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Theology Thursdays: Will The Passion Crucify the Jews? by Tovia Singer

Like other curious Jews observing the commotion over The Passion, I have not yet seen Gibson's portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion. If it turns out that the controversial film is as brutal as the already-released trailer, then Israel may have to absorb a massive flight of European Jewry this coming spring, when the Jews get all the credit for committing deicide.

Don't get me wrong, the anticipated release of Gibson’s upcoming theological film is not the most nagging crisis on Israel’s busy radar screen - at least not yet. The phased Road Map has the potential to destroy far more lives than anything Hollywood can create.

Bear in mind that there is absolutely nothing that Mel Gibson can have Jesus say on the silver screen that will produce as many Jewish orphans as the Palestinian Authority - Sharon’s partner for peace. Unless, of course, the film’s bloodied Jesus suddenly stares straight into the camera in the middle of his crucifixion and yells, “Support the Road Map!” The chances of that happening are dismal given that Jesus, who was purportedly born in Bethlehem, was one of the better-known Jewish settlers in history.

Yet, even if that were to occur, we Jews might still be out of the woods because Gibson, in an effort to keep everything in the movie authentic, has Jesus say his lines in Aramaic. So, as it turns out, the only people on earth who will actually understand the Christian savior’s unexpected support for the Quartet are Talmudic scholars. And Talmudic scholars don’t go to the movies anyway, and even if they did, yeshiva guys would never support the Road Map, even if Jesus told them to.

If, however, the film is shown with French or German subtitles in Europe, the threat to legalized Jewish ritual slaughter will become the least of European Jewry’s problems.

In an ill-conceived attempt to defend Gibson’s film from tough critics, producers of The Passion rushed into the fray. In a huge media blitzkrieg, Icon executives argued in numerous interviews that “the film is not anti-Semitic at all!” And then, in a not-too-ingenious effort to demonstrate this point, they insisted that “the movie will meticulously follow the New Testament’s narrative of the crucifixion.” How comforting. I wonder which PR firm came up with that talking point.

No response could be less encouraging.

To put it politely, the Gospel authors didn’t go easy on the Jews when they penned their crucifixion narratives, nor did they place any of the blame for Jesus’ execution on Pontius Pilate or his henchmen. As far as John is concerned, it is the Jews who bear the sole responsibility for murdering Jesus. Mark’s Gospel is equally damning, as he has the bloodthirsty Jewish crowd cry out to a bewildered Roman governor “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

In Matthew’s Passion Narrative, the miserable fate of the Jews is completely sealed when the ruthless mob of Jews scream to the ambivalent Roman procurator, “His blood be on us and on our children!” More Jews were slaughtered for that phrase than any other in the annals of Western literature. If that line makes it into the movie, there will be celebrations on the streets of Ramallah.

Although there are numerous variations in the four New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, there is one consistent theme that its authors never abandon: The Jews, who were the villains, wanted Jesus dead, and the Romans, who were their patsies, didn’t, and only relented to the uncompromising horde of Christ-killers.

Simply put, if in fact it turns out that Gibson relied on the Christian Bible for the script of The Passion, as Icon’s executives suggest, every advance in Jewish-Christian relations over the past half-century may be in jeopardy.

Under ordinary circumstances, we could feel somewhat confident that no normal American film writer would ignite millennia-old anti-Semitic ideas by using an inflammatory script. After all, history books are filled with the bitter consequences of what befell the Jewish people when they were portrayed as hardened Christ-killers. But, as fate would have it, Mel Gibson isn’t normal, and the fanatical church that he staunchly supports isn’t ordinary.

As it turns out, Mel Gibson belongs to a radical splinter group of the Catholic Church that is not Jew-friendly. Most importantly, it rejects vital ecumenical advances made in Rome over the last half century. These “traditionalist” churches, as modern Catholics politely like to call them, are roughly as anti-Semitic as the Catholic Church of the 19th century, and they have no plans to change a thing.

Gibson is no ordinary parishioner at the church’s 16-acre property right outside of Malibu. He is its director, chief executive officer, and sole benefactor, making more than $2.8 million in contributions over the past three years.

The most notable schism between traditionalists and the Vatican hinges on the modern innovations of the Roman Church, especially those of the “good pope,” Pope John XXIII. The landmark Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, that he convened but did not survive, changed the way the Roman Catholic Church officially views the Jewish people. In every way, it was a change for the better.

In a celebrated document entitled, “Nostra Aetate”, meaning “In Our Time”, the Second Vatican Council declared that the Jews, as a nation, are not culpable for the crucifixion of Jesus. Moreover, the horrendous phrase from the Catholic liturgy of Good Friday, “Perfidious Jew,” was officially expunged from the Roman prayer book.

Gibson’s church rejects these and other innovations, and views such progressive reforms as the work of an apostate church. For many traditionalists, Pope Pious XII, Hitler’s pope, was the last legitimate heir to the Throne of Peter.

Even more troubling, it turns out that Mel’s father, Hutton Gibson, who is a traditionalist Catholic as well, is an outspoken Holocaust denier who has little affection for Jews. In a shocking interview in the New York Times Magazine, the elder Gibson insisted that the notion that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis was preposterous. “Go and ask an undertaker or the guy who operates the crematorium what it takes to get rid of a dead body,” Hutton Gibson told The Times. “It takes one liter of petrol and 20 minutes. Now six million?”

While the son cannot be held accountable for the sins of the father, logic would suggest that if Mel embraced his father’s shocking opinions, he would say nothing, and if he found his father’s ideas revolting, he would publicly distance himself from them. Mel remained silent.

Although Mel Gibson is not saying much about the controversy surrounding the film publicly, other Christians are already beginning to vent some irritation toward Jewish critics of The Passion. Surprisingly, some of this displeasure is coming from the highest and most unexpected places in Christendom.

After a private viewing of the film in Colorado by top evangelicals, Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents almost 50,000 churches in America, warned, “There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel. For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating two billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted.”

Apparently, Haggard liked the film.

Although Haggard later claimed that his words were not to be understood as a threat, but rather as “a word of caution,” the effect that The Passion had on this friend of Israel has been duly noted.

Are the Jewish people in trouble this coming Lent if The Passion portrays our forbears as responsible for the ruthless killing of the second Person of the Trinity? There are three answers to that question: location, location, and location.

American Jewry has little to worry about in this matter. For the most part, their Christian neighbors are far too angry at those who carried out the killing of 3,000 innocent people two years ago in lower Manhattan to even think about who carried out the killing of Jesus two millennia ago on a hilltop in Jerusalem. As far as American churchgoers are concerned, whatever the Jews did at Golgotha 2,000 years ago was way back then, and now is now. They understand that the enemies of America are the enemies of Israel, and their real adversaries are terrorists from Arabia, not accountants from Brooklyn.

In European countries, however, where anti-Semitism flows through the breast milk, The Passion is going to play to audiences who regard Jew-hatred as a national pastime. Even before the lights dim, French moviegoers will be seething at the Jews for crucifying the Palestinians. By the time the first nail is hammered into the cross, viewers in Germany will be passing around knife sharpeners in the theater.

In centuries past, when Europeans attended passion plays, Jews looked for a place to hide. If a severe economic downturn hits countries like France, Germany, and England just when The Passion is making its worldwide premier, European Jewry may have to start brushing up on its Hebrew skills.

Gibson could save the world much unneeded misery by visiting Poland, the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, before releasing his film. There, he will discover why those who have a long memory are now pleading with him to reconsider his theological venture. He should take a long, hard stare at what is left of Auschwitz. It’s a startling mass grave that bears witness to the bitter consequences that emerge when a religion is transmitted irresponsibly.

The medieval Christian mindset that is ensconced in the stubborn European mentality is so venomous that it spawned a society that committed the most unspeakable crime in human history. Ironically, while the Germans were gassing the Jews, and the British cut off the only escape route - to Palestine - for those fleeing Hitler’s ovens, the Japanese, who were an ally of the Nazis, were saving Jews by the thousands. Creators of The Passion have much to learn from that significant historical paradox. The Japanese were a largely pagan society, unpolluted by the pervasive brutal imagery that portrayed the Jews as subhuman Christ-killers throughout the Anschluss.

With violent outbursts of anti-Semitism on the rise in cities throughout Europe, and the blood of Jewish children pouring down the streets of Jerusalem, this is not the ideal moment to announce to moviegoers that the Jews did it.

Interestingly, a number of those who already viewed The Passion in closed-door showings conceded that extra-biblical adjustments and enhancements have already been made to the film, and none of them seems to be complaining. Moreover, the “Who did it?” question is completely irrelevant to Christian theology. Clearly, the creators of the film have the ability and flexibility to save the world an enormous headache, and leave the bloodthirsty Jews out of the picture. If, however, they feel compelled for some reason to award the credit for the crucifixion to anyone, let the Romans have it. They are not around any longer to take the heat, and it was their cross anyway.

If Gibson doesn’t make that trip to Poland before the film’s release, let’s just pray that he doesn’t use subtitles.

Rabbi Tovia Singer is the Founder and Director of Outreach Judaism and host of The Tovia Singer Show. He can be e-mailed at:

Note: This article first appeared at Arutz Sheva

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Thursday, September 25, 2003

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