For many years, I have not seen a division among American Jews so bitter as the civil war about how they should react to Mel Gibson’s passionate film. For all the bountiful media coverage of The Passion of the Christ, it took the weekly Forward, a Jewish newspaper, to provide a superb multi-dimensional guide to the battlefield.
There are Jews who accuse Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, and other Jewish critics of the film for greatly contributing to its box-office success by antagonizing Christians who have been deeply moved by the movie. Nacha Cattan’s front-page story in the March 5 Forward reports that Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, prophesied that “If there is any Jew-hatred that results from this event, it won’t be from the movie but from the Jewish overreaction to it.”
My reaction is that this debate is essential in view of the continuing reverberations of the film here, and surely abroad, in both Europe and the Arab nations.
I cannot say the movie itself is actually anti-Semitic because I haven’t seen it yet. But having read an array of articles by Christian biblical scholars, it is clear to me that this is the gospel according to Mel, because he has selected from the four gospels only sections that fit his interpretation, and has taken the license to entirely change the nature of Pontius Pilate, who crucified so many Jews and—biblical scholars note—was so brutally repressive of other suspected political enemies of Roman rule that eventually he was sent back to Rome. Gibson, even some supporters of the film admit, makes
Pilate a gentler soul with so tender a conscience that he had to be provoked by Jews to execute Jesus.
But, as to the civil war among Jews, the Forward quotes Malcolm Hoenlein, an official at the Conference of Presidents of Major Amercan Jewish Organizations, as say- ing—in concert with prominent Jews who deplore Jewish critics of the movie: “Frankly . . . we should have Christians out front speaking about it. . . . There is a legitimate debate that tickets were sold by virtue of the controversy and that the better part of wisdom would have been to deal with it quietly.”
That attitude is what impelled me to write about this bristling debate among Jews. I have talked about the movie with the outspoken rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Because of what I experienced covering anti-Semitism as a college journalist in Boston long ago, I thoroughly agree with what Rabbi Hier told the Forward: “Our history has taught us we have paid a dear price by listening to the mentality of the shtetl Jews who said, sha shtil,” Yiddish for keep quiet and don’t stir up the goyim.
My first mentor as a journalist, while I was still in high school, was a devout Catholic, the daughter of a saloon owner, Frances Sweeney, who owned and edited a very alternative newspaper, The Boston City Reporter. It was devoted to exposing rampant political corruption, but also vehemently and persistently critical of pervasive anti-Semitism in the city, where, as reporter John Roy Carlson reported in his 1943 book Under Cover (Dutton): “In Chelsea, Brookline and Dorchester, Jewish boys and girls were set upon and severely beaten [by followers of Father Charles Coughlin] but the matter was hushed up . . . even the Boston press . . . suppressing any mentions of it.”
My beating as a Christ-killer wasn’t severe, just a split lip and a tooth or two.
Also quiet about the anti-Semitic radio priest Coughlin, a national force, was William Cardinal O’Connell of Boston, whose powerful word would have meant a lot. Frances Sweeney criticized the cardinal in the Boston City Reporter. She was summoned into his mighty presence and threatened with excommunication if she didn’t shut up about his inattention to anti-Semitism. Devout as she was, she refused. Ever since, she has been a model for me of the fearlessness essential to a self-respecting journalist.
Frances Sweeney was intent on finding out more about the financial and other networks of anti-Semitism. But Frances was too visible to do her own undercover reporting, having, for instance, been thrown out of a 1941 Boston neo-fascist meet-ing for heckling.
At 15, through a friend of hers, I was one of the students recruited by Frances to covertly find out more about the nexus of Jew-hatred. I discovered, covering meetings, that with regard to class differences and religious preferences, anti-Semitism was an equal-opportunity poison.
Four years later, I was editor of my college paper, the Northeastern News, when, on makeup night, at the printers, we found a stack of anti-Semitic pamphlets printed at the same plant. Tracking the source, we went to Boston newspapers, who were not interested in the story, nor were Jewish organizations in the city, who told us to shut up lest we stir up even more anti-Semitism.
We got the fearless New York newspaper PM to print the story, and the news came back to Boston. Jews should never censor themselves. Nor should Mel Gibson. We all need this debate to be honest with each other.
Aside from The Passion of the Christ—and how it may or may not play out in Europe—before the movie opened anywhere, a National Public Radio report on January 28 noted that “the 59th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz was marked yesterday with remembrances across Europe.”
But not only remembrances. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR’s first-rate reporter, noted that on the eve of Remembrance Day, “a poll [of nine European countries] on European anti-Semitism showed that 46 percent of those asked said Jews and their nations were different.” (As historically the Jews have been the aliens within.) “And 35 percent said Jews should stop playing the victim for the Holocaust.”
In view of the sharp resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe—not only among Muslims but also some intellectuals on the left—Poggioli also interviewed Gianfranco Fini, deputy prime minister of Italy, who said: “It was Europe that generated this monster and gave birth to this madness. . . . Anti-Semitism does not belong to the past. It can still reproduce itself in different forms.”
Added Elie Wiesel: “If Auschwitz couldn’t cure anti-Semitism, what will?”
This is not the time to sha shtil.
J. Hoberman’s review of The Passion of the Christ
“The Backlash Passion: A Messianic Meller for Our Time” by Richard Goldstein
“Mel Gibson’s Jesus Christ Pose: The Passion of the Christ Marks the Latest Chapter in the Making of a Hollywood Martyr” by Jessica Winter