumentative quality. Categories are invoked, negotiated, and disputed in the context of discursive acts, the aim of which is to accomplish rhetorical goals such as to legitimize or to contest a particular version or description of reality.

38The argumentative nature of categorization has been shown to have important implications for the study of prejudice. Because prejudice depends on the existence of categories, allegations and denials of prejudice inevitably involve a debate about the meaning of relevant social objects such as “gender,” “race,” “ethnicity,” etc. (Billig et al., 1988). Moreover, terms such as “racism,” “tolerance,” “discrimination,” and “equality,” around which the language of intergroup relations revolves, are themselves topicalized in discourse. Their meaning is constructed and their relevance negotiated in the context of manufacturing accusations, refuting criticism, apportioning blame, or positioning a view in relation to prevailing ethical norms (Billig, 1987; Edwards, 1997).

39The term “antisemitism” is a good example of a disputed and negotiated social category. In recent years, scholars, journalists, commentators, politicians, and intellectuals in the West have debated the meaning of the term in the context of the controversy surrounding the distinction between the “old” antisemitism of the Right and the “new” antisemitism of the liberal Left (see Chesler, 2003; Foxman, 2003; Iganski and Kosmin, 2003). At the heart of this often-heated dispute has been another contested categorization, that which distinguishes the critique of Jews from the critique of Israel (see contributions on the topic in Iganski and Kosmin, 2003; and Rosenbaum, 2004). Public attention has recently focused also on some older distinctions related to the problem of antisemitism. The release in 2003 of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ revived the debate about the persistence of Christian antisemitism and its status in the moral universe vis-à-vis twentieth and twenty-first century variants of antisemitism (Lawler, 2004; Pawlikowski, 2004; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004; etc.).

40An impassioned debate about the nature and the meaning of the term “antisemitism” dominates the argumentative context surrounding Velimirović’s remembrance in contemporary Serbia. In affirmative accounts of Velimirović’s position on Jews—articulated in public discourse around the time of the canonization—denials and justifications of his contested stance centered around the discussion of what antisemitism “really” is and how Velimirović’s viewpoint fits into the negotiated definition of the term.

41Shortly after the canonization of Nikolaj Velimirović was announced by the Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Deacon Ljubomir Ranković discussed the new saint’s contentious views in a debate on Radio Free Europe. He argued the following: “The antisemitism, let’s accept that term, of Bishop Nikolaj was on a theological, or rather biblical level. That kind of antisemitism is present in the Bible itself, from the beginning, namely the Book of Moses, all the way through until the arrival of Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament” (RFE/RL, June 2, 2003). A week earlier Ranković similarly noted that “the mention of Jews in Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window is a purely theological question” (Ranković, 2003d). Matija Bećković, one of Serbia’s best-known nationalist poets and a regular participant in commemorative activities devoted to Nikolaj Velimirović, remarked in the interview conducted for the purposes of this study that the controversial writings on Jews are “purely biblical discussions, and the ‘antisemitic’ phrases [in his writing] are actually far more common in the writings of Jews themselves, in the Old Testament... you could call them [antisemitic] only in the context of a malicious interpretation.”

42Apparent in these quotations, which are representative of the material examined in the study, is first of all the attempt at distancing from the term “antisemitism.” The qualification is accepted reluctantly (“let’s accept the term”) or placed in inverted commas (whether literally, in writing, or by intonation in interviews and audio records). On other occasions, the word antisemitism is prefaced with the word “so-called.” The opening sentence of Predrag Samardžić’s book Bishop Nikolaj and the New Testament on the Jews defines its subject matter as the “so-called ‘antisemitism’ of Bishop Nikolaj” (Samardžić, 2004, p. 5). The use of inverted commas and the word “so-called” suggests that the validity and the appropriateness of the term “antisemitism,” as the descriptor of Velimirović’s position on Jews, are treated as problematic. The insinuation that the bishop was antisemitic is attributed, in the words of Matija Bećković, to disingenuous, “malicious interpretation.” At the same time, accusations are not rejected outright. It is not denied that Velimirović was critical about Jews, but the nature of the alleged offence is “re-categorised as something less negative or more excusable” (Wetherell and Potter, 1992, p. 212). Speakers employ the tactic of particularization (Billig, 1987) or what Stanley Cohen (2001) calls “interpretative denial”: Velimirović’s stance towards Jews is offered as a special case, a specific type of antisemitism (“biblical” or “theological”), which is understood to be different, in terms of both substance and consequence, to that against which there exists an implicitly acknowledged social norm.

43The emphasis on the “theological” or “biblical” nature of Velimirović’s antisemitism implies that a contrast can be drawn between this legitimate form of criticism of Jews and some kind of “real” antisemitism that warrants moral censure. Velimirović’s stance is repeatedly referred to as “purely theological” or “purely biblical.” The notion of “purity” in this case suggests that Velimirović’s views are confined to the acceptable category of criticism of Jews, and therefore unpolluted by elements of other discredited antisemitic traditions. During our conversation in August 2003, Deacon Ljubomir Ranković revealed that the “other” kind of antisemitism is that propagated by the Nazis:

[Velimirović ’s] antisemitism is, in the real sense of the word, of the only kind that it can be, namely biblical. […] The Old Testament criticizes the Jewish people for rejecting God, while the “antisemitism” of the New Testament is when Jews are criticized for crucifying the Lord Jesus Christ. […] All of this—shall I say animosity—that may exist among Christians towards Jews is there because they are enemies of Christ. That and such [antisemitism] exist in the writing of Bishop Nikolaj. We might say that that is anti-Judaism, a critique of Judaism, but in no way is it antisemitism. When one says antisemitism, the allusion is to Hitler, crematoria, etc. This is not the case at all in Velimirović ’s writing.’

44Similarly, in the article “Serbs and Jews” examined in the previous chapter, Vladimir Dimitrijević contested the view that Bishop Nikolaj was antisemitic on the grounds that he had nothing to do “with Nazi theories of race,” or with the “crazy, pagan racism of Hitler’s followers” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 78). Predrag Samardžić (2004) also discusses the definition of antisemitism. He notes that “the term antisemitism is of recent, neopagan origin.” Antisemitism existed as a social problem “in the era before the New Testament, in Egypt, around Alexandria, where a significant Jewish community lived at the time of the Roman empire” (2004, p. 31). Having skipped almost two thousand years of history, Samardžić then suggests that antisemitism returned only in “neopagan times,” when Wilhelm Marr, who coined the term “antisemitism,” began to argue for the social exclusion of Jews in Germany. Christian antisemitism is conveniently disqualified from this historical account, presumably because the phenomenon is not seen as fitting the category “antisemitism.” Samardžić acknowledges that in the intervening period “persecution of Jews was carried out most frequently in the name of some Christ and some Christianity,” but the qualifier “some”—which precedes the reference to Christ and Christianity—absolves the Christian Church and its teaching as a whole from any responsibility. This is because “authentic Christians must not, or rather cannot hate or persecute anyone, least of all the Jews. This is, if for no other reason, because they are of Christ’s ‘kinfolk by natural descent’ (Rim. 9:3–5). And because ‘it is from the Jews that salvation comes’ (John 4:22)” (p. 32).

45The differentiation between antisemitism and anti-Judaism, implicit in the distinction between “biblical” or “Christian” antisemitism and that of the Nazis, is common across Christendom. Carroll (2002) writes that the demarcation between “antisemitism and anti-Judaism, with the clear meaning that the latter [is] an appropriate part of the defense of faith” (p. 40) had been a common feature of Catholic education prior to the Second Vatican Council. Most post-Holocaust Catholic scholars distinguish between “normal anti-Judaism” which relates to the core theological disagreement between Christianity and Judaism, and abnormal antisemitism, which, in the words of Robert Chazan, consists of “embellishments that are extremely harsh, that lack grounding in fundamental Christian texts and teachings and that never gained the respectability of widespread ecclesiastical approbation” (cited in Carroll, 2002, p. 274). The declaration We Remember: Reflection on the Shoah issued by the Vatican in March 1998 also distinguished between traditional Christian anti-Judaism and the “late 18th and early 19th century racist theories which provided the foundations of National Socialism,” although on this occasion the Vatican expressed regret over the “longstanding sentiment of distrust and hostility” towards Jews implicit in “anti- Judaism” (cited in Carroll, 2002, pp. 381–382).

46This exercise in the redrawing of boundaries of antisemitism can play an important role in the denial of prejudice. Billig et al. (1988) have demonstrated how, in the discourse of the Right, a controversial political position on matters of race and ethnic relations can be effectively justified by means of a favorable comparison with a more radical view that is unambiguously extremist (see also Billig, 1990). For Velimirović ’s supporters, contrasting “theological antisemitism” with a more extreme and widely discredited position, namely “Nazi antisemitism,” constitutes an easily accessible and convincing means of constructing the bishop’s stance towards Jews as acceptable. Wodak (1991) documents a similar phenomenon in contemporary Austria, where equating antisemitism with Nazi racist theories is used to divert attention away from other antisemitic traditions, including that rooted in Christianity.

47It is also noteworthy that in Christian rhetoric, both in Serbia and elsewhere, the veracity of the distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism tends to be assumed rather than supported with suitable empirical or historical evidence. As Goldhagen (2002) notes, “Those asserting [the difference between antisemitism and anti-Judaism] do not do the minimum necessary to show it, such as seriously discussing the nature of antisemitism and its varieties, and compare the two kinds antisemitism in depth according to clear evaluative criteria, in order to ascertain what their relationship is. They do not discuss the actual historical relationship of the Church’s antisemitism and modern European antisemitism” (p. 78).

48This feature of the argument is of rhetorical significance as it points once again to the strategy of “apparent denial” (van Dijk, 1992, 1993) examined earlier. The absence of corroboration is used to present a version of reality as self-evident and based on common sense. In the present case, the distinction between “anti-Judaism” and “antisemitism” is articulated in a way that presents the differentiation between acceptable and unacceptable critique of Jews as consensual. In the discourse of Velimirović’s remembrance, the claim that the ideas of Christian anti-Judaism have nothing in common with Nazi antisemitism is invoked and presented as so normal and obvious, that it does not require elaboration or validation.

Repeating the word of God: Authority of the Gospels and the reification of antisemitic discourse

49The distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism, which is constitutive of denial of prejudice, rests on the assumption that the former is an acceptable ideological position. This assumed legitimacy and acceptability needs to be worked up discursively. In the case of the management of Velimirović’s moral accountability, by far the most common strategy of legitimization involves the argument that anti-Jewish proclamations apparent in the bishop’s writing originate directly from the Holy Scriptures.

50Mladen Obradović, leader of Obraz, argued in the interview conducted for this study that, in writing about Jews, Velimirović “merely states some historical truths”:

I will remind you for instance that in the Old Testament you have their own, Jewish Old Testament prophets, therefore members of that same people, who said many [similar] things about their own people who rejected God… Also, you have the very words of the Lord Jesus Christ when he says to the Pharisees that they are a “brood of vipers” or that their father is the Devil; Bishop Nikolaj merely quotes the Gospels.

51Deacon Ljubomir Ranković wrote the following in the daily Glas Javnosti:

When he says of Jews that “their father is the Devil,” the bishop quotes and interprets the words of the Lord Jesus Christ—a Jew in body—words which were noted down by a Jew, the apostle and evangelist John: “Your [Jews’] father is the devil, and you choose to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and is not rooted in the truth; there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie he is speaking his own language, for he is a liar and a father of lies” (John 8:44). (Ranković, 2003d)

52Ranković made the same claim on Radio Free Europe when he said that “when Bishop Nikolaj speaks of Jews that their father is the devil, he is practically quoting the words of Christ the Lord” (RFE/RL, June 2, 2003).

53A similar argument was invoked by Protopresbyter Milan Janković, secretary of the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In response to the invitation to comment on the controversy surrounding Velimirović ’s writing on Jews, he noted that references to Jews in Words to the Serbian People through the Dungeon Window

were not invented by Bishop Nikolaj, but were uttered by Lord Jesus Christ, so the bishop merely cites them [Jews] as a bad example which the Serbian people should not follow. Those who do not believe this should read the words of the Holy Evangelists, especially John the Evangelist (John 18:12–19:24), who concludes: “It was there from the beginning; we have heard it; we have seen it with our own eyes, we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands […] we have seen it and bear our testimony; we declare to you the eternal life which was with the Father and which was made visible to us” (John 1:1–2).

54The cited extracts maintain that Velimirović’s controversial claims are a paraphrase of the Bible. In making this claim speakers resort to what Daniel Goldhagen (2002) refers to as the “widespread convention” within contemporary Christian rhetoric, whereby it is denied that “[a] member of the Church was antisemitic even if he believed and may also have spread the anti-Jewish libels of the Christian bible… [on the grounds that] their antisemitism was ‘only’ of the sort that was deeply embedded in Christianity itself” (p. 22).

55Claims about the biblical origins of Velimirović’s antisemitism are accompanied by words such as “practically” or “merely”: Velimirović “is practically quoting” Christ’s words and “simply quotes the Gospels.” The use of these terms is not haphazard. “Just,” “merely,” or “only” marks a response as a defense, by means of which the speaker rejects, in this case Velimirović’s culpability for making a potentially criticisable claim (Billig, 1999a; Shweder and Much, 1987). By suggesting that Velimirović was “merely” quoting the Gospels, his supporters shift the responsibility for his controversial stance to the most reliable of sources, Christ’s apostles.

56In the above examples, speakers often quote the New Testament and refer to the authors of the Gospels as eyewitnesses who directly experienced the described events. Deacon Ljubomir Ranković emphasizes that Christ’s words—which he quotes from the Gospels—were “noted down” by an observer, “the apostle and evangelist John.” In Janković’s case, the effectiveness of corroboration is enhanced with the passage from the First Letter of John, which stresses the three modalities by which the “truth” of the New Testament had been experienced by the apostles: “we have heard it, we have seen it with our own eyes, we looked upon it, and felt it with our own hands” (emphasis added). Nikolaj Velimirović himself resorted to a similar defensive strategy when fending off attacks on his reputation. In 1928, shortly after the Belgrade Rabbi Isak Alkalaj accused him of promoting antisemitism, Velimirović depicted Rabbi Alkalaj as belonging to the unreasonable minority of Jews by stating that “I know from conversations with many conscientious and cultured Jews, that they have distanced themselves from the unfair judges of Christ and have condemned their narrow-mindedness and blindness in the attempt to detach the Jewish people from those who led and misled them astray” (Velimirović, 1928c, p. 42). He defended his controversial sermon by citing, as the greatest authority, “a very small book, called the New Testament, and the unparalleled drama described in it”:

That book was written by four Jews, followers of Christ. Why four and not just one or two? For courts in this world, two witnesses are enough. Through God’s providence, four witnesses wrote this book: twice the number required by any court of this world—so that people would believe in the truth of the testimony. All four witnesses described the trial of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem… Each stage of the trial of Jesus Christ is described in detail in the Gospels. (p. 43)

57By emphasizing that there were four witnesses, Velimirović not only attended to the requirement for corroboration, which is essential for establishing factuality of potentially disputable claims (see Potter, 1996; Wooffitt, 1992), but also incorporated within it the rhetoric of quantification (Reeves, 1983). Four witnesses is twice the number required by ordinary courts, suggesting therefore that even the greatest of skeptics ought to be convinced. Also, Velimirović makes the reference to “conscientious and cultured Jews,” who have sided with him. The orientation to these contemporary Jews as “conscientious” is significant. Although the crucifixion is blamed on the “unfair judges of Christ,” allusion to Jewish “conscience” implies that even contemporary Jews qua Jews have something to feel guilty about, which is the very assumption that provoked Rabbi Alkalaj’s protest. Furthermore, Velimirović hints at the possibility that the culpability for crucifixion might not be limited to the “unfair judges” given that those judges “led and misled” the whole of the Jewish people astray.

58The effort to build up the credibility and reliability of the New Testament as a historically accurate story of Jesus’ life and death acts as an “externalising device” (Woolgar, 1988) which turns the attention away from Velimirović as a morally accountable agent and exonerates him from culpability for the claims which he makes. A “mere” citation from the Bible is presented as separate from the bishop’s potentially biased motives and intentions and therefore as unproblematic. For the same reason, around the time of the controversy surrounding his film The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson defended his contentious portrayal of Jews by noting that he merely conveyed the story as it was told by “reliable sources,” “eyewitnesses,” “guys [the apostles] who were there” (Boyer, 2004, p. 324). Gibson also called for the inclusion in the film of the controversial passage from Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be upon us and upon our Children”) by suggesting that “it happened, it was said” (Boyer, 2004, p. 316). Defenders of The Passion of the Christ frequently cite the verdict about the film “it is as it was” attributed (inaccurately, according to official sources) to Pope John Paul II as absolving the film from criticism. Just as in Velimirović’s case, these arguments against accusations of antisemitism rest on the conjecture that something that is “true” cannot be prejudicial, and consequently that everything found in the Gospels is a priori above suspicion.

59The premise regarding the factuality of the Gospels is, however, highly problematic. Orientation to the Bible as the definitive source of truth neglects the historicity of the Gospels and the fact that they were not written by eyewitnesses, but by people who lived in the period after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and in a manner that reflected the conflicts and debates of first-century religious politics (Carroll, 2002; Hellig, 2002; Kosidowski, 1998; Ruether, 1974; Wistrich, 1991). The Gospels were created at a time of vicious competition over spiritual influence between Judaism and the emerging Christian religion. The story of the life and death of Jesus was written with the aim of disparaging Jews and Judaism in the context of bitter religious rivalry, and persuade the population tempted by the promises of Judaism that, by failing to accept Jesus as the Messiah, Jews renounced their status as the chosen people and became the “reprobate people” who did not “hear the word of God” and therefore “did not belong to God.” In other words, early Christianity effectively theorized its existence “as an ongoing opposition to the Jews” (Bauman, 1991, p. 38) and conceived its teaching as a polemic against Judaism. The status of Judaism as “Christianity’s negative other” (Carroll, 2002, p. 564) was exacerbated by the deicide accusation epitomized in the sentence in Matthew 27:25: “His Blood be upon us and upon our Children!” This indictment against Jews, which presented the death of Jesus as the responsibility of the Jewish people en mass and forever, cast the Jews—the “children of the devil”—as “cosmic villains in the Christian doctrine of atonement” (Hellig, 2002, p. 168).

60Tabak (2000) argues that the belief in the inherent truth of the Gospels—a constant theme in the rhetoric of Velimirović’s supporters—is possibly even stronger in the Orthodox world than in other Christian denominations. For the Orthodox, the Holy Tradition, which includes the Bible, Service and Prayer books, decrees of Ecumenical Councils, writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and the “whole historical experience of the church” set down before the end of the 8th century is deemed as being “from God.” The “sacred character” of the Holy Tradition makes its religious and cultural value unquestionable. For this reason in Russia and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, “the most extreme Orthodox antisemites can logically claim that their monstrous anti-Jewish invective is based upon ‘Church teaching’” (Tabak, 2000).

61The status of the traditional Christian contempt for Jews in Orthodox Christian cultures is enhanced by the high esteem in which Orthodoxy holds the Holy Fathers of the Church, the likes of St John Chrysostom, Origen, St Augustine, and others. The entire work of the founding fathers, including the notorious Adversus Judaeos tradition—which laid the foundation for medieval Jewish demonology (Trachtenberg, 1983)—is considered part of the Holy Tradition, and is therefore viewed as sacred and incontestable. As is the case with the Gospels, the unquestioned veneration of the Church Fathers overlooks the historical contingency of their work. The so-called “Patristic period,” spanning from the 2nd to the 4th century was a time of continued competition between Christians and Jews over the hearts and minds of converts in the Hellenistic world (Carroll, 2002; Ruether, 1974; Wistrich, 1991). As a result, the writing of the founding fathers contains numerous propagandist anti-Jewish declarations, such as St John Chrysostom’s verdict that that the synagogue is “the temple of Demons” or that Jews are “dogs, stiff-necked, gluttonous drunkards […] beasts unfit for work […] fit for killing, for slaughter.” Within the formal religious dogma of the Orthodox Church even these statements are regarded as valid interpretation of God’s word, although they are seldom articulated or reiterated.

62The “holy” status, within Orthodox culture, of the anti-Jewish tirades of the founding fathers has important implications with regard to the denial of Velimirović’s antisemitism. As was noted earlier, following the trend started by Father Justin Popović in the 1950s, Velimirović is customarily referred to, in religious literature, as the “New Chrysostom,” the “Second Chrysostom,” or the “Serbian Chrysostom.” Bishop Nikolaj is occasionally compared to other theologians of the patristic period. In the quotation cited earlier in this chapter, Bishop Artemije Radosavljević said that Nikolaj “stands shoulder to shoulder with Origen, St John Chrysostom, and the Blessed Augustine,” all of whom are known for their antisemitic diatribes (see Ruether, 1974). Importantly however, Velimirović’s supporters seldom invoke the authority of the fathers of the Church with the purpose of justifying Bishop Nikolaj’s antisemitic views. The reason for likening Velimirović to St John Chrysostom lies not in their shared perspective on Jews, but in what is deemed to be comparable significance as theologians, preachers and evangelists. Nonetheless, Velimirović’s controversial writings derive authority from the parallel. The comparison with Chrysostom enhances the view of Velimirović’s work as being of immense merit and importance. Two individuals, whose work is separated by sixteen centuries of history, are presented—through continuous association—as identical, at least in terms of relevance and moral authority. In July 2002, in an interview to the daily Danas, Mirko Đorđević—sociologist of religion and a vocal critic of Nikolaj Velimirović—commented on the tendency among the bishop’s fans to refer to their hero as the “New Chrysostom.” He suggested that the only thing that the two theologians have in common is their antisemitism (M. Đorđević, 2002, p. v). A month later, in a lengthy rejoinder published in Danas, Deacon Radoš Mladenović and Vladimir Dimitrijević dismissed Đorđević’s claims by invoking the difference between anti-Judaism and antisemitism:

The sermons [by St John Chrysostom] are not against Jews but against Talmudic Judaism as a religion, which declared Christ, the Son of God a “false prophet” and “son of a loose woman.” The tradition of criticism of Talmudic and Rabbinical Judaism dates back to the time of the Holy Apostles Paul and John (who were themselves Jews, and therefore cannot be branded “antisemites”), through St Justin the Philosopher to St John Chrysostom. That, broadly speaking is apologetics, because the Holy Fathers were not only arguing against this type of Judaism, but also against paganism and Gnosticism. French Cardinal Lustiger, a baptized Jew, refers to the tendency to attribute Hitler’s antisemitism to the Holy Fathers as the “reading of Chrysostom in the light of Mein Kampf” and regards it as morally unacceptable and theologically illiterate. (Mladenović & Dimitrijević, 2002, p. 8)

63In proposing the distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism, Mladenović and Dimitrijević were defending not just St John Chrysostom’s views, but also those of Velimirović. Whatever counts for one seemed also to count for the other, hinting at the possibility that the representation and perceived significance of the two theologians is superimposed in the historical imagination of Velimirović’s supporters. In his article “Serbs and Jews,” published a year earlier, Dimitrijević already indicated that he regards Chrysostom’s and Velimirović’s “anti-Judaism” to be comparable when he wrote that “Holy Bishop Nikolaj criticized Christians who departed from Christ and adopted the view of those Jews who believe Christ to be a ‘false prophet.’ St John Chrysostom criticized those Christians who renounced their church and went to pray in the Synagogue. That has nothing to do with the crazy, pagan racism of Hitler’s followers” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 78).

64The equivalence between Chrysostom and Velimirović apparent in these examples is particularly important because it removes the latter’s outlook from the ideological context of the political culture of the 1930s, and elevates it onto the same plain as the already de-contextualized and de-historicized writing of the fourth century founding fathers of the Church. Velimirović’s stance towards Jews is made to appear not as an objectionable, obsolete, and historically contingent political position, but as something that, along with St John the Chrysostom’s work belongs to the “eternal Truth” proclaimed in the Holy Tradition. Mladenović’s and Dimitrijević’s insinuation that it is “theologically illiterate” and “morally unacceptable” to read Chrysostom’s antisemitic harangues “in the light of Mein Kampf” is also applied to Velimirović’s writing, thus conveniently overlooking the fact that Velimirović’s and Hitler’s works, in spite of the important differences, do in fact belong to the same historical period.

65In invoking the “Biblical” nature of Velimirović’s antisemitism, the bishop’s supporters seldom forget to note that the authors of the New Testament were themselves Jews. Ranković for instance mentioned that Christ was a “Jew in body,” while Velimirović, in the 1928 polemic with Rabbi Alkalaj alluded twice to the fact that the Gospels had been written by “four Jews.” This feature of the account presents the controversial stance not as indexical of the bishop’s prejudices and ideological commitments but as a common view, shared even by representatives of the people against whom he is alleged to be biased (see Edwards, 2004). This point is sometimes made explicit. In the aforementioned letter published in Danas in August 2002, Mladenović and Dimitrijević defended Velimirović’s antisemitic passages on the grounds that they are comparable to the writings of apostles Paul and John, “who were themselves Jews, and therefore cannot be branded ‘antisemites’” (Mladenović and Dimitrijević, 2002, p. 8). Velimirović’s views are compared to the Old Testament tradition for the same reason. Matija Bećković was cited earlier as stating that the bishop’s position on Jews is to be found “in the writing of Jews themselves, in the Old Testament.” Mladen Obradović also noted during our conversation that “in the Old Testament you have their own, Jewish Old Testament prophets, therefore members of that same people, who said many [similar] things about their own people who rejected God […] These are the words of prophet Jeremiah: Jews abandoned God and became the sons of Satan.” The rhetorical value of the comparison with the Old Testament prophets relies not just on the fact that they were Jews, but also on the exceptional attributes traditionally ascribed to biblical prophets. Jews, as well as Christians, believe them to have possessed superior knowledge about the nature of the world, which originates directly from God.

66An extension of the comparison between Velimirović’s writings on Jews and the biblical texts is the portrayal of the bishop’s “theological antisemitism” as motivated by divine love for the Jews and a righteous concern for their spiritual wellbeing. In the article in the daily Glas Javnosti published shortly after Velimirović’s canonization, Deacon Ljubomir Ranković wrote that “those who today defend the Jews from the bishop are causing the greatest damage to Jews themselves” (Ranković, 2003d). Implicit in this argument is the claim that the only hope of redemption for Jews lies in their acceptance of Jesus and conversion to Christianity. Critics of Nikolaj Velimirović are seen as obstructing this desired outcome. In a commemorative speech in May 2003, reported by Radio B92, Bishop of Montenegro Amfilohije Radović—one of the most influential and highly regarded religious dignitaries in Serbia—likened Velimirović’s views to the lamentations of “Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel” and interpreted them as motivated not “by hate, but by the most profound love, pain, suffering, and concern” for the Jews. On another occasion, Radović noted that “the bitter and crude things” that Nikolaj said about “the people of Israel” were an attempt to “sober up those he addressed and return them to the path of Christ” (A. Radović, 2003, p. 510). The same claim was made by Dejan Apostolović, a contributor to the letters page in the daily newspaper Danas where he regularly defends the integrity and reputation of Nikolaj Velimirović:

So, does the Holy Bishop Nikolaj hate anyone, or Jews in particular? Did Jesus hate the Jews and other people when he criticized them, or hated their sins? If Jesus had had within him any hate towards others would he have willingly suffered for those same people, or have prayed for them while dying on the Cross? It is the duty of holy people to educate humankind and to scold them. Saints are not politicians who play up to public opinion. God gave them the duty to deliver the souls of their people and those of other peoples. Therefore, just as Poles, Serbs, Russians, and other people are not immune to criticism, Jews should not be either. Therefore, Bishop Nikolaj clearly warns that there must not be any hatred towards man. From this I conclude that if I do not try to rid myself of the plague [sin] and I do not help my brother to do the same, then I nurture both plagues [sins], and in doing so I nurture evil. No people, including the Jews, should defend themselves (if attacked) with anything other than with facts. Just like in a court of law. All the talk about religious hate, antisemitism, minority rights, and so on, are nothing but the simple masking of the truth and deception of the public. Maybe it would be better, instead of defending oneself, to take a look in the mirror, and recognize which criticisms are really wellfounded. The road to salvation does not lead through the courts but through genuine repentance. (Apostolović, 2003)

67Here too, Nikolaj’s words about Jews are compared to those of Jesus, and presented as the words of divine love. Criticism of Jews is presented as part of Velimirović’s God-given, saintly duty to tell harsh truths rather than pander to public opinion. Crucially, it is above all the Jews who are constructed as being in need of enlightenment. Bishop Nikolaj is presented as someone who attempted to help rid his Jewish “brothers” from sin, and prevent them from their continuing nurturing of “plague” and “evil.” Apostolović also argues that “people,” in this case the Jews, ought to defend themselves from Christian antisemitism with “facts.” Yet in the very next sentence he implies that such facts do not exist, requiring the Jews to resort to “deception” and the “masking of the truth.” According to Apostolović, instead of “defending themselves,” Jews ought to “look into the mirror,” in other words face the reality of the Christian interpretation of Jewish history and “repent.” The letter does not make it explicitly clear what it is exactly that Jews are meant to repent for, but judging from the overall context it is for the rejection of Christ and deicide. Later in the article Apostolović provides directions to the “path to salvation” when he recommends that sinners should “read Bishop Nikolaj’s books and head for the Church to find out for themselves where the genuine truth lies.”

68Implicit in the motive of “divine love” is one of the main tenets of Christian antisemitism, namely that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and that their only hope of redemption lies in the acceptance of Christ and conversion to Christianity (Carroll, 2002; Hellig, 2002). In Velimirović’s remembrance, the ideological and prejudicial undertones of this claim are moderated and concealed by the language of love. The bishop’s supporters are drawing on the representation of love that assumes that sometimes one must be “cruel to be kind.” Velimirović’s writings are presented as a necessary pedagogical method, because, in the words of Amfilohije Radović, Nikolaj “criticized those he loved, because he loved them” (A. Radović, 2003, p. 510). Or as Branimir Nešić stated in the interview—it was “like with parents. Parents chastise those they love.”

“Then we are all antisemities!”: “Anti-Judaism” and Orthodox Christian identity

69The invoked parallel between Velimirović’s position on Jews and that of the Jewish protagonists of the Bible not only reifies the affirmative interpretation of the bishop’s views, but also ironizes critical opinion. Deacon Ranković proposes that if Velimirović is to be considered an antisemite then “the Old Testament, which is in fact a Jewish book, [is] the biggest antisemitic pamphlet ever.” Branimir Nešić suggests that if Nikolaj is an antisemite then “we are all antisemites and the New Testament ought to be banned.” Protopresbyter Radovan Bigović mentioned during our conversation that “they claim that he was some kind of ideologue of antisemitism. I always say: if you follow that logic, then all Old Testament prophets would be branded antisemites. Jesus Christ would be an antisemite.”

70In these instances condemnations of Velimirović’s views are reinterpreted in an exaggerated and overstated way that makes them look biased and unreasonable. Critical appraisals of the bishop’s stance on Jews are presented as attacks on the fundamentals of the Christian faith and therefore as excessive, intolerant and spiteful. At the same time, the amplified representations of criticism reinforce the analogy between Velimirović’s work and Biblical writings. The bishop’s controversial stance is reaffirmed as being no worse or more criticizable than the contents of the Christian Bible.

71Once Velimirović’s position on Jews is constituted as part of Christian common sense, it becomes promoted not only as acceptable, but also as a normative feature of Orthodox identity. Branimir Nešić was cited earlier as stating that if Velimirović is an antisemite then “we,” namely Orthodox Christians, “are all antisemites.” Later in the interview, Nešić explained:

It is a clash of two religions, the Jewish faith on the one hand and Christian faith on the other […] Jews believe that Christ was not the Son of God. We are talking simply about a clash. It is a fact that we, Christians, believe that Jews crucified Christ. This is a fact and it is obvious. Christ said: My blood on you and your children, but he never said that Jews should be murdered, and neither did Bishop Nikolaj, although he did say that the Jews had betrayed Christ. One cannot expect an Orthodox bishop to say that the Jews were right and that Christ was not the Son of God. Of course he will condemn the crucifixion. From that standpoint I think that the criticism of Jews is correct. I as a Christian believe that what they are doing confirms the story of the New Testament…

72A few sentences later, Nešić once again misattributes the words “my blood on you and your children” to Jesus, before stating, in a matter-of-fact way, that “they crucified him, he was not crucified by some other people, Jews crucified him.” Essential to Nešić’s argument is that anti-Judaism, which stems “simply” from the clash between two religious beliefs, is embedded in Christianity and is an issue of profound theological significance. The deicide accusation is introduced as common sense and collective Jewish culpability as something that is a “fact” and “obvious.” Moreover, the belief in the collective guilt of Jews is to be expected of an Orthodox bishop and is something that Nešić himself, “as a Christian” believes in.

73Poet Matija Bećković made a similar claim when he argued that “I don’t know whether among Christians you could find someone who could not be accused of antisemitism, if you were to examine this issue from a biblical perspective. However, it is difficult to imagine calling an antisemite someone who identified with Christ and devoted his whole life to him, unless you consider Christ himself to have been one.” Earlier in the interview, Bećković insisted on the semantic distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism (see above). Here he reiterates this point and notes that antisemitism “from the Biblical perspective” (namely anti-Judaism) is something that is inherent in Christian belief (in the sense that it would be hard to find a Christian who could not be accused of antisemitism “from a biblical perspective”). At the same time, Bećković dismisses the accusation of antisemitism (of the non-Biblical kind) against Nikolaj Velimirović. He sets up the accusation for disparagement by likening it to an “extreme” and easily dismissible view, in this case the assumption that Christ was himself an antisemite. The same ironising effect is achieved by Ranković who in an earlier quotation equated the critique of Velimirović with the claim that “the Old Testament, which is in fact a Jewish book, [is] the biggest antisemitic pamphlet ever,” by Nešić who suggests that if Nikolaj is an antisemite then “we are all antisemites and the New Testament ought to be banned,” or by Bigović who said that Nikolaj was as “antisemitic” as Jesus.

74During the interview, Deacon Ljubomir Ranković noted that the reference to Jews as “sons of the Devil” in Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window is “merely a repetition of Christ’s words” and as such is “to be expected of a priest who upholds Christ and his teachings.” In the end Ranković showed signs of frustration with having to account for Velimirović’s views on Jews: “Let’s cool down this whole ‘antisemitism’ story! So I am an antisemite, so what? He was an antisemite, against a people like that, of course he was and he had to be, if he was a Christian. They are totally anti-Christian and anti-Evangelical […] He was against a concept and a doctrine of Jewish religion.”

75The term “antisemitism”—invoked here in a dismissive and defiant way—is constructed as a position that Velimirović, as “a Christian,” had to embrace, because he was a Christian. Importantly, the utterance contains two contrasting interpretations of what it is that Christians are supposed to be against. While arguing that Velimirović was against a “concept and a [religious] doctrine,” Ranković also claims that Velimirović had to be “against a people like that.” Also it is the people (“they”), not the religious dogma, that is interpreted as being “anti-Christian and anti-Evangelical.” The distinction between the “sinner” and the “sin” implicit in the old Christian adage “love the sinner, hate the sin” thus shows itself to be not entirely impermeable.

76The defiance apparent in Ranković’s tone is noteworthy also because it constructs the persistence of antagonism towards Jews in Orthodox Christian teachings—and the resulting conflict with secular political morality—as a testimony to the Orthodox Church’s unquestionable devotion to traditional and genuine religious values. A comparably categorical and uncompromising stance towards the issue of religious tolerance is articulated in the article “Serbs and Jews.” Its author, Vladimir Dimitrijević, notes that “in the domain of religion there can be no concessions: there is either only one Truth, revealed in God, or no truth at all” (Dimitrijević, 2004, p. 74). He then goes on to criticize the legacy of the Second Vatican Council by condemning the readiness of the Catholic Church to “wear sackcloth and ashes, and even reject Christ himself, just to prove that it is not ‘antisemitic’” (ibid.). In the interview conducted for this study, Deacon Ranković interprets the Jewish-Catholic rapprochement over the past 50 years as indicative of Catholicism’s unpardonable “tendency towards pragmatism,” which stands in stark contrast with Orthodoxy’s exemplary traditionalism. For him, “toning down the views of Apostle Paul or Jesus” turns religion into a “flea market.”

77Constructions of the anti-Jewish tradition as an immutable aspect of the Christian faith confirm not only that the “teaching of contempt” for Jews has come to be regarded, within the conservative circles of Serbian Orthodox culture, as constitutive of Christian identity, but also that among contemporary champions of Nikolaj Velimirovic the rejection of interfaith dialogue has itself been elevated to the status of a sine qua non of the Orthodox Christian religious creed. Velimirović’s remembrance, and the ideological dispute that surrounds it, have brought the traditional derision of Jews out of the woodwork and transformed the justification and the rationalization of antisemitism into a viable means of “being a Christian” in sections of contemporary Serbian Orthodox culture.

Questionable boundaries between anti-Judaism and antisemitism

78So far it has been argued that the justification of Velimirović’s controversial stance towards Jews rests on the distinction between, on the one hand, the seemingly legitimate doctrine of Christian anti-Judaism—said to be rooted in the Holy Scriptures and motivated by the divine love for the Jews—and, on the other hand the anti-normative ideology of secular, Nazi antisemitism.

79Scholarly literature on Christian–Jewish relations acknowledges the possibility and even the necessity of preserving the formal, theoretical distinction between anti-Judaism—as a theological abstraction—and the secular variants of racial and conspiratorial antisemitism (Hellig, 2002; Ruether, 1974). At the same time, Christian anti-Judaism and modern antisemitism are said to be tied by a profound historical connectedness, which undermines the relevance and appropriateness of this differentiation in practice (Caroll, 2002; Goldhagen, 2002; Hilberg, 1985). Baum (1974) for instance argues:

While it would be historically untruthful to blame the Christian Church for Hitler’s anti-Semitism and the monstrous crimes committed by his followers, what is true, alas, is that the Church has produced an abiding contempt among Christians for Jews and all things Jewish, a contempt that aided Hitler’s purposes. The church made the Jewish people a symbol of unredeemed humanity; it painted a picture of Jews as a blind, stubborn, carnal and perverse people, an image that was fundamental in Hitler’s choice of Jews as a scapegoat. (p. 7)

80Daniel Goldhagen (2002) refers to the Christian teachings about Jews as the “ideational seedbed from which ideas grew that animated the perpetrators of the Holocaust” (p. 71) and “the trunk that never ceased bringing nourishment to the modern European antisemitism that had branched off from it” (p. 78). James Carroll (2002) argues that the “Church-absolving wall between anti-Judaism and antisemitism teeters at its base” (p. 274), because hatred of Jews in the Gospels “achieved its climax in the Holocaust” (p. 22). Specifically,

When Nazism defined Jews as the negative other, in opposition to which it defined itself, it was building on a structure of the European mind that was firmly in place before Hitler was born. If nothing else is clear by now, it is that that structure of mind had its foundations in Christianity and moreover that defining the Jew as the negative other had served as a self-protecting Church’s modus operandi down the centuries, from the Gospel of St John, to the Sermons of Luther, from Saint Ambrose to anti-Dreyfusards. (p. 478)

81Norman Cohn (1957) describes “the [conspiratorial] fantasy” which characterizes contemporary antisemitism as a secularized version of medieval Christian “demonological terrors [that became] blended with anxieties and resentments which are typically modern” (p. 27). Zygmunt Bauman (1991) takes the same view when he writes that “[t]he age of modernity inherited ‘the Jew’ already firmly separated from the Jewish men and women who inhabited its towns and villages. Having successfully played the role of the alter ego of the Church, it was prepared to be cast in a similar role in relation to the new, secular, agencies of social integration” (p. 38). The link between the two traditions has led Ruether (1974) to propose that in “diabologizing” the Jew as the “Son of Darkness,” the “brood of vipers,” and the apostate man, Christian anti-Judaism inevitably “takes social expression as antisemitism” (p. 116).

82While most of the cited literature locates the seeds of modern antisemitism in the teaching of Christianity generally, the primary focus of the research has been on antisemitism within the Catholic, and to a lesser extent the Protestant churches. Hardly any space in studies written by western scholars is devoted to relations between Eastern Orthodox Churches and Jews. In a statement to The Jerusalem Post, published in 1998, Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre attributed the heavier scrutiny that the Vatican has come in for—compared to the Orthodox Churches—to the greater “moral authority of the Catholic Church” around the world (O’Dwyer, 1998, p.14). As we saw in the previous chapter, this bias towards the exploration of Vatican’s stance towards Jews has led some protagonists of this study to present Christian antisemitism as a specifically Catholic rather than a pan-Christian phenomenon, thereby exonerating the Orthodox Church from accusations of antisemitism. However, as we can see, there is ample evidence to suggest that the inherently blurred nature of the boundaries between anti-Judaism and antisemitism are highly visible in the Orthodox context as well.

83The association between “antisemitism” and “anti-Judaism” is not merely historical. In the decades preceding World War II, in Churches around Europe, traditional conceptualization of Jews inherent in the Christian ceremonial and religious doctrine was not propagated in a social vacuum, isolated from the more contemporary variants of antisemitism that were rapidly becoming part of everyday discourse. Christianity, even if only inadvertently, assimilated the emerging racial and conspiratorial antisemitic perspectives into its culture. Using examples from the Catholic and Protestant contexts, in his book The Moral Reckoning Daniel Goldhagen (2002) notes that what makes the distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism problematic is that the differentiation “is founded on a fiction, a sanitised account of the Church’s so-called anti-Judaism. The antisemitism of the Church, certainly since the last part of the nineteenth century and throughout the Nazi period, was far more ‘modern’ and far closer in precept and practice, to the Nazi antisemitism than has been acknowledged” (p. 79).

84The work of Nikolaj Velimirović provides an illustration of this trend within Serbian Orthodox culture. As was noted earlier, in Velimirović’s Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window references to Jews as the reprobate people who rejected Christ are interspersed with claims about Jewish power, and the responsibility of Jews for the evils of the modern era. The latter themes belong to the more recent ideological tradition of conspiratorial antisemitism and feature in Nazi rhetoric, too. In Bishop Nikolaj’s writing, the two supposedly distinguishable sets of arguments are so closely intertwined that they cannot be plausibly and convincingly separated.

85The blurred nature of the boundaries between “theological” and modern secular antisemitism is apparent also in the rhetoric of those among Velimirović’s supporters who insist on preserving the distinction. For instance, in the aforementioned letter in Danas, in which Deacon Radoš Mladenović and Vladimir Dimitrijević alluded to the “tradition of criticism of Talmudic and Rabbinical Judaism” and distinguished it from antisemitic ideas found for instance in Mein Kampf, the two authors also suggest the following:

Nikolaj talks of Jews [in Words to the Serbian People] only to the extent that some of them took part in the secularization of Europe, and especially of Russia. (Were not Trotsky, Zinovyev, Kamenyev, Buharin, Sverdlov all Jews? Was the leader of the Union of godless militants not called Yaroslavski-Gubelyman? To be fair, Osip Mandelstam, who said that “every cultured man is a Christian” and Boris Pasternak, who wrote some of the finest Christian verses of the 20th century, were also Jews, but they were not the ones running Russia, nor did Nikolaj know about them… (Mladenović and Dimitrijević, 2002, p. 8)

86In this instance, the justification of Velimirović’s position is extended to aspects of the bishop’s argument which concern 20th century politics. Although the quotation starts by undermining the overall importance of the portrayal of Jews in Velimirović’s writing (he talks of them “to the extent that”), the antisemitic references are defended on the grounds of factuality. The rhetorical question about the ethnic background of the leaders of the Russian Revolution asserts not only that they were Jews, but also that this is common knowledge, and therefore not something that can be either prejudicial or controversial. Also, while acknowledging that not all Jews were responsible for the secularization of Europe (note the reference to “some of them,” and the praise of Mandelstam and Pasternak) the allusion to Jews who were “running Russia” is a clear reiteration of one of the most notorious and inherently false (see Poliakov, 1987) conspiratorial myths of the 1920s, which features extensively both in Velimirović’s worldview and in Nazi rhetoric (Cohn, 1957).

87Similarly, in the interview for this study Ljubomir Ranković follows a description of Velimirović ’s antisemitism as being “of the only kind that it can be, namely biblical” with the following claim:

One ought to read Dostoyevsky’s The Jewish Question. Did you see what he writes? He says they have no home, they have nothing, they only save money. Why do they save money—in case one day they are called upon to start a war against all people and create their own state. Imbued with hate towards everything around them […] towards the Russian peasant […] they are using him. I don’t believe that Dostoyevsky lied. I really don’t know them well at all, but through Dostoyevsky […] also I read their—they say that it is an apocryphon—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That is monstrous. Even if just one per cent of what is in there is true, then it really is horrifying. I can admire their unity, their national consciousness, and devotion to their nation, but I will always be against their anti-Christian endeavors, call them whatever you want. If they are decent, loyal citizens of this country, and I am all for that, I wouldn’t mind if one became the president of the state. As for everything else, a barrier needs to be in place. I believe that was Bishop Nikolaj’s position too. What does that mean: they can do to us what they like, and if you object, you are an antisemite […] as if ! There is no logic in that.

88The truthfulness of Velimirović’s verdict on Jews is, on this occasion, not substantiated through an analogy with either the Old Testament Prophets or the protagonists of the Christian Bible. Instead, Ranković cites Dostoyevsky’s 1876 antisemitic pamphlet as well as the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Ranković displays an attempt at partial distancing from the evaluation of Jews which he produces by noting that the assessment is not derived from personal experience (“I really don’t know them well at all”), but from secondary sources of which one (the Protocols) might be of questionable authenticity. At the same time, Dostoyevsky is cited as a reliable source (“I don’t believe that Dostoyevsky lied”) and the forgery claim is attributed to unknown others (“they say that it is an apocryphon”), thereby implying that it is merely an allegation, not an established fact. Also, Ranković refers to the alleged apocryphon as “their” Protocols, thereby implicitly attributing authorship of the pamphlet to Jews. Most importantly, the forgery claim and the notoriety of the Protocols are not seen as undermining the usefulness of this document in substantiating Velimirović’s views. On the contrary, the notion that Protocols might be a fake is invoked in a way that supports the overall antisemitic message. Even if it is an “apocryphon,” Ranković maintains, at least “one per cent” of it might be true and even this would be enough to indict the Jews. By stating that the view expounded in Dostoyevsky’s pamphlet and in the Protocols was “Bishop Nikolaj’s position too,” Ranković effectively extends the boundaries of the “purely” Christian anti-Judaism to include claims and sources which fall within the ideological traditions and practices of modern fascistic antisemitism from which he attempted to distance himself earlier in the interview.

89In contrast to above examples, some followers of Nikolaj Velimirović acknowledge that the bishop’s writings contain conspiratorial themes of questionable merit which need to be examined separately from his otherwise praiseworthy theological work. Predrag Samardžić’s book Bishop Nikolaj and the New Testament on the Jews begins with the suggestion that Velimirović’s “so called ‘antisemitism’” ought to be examined on “two levels.” The two levels, the author explains are “[f]irst, that which finds its recognizable base in New Testament literature and second, one of a ‘speculative’ kind (which, if singled out, en bloc, belongs at the lowest point of the scale of the bishop’s philosophical achievement) provoked by broader contemplations about world affairs and the concrete situation in which the bishop found himself at the time—imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau” (p. 5).

90While acknowledging that “speculative” thoughts on Jews are not the pinnacle of Velimirović’s creative endeavors, Samardžić does not see in these “contemplations about world affairs” anything that warrants condemnation. He explains that “Bishop Nikolaj expressed these views at the time when he was at his weakest, in the jaws of Nazi Germany together with millions of Jews, in many ways with all of them.” In Samardžić’s view, the status of victim “excludes the possibility of rabblerousing in [Velimirović’s] thinking” (p. 8). At the same time, Velimirović’s “speculative” writings are also said to contain some important historical truths: “Did some Jews actively participate and lead those movements [presumably communism, freemasonry, etc.] of which Bishop Nikolaj talks in the speculative extract from Words to the Serbian People? Without a doubt they did” (p. 10).

91By interpreting Velimirović’s views on Jews as being directed at “some Jews” rather than the whole of the Jewish people, Samardžić employs a strategy commonly used in Serbian antisemitic discourse to dispel criticism. For instance, Serbia’s most prolific writer of antisemitic material, Ratibor Đurđević, routinely distinguishes in his writing between “ordinary Jews” and the evil and scheming “Judaists.” However, these distinctions are unconvincing and have been shown to constitute nothing more than poor attempts at masking racist views (see Byford, 2003, 2006). Evidence for this can even be found even in Samardžić’s book. On page sixteen, the author notes that some of the leading critics of Nikolaj Velimirović among the Serbian diaspora in the US in the 1950s were intelligence agents who received “instructions from their political mentor Oskar Davičo.” This allegation is followed by the insinuation that Davičo, a well known poet and writer, was a Jew. Samardžić writes: “I am reluctant to see behind this some kind of Semitic anti-Serbianism and anti-Christianism, although I know of analysts who think otherwise.” Although he distances himself from the claim made by others that Davičo’s Jewish background constitutes a fitting explanation for the latter’s critical stance towards Velimirović, Samardžić nonetheless introduces this notion—attributed to more than one “analyst”—as an account that warrants a mention. Moreover, he does not unequivocally reject this view, in which not only is a distinction not made between “some Jews” and all others, but also “anti-Serbianism” and “anti-Christianity” is cited as “Semitic” traits. Instead, Samardžić merely expressed “reluctance” to accept it, hinting that the “other analysts who think otherwise” might in fact be onto something.

92Finally, more moderate voices in the Serbian church have argued that Velimirović’s venerable theological and spiritual writing must be distinguished from his dubious views on Europe and Western civilization. In From All-Man to the Man of God Radovan Bigović (1998) separates the bishop’s contribution to Orthodox theology from the “political” critique of the West within which the indictment of the Jews is to be found. Bigović recognizes that “in spite of a number of lucid observations,” the bishop’s verdict on Europe “looks more like an ideological critique of a specific type of culture than a sober theological evaluation,” and that “panicky negation of culture, in essence, is meaningless” (Bigović, 1998, p. 371). Bigović also points out that Velimirović’s “opinion of Roman Catholicism and Jews would not survive serious critique” (p. 372). However, a “serious critique” of Velimirović’s political ideas is absent from Bigović’s otherwise very detailed and comprehensive analysis of the bishop’s religious philosophy. In fact, the author concludes the review of Velimirović’s stance on Europe by noting that “although they may seem one-sided and propagandist,” his position on the Catholic Church and Jews “is not completely misguided” (p. 371). Bigović explains that while Jews may not be responsible for “all the evils in Europe” as Velimirović contends, “objectively speaking, the influence of Jews, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism on Europe’s spiritual development is not insignificant.” It is revealing that Bigović does not speak of “Judaism” along with “Roman Catholicism” and “Protestantism” but about “Jews.” It is not the influence of a religious dogma, culture, or tradition, but of a people. Moreover, in acknowledging at least partially the legitimacy of Velimirović’s views, Bigović validates the view that Jews contributed significantly to the development of the very same aspects of European culture (secularism, democracy, religious tolerance, etc.) which Bishop Nikolaj and his followers continuously denounce in their writing as essentially anti-Serbian and anti-Christian.

93The equivocal nature of Bigović’s distancing from Velimirović’s views on Jews became even more apparent in the interview. In response to a direct question on Velimirović’s antisemitism, Bigović explained:

It is interesting that he articulated this one-sided position on Jews when he was in Dachau. Why not before then or after, that is a different question—we can only speculate. In any case the position was, to say the least, one-sided. And it cannot be defended. But there is also something else there. You should not read into his writing what many people read into it; they even turned into an ideology, that he was some kind of ideologue of antisemitism. I always say: if you follow that logic, then all Old Testament prophets would be branded antisemites. Jesus Christ would be an antisemite. Velimirović was, by that logic, also an anti-Serb. No one criticized his own people and their weaknesses as often as Nikolaj had done, many times, for over 50 years. That is evident and it is pointless to try to draw… anyway, how do you if he hated someone or not. We can only speculate. On the other hand one must say that these are one-sided arguments that cannot be defended. Whenever something is stated as a generalization it becomes questionable. I think that everyone in our church is aware that his position [on Jews] should not be defended and cannot be defended. There are also his claims about the West. Some of what he says might be true but when you draw a general conclusion based on negative examples that is methodologically very dangerous. I think that he was sometimes prone to generalization. […] On the other hand, it can hardly be seen as some kind of open antisemitism. He said it in that period and I used to ask myself whether he wrote these things in order to save his head, his life, because he was in Dachau, he wrote the book on toilet paper, we can only speculate, maybe that is how it looked to him at that time. In any case, to accuse the Jews for all evil in Europe is senseless. […] We cannot defend that…

94The continuous shifting between condemnation and justification of Velimirović’s lamentable stance on Jews illustrates clearly Bigović’s ambivalence towards the views expressed in Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window. The quoted passage contains attempts at distancing (Velimirović’s views “cannot be defended”), which are followed by explanations and justifications which are typical of pro-Velimirović apologist rhetoric. Also, Bigović describes Velimirović’s antisemitic diatribes as presenting a “one-sided,” biased view. This euphemistic characterization in itself indicates that the distancing from Velimirović’s opinion is only partial: a biased, one-sided view is not inherently wrong. Bigović confirms this when he condemns Velimirović only for being “prone to generalization” and for drawing conclusions “based on negative examples.” He reinforces the view expressed in his book that although Velimirović’s views about Jews “cannot be defended,” he may nonetheless have got some things right. Furthermore, Bigović presents the rejection of Velimirović’s position on Jews as a shared opinion within the Serbian Church. This claim is unjustifiable, given that no one within that institution has ever openly distanced themselves from Velimirović’s writing. Even Bigović has not done so explicitly, unequivocally and in public.

95In From All-Man to the Man of God, in the very last comment on the issue of Velimirović’s views on Europe, Bigović offers what he calls a “psycho-historical” rather than “theological” justification for Velimirović’s most controversial views: “He wrote Words to the Serbian People through the Dungeon Window as a prisoner at the camp Dachau, knowing that the Catholic Church played a role in the genocide against the Serbian people. With these psycho-historical rather than theological factors in mind, his views can be to some extent justified and comprehended” (p. 372). These remarks, which are offered as a conclusion to the section that deals both with Velimirović’s antisemitism and anti-Catholicism, purport to explain only the bishop’s stance towards the Vatican. Bigović cites in his book no relevant “psycho-historical” arguments that might explain Velimirović’s stance on Jews. And yet, during the interview, Bigović invokes, in his response, the possibility that Velimirović wrote the controversial book to save his life. Knowing what we know today about Velimirović’s existence during the war, of which Bigović is unlikely to be ignorant, this explanation cannot be given serious consideration. Rather, just like Bigović’s hesitation on this issue, apparent both in the book and in the interview, it should be seen as symptomatic of an important dilemma faced by Bigović, and probably by other liberal voices in the church. Ambivalence is a way of negotiating between a genuine admiration for Nikolaj Velimirović and profound disagreement with some of his views. In a broader ideological climate within the Church, dominated by the uncritical apotheosis of the “Holy Bishop Nikolaj,” the swinging pendulum of argumentation is a way of managing the impasse created by the demand for equivocal condemnation in an ambience of widespread hero-worship.

Deicidal justification of Jewish suffering: The Holocaust as divine retribution

96As was noted in Chapter 3, one interpretation of Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window in official accounts of Velimirović’s life is that the book is an indictment not just of the secularized European civilization, but also of its most sinister creation, namely Nazism. It is claimed that Velimirović wrote the book in secret, often using coded references to Germany and Nazism in order to avoid punishment in case his captors discover the seditious manuscript, written on scraps of toilet paper. This “heroic” interpretation of the book enabled Velimirović’s supporters within the church to repress, from representations of the bishop’s life, the fact that many elements of the portrayal of Jews in the prison writing did not deviate that much from the views held by his captors.

97As the specifics of Velimirović’s writing at the camp started to penetrate the public domain in recent years, the promotion of the myth that Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window was the product of Velimirović’s subversive anti-fascist mind could no longer be plausibly propagated, especially in situations such as in the interviews, where Velimirović’s antisemitism, and the circumstances in which it emerged, constituted a prominent topic of conversation.

98During our conversation in August 2003, Deacon Ljubomir Ranković attempted to rationalize Velimirović’s stance on Jews by citing a letter that the former bishop of Šabac and Valjevo, Jovan Velimirović (whom Ranković served as deacon for more than a decade), received from his uncle Nikolaj after World War II:

In a letter to [his nephew] Bishop Jovan, describing his suffering in the Dachau camp, Bishop Nikolaj wrote about how he watched while they took away bunches of children and people, prisoners, murdered them and threw them into gas chambers, and above all he watched the suffering of Jews. “I kneeled,” he wrote, “and prayed to God”; and he says, “I watched before my eyes as Christ’s prophecy, or rather their curse under Christ’s cross, was being realized: His blood be upon on us and upon our children! I kneeled and prayed to God to forgive them that sin of deicide at Golgotha, and deliver them from the suffering and torture.”

99Ranković offered an almost identical account of this letter in an article published in the daily Večernje Novosti in June 2003 (Ranković, 2003a). The description of the events at Dachau includes a significant amount of specific and vivid details: bunches of children being taken away, interns being murdered, people being thrown into gas chambers. What makes this description intriguing is that it does not accurately depict the conditions at Dachau. Sereny (2000) writes that in spite of the symbolic significance of Dachau in the collective memory of the Holocaust, the camp was one where comparatively few Jews were interned and more importantly where there were not the mass executions of the kind that went on in Auschwitz or Treblinka: “[Dachau] was primarily a bitterly harsh, punitive camp for political prisoners, and while many died of overwork and starvation, and the bodies (just like in the extermination camps, all located in occupied Poland) were burned in the camp crematorium, no one was ‘exterminated’ there” (p. 157).

100Dachau did have a gas chamber, disguised as a shower-room, but it was never used (Marcuse, 2001). Also, writing about executions at the camp, Berben (1975) notes that most of the killing at the camp took the form of executions by shooting, conducted mainly off-site. These facts about life at Dachau are in no way intended to minimize or trivialize the horror that went on inside it. They are noted in order to suggest that it is unlikely that Velimirović—as an honorary prisoner who lived in separate quarters away from other interns—in reality could have witnessed the events described by Ranković. What is more, in his statement to the New York Times in 1946, Velimirović stated that he “did not know” what went on outside the barrack he was in, and that all they could hear was a mixture of “beautiful music… Mozart and Beethoven” and “gunfire” (“Bishop, ex captive of Nazis, is here,” 1946).

101And yet, while it is not possible to ascertain what the letter actually said, or even if it exists, Ranković’s description, as a description, is revealing. The memory of the letter, as articulated in the interview, is enriched with familiar imagery and shared representations of victimization and horror in Nazi camps. These details serve a rhetorical purpose in the context in which they are produced. In Ranković’s depiction, reference to Velimirović actually watching prisoners being murdered, taken away, or thrown into gas chambers works up the martyrdom myth. It enhances the image of the bishop as survivor of Nazi terror, and someone who actually experienced and witnessed first hand the workings of the murderous Nazi machine. Given that eyewitnesses are generally seen as entitled to superior knowledge of the events they observed, the emphasis on Velimirović actually being there also enhances the validity of his interpretation of Jewish suffering as the realization of Biblical prophesy.

102Going back to the implications of the alleged correspondence between Bishop Jovan and Nikolaj Velimirović as an account for the latter’s antisemitic stance, it is noteworthy that Ranković equates Velimirović’s antisemitic rage in Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window with “prayer,” a term which has compassionate and benevolent connotations. Velimirović is no longer portrayed as someone who “chastises” the Jews with “bitter and crude words” in the manner of Old Testament prophets. Instead, as an authentic Christian, he “prays” for the deliverance of Jewish victims of Nazism. Branimir Nešić from Dveri also invoked the notion of the prayer when he claimed that “Nikolaj prayed for Jews to repent, in the same way that he prayed for Serbs to repent their sins.” He added: “[Nikolaj] is not an antisemite because he prayed for Jews to repent and avoid sin but he prayed for all people to repent, so that this would not happen. I think that is OK, I see nothing antisemitic in that. It was a prayer of a Bishop who in Dachau witnessed the suffering of the Jewish people and among other prayers he also prayed for Jews [to repent].”

103In talking about the need for repentance, Nešić speaks of it as of something that will help the Jews avoid “sin” rather than “suffering.” Because of the assumed causal relationship between the two concepts, in interpreting the history of Jewish suffering Nešić treats them as practically synonymous. The implication of this is that the responsibility for the suffering, and for its alleviation, is even more unequivocally laid on the shoulders of the victims. Nešić’s answer also trivializes Velimirović’s antisemitism by claiming that the “prayer” for Jews was just one among many prayers. He even suggested later in the interview that Nikolaj prayed also for the German people. In doing so he “dilutes” the focus on Jews in Velimirović’s work, and sidesteps the fact that Jews were the only people for whom Velimirović “prayed” as the “sons of the Devil,” and whom he accused of being the source of all the evil in the world. Also, on several occasions during the interview, Nešić contrasted Velimirović’s compassion and kindness towards Jews (manifested in the “prayer” for their repentance and salvation) with the selfishness of Jewish rabbis: “Show me one Jewish rabbi who prayed for Serbian victims.”

104Both Nešić’s and Ranković’s arguments revolve around the assumption that the suffering of Jews was divine retribution for the “sin of deicide at Golgotha,” the fulfillment of “Christ’s prophecy,” and the realization of the curse: “His blood be upon us and upon our Children.” Also, both explanations assume that the perpetual suffering of Jews, of which Holocaust was a manifestation, can end only with repentance by Jews for the crime of deicide. Shortly after stating that “Christ was not crucified by Jews per se, but by sinful people who failed to appreciate his greatness and significance,” Nešić suggested that crucifixion is a “Jewish sin because Jews are the ones that passed verdict on him. Christ went to other people, but they did not put him on trial…” before adding: “You know the Holocaust was a tragedy, but this is not normal... Evidently, God punishes, and he merely used the Nazis to punish Jews. That is how I see it. You know, from an ontological point of view. Not in terms of earthly existence. I would stand in defense of any Jew, but I gather that that’s how God punishes people, in the same way that he punished us with the Ustashas and the Turks.”

105Deacon Ljubomir Ranković similarly noted that “I must once again quote their book, the Bible, the verse: ‘he who sows wind will reap a storm.’ Therefore, that wind that they sowed while fighting against Christ, they reaped during World War II, in the storm of the Holocaust which they endured.” In arguing that Hitler was effectively God’s tool for the punishment of Jews (even if only “from an ontological point of view”), Ranković and Nešić were following the religious logic of Velimirović’s prison writing: “So the innocent blood [of Christ] became the whip that drove them like cattle through the centuries, from land to land, like fire that burns their repository of schemes against Christ” (Velimirović, 1998, p. 194).

106Deflecting the guilt for the Holocaust onto the Jews is not an invention of the Serbian Christian Right. This deicidal justification of the Holocaust (see Hellig, 2002; Shafir, 2002) is a frequent theme in the rhetoric of Fascist and neo-Nazi groups in Slovakia, Romania, and other parts of Eastern Europe (Shafir, 2002). Moreover, it is an idea that had been advanced even by some fairly respectable mainstream men of cloth. In a media interview in the 1960s, Heinrich Gruber, the German evangelical pastor, anti-Nazi activist, and former intern at Dachau, who was profoundly opposed to Hitler and his regime, interpreted Auschwitz as part of God’s plan and likened Hitler to Nebuchadnezzar as the “rod of God’s anger” against Jews (cited in Hellig, 2002, p. 162).

107In a polemic with Gruber, Jewish theologian Richard L. Rubenstein dismissed the view of the Holocaust as divine punishment as morally repugnant and as symptomatic of a profoundly false logic of Christian theology, which, in its extreme manifestations, legitimizes the murder of Jews. The disputed aspect of Christian dogma is “the theologizing of history” (Ravitch, 1982), namely the tendency to interpret history, particularly that of the Jews as part of a predestined divine plan. In the attempt to explain the legacy of the persecution of Jews, the theologization of history essentially projects religious and ethnic prejudices of ordinary mortals, including Christians, onto the will of the Almighty. The presence of deicidal justification of the Holocaust reflects the more general symbolic role that “the Jews” occupy in the Christian weltanschauung. Because traditional, conservative Christian theology presents Jews as the perennial outcasts and sinners, their suffering is made to seem as not just as the expected and normal consequence of their deicidal sin, but also as necessary. For as Hellig (2001) asks “if Jews do not suffer, who would bear the guilt for the sacrifice of Jesus?” (p. 168).

108Michael Shafir (2002) notes that the deicidal justification for the Holocaust is not the only strategy used to deflect the guilt and responsibility for the murder of European Jews onto the Jews themselves. He notes that among conspiracy theorists in Eastern Europe, there is also the view that Jewish power, led by “international Jewry and Zionism” and “Freemasonry” produced Hitler for their sinister purposes (in most cases so as to legitimize the creation of Israel). So far, such extraordinary claims have not penetrated Serbian conspiracist culture. In Velimirović’s writing, however, although no allusion is made to a direct, collaborative link between Jews and Hitler, the emergence of Nazism is nonetheless attributed, at least in a broader symbolic sense, to Jewish influence in European culture. In Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window, Velimirović accredits Nazism to the secularization of Europe and portrays it as the outcome of Western civilization’s fatal departure from traditional Christian values. Yet in the same book he asserts that the much-maligned secularization stems from Jewish influence and the fact that Europe “knows nothing other than what Jews serve to her” (p. 194). The implication of this argument is that Nazism was not just a new “whip” brought on by the “innocent blood” of Christ, or yet another burst of the fire that “burns [Jewish] repositories of schemes against Christ.” It is also the work of the Devil and his disciple, the Jew. In the fifty-second sermon in Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window Velimirović explains:

Europe plotted its malice together with the Jews and wanted to create peace with propaganda. Europe became fat and heavy, its eyesight worsened, its hearing deteriorated, and its heart became wooden. Just like in the old Israel, and just like Caiaphas’s recipe prescribes…
That is why we have today a horrific hatred of the Europeans towards Jews. Everyone hates their own vices in others. Europe breathes with the spirit of Jewishness, which is why it is persecuting Jews. Europe does not need Jews any more. They have finished their mission in Europe. European civilization will become a worthy replacement in the animosity towards Christ and God. (Velimirović, 1998, p. 131)

109The Jews are therefore not only accountable for the Holocaust by the virtue of their rejection and murder of Christ. Velimirović also suggests that Nazism, which breathes with the “spirit of Jewishness,” is an invention of a Satanic, Jewish “plot” that has now turned against its creators. Ranković also invoked this perverse connection between Nazism and Judaism when he compared the modus operandi of the Nazis with that of the Jews in the Bible: “There, it says here… One prophet, Isaiah I think, they sawed him in half. Didn’t they chop off St John the Baptist’s head? Christ described him as the greatest man ever borne by a woman. What happened to them afterwards, with Hitler and everything? The same thing… precisely the same thing. Who taught people to saw people in half? They did it to their own prophets…”

110The various indefensible and deplorable interpretations of the Holocaust, which are to be found both in the writings of Nikolaj Velimirović and in the arguments of his followers, have an important common element. In “blaming the victim,” they divert attention away from the responsibility of the Nazis and their collaborators for the Holocaust. Actual perpetrators of crimes against Jews are devoid of agency and consequently of responsibility. The identity of the murderers and the history of animosity towards Jews that made their crime possible are obscured by the perennial preoccupation with Jews as sinners who must “reap” the consequences of collective sin.

111According to Richard L. Rubenstein (1966), such misguided readings of recent Jewish history reveal that Nazism not only inherited from Christianity the image of Jew as the perennial villain, but also that Christian logic is capable of providing a justificatory account for the crimes of the Nazis. Rubenstein went as far as to suggest that this interpretation of the Holocaust exposes Hitler’s policy towards Jews as “the terminal expression of Christian antisemitism” (p. 46). This conclusion is simplistic insofar as it overlooks the complexity of the historical relationship between Christian anti-Jewish tradition and Nazism. At the same time, it accurately identifies deicidal justification of the Holocaust as an important manifestation of the ideological link that binds the seemingly legitimate biblical anti-Judaism and the modern secular racial antisemitism. The presence of this type of argument in the discourse of Velimirović’s remembrance suggests that while challenging the legitimacy of the “reading of Chrysostom in the light of Mein Kampf,” some of Velimirović’s followers have been unable to resist the temptation of interpreting Hitler’s views in the light of the writings of St John Chrysostom or the Gospel according to Matthew. This can be taken as further evidence of the haziness of the invoked differentiation between two categories of belief about Jews and which annihilates the much-misused distinction between anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

112One of the principle aims of the present chapter has been to demonstrate the way in which attempts at refuting the accusations of antisemitism directed at Nikolaj Velimirović have turned one of the oldest premises of traditional Christian antisemitic rhetoric—the idea that Jews killed Christ and have drawn upon themselves eternal damnation that will end only when they repent and accept Christian teachings—into a seemingly acceptable, natural, and even normative aspect of Christian identity. The rhetoric of denial based on the drawing of a parallel between Velimirović’s antisemitic work and the words of the Bible has been shown to depoliticize and legitimize the bishop’s anti-Jewish stance by placing it under the banner of the normal and acceptable “theological” “anti-Judaism.” In the broader context of apologetics, this strategy helps to boost the authority of literal denial, examined in the previous chapter. The enforcement of the dubious distinction between antisemitism and anti-Judaism enables the Serbian church to maintain more convincingly and persuasively that there is no antisemitism within Orthodox culture. Moreover, by constructing the despicable anti-Jewish sentiments expressed by Velimirović as a theological matter that cuts to the bone of Christian belief and identity, Velimirović’s supporters are able to dismiss criticism of their hero’s work as malicious and spiteful attacks on Christianity as a whole. The ultimate consequence of this strategy is that Velimirović’s ideological position continues to be unchallenged within the Serbian Orthodox Church. Most disturbingly, the spontaneity with which Velimirović’s supporters invoke the rhetoric of interpretative denial suggests that normalization and legitimization of anti-Jewish sentiment has become entrenched in the routine of Velimirović’s remembrance. Bearing in mind Velimirović’s popularity in Serbia today, and the regularity with which “remembering” occurs, it is clear that the apologist rhetoric is gradually becoming part of the ideological common sense, an outcome that cannot have a positive impact on Christian–Jewish relations in the country.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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