Tuesday, December 2, 2008

History - The Don Pacifico Incident

The Talmud (Avoda Zara 11b) reports that every seventy years in Rome, a healthy man symbolizing Eisav was seated on a lame man symbolizing Yaakov, and as the two were paraded through the streets a proclamation was made that Yaakov's deceit of Eisav had not helped him because Eisav was firmly in charge.

Similar anti-Semitic ceremonies persisted through the centuries.

About 150 years ago, something unprecedented happened. The British Empire went to war to defend the rights of one Jew. For tourists with a taste for the bizarre, holiday brochures still advertise an ancient Christian ritual:

"In many parts of Europe, huge bonfires are lighted on hilltops and in churchyards on Easter Eve. They are sometimes called Judas fires, because effigies of Judas Iscariot are frequently burned in them."

Who was Judas Iscariot? He was the Jewish disciple of Christ who supposedly betrayed him to the Romans, although some modern scholars suspect that the Judas tale was deliberately fabricated in order to widen the schism between Judaism and fledgling Christianity.

To many Christians, Judas represented the quintessential Jew.

As St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, the most influential early Christian theologian put it in the 4th century C.E., "The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the lord for silver. The Jew can never understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus."

A recent Roman Catholic scholar wrote that the Judas story "was exploited as anti-Jewish polemic in dramatic literature and art, depicting Judas with grossly exaggerated Semitic features and generalizing his love for money."

All this harmonized with the kind of hate preached by Ambrose of Milan (379-395 C.E.) that laid the foundations of Hitler's Mein Kamf.

"The Jews are the most worthless of all men," he wrote. "They are greedy and rapacious.They are murderers of Christ and for killing god there is expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christian may never cease vengeance,and the Jews must live in servitude forever. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews."

As the centuries rolled on, Jews began objecting to their burning in effigy.


During Greece's War of Independence against Ottoman Turkey, the Jews were accused of supporting the enemy and the Greek Orthodox rebels massacred thousands of them. Many Jewish communities, including that of Athens were completely destroyed. In 5594/1834, King Otto I of Greece settled in Athens. With him came Max Rothschild, one of the Athens first "new" Jews.

The annual burning effigy burning in Athens revolted Rothschild. He complained about it to the Prime Minister, John Kolettis, and Kolettis agreed to abolish the custom.

When Easter time arrived, the Athenian mob were deeply aggrieved at the deprivation of their ancient sport and hit on an even better way to liven things up.

"Who needs effigies when we've got the real thing?" yelled a swarthy son of the southern sun. "Let's go and teach those Jews a lesson."

Snowballing in size and momentum, a boiling horde surged up to the house Don (David) Pacifico, a wealthy Jewish Portuguese. Pacifico and his family fled for their lives and the hooligans kicked open his front door and swept inside. Pandemonium broke out. Anything moveable was carted away, and everything left was smashed into splinters. As a grand finale, the house was burnt to the ground.

But the mob had made a grave mistake….

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