Defending the Passion of the audience

Posted: Mar 01, 2004 12:00 AM

The harshest criticism in the wake of "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's movie about the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, is directed not at the movie or even at Mel Gibson, but at the audience of evangelicals and the devout who have embraced the movie as a phenomenon of their faith. Any anti-Semitism present is not inside the movie, it seems clear to me, but in the eye of the beholder who will be inflamed against the Jews.

The audiences for the movie are not likely to be so angered by the depiction of the Sanhedrin, the corrupt Jewish court in the Jerusalem of 20 centuries ago, that they will leave the theaters in search of a Jew to stone, a synagogue to desecrate, or a kosher deli to target with a pork chop through the window.

Nobody expected audiences for "The Godfather" or "The Sopranos" to rage against Italians for the crimes of Mafia gangsters, nor would anyone expect a movie about the Inquisition to inspire violence against St. Patrick's Cathedral.

This is an old story. Plato wanted to exclude creative writers from his ideal society because he understood that they had the power to unleash base instincts. Mel Gibson's interpretation of the Passion, scorned by its critics, might even send moviegoers to the Gospel of John (Chapters 18 through 22) to see what, exactly, the disciples (Jews all) said about the last hours of Christ's life. The book, as usual, is worth a thousand (moving) pictures.

If Mel Gibson were Muslim, a fatwa could be ordered on his life for what some would no doubt regard as blasphemy, but the First Amendment guarantees everyone the right to say what he pleases, short of shouting fire in a crowded theater. This movie isn't close to that.

What's actually at issue here is the aesthetic, that the director depicts uncomplicated brutality without inspiring pity and fear. The film lacks a catharsis of provocative poetry that drives great inspirational art. The repeated brutality might be harmful to the psychic health of any spectator, whether Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or even whatever. One moviegoer suffered a fatal heart attack, but that's not necessarily Mel Gibson's fault.

The director tells us, ad nauseum, that he is not anti-Semitic and few doubt that. Not even Abraham Foxman, chairman of the Anti-defamation League, thinks he is. He calls him "insensitive." Foxman is entitled to his opinion, which is an opinion formed from years of examining and exposing actual slurs against Jews, but risks sounding a little insensitive himself.

Foxman doesn't like the villainous, "bloodthirsty" way the judges of the Sanhedrin are depicted, but the Sanhedrin comes across in all accounts as lacking courage and character and seems to have been as entrenched in its corruption as the Romans. The judges' rancid behavior is juxtaposed to the reaction of many Jews in the crowd who are appalled at the ordeal inflicted on Jesus - who is, after all, a Jew like themselves. Who cannot see that the blame lies not in Judaism but in corruption?

Throughout history, the faults, real and imagined, of a single Jew have inspired dreadful and sometimes deadly stereotypes. The notorious Dreyfus affair in France - anti-Semitic elements in the French army convicted a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, of treason with forged documents - led to the birth of modern Zionism.

Theodor Herzl, a Jew who covered the trial for a Vienna newspaper, decided that anti-Semitism would not disappear until the Jews had a state of their own. He turned out to be something of an optimist.

The kind of anti-Semitism in France at the turn of the 20th century, when the Dreyfus case was making it through the courts, depended on several converging factors, of which anti-Semitism was only one. There is nothing comparable in America today. Evangelical Christians, many of whom are flocking to see Mel Gibson's movie, are among the fiercest defenders of Israel. Anti-Semitism today is a disease of the secular leftist intellectual elites, particularly in Europe.

The latest wave of anti-Semitism is rooted in politics, not theology. It's particularly harsh in France, home to the largest communities of Jews (600,000) and Muslims (5 million) in Europe. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French prime minister, was moved recently to declare: "Attacking a Jew is tantamount to attacking the French Republic." He knows a problem when he sees one.

We can debate the merits, and the flaws, of Mel Gibson's passion. But it's important for all of us, Christian and Jew alike, to focus on the actual danger for Jews, which does not lurk in darkened American movie theaters.