American Christians Don't Threaten Jews
By Aryeh Spero
Record-breaking multitudes over a span of many weeks have now viewed Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in every major and far-flung U.S. locale, and not one American synagogue has been torched or Jewish cemetery vandalized by the Christian faithful who have seen the movie. Having been forewarned that in medieval Europe, passion plays and Easter sermons roused the public to immediate pillaging of Jews and their property, Americans should be proud that the warnings by Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League of anti-Semitic outbreaks did not materialize here.
I never had any doubts, since it has been obvious for decades that American Christianity embodies a warm and symbiotic attachment to the Jewish religion, believing as it does in a Judeo-Christian ethic with strong, literal emphasis on the Old Testament. Such did not prevail in pre-World War II Europe, which viewed the Jewish religion as basically illegitimate. Moreover, Americans, in contrast to Europeans, have repeatedly shown themselves to be philo-Semitic. In America, Jews are not considered "outsiders."
And herein lies one of the most disheartening but salient observations one is forced to make, post-Passion, about many in the Jewish community: They still don't get it. Even after more than two charmed centuries in America, they confuse contemporary America with medieval and postmedieval Europe, still not realizing how America and American Christians are a category wholly different from those of other nations, other religions and other strains of Christianity.
To be sure, there were justifiable reasons for apprehension given some elements in and circumstances surrounding the film. Aside from the understandable worry that Jews were for the first time being depicted on widely distributed American celluloid as eager for Jesus' death, there was the devilish ugliness in which they were physically portrayed, something not found in the New Testament. The graphic ugliness, blood and gore was thought to be potentially more scorching than the Gospel text.
What's more, Mr. Gibson's father is a notorious Holocaust denier. Surmising that perhaps branch follows root, some suspected that the producer-director's intent was to portray Jews as the focal point of evil in the crucifixion episode, to return us to the pre-Vatican II days of Jews as official "Christ-killers." Mr. Gibson declined to distance himself from his father's remarks about Jews, whether because he agreed or simply out of filial loyalty. Added to this mix was the combustible ingredient of Mr. Gibson's subscription to a fundamentalist brand of Catholicism critical of Vatican II.
Yet for all this, acts against Jews never materialized. The reason is that anti-Semitism flowers not so much in the seed as in the soil, and the American soil - the disposition of its people - has proved over two centuries to be remarkably resistant to strains of anti-Semitism.
Moreover, Christians did not see the movie the way some Jews feared they would. While Jews focused on the Jewish faces in the movie - Sanhedrin, high priests, the mob - the Christian audience focused on the countenance of Jesus. And whereas Jews saw a suffering Jesus they thought would provoke anger at Jews, Christians beheld a loving Savior willing to endure suffering so as to provide salvation. As with a mother drawn to the specific cry of her baby among many crying babies, Jews focused on Jews, negatively depicted, while Christians were entranced by the sacrifice of their kindred Jesus. It was as if each group saw a different movie.
American Christians viewing the film did so as a religious experience, akin to how Jews who sit down at a Passover seder focus on the message of redemption and liberation, not Egyptian culpability. In contrast Jews view the crucifixion as an historical event, making it thereby more analogous to post-Biblical sagas such as World War II where the Germans, the Nazis, are the focal point of blame. To Christians, therefore, the circumstances and actors are secondary to the divine message. It is not viewed as a duel between specific participants.
Instead of affirming its critics' nightmares, The Passion has proved just the opposite, namely, how generously disposed American Christians are toward their Jewish neighbors. If latent anti-Semitism dwelled in the hearts of Americans, the movie would have been a convenient catalyst for expressing it. Since that has not happened, the record-breaking crowds are telling us that they are moved by the positive, the religious and the inspirational, not by prejudice or prurience.
The Passion should be now seen as a watershed event announcing once and for all that anti-Semitism barely exists in America's Christian communities. All were invited to the bar, as it were, and instead of getting drunk and brawling, they raised their glasses in cheers.
For the Jewish community, the results should be cause for celebration, not anxiety.
The attacks against the film were, as one observer put it, over the top. One can understand the alarm of Holocaust survivors, whose experience with anti-Semitism in Christian Europe has left permanent scars and fears beyond the healing power of the American experience. What are we to make, however, of the vast majority, who have themselves never experienced threatening anti-Semitism - and especially of the Jewish left, which, while virtually silent concerning Islamic, French and Norwegian anti-Semitism, were so mobilized and vocal when it came to Christians, America?
No doubt the answer is that Jewish opinion-makers, even to this day, have never understood America's heartland. This is ironic given that so many consider themselves society's social critics and cultural observers. Concentrated in pockets of America's urban centers, their view of America and Americans derives quite often from movies such as "American Beauty," which espouse a self-enlightenment and "sophistication" built on portraying Americans "out there" as simple-minded folk ruled by prejudices, incapable of discernment and nuance. In their mind, the more religious, the more simple-minded--an ascription to which they adhere equally when thinking of their own Orthodox Jewish brethren.
Others, such as Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, himself a child in Europe during the war, seem to lack the discernment necessary to differentiate between the Christianity of pre-World War II and that of America today. To them, religion, outside church and synagogue, is something to be feared. "We are deeply concerned about conservative Christian views and policy initiatives," Mr. Foxman wrote recently. Thus his leading role against this religious movie is of a piece with his outspokenness in favor of same-sex marriage and even partial-birth abortion, issues on which his stance is counter to that of traditional Judaism. Be it cuddly nativity scenes or public references to God, the ADL is hard to distinguish from the ACLU.
Because of historic events tied mostly to Europe and the Middle East, many Jews fear nationalism and have failed to see the colossal difference between American patriotism and pre-World War II European nationalism. Statistics show that Christian fundamentalists are America's most patriotic citizens. As a consequence, a good number of Jews worry about positions, and in this case a movie, bearing the imprimatur of Christians of faith. But discerning people should be able to differentiate between necessary patriotism and exclusionary nationalism, as well as between the fundamentalism of American Christianity and that of Middle Eastern Islam.
Any time there is a movie, reading or reference to faith in Jesus as the only means to salvation and heaven, many in the Jewish community become uncomfortable out of a sense of exclusion. As this movie focused only on the episode necessary for such salvation, the crucifixion, it became a target of the uncomfortable. If only, many pleaded, the movie would deal with Jesus' teachings of love, and put the crucifixion "in context." What the critics wanted, in other words, was to minimize that aspect of Jesus' life that dealt with salvation - the uniquely Christian aspect.
It is ironic that so many who themselves do not believe in a literal heaven complain of being locked out of it; that so many who believe salvation, or redemption, is achieved by other means complain of not being saved by that which they reject. This is an insecurity that can be overcome by looking within or by attaching to a belief system where the requirements to heaven are achieved by other means. Jews have such a road, elucidated in their Torah. Besides, Christian salvation theology does not exclude a non-believer from full recognition as a human being or citizen.
Some critics of The Passion were motivated by an aggressive secularism. Their fear was that the movie would spark renewed interest in serious Christianity and strengthen the commitment of those already faithful. Their anti-Christianity derives from their loathing of the moral matrix, God-centeredness and sexual limitations proffered by America's unique brand of Evangelical Christianity.
Among these were Jews who rarely set foot in a synagogue or temple, except to attend a life-cycle event such as a bar mitzvah, and non-Jews who never believed or who have strayed from the Christian practices of their youth. Thus the New York Times' Frank Rich characterization of the film's crucifixion episode as "homo-erotic," "sado-masochistic," "culminating in a bloody, sexual orgy" is not only vulgar and twisted but a reflection of deep-rooted anti-Christian bias. Mr. Rich's description of Christianity's most sacred moment as akin to a homosexual orgy is reminiscent of the left's description of Israeli soldiers and leaders as Nazis. In other words, label your enemy as his opposite, that which is most detestable and hurtful to him.
Anti-Semitism is a real problem in the world today, but it mostly arises from the Muslim world and the political left. It's easy to attack American Christians, schooled on love and forbearance, who will never requite these attacks with any sort of comparable intensity. It takes real bravery to confront the anti-Semitism of militant Islamists and left-wingers who have been inclined to physical violence.
The Muslim world may well use this Christian film to depict Jews as evil and further their anti-Jewish propaganda. They do so steadily with the fictitious and European-based Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and every week some state-sponsored Egyptian newspaper carries editorial cartoons depicting Jews as apes, devils, Nazis. Last week Reuters reported that " 'The Passion of the Christ' is all the rage among Palestinians, curious about complaints by Jews that it is anti-Semitic." Likewise in much of Europe, predisposed as it is to Jew-hatred, the movie may stir continued demonization of Jews.
In contrast, American Christian leaders will continue to use this as an opportunity to show friendship to the Jewish community, ignoring the taunts of Abe Foxman and the vulgarities of Frank Rich. To be sure, even in America there will be occasional incidents of anti-Semitism, as there were before the film, but in a nation of almost 300 million, they will be statistically insignificant.
The heads of American Jewish organizations ignited this world-wide controversy by implying that American Christians are but one movie away from attacking their Jewish neighbors. Now that the evidence is in, will they apologize?
April 5, 2004
Rabbi Spero is president of Caucus for America and a radio talk-show host.