April 29, 2004
The Silent Minority
If there had been any doubts that I was in another country, they were erased when the first reviews of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" began to appear in the London press.
While there was a mixture of praise and repugnance (just like the United States), with negative voices drowning out the affirmative ones, film critics and reviewers in London generally bypassed the Jews in their deconstruction of the film.
Missing in most of the reviews was any recognition of Jewish concerns -- except, of course, in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, the community's local weekly newspaper, which devoted several issues to describing the responses of the editor, the columnists and the community: A terrible, inaccurate and anti-Semitic film, they argued. That community apparently is small enough to be hidden from view -- 300,000 out of a population of 58 million with two-thirds living in greater London, and a large percentage of that number secular and unaffiliated. The end result is that Britain's affiliated Jews are not a significant enough presence in society to merit concern. We are, to quote one Jewish community leader, simply invisible.
This has its ironic side today. Jews have made incredible strides within Britain over the past 40 years. Ever since Margaret Thatcher's days as the Tory Prime Minister of Great Britain in the 1980s, Jews have taken on an active role in the British establishment: They figured prominently in Thatcher's Cabinet, and began to play an increasingly significant role at the bar and the judiciary, as well as in publishing, science and the press. Today, to everyone's astonishment (in the Jewish community) the leader of the Conservative Party and perhaps the next prime minister, Michael Howard, is Jewish; as is Michael Grade, the newly appointed director of the powerful BBC; while Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary who, after seven years away from politics, has returned and is expected to rejoin the Conservatives in Parliament. How invisible can that be?
The problem is that nothing comparable to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) or the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations or the Anti-Defamation League exists in Great Britain. There is little Jewish political clout. The organized Jewish community is represented by a Board of Deputies, which consists of synagogue and organizational leaders. But it is not a commanding lobby group with powerful ties to the political institutions of the nation.
Nor is there a sense within the national press and television stations that Jewish issues are part and parcel of the national political dialogue. When BBC 4 aired a television program that discussed in detail Jewish anxieties and criticism of Gibson's "The Passion," the footage was filled with clips from the U.S. showing prominent American Jewish figures, such as Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, speaking out against the film. Indeed, one telling newspaper review featured a critic who explained that he took along a Jewish friend to the film's screening, but then was baffled when the friend complained that some scenes were anti-Semitic. The reviewer did not like the film, but failed to understand how anyone could view it as directed against the Jews.
Perhaps that explains the intellectual attack that appeared in The Spectator, a conservative weekly opinion magazine.
"It's not between Christians and Jews," critic Mark Steyn wrote, "but between believing Christians and the broader post-Christian culture."
What post-Christians wanted, he explained with a sly wink, was a wimpy Jesus who died so our sins could be licensed. Gibson's film about Jesus the Redeemer was instead for those Christians who read the Bible as God's word; for those "red meat" Christians who took the New Testament as the literal truth.
Many clergymen reserved cinema seats in advance and bought tickets for their congregations. Their hope was that the film would inject vitality into Christian worship and, in the process, bring people back to the church. They seemed unaware of Jewish fears and needs. In a limited way, some of their hopes were borne out. The film was a smash hit in England, breaking box office records -- though nothing to compare with the commercial success in the United States.
There is a rueful lesson of sorts for me in all of this. I have felt, along with others, that at times American Jewish organizations have been strident on the issues of anti-Semitism, Israel and other Jewish fears. They have often helped foster a cultural identity based on victimization. The alternative in Great Britain appears to be inclusion and integration in place of a collective Jewish voice. The richness of a Jewish identity and cultural memory is there in England for those who choose affiliation -- but it is not accompanied by a strong political presence. In the United States -- for better or ill -- we appear to have it both ways.
Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.