I. As the Critics See it
After nearly a year of pre-release publicity, Mel Gibson’s The Passion finally opened February 25 in more than 3,000 theaters across America. Based on initial reviews, the movie more than fulfills the worst fears of the Jewish community.
Gibson pulled out every Technicolor special effect at his disposal to make his subject’s suffering as shocking as possible. Reviewers were struck by the relentless, graphic brutality of the film. A scourging scene that takes no more than one sentence in any Gospel account, for instance, takes ten minutes in the film. The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier accused Gibson of being "intoxicated by blood," and of having created a film, which in its bloodthirstiness is "startling and quickly sickening."
Those calling throughout for that blood are the Jews. Pontius Pilate, the Roman prelate who ordered the crucifixion, is portrayed as a reluctant executioner. He remonstrates with the High Priest for the savagery with which the Jewish authorities treat the victim, and only orders his crucifixion to calm the Jewish mob demanding it. At one point, even the Roman soldiers cannot bring themselves to inflict further agony. Only the Jews go on demanding more.
The physiognomy of the Jewish characters is taken from the stock anti-Semitic stereotypes. A number of reviewers remarked on the cut from a close-up of one hook-nosed Jew to that of another hook-nosed Jew to open the next scene. "Sundry Jews lean into the camera and hiss or keen through rotted teeth," writes David Edelstein in Slate.
It is far too early to tell what the effect of The Passion will be on attitudes towards Jews.1 Apart from one Denver pastor who posted a notice outside his church accusing Jews of deicide, there were no reports of anti-Semitic incidents traceable to viewing The Passion. It may well be, however, that the greatest danger to Jews from The Passion lies not in the United States, where taboos against the open expression of anti-Semitism are more firmly in place than anywhere else in the world, but from audiences in Latin America and Eastern Europe, where such taboos were never firmly planted. If the last year has proven anything, it is the degree to which anti-Semitic attitudes continue to lurk just beneath the surface of even the most civilized societies.
II. How Should the Jewish Community Have Responded?
Clearly the concerns about the film expressed by Jewish defense organizations over the last year were well founded. Long before the film opened, the warning lights were already flashing. "Passion plays" have a long history of stirring up anti-Semitic violence. Hitler, yemach shemo, recommended that all Germans attend the traditional passion play at Oberammergau to understand his hatred of Jews.
Then there was the matter of Gibson’s membership in a renegade sect of Catholic "traditionalists." Traditionalists reject the legitimacy of Vatican II, which absolved the Jewish people as a whole from the charge of "deicide." Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, dismisses Vatican II as a conspiracy of "Freemasons and Jews." (For good measure, the elder Gibson is also a Holocaust-denier.2 ) Mel Gibson proudly affirms that his father’s faith is his own: "The man never lied to me in his life," he told one interviewer.
Of additional concern was Gibson’s admission that he had drawn inspiration for his script from the ecstatic religious visions of a German nun Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (d. 1824). Emmerich’s visions add many lurid details found nowhere in the Gospels, and all of which served to increase the measure of Jewish culpability in the crucifixion.
Faced with these red flags, the Jewish community had a number of possible courses of action. None of the community’s goals, however, were achievable by Jews acting alone; indeed the prominent role of Jewish organizations was potentially counter-productive.
Efforts were made to seek alterations in the script. As soon as the first reports about Gibson’s film started to hit the press, Eugene Fisher, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) convened, together with Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League, an ad hoc group of "New Testament" scholars – four Catholics and two Jews – to review a copy of the screenplay they had been provided.3
The scholars were shocked by the script they received, and each sat down independently to write their own comments before combining them in a single document. Six pages of their final 18-page report detail those places in which the script, in the words of Professor Pauline Fredriksen, "not only misreads, but actually contravenes material given in the Gospels." Another section details Gibson’s historical errors. For instance, in order to give the film a tone of historical veracity all the dialogue is in either Aramaic or Latin. The only problem is that in conversing with one another, a Jewish priest and a Roman official, would have spoken Greek, which was the lingua franca of the time, not Latin.
Of far greater importance is the scholars’ challenge to the portrait of Pontius Pilate as a reluctant executioner. Crucifixion was the exclusive province of the Roman authorities, and if it took place it could have only been to satisfy a Roman agenda and to serve as a warning to others whose activities the Romans considered seditious. The historical Pontius Pilate was an exceptionally brutal ruler, even by Roman standards, who routinely crucified self-proclaimed messiahs. At one point, he was recalled to Rome to explain his brutality after the massacre of 4,000 followers of a Samaritan "prophet" in a single day.
The efforts of the scholars made no impression on Gibson. In a New Yorker interview, he dismissed their criticisms as of a piece with the reforms of traditional Catholic practice instituted by Vatican II -- reforms which the "traditionalists" reject.
All that was left, then, was to hope that the film would be a box office bust. Here it appears that the strategy adopted by some Jewish defense groups backfired. When the frontal attack on Gibson under the banner of the Anti-Defamation League began, Hollywood insiders were still predicting that The Passion would be one of the biggest bombs in history. The controversy stirred by the attacks on Gibson aroused huge interest in the film, and enabled him to brilliantly market the film to conservative church groups as the film "the secular elites (or "the Jews") don’t want you to see." It now appears headed to being one of the largest grossing films in history.4
Vocal Jewish opposition to the film likely aroused more anti-Semitism than it prevented. As Melanie Phillips has observed, the more Jews complain about anti-Semitism, the more people dislike Jews. A group of demonstrators led by Amcha’s Rabbi Avi Weiss managed to infuriate both Christians and Jews by trotting out their tired gimmick of picketing in concentration camp garb. Christians who experienced the movie as a profound religious experience were enraged to find themselves compared to Nazis, and Jews were similarly offended by the trivialization of the Holocaust for the purposes of street theater.
Jewish opponents of the film faced an even more fundamental problem. Though the film is replete with material found nowhere in the Gospels, the basic story outline is sufficiently familiar to most Christian viewers for them to assume that the film is based on the Gospels. That being the case, it was inevitable that Christians would perceive attacks on the movie as attacks on the Gospels themselves. Given the relative numbers of Jews and Christians in the world, that was a losing strategy from the start.
III. The Shtadlanus Approach
The frontal attack on The Passion with Jewish groups leading the charge was bound to be counterproductive. But that does not mean that the Jewish community was helpless in the face of the threat posed by the movie or without potential allies.
The Catholic Church presented the most natural ally. Since the early 1960s, the Church has been working with Jewish groups to reverse the deadly effects of millennia of Church teaching on Jewish guilt. In America, the Church has also worked closely with Agudath Israel of America and other Orthodox groups on issues concerning parochial schools and public morality for decades.
The Church certainly had its own reasons for not being enthusiastic about the cinematic presentation of the theology of a schismatic group. Since the 1965 papal encyclical Nostra Aetate, the Church has been committed to removing the stain of millennia of anti-Semitic violence inspired by Church teachings.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops long ago issued instructions for the teaching of the passion narrative specifically designed to counter the most anti-Semitic elements in the Gospels. Those instructions suggest dropping crowd scenes of chanting Jewish mobs, caution against picking elements from the four different (and often conflicting) Gospel accounts, and question the Gospel portrayal of Pilate as a passive participant. In a strong statement timed to coincide with the release of The Passion, New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan reiterated the Church’s rejection of the charge of deicide against Jews. In short, the Catholic Church was far better suited than Jewish groups to mute the impact of The Passion on Catholics.
Catholics, however, are neither the most numerous nor necessarily the most devout group among American Christians. Working with fundamentalist Protestants – i.e., those to whom Gibson pitched his movie in private showings – presents different challenges than working with the Catholic Church. Protestants are divided into dozens of different denominations, and lack the centralized, hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church. Nor do conservative Protestant groups have a long history of alliances with Jewish groups.
Yet here too there were grounds to work together with evangelicals and other conservative Protestants. For one thing, fundamentalist Protestants view Jews as the Chosen People. (In that, they differ from the Catholic Church, which styles itself the "New Israel.") Fundamentalists are much more drawn to what they call "the Old Testament" than Catholics, and most are ardent supporters of Israel.5 They tend to have a great deal of respect for Orthodox Jews, whom they identify with the Jews of the Bible. In recent years, a number of close relationships have been forged between Jews, mostly Orthodox, and leading figures from the so-called religious Right, like Gary Bauer and Ralph Reed.
After a few false starts, the Simon Wiesenthal Center found an approach to deal with the evangelical community. It issued An Appeal to People of Faith that focuses exclusively on actions rather than beliefs. Christians are not asked to boycott The Passion nor is the film itself criticized. The Appeal explicitly eschews any request that Christians censor their sacred texts. While detailing the long history of Jews killed in the name of Christianity, the Appeal assumes the goodwill of those it addresses and asks Christians of good will to do for Jews what Jews cannot do for themselves – i.e., work to ensure that The Passion not become an instrument to re-ignite ancient Jew hatred.
In response, Ted Haggard, president of the 47-million member National Association of Evangelicals, pledged, at a joint press conference with Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, that he and his fellow pastors would "speak out against hatred of Jews… and declare loud and clear that we will not allow bigotry to drive a wedge between us."
IV. The Political Correctness Trap
For Orthodox Jews in particular, there is one final concern that makes open criticism of The Passion a sticky wicket: the danger that turning the film into a cause celebre might reinforce generally hostile attitudes to religion in the liberal enclaves in which most unaffiliated Jews live their lives.
To the extent that non-religious Jews imbibe the elite view of people of faith as either dangerous fanatics, hypocrites, or simple-minded – e.g., Islamic suicide bombers or abusive clergy – they will be less inclined to lend a serious ear to their own religious heritage. By imputing anti-Semitic intentions to Gibson (even where there were plentiful grounds for suspicion), opponents of the film risked reinforcing the impression of religion as primarily a spur for inhumane action.
Critics of the film also ran the risk of falling into the familiar modern habit of subjecting religion to the strictures of political correctness. Gibson could hardly be expected, for instance, to turn the pilgrims to Jerusalem into a multi-ethnic lot in order to avoid giving offense to Jews.
Orthodox Jews certainly have no interest in encouraging the view that religion must be brought up to date. We are frequently reminded of the degree to which our own beliefs and practices run afoul of the prevailing liberal orthodoxies on a whole slew of issues. Even the belief that a Jew possesses a soul that is qualitatively different from non-Jews has subjected us recently to comparisons to Nazi race theorists.
Mention of these potential pitfalls does not mean that they are unavoidable. There were ways to criticize The Passion without giving comfort to the political correctness brigades. Charles Krauthammer and Gertrude Himmelfarb, two Jews who will never be accused of any tendency towards political correctness, both wrote critically of The Passion. While insisting on the generally positive influence of religion and its rightful place in the public square, Himmelfarb pointed out that preservation of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths often depends on the members of society refraining from the expression of "passions and emotions appropriate to the home or church" in the public sphere. She charged Gibson with violating that understanding of civil society, and pointedly asked how he would have reacted to an equally graphic film about the Spanish auto-da-fe of 1481, in which Jews were burned at the stake under the gleeful eye of richly robed churchmen, or a film about of the slaughter of Jewish men, women and children by Crusaders bearing the sign of Christianity and celebrating their murderous deeds in prayers of thanksgiving.
Alas few critics displayed Himmelfarb’s intellectual subtlety and ability to avoid the trap of further delegitimizing religion in the eyes of the unaffiliated.
Many of those who defended the confrontational approach to The Passion celebrated the fact that, in America, Jews no longer have to remain silent and that we have the right and power to make our voices heard. No more does shtilaheit have to be our watchword. American freedoms are indeed a cause for celebration. But we must never make the mistake of confusing the right and ability to make noise with the wisdom of doing so.
Rabbi Rosenblum, who lives in Jerusalem, is a contributing editor to The Jewish Observer. He is also director of the Israeli division of Am Echad, the Agudath Israel-inspired educational outreach effort and media resource.
1. Mark Steyn, generally one of the most astute commentators around, has gone on record that there is not the slightest chance of one Jew being killed as a consequence of The Passion.
2. Nor have Mel’s responses on the issue of Holocaust denial been terribly reassuring. Interviewed for Readers Digest by Peggy Noonan, an early booster of The Passion, Mel Gibson was given a golden opportunity to give the lie to Holocaust denial. The best he could muster was: "Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives."
Even a leading Holocaust denier like David Irving admits "atrocities happened." What he denies is that there existed a systematic, planned effort to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews, which resulted in the murder of 6,000,000 Jews. Gibson does not come remotely close to affirming the latter. "Lots of people died" deliberately deemphasizes the uniqueness of the extermination campaign against Jews, and would apply equally well to the deaths of a few hundred people as to that of millions.
3. Pauline Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, has provided a detailed account of the work of this group in the July 28, 2003 issue of The New Republic, entitled "The Gospel According to Gibson." The description of the working of the scholars group is based on her account.
4. It is possible that the prognosticators were wrong from the beginning that there would be a shallow market for a religious film in which all the dialogue is in two ancient languages. Gibson’s marketing strategy of pre-release showings to select church groups might have always proved successful, at least in the fundamentalist community.
5. That support for Israel is but one more reason that responsible Jewish leaders should have shown great care in not alienating evangelicals. Israel today has one ally committed to its physical security, and that ally is the United States. The arms upon which Israel depends to retain its military superiority are produced in America, and without the American veto in the U.N. Security Council, Israel would find itself under unrelenting pressure from the U.N. and other international bodies.
The reasons for the close ties between Israel and the United States are many. But cold political calculation on the part of American politicians is surely one of them. Once Jewish money and the concentration of Jews in states with large hauls of electoral votes ensured a hearing for Israel in Washington D.C. A declining Jewish population and wide divisions within the Jewish community over the correct American policy to Israel, however, have resulted in diminished Jewish political influence.
Today the ardent support of tens of millions of Christian evangelicals for Israel plays a far more important role in the calculations of political candidates, particularly Republican candidates, than does the so-called Jewish vote. Evangelicals dwarf the Jewish community in terms of size, and they are more likely than most American Jews to view Jews as the rightful inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, with a title deed from G-d.