Burning Judas, deriding Jews: Antisemitic Easter traditions persist in Europe

Media and diplomatic uproars are not dissuading locals in the Netherlands and Poland from putting on religious events centered around anti-Jewish sentiment

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Children using sticks to beat an effigy of Judas on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, in the town of Pruchnik, Poland. (Hubert Lewkowicz / AFP)
Children using sticks to beat an effigy of Judas on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, in the town of Pruchnik, Poland. (Hubert Lewkowicz / AFP)

At a festive procession in Pruchnik, a small town in southeastern Poland, townsmen watch the ceremonial burning of a kippah-wearing effigy they’ve named Judas as part of a Christian event. In a small Dutch municipality, dozens of men wearing matching attire march through their city’s streets singing of the Jews’ murder of Jesus Christ.

These medieval-sounding scenes aren’t anecdotes from Europe’s rich history of antisemitism: Both are contemporary, yearly Easter events.

A testament to the deep, abiding roots of Jew-hatred on the continent, the events held last week are among several traditions that persist in 21st-century Europe, despite repeated protests by Jewish and other critics.

The effigy on display in Pruchnik is part of an annual march in which locals play out a trial for Judas Iscariot, who according to the canonical gospels of Christianity betrayed Jesus, leading to his execution. The locals beat the effigy and set it on fire.

The anti-Jewish caroling in the Netherlands’ eastern town of Ootmarsum sees singers in matching outfits denounce “the Jews who with their false council sacrificed Jesus on the cross.”

The character of Judas is also represented in that Dutch Easter tradition: Some of the men caroling through Ootmarsum smoke a cigar throughout the ceremony. In local lore, the smokers are known as “Judas.”

Carolers, wearing raincoats, and spectators of the Ootmarsum Easter procession and bonfire on April 9, 2023. (Municipality of Dinkelland)

Amichai Chikli, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs and combating antisemitism, protested the effigy burning in Poland, The Jerusalem Post first reported. Such events “have led throughout history to blood libels, discrimination and pogroms against innocent Jewish people and other bystanders,” Chikli wrote in a letter earlier this week to the Polish ambassador in Israel.

Chikli also wrote to the Greek ambassador to complain about the alleged burning of an Israeli flag on April 11 at a Basketball Champions League game in Athens, and to the Ukrainian ambassador to protest the Kyiv municipality’s inclusion of a Nazi collaborator on a list of people in consideration for having a street named after them.

In the Netherlands, the Easter caroling at Ootmarsum has come under criticism, including by influential Dutch Rabbi Lody van der Kamp.

The rabbi, who was born in the east of the Netherlands, last year called the tradition “unfathomable” in an interview.

“It is beyond me how the residents of Ootmarsum can sing along to this knowing the history of their city,” he added, noting that four Jews were gunned down there during the Holocaust.

The rebuke appears to be leading to some change: Last year, the procession’s organizing committee introduced alternative lyrics for the carol about the Jews, titled “Christ Is Resurrected.” The new version replaces “Jews” with “people.”

But not all carolers are onboard, according to the Tubantia local newspaper. Many participants in the annual event, which ends with a large bonfire, are sticking with the lyrics accusing the Jews of deicide.

Lars Telgenhof, a participant in the procession, told Tubantia that some of the marchers “take issue with how this beautiful tradition is coming under external pressure.”

A visitor from a nearby town, who is among the hundreds of tourists who come to Ootmarsum annually to watch the Easter caroling procession, defended the original lyrics to Tubantia.

Carolers at the Easter procession and bonfire in Ootmarsum, the Netherlands on April 9, 2023. (Municipality of Dinkelland)

“Why should I get involved,” demanded Jaap Meerkerk. “Let the incessant complainers find some other target than this beautiful tradition. No one here came to offend anyone,” Meerkerk said.

John Joosten, the mayor of the municipality of Dinkellan that comprises Ootmarsum, last month penned an op-ed titled: “Our Community Does Not Tolerate Discrimination” in which he recommended welcoming in refugees. It did not mention the procession. His office did not immediately reply to The Times of Israel’s request for his reaction to the caroling.

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