Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose spokespeople claim that approximately one-third of his American following is Jewish, nonetheless seems to have a problem with at least some official segments of the American Jewish community.

Apparently, back when he was still speaking to his followers—in fact, speaking every morning, giving rambling, hours-long discourses—Rajneesh delivered himself of some inflammatory opinions on the subject of Jews.

In a 1975 book called The Mustard Seed, a record of selected discourses given by him at his ashram in Pune (Poona), India, Rajneesh appears to justify the slaughter of millions of Jews in the Holocaust of Nazi Europe on the grounds of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ, and he implies that Jews have sought out such persecution because of their guilt over Jesus’ death.

“Jews,” he writes, “are always in search of their Adolf Hitlers, somebody who can kill them—then they feel at ease. When nobody bothers about them, then they are uneasy, the guilt follows. When you throw stones at Truth this is bound to happen, and even after twenty centuries of suffering, the Jews have not confessed that they did wrong.” He also implies that Jesus’ death was worth the deaths of many millions of Jews.

In India, Rajneesh was also given to frequent attempts at humor. One of his “jokes,” recorded by writer Sally Belfrage, a former resident at Pune, in her 1981 book, Flowers of Emptiness, goes like this: “A couple of tigers are walking through the woods, when the second tiger pokes his nose in the first one’s ass. The first tiger says: ‘What’s the matter with you, you got the hots for me or something?’ The second tiger replies: ‘No, but I just ate a Jew and I need to get the taste out of my mouth.’”

Sheela Silverman, president of the Rajneesh Foundation and the Bhagwan’s chief spokesperson, recently weighed in with her contribution to this strain of Rajneesh humor, telling the following joke to a TV reporter: “How do you fit several hundred Jews into a Volkswagen? Put two Germans in front and the Jews in the ashtray.”

In a June 24, 1983, affidavit before the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), Paul Gerhardt Jr., a land-use planner with 1000 Friends of Oregon, testified that when he and Mark Greenfield, a staff attorney for the environmental group, visited Rajneeshpuram on June 22 to inspect city records, Greenfield was vilified with anti-Semitic insults from red-clad Rajneesh followers. “Greenfield? What kind of name is that? Are you Jewish? . . . Jews are cheap. . . . We burned Jews in Germany” were among the remarks made to Greenfield, according to Gerhardt’s sworn testimony.

The Anti-Semitism Letters
August-November 1983

Jews are, understandably, sensitive to statements and jokes like these. While the Portland Jewish community has yet to take a formal stand on Rajneesh and his activities in Oregon, the Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles are among the petitioners to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Portland requesting that Rajneesh be denied a permanent resident visa to remain in the United States. The petition accuses him of being anti-Semitic and calls him a “destructive force in American society.”

Rabbi Stephen Robbins, chairman of the Task Force on Cults and Missionary Efforts of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, thinks that he understands the reasons for the Bhagwan’s alleged anti-Semitism. Alluding to the fact that Rajneesh does have a significant number of Jewish followers, he theorizes that the anti-Semitic statements and jokes of the Bhagwan and Silverman are part of an effort to break down the identities of Jewish followers. “Once you tear down people’s identities,” he says, “they are open to being manipulated and controlled—which is what cults aim to do. If you turn someone’s identity against himself—if you get Jews to make fun of themselves— then the person’s identity is destroyed and you can step in and give that person a new identity.”

Rajneesh spokespeople vigorously deny the charge of anti-Semitism. Silverman, whose first husband, now deceased, was Jewish, asks, “How can I possibly be anti-Semitic, when I married a Jew?” Rajneeshees claim that their “jokes” are merely a form of therapy designed to help Jews get over their morbid obsession with the Holocaust. Rajneeshees also point to a number of other statements in which the Bhagwan has spoken admiringly of Jews, particularly of Jewish humor. Cult experts, however, say that the issuing of contradictory statements is one of the techniques cults use to keep their members mentally off-balance and confused.

The Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, in any case, is not buying the Rajneesh defense. Says Beth Hersh of the Community Relations Division: “We want him out of the country.”

—Oregon Magazine, August 1983

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.