The story is simple, really. Two millennia ago, a Jewish preacher living in the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire spoke of God, his Father, and why he had sent His son to live among His chosen people and redeem them. Some Jewish listeners welcomed the preacher's teaching, but the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Temple viewed him as a usurper of their authority (and possibly of their livelihood). In their fury they charged Jesus with blasphemy and demanded of Roman authorities that he be condemned. The preacher was arrested, beaten and flogged, then died a lingering death by crucifixion-the Roman authorities having reserved this prolonged agony and tortured death for its worst criminal offenders and to illustrate to its subjects the terrible punishment that awaited disturbers of civil order.
"The Passion of the Christ," a film by Mel Gibson, portrays Jesus' last 12 hours in graphic cinematic detail, with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin-an artistic device that heightens the viewers' attention to the film's unusually brutal visual content. Inevitably, a storm of controversy erupted about the film-even before it was completed-and it soon became a vehicle, an empty vessel, to be filled with forceful, stridently voiced opinion and comment that reflected where the speaker stood on a host of religious, social, and political issues. The film became the touchstone for a conflict that still crashes and roars in the exact same tiny dot of today's Middle Eastern geography as it did 2,000 years ago. It generated an outpouring of reviews, opinions, polemics, outrages and congratulatory comments (I collected 61 opinion articles, and there are probably hundreds more) in every form of print, spoken, visual and electronic media.
For some Jewish commentators, the film was a lancet that pierced an abscess full of pent-up emotions, fears, resentments, and fury about their painful history living in a Christian and Muslim world for two thousand years. Their collective memories rever-berated with pogroms, exile, persecutions, repudiations, humiliations and Holocaust. all of these fearful experiences and traumas were driven deeply into their collective psyches, making it almost impossible for them to view the world except through their own existential prism. They tried assimilation and concluded, ultimately, that it offered scant protection from persecution and marginalization. Their inspired solution was Zionism, and the midwife to the birth of the Jewish nation was the 19th and 20th century anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe.
Gibson's film resurrected Christian allegations that the Jews committed the sin of killing Christ-a Christian charge that fostered unending torment for the Jews through the ages. Anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews was firmly repudiated in 1965 by the second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II has continued to lead the Catholic Church in its tremendous progress to rectify the long-standing anti-Semitism it fostered, going back to the first century, when some Jews repudiated the Jesus sect of Judaism and refused to convert to Christianity.
Leading the anti-Gibson charge were Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute. According to the ADL head, 'Accusing Jews of deicide strikes a raw nerve among some because it has historically been the justification for persecution, pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust."
(ADL's own surveys over 10 years ago, however, consistently concluded that religion was not a driver of anti-Semitism, and the organization does not include the charge of deicide as one of its indicators of bias against Jews.)
"I can tell you this is a terrible film," Rabbi Hier said, "a terrible portrayal of Jews and will cause tremendous harm and be a delight to all the enemies of the Jewish people."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe quoted Hier as not regretting his outspokenness, arguing that "The overriding issue for Jews in history is that too often we kept silent and we paid a great price, and I feel that we should not do that again. …