Watching Mel Gibson revel in the controversy surrounding his new film, “The Passion of the Christ,” it is easy to understand why critics of the Hollywood star insist that he suffers from some sort of martyrdom complex. But Gibson is not alone in envisioning himself as a modern-day Jesus, subject to crucifixion-by-press-release at the hands of the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The view of Gibson as a victim — or at least the ADL as villain — has been parroted by many religious conservatives, including a trio of Jewish commentators: Rabbi Daniel Lapin, movie critic Michael Medved and author and Forward columnist David Klinghoffer. To varying degrees, these Orthodox pundits have praised Gibson’s efforts to produce a cinematic depiction of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, dismissed fears that the film could fuel prejudice, accused Jewish groups of unfairly targeting Gibson and warned that these organizations would be responsible for any anti-Jewish backlash that does emerge.
“Sadly, the battle over The Passion may indeed provoke new hatred of the Jews,” Medved recently wrote in an essay for the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine. “That hostility will center, however, not on a few remote and exotic figures who play villainous parts in a new motion picture, but on the reckless maneuvering of real-life Jewish leaders whose arrogance and short-sightedness has led them into a tragic, needless, no-win public relations war.”
Don’t, in other words, blame Gibson or hold him accountable for his artistic choices and religious beliefs. Instead, according to Medved and many conservatives of varying religious stripes, the main culprit is the national director of the ADL, Abe Foxman. Depending on which of these critics you ask, Foxman is motivated by liberal bias, hatred of Christianity or a desire to jack-up fundraising.
At least Gibson can try to claim his hands were tied by Scripture. Medved, Lapin and Klinghoffer, however, cannot hide behind the New Testament when casting Foxman as a modern-day Judas. They are operating off of their own playbook when they essentially insist that Foxman’s deceitful hands are metaphorically drenched with Gibson’s blood, and suggest that the ADL leader will bear the responsibility for any actual harm caused by “The Passion.”
The vehement attacks against Foxman suggest that it is Gibson’s Jewish backers — not his critics — who are blinded by ideology and guided by preexisting agendas, most notably a firm belief that America suffers from a plague of secular liberalism which can only be treated with a heavy injection of religion into all corners of the public square. Listening to Gibson’s supporters, one would conclude that the only problem is that Jews (or at least leaders of Jewish organizations) are intolerant of their Christian neighbors; fears of “The Passion” triggering an increase in antisemitism simply represent outdated, bigoted Jewish anxiety about Christianity.
“Jewish hyper-sensitivity has a long and painful background of real tragedy,” Lapin wrote in a recent column. “In the Europe of earlier eras, antisemitic slander frequently resulted in Catholic mobs killing Jews. But I do not believe that sad history is relevant here.… America is the most philo-Semitic country in history. Suggesting equivalency between American Christians today and those of Europe’s past is offensive and ungrateful.”
In his rush to defend the honor of his conservative allies in America, Lapin ignores legitimate worries about how the film will be received by audiences in Europe, where some countries are experiencing revivals of right-wing nationalism, or in Muslim nations already rife with antisemitism. But, even if one focuses strictly on the domestic scene, Lapin’s unbridled optimism is naive at best.
His rosy version of history ignores a difficult, decades-long road to acceptance that was often obstructed by Christian antisemitism. It also fails to acknowledge that the stage for Jewish success in America following World War II was set by the rise of secularism and an increasing societal rejection of sectarianism, as well as the increasing recognition of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. Throw in the Second Vatican Council declaration that the Jewish people did not bear collective guilt for the crucifixion, and you have the formula for creating a society of unparalleled acceptance of Jews.
But Gibson’s allies are asking American Jews to cheer, or at least remain silent, as religious conservatives push to dismantle the various pillars upon which Jewish success was built. They are urging Jews to embrace the director of the most emotionally charged Passion play in history, though he belongs to a church that views Vatican II as a surrender and has recently downplayed the notion that Jewish suffering during World War II was in any way unique.
Gibson could have allayed fears about his motives by acting on suggestions that he include a disclaimer in his film absolving the Jewish people of deicide, but he chose not to. He did, however, see fit to declare in an interview with The New Yorker that his detractors were going to “kill” him if he did not cut a controversial scene.
On this last point at least, perhaps we should cut Gibson some slack: He could have picked it up from some of his best friends, who are Jewish.
Ami Eden is national editor of the Forward. His Web log is amieden.com.