By Antonis Gazakis

Among the various Christian Orthodox traditions in Greece during the Easter holidays, a custom stands out as an example of how deep the roots of antisemitism are in Greek society.  It is the “burning of Judas” – or “the burning of the Jew”, as it is also called – still attested in many different areas of the country on Holy Saturday.
The custom begins with the creation of an effigy of Judas, the Jesus Christ’s disciple who betrayed him, according to the New Testament of the Bible. The effigy is usually a human-sized doll made of rags and stuffed with flammable materials and sometimes fireworks. This hand-made “Judas” is hanged – as Judas hanged himself after betraying Christ – at a square or another central place, and burned among curses, swearing and cheering, by the crowds, including children.

This custom was much more popular in the past. Almost every parish in the country used to organise it. Sometimes it was accompanied by actual assaults against houses where Jewish people were living in. In general, every Easter it revived the antisemitic feelings of a large part of the population. ΚΙΣ (the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece) have repeatedly demanded authorities to abolish this custom. The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece has also explicitly demanded this custom to be abolished as having nothing to do with Christianity.

Although urbanization, and a certain amount of common logic, have led to the abandonment of the custom in many Greek regions, the “burning of Judas/Jew” hasn’t yet been totally abolished by all of the Christian communities in the country. This year, for example, it was performed has been demonstrated in some places in central Greece and on the islands of Lesvos and Crete, where local authorities organised it and promoted it as a local folkloric attraction.

As if all this wasn’t enough, on its official website, the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) presented this custom as part of the Greek Easter attractions. ΚΙΣ reacted immediately with a complaint letter to the GNTO, which subsequently removed it from its website.

Folklore is a crucial part of a culture’s identity; tradition though should be respected and cultivated only insofar as it’s not abusive, racist or unethical. In the case of the “burning of Judas” we come across all three of these, and it isn’t irrelevant that many Greek Christians claim that “Jews are cursed because they crucified Christ”.

This custom should be stopped. A dialogue with the communities where it is still celebrated would make clear that this practice is far from being innocent, even in its folkloric form and stripped off of direct aggressiveness towards Jews, as it is today.

In 2007, Abravanel the blog, an English and Greek language website on Jewish life and antisemitism in Greece published an insightful post on this practice:

“In no way I think that people who participate are raging racists who yearn to burn Jews and since they can’t, they limit themselves to dolls. I’m sure that most of them consciously do not understand that what they do is wrong. The problem here is that the Greek State and generally people like the mayor of Hydra do know the racist nature of it, but still they choose not to act against it. This isn’t simply a case of Jews being oversensitive; it is the Greek Church herself who has condemned it as an act against the Christian faith and modern religious leaders describe it as atrocious.”

Nine years have passed but not many things have changed since then.