TCS Daily

Passionate Intensity

By Sidney Goldberg - August 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Let's give the gay marriage dispute another six weeks to run its course and it will then be time to turn to the next controversy to blossom, which will be over "The Passion," Mel Gibson's movie on the last hours of Jesus.


The New York Times on Saturday set forth the dimensions of the controversy and Frank Rich in his Sunday column for the Times gave a preemptive review, or, rather, an appraisal of the movie from what he knows about it, since he was not among the handful of people who have been permitted to preview it, which opens in October. On the Editorial Page of Monday's New York Sun, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, predictably expresses his concerns, but he, too, is waiting to see the movie before passing judgment on whether the movie is anti-Semitic. Throughout the movie, the Jews supposedly are shown as greedy, bloodsucking, arrogant denouncers of Jesus and responsible, at least to a large degree, for his execution on the Cross.

There are two points at issue here. The first is whether the Jews played an important role in the execution of Jesus, and if so -- or not so -- does the movie display the known facts accurately? If the Jews did indeed play an important role in the execution of Jesus, and the movie accurately describes that role, does that make the movie anti-Semitic? The second is whether, anti-Semitic or not, will the mere telling of the story, accurate or not, cause even more anti-Semitism than already exists to flourish? The answer to the first point is rather simple: whatever role some Jews played in the denunciation and execution of Jesus, it is irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of today's Jews, or to any Jews who were born or grew up after the event took place.

Why should today's Jews have to produce evidence that the Jews of Jesus's times were not responsible for his death? For purely scholarly purposes, yes, it is worth knowing the facts, just as it is worth knowing the facts of Lincoln's assassination, or why Ireland had a potato famine. But that's where it should end, with producing the historical truth and not letting that truth taint future generations.

Those who believe it is of great importance to absolve the Jews of the denunciation and execution of Jesus put themselves in the same mind-set as those who believe a German teenager today is in some way tainted by the sins committed sixty years ago by his father or grandfather. This kind of linkage -- inherited guilt -- is precisely what distinguished Hitler and the Nuremberg Laws, which determined that your value is not in your character or in what you do, your actions, but in who you are descended from.

If it were proven that the Jews bore 100 percent responsibility for the death of Jesus, it of course would cause anti-Semitism to flare. But if it were proven that the Romans bore 100 percent of the responsibility, you can be certain that there would be no pogroms against Italians, and Italians would not be attacked as "Christ killers." That's because anti-Semitism seems to flourish even where there is no conceivable cause for it, such as in countries where all or virtually all Jews have been liquidated or expelled, and even in countries where no Jewish communities ever existed. In Germany, and throughout Eastern Europe, the Jews were the champions of the German language and high German culture, but that didn't prevent their eradication by Germans.

In so many countries, the locals have attacked and executed their brothers and sisters who later were found to be saints. The French, who burned Joan of Arc, are not reviled as "St. Joan killers." The English don't torment themselves because they executed Charles I. The more examples summoned up, the sillier this concept becomes -- of blaming contemporaries for what their ancestors did.


Of course, some will say the case with Jesus was special, because his followers claimed he was God. But the Jews didn't know or believe that. Even if the Jews did play a role in the execution of Jesus, they did not believe they were executing God. If they did believe that, they of course would have become followers of Jesus.

And then there is the second point at issue. Will the movie cause more anti-Semitism? Of course it will, but anti-Semites will find justification of their beliefs in any movie or book that counterposes Jews and Jesus. There is virtually no way to control this, and censoring the movie or limiting its distribution merely hands over a victory of sorts to the anti-Semites. Was it judicious for Mel Gibson to offer this movie at this particular time? Probably not, but a good case could be made for not allowing this kind of pressure to influence our cultural produce. Mel Gibson, who a few years ago in "Braveheart" was drawn and quartered for his boldness in opposing the English overlords, may have to go through a similar experience -- justified or not -- before this cinematic episode is over.


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