Through the Past, Darkly

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Germany’s highest court rejected a case calling for the removal of a centuries-old anti-Semitic carving at a church in the country’s east that is associated with Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday.

The case centered over the “Judensau” – or “Jews’ sow” – a 13th-century bas relief located in the German town of Wittenberg. The carving depicts a rabbi with a pig, with other figures suckling milk from its teats.

Historians say the controversial relic is meant to symbolize that Jews obtain their sustenance and scripture from an unclean animal. Similar Judensau carvings can be found in other Middle-Age-era churches as an indication that Jews were not welcomed in their communities.

A Jewish man took the matter to a local court, which initially rejected his claim that the sculpture insulted Jews and should be removed. He then appealed to the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe.

In its ruling, the high court agreed that the content of the carving was offensive but added that the church’s memorial and information board had enabled “clarification and a discussion of the content… in order to counter exclusion, hatred and defamation.”

The ruling can still be appealed to the country’s Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Central Council of Jews called the ruling “understandable” but emphasized that the Wittenberg church’s efforts do not “contain an unambiguous condemnation of the anti-Semitic artwork.”

The Wittenberg sculpture is tied by legend to Luther – an anti-Semite – who reportedly nailed his 95 Theses at a Wittenberg church’s door in 1517. The act resulted in the birth of Protestantism, and a schism with the Roman Catholic Church.

But Luther’s legacy later became linked with Germany’s Nazi period: The Nazis used his writings and sermons to justify their persecution of Jews.

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