Terry has suggested that The Dreamers and The Passion of the Christ could represent the same red state-blue state cultural divide made so famous on election night in 2000.
I think Terry’s theory is bearing itself out in the variety of Jewish responses to Mel Gibson’s film. Jewish responses reflect the same tensions we’re seeing between evangelical Protestants and the National Council of Churches and between Catholics who love the news coverage of EWTN’s The World Over and those who prefer the National Catholic Reporter.
Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe wrote elegantly about his effort to watch The Passion as if he were a Christian, to “imagine believing that all that blood — and ‘The Passion’ is drenched with blood — was shed to wash away my sins.”
“To me, the Passion is not a manifestation of divine love but a vicious and evil ordeal inflicted on a victim who didn’t deserve it,” Jacoby writes. “As a Jew I cannot look at the savage murder of an innocent man as anything but a grievous sin. And as a Jew, I could not watch a movie about the crucifixion of Jesus and not be aware of all the other Jews, scores of thousands of them, who also died on Roman crosses.”
The heart of Jacoby’s critique comes in these two paragraphs:
But there is no getting around the fact that the parts of “The Passion” that are the most unflattering to Jews — the bloody-minded and hateful Temple priests, the Judean mob howling for Jesus’ death — come straight out of the Gospels. I shudder at those depictions and reject them as historically false, but I cannot call a Christian anti-Semitic for believing in the truth of his Bible. I will not smear Gibson as a Jew-hater.
But neither will I pretend that he is unaware of the long and horrid history of Passion plays or of the millions of Jews who died at the hands of killers demonizing them as “Christ killers.” It is not unreasonable to worry about the effect of a movie like “The Passion” at a time of surging anti-Semitism.
Alana Newhouse, the Arts & Letters editor of the Forward , is tougher on Gibson (registration required), and extends her critique to Jews who have defended him. For Newhouse, one of Gibson’s greater dangers is his certainty — and she compares him, oddly enough, to one of the most notorious atheists of modern philosophy:
Instead of a version of historical events, one gets the distinct feeling that Gibson has turned on us the blinding bare light of his own deeply inflexible personal belief, one that refuses the nuance and complexity of the human interaction behind the movement of history. Gibson, who has been quoted as saying the Holy Spirit directed this film through him, seems to have confused the fact of his artistic vision with a Nietzchean conviction of divine inspiration.
Newhouse saves her strongest words for Jews who have expressed appreciation for The Passion:
In their zeal to keep Judaism safe from the less traditional hordes, many of these leaders have chosen to align themselves with the most fundamentalist people and ideas, even at risk to the very religion they are presumably dedicated to preserving. They have been joined by Jews of all religious and political stripes for whom the fierce support of evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics for Israel — regardless of its creepy theological basis — has trumped their interest in the future of American society and culture.
Before we jump into the bed of what has come to be known as Red America, it might be wise to note the checkered pasts and questionable intentions of some of our new partners. It is tempting to fall into their magisterial world and its consolingly Manichean vision for America’s future, in which the stigmata of secularism and a decadent pop culture are healed by a government imbued with religious authority. But we should be warier of breaking down the wall separating our state from their church. Mel Gibson is on the other side.
Those Jewish organizations that have squandered both time and money futilely protesting Passion, ostensibly in order to prevent pogroms in Pittsburgh, can hardly be proud of their performance. They failed at everything they attempted. They were hoping to ruin Gibson rather than enrich him. They were hoping to suppress Passion rather than promote it. Finally, they were hoping to help Jews rather than harm them.
Although Lapin rejects predictions of new anti-Semitism, he does say he is troubled by the ill will emerging from the months-long debates about The Passion:
However, instead of helping the Jewish community, they have inflicted lasting harm. By selectively unleashing their fury only on wholesome entertainment that depicts Christianity, in a positive light, they have triggered anger, hurt, and resentment. Hosting the Toward Tradition Radio Show and speaking before many audiences nationwide, I enjoy extensive communication with Christian America and what I hear is troubling. Fearful of attracting the ire of Jewish groups that are so quick to hurl the “anti-Semite” epithet, some Christians are reluctant to speak out. Although one can bludgeon resentful people into silence, behind closed doors emotions continue to simmer.
Many Christians who, with good reason, have considered themselves to be Jews’ best (and perhaps, only) friends also feel bitter at Jews believing that Passion is revealing startling new information about the Crucifixion. They are incredulous at Jews thinking that exposure to the Gospels in visual form will instantly transform the most philo-Semitic gentiles of history into snarling, Jew-hating predators.
Michael Medved has been one of the most outspoken Jewish defenders of The Passion, and he wrote about his concerns at length for the March issue of Christianity Today.
Like Jacoby, columnist Ezra Levant of the Calgary Sun argues that “The Passion is no more anti-Semitic than the Gospels.”
Levant felt no stirrings of anti-Semitism among the Christians surrounding him:
During the movie’s most wrenching moments — where Jesus is scourged and crucified — Gibson cuts away to a scene where Jesus teaches forgiveness and love. It is a powerful reminder of the meaning of the crucifixion — not a call for vengeance, but a lesson in forgiveness and a reminder of the sinfulness of all Mankind. That is certainly what the Christians sitting around me at the church took from the movie — that Jesus’ suffering was for them, because of their sins, that he suffered willingly and lovingly embracing the opportunity to sacrifice himself for them.
As the only graduate of Hebrew school in the room, I probably found the movie more familiar than most, at least in its sound — everyone but the Romans spoke Aramaic, a close linguistic relative of Hebrew. Even the Passover Seder was accurate, including the customary Jewish recitals. I wish a Jewish filmmaker would do such a beautiful rendering of Passover — in Hebrew! — that I can watch in a commercial theatre.