February 19, 2004
Gibson Film Is a Frontal Assault on Jews
Mel Gibson's film is nothing less then a frontal assault and a collective indictment of the entire Jewish community during the time of Jesus.
For two hours during "The Passion of the Christ," not a single Jew opposed to Jesus utters an intelligent sentence. Gibson's Jews are unkempt, pushy, greedy, looking at us through sinister eyes, many with Rasputin-like features.
Not once is a rabbi or a high priest allowed even a theological explanation like, "We are monotheists and can't accept a G-d of the flesh." One hears only the mantras of the Jews crying out "crucify him, punish him."
Contrast this with his sympathetic portrayal of the Roman authorities from Pontius Pilate to his officers. Pilate is presented as timid, fearful of bucking the demands of the high priest, as if the high priest, and by extension the Jews, controlled the Romans, rather then vice versa.
"Why are we doing this? Hasn't this man suffered enough," argues Pilate and his generals and captains. Only the four Roman soldiers who whip Jesus come off as cruel and sadistic.
Then there is the nearly one hour of inhuman torture inflicted on Jesus, first with whips and then with iron bars wrapped with barbed wire, because Gibson believes that every lash is essential to the understanding of the Passion.
I am fully aware of the centrality of the crucifixion to Christian theology and that Gibson, in his interview with Diane Sawyer on "Primetime," has said that his film is about Jesus dying for the sins of mankind. Regrettably, however, this is not a dominant theme in his film and would hardly, if at all, be noticed by the millions who view it.
What they will see, however, clearly in Gibson's film is that it was the Jews, all the Jews, except the disciples of Jesus, who were responsible for his death. That is in direct opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church since Vatican II and the position of the Protestant Church over the last 30 years.
As the Most Rev. Stefan Sarowka, the metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States, who watched the film with Gibson, said, "If you want to see over two hours of cruelty, intense torture and lots of blood, you might want to sacrifice your time and money to see this film. The shallow presentation of the high priest and his role, as well as the close association of evil journey with him, will give viewers an inaccurate portrayal of Jews and Judaism and may contribute to fuel the ugly passion of anti-Semitism."
Our issue is not with the church or the New Testament. They did not produce this film. This is Gibson's film, and he has crossed the line by presenting a film that condemns all the Jews.
In Hollywood, many less controversial films with outstanding directors reached out to consult with interfaith groups for their perspective. Gibson rejected that approach and did it his way. That is his right.
But it is not his right to expect silence from those whose ancestors he has denigrated. He is not entitled to a free pass because he is a Hollywood star.
To remain silent at a time like this would be like turning the other cheek and thanking Gibson for the disrespect he has shown to the Jewish people. Yes, it is possible that the controversy is helping him with the ticket sales.
But there are always risks when one takes a stand. When we criticize the European community for doing nothing about anti-Semitism, we run the risk that they will be even less friendly to Israel. When we criticize suicide bombings and give the perpetrators more publicity, we make it easier for them to attract more recruits. But we do it nonetheless, because history has taught us that when confronting tyranny, there is no greater sin than the sin of silence.
Some of Gibson's spokesmen keep reminding us that the story of Jesus at the time of the Passion is about the Pharisees, as if that lessens the pain. But the Pharisees happen to be our ancestors.
All Jews, whether Einstein, Herzl, Buber, Wiesel, Heschel or Soloveitchik, are all descendants of the Pharisees. It was their concepts of righteousness, charity, communal responsibility that guaranteed our survival as a people. When you say Pharisees, you mean us, the Jews.
One final thought: Gibson's film is a reality and millions of people will see it. Now we need our friends and leaders of the Christian community to do their part in reminding their parishioners about the false charge of deicide and vehemently speaking out against anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.