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April 23, 2019 11:02 am

Pete Buttigieg vs. the Pharisees

avatar by Harold Brackman


South Bend’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a rally to announce his 2020 Democratic presidential candidacy in South Bend, Indiana, US, April 14, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/John Gress.

A few years younger than John F. Kennedy was when he set his sights on the White House, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has emerged as the thinking person’s Democratic presidential candidate.

Buttigieg is a graduate of Harvard and attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. After working at an elite management consulting firm, he deployed from the Navy Reserve to Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. Twice elected mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he has written an autobiography, The Shortest Way Home, in cogent sentences, not platitudes. He speaks seven languages, including Arabic.

My disappointment is with the prejudiced wording of Buttigieg’s criticisms of Vice President Mike Pence. It’s fair game for Buttigieg to argue that the vice president is a hypocrite for combining religious moralizing with yeoman service for a president accused of sexual improprieties. The problem is Buttigieg’s repeated use of the term “Pharisee” to describe Pence, because “there’s an awful lot” about Pharisees as hypocrites in the Christian scriptures.

Buttigieg’s father — an expert on the thought of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci — taught at Notre Dame. Yet Buttigieg’s father may have ultimately lost out to his dogmatic high school theology teacher, Father Bly, in shaping his world view.

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Before using a loaded biblical pejorative equating “Pharisee” with “hypocrite,” Buttigieg should first have read up on the last half century of scholarship on first century Judaism and what the Christian scriptures actually say.

One wonders whether Buttigieg saw and believed Mel Gibson’s antisemitic film, The Passion of the Christ, in which a Roman soldier say that it is “the Pharisees” who have arrested and are trying Jesus. In fact, Pharisees virtually disappear from the biblical passion narratives before Jesus’ arrest. Gibson distorted the Gospels by implying the High Priest and the Sanhedrin judges were “Pharisees.”

Joseph of Arimathia and Nicodemus, pious, prominent Jews, are said to have defended Jesus and seen to his burial. Scholars attempting to “rediscover the Jewish Jesus” argue that Jesus himself may have been a radical Pharisee. The charge that Pharisees are hypocrites — or worse — is emphasized in the Gospel of John, but the other three gospels focus their criticism instead on Temple priests.

The gravest problem is that picturing the Pharisees — who in fact were moral reformers — as malevolent hypocrites was later woven into the condemnation by Church Fathers in the fourth century of the Jewish people as “Christ killers.”

Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian “liberation theologian,” draws on the Gospel of John to depict Israelis as modern-day crucifiers when the historical truth is that the Jews have always been a crucified not a crucifying people.

Buttigieg would have been better off skipping the Bible and instead satirizing VP Pence as a pulpit-pounding hypocrite like the hero of the novel and film Elmer Gantry.

On a 2018 Mideast trip, Buttigieg showed understanding of Israeli security concerns. During the recent Israeli elections, he criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for anti-Palestinian “provocations,” but did not go as far as Beto O’Rourke, who vilified Israel’s prime minister as “racist.”

I hope that I am not called a Pharisee for praise followed by criticism of Buttigieg. Like other Democratic presidential candidates, he must learn that to scold Republicans for using antisemitic “dog whistles” is hypocritical if you yourself are guilty of unfair criticism of Israel or using anti-Jewish tropes like accusing political opponents of being “Pharisees.” Otherwise, America may revert to the prejudices of 1896, when Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan implied that international bankers, including the Rothschild family, were guilty of crucifying mankind “on a cross of gold.”

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans.

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