By Sy Schechtman
Herodotus, a world famous ancient Greek historian and probably the first international traveler, said after coming back from an extensive trip to Egypt that one mainly goes to foreign lands to experience or confirm what he already knows. That two people with differing perspectives may not see the same object the same way. Thatís why the Hebrews demanded at least two witnesses to a crime for conviction, and the more corroborating witnesses the better in any trial. Many years ago several of us witnessed an accident in a hansom cab, where the horse was forced by the driver to make too sharp a turn and the cab was overturned, the horse lost his balance and fell and the two passengers were thrown from the cab onto the relatively hard, unyielding pavement. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt, but one friend, who was a deep animal lover could only see the poor horse on the ground, while the rest of us were greatly experiencing the plight of the two somewhat elderly (like us) people on the ground, very close to the fallen horse.
Very much the same situation occurred just a few days ago at our Jewish temple, when we were dialoguing, Jew and Gentile, on the message and thrust of Mel Gibsonís movie, The Passion of Christ. We were almost an equally divided group, about 20 Jews and about 15 invited Christians from various religious affiliations in the area. However, to my knowledge, there were no Roman Catholic participants. And we were actually discussing, excitedly, two different movies. (Which is exactly what our very prescient rabbi and his retired father, also a Reform Jewish rabbi, and neither of them Herodotus scholars, had declared). Initially most of the enthusiasm was on the non Jewish side, expressing almost a joyous agony at the suffering of Christ and his ultimate transcendence of the bestial torture and suffering endured at the crucifixion on the cross in Calvary (also known as Golgotha). A final, gruesome understanding of all he endured in assuming the burden of sinful humankindís erring ways. And these good people generally saw no anti Semitism of any appreciable import. Or, as one woman put it, "all humanity was involved, not any one group in particular". Most or all the non Jews present seemed to have the same reaction and they all had obviously seen the film and had been tremendously moved by it. My Jewish brethren were mostly silent at first. They unfortunately had the ostrich like head in the sand reaction of not adding to Gibsonís swelling affluence by paying to personally view the film and so had to rely on other primary sources, which they had copiously consulted, and so they gradually, if tentatively, joined in too.
I had seen the film about four days after its premiere, on a Monday afternoon in Florida, the first showing of the day at 1 PM. The theater was almost full, contrary to my expectation for such an off peak early time. My reaction was an oppressive feeling of growing despair at the stifling piling on of violence that Christ endured in his seemingly unending torturous path, dragging that heavy wooden cross as he plodded on, continually assaulted by the malignant dregs of humanity. By the time I left the theater, though, my despair or depression began to change, turning gradually to a growing sense of outrage. Mel Gibsonís "dramatic and artistic" license, as the Unitarian minister, who was an avowed film buff, apologetically explained to us, had to be respected in the film to highlight Christís suffering. When it was pointed out to him that no where in the four Gospels was there more than a sentence or two about such a walk to the site of the crucifixion, and that in three of the four Gospels some one else, Simon the Cyrenenean actually carried the cross, the good minister fell back again on the artistic license excuse, although admitting that Gibson might have gone a bit too far. (The Unitarian minister had a distinctly Jewish sounding name and some Jewish ancestry). Indeed, while hardly mentioned in the New Testament Scriptures that cross heavy walk of gratuitous torture and suffering takes up many minutes of the film, probably the most excruciating bit ofsadomachism ever filmed.
Perpetrated by robot like, brutal Roman soldiers, but as Gibson insidiously but clearly shows, instigated by villainous, Fagin or Shylock stereotypes. The comforting, womblike thought of "all humanity being responsible" in Gibsonís film is reduced to two evil elementsóRomans and Jews. The Romans are long gone, and the Jews linger on. Here as the persistent Jewish High Priest, Caiphas and his chief assistants, insisting that Christ, who has called himself King of the Jews, is a threat to Roman rule, civic stability, and the tenets of the Jewish faith and should be put to death. They are appropriately hooked nosed and with unsightly teeth, and stand impassively, watching, as Christ is shown tottering along his miserable suffering way, and the shadowy figure of the devil is portrayed at least twice lurking among the Jewish crowd which is howling for Christís death. And Pontius Pilate, out of all historic context, is shown being very sympathetic to Christ offering him water and a chance to plead his case personally. (Pilate historically was a cruel and despotic governor, even being called back to Rome and censured for his excessive cruelty). Pilatesí wife, too, is added to the mix courtesy of Gibsonísí artistic license, having a deeply troubled conscience over Christís sufferings. So while there are Roman brutes there are Roman noble souls, too, but only stolid, impassive and maybe leering Jews, and the devil among them, and a howling mob calling for Christís crucifixion. Unfortunately the latter episode and the mob choosing that Barrabas and not Jesus be released and Christ be crucified is in the Gospels, and of course in Gibsonísí film, as is the statement of the mob that "Christís blood will be on their heads".
It is enough that this inflammatory material is in the Gospels, along with other similar New Testament readings that have led to much Christian violence against "Jewish Christ killers". This incendiary materialóthat Barrabas be released and the mobís acceptance of responsibilityóhas been ready fuel over the centuries, especially when stoked at appropriate at times by sermons from the pulpit, to stir up the laity. Over the two millennia since the advent (story?) of the Jewish rabbi Jesus becoming the Christian Messiah and culminating in the modern Holocaust of bitter recent memory, about ten million Jews have been slaughtered in atonement for that putative, very unfortunate event. The word pogrom for Jews is not at all a vague or distant word, but still etched eerily in our subconscious. And in 1962 at an official world wide Catholic Council Pope ĖVatican II-- Pope John 23 denied the deicide charge of Jewish guilt in Christís death, and this was also reaffirmed by Pope John Paul in l986. But Mel Gibson denies the validity of these Papal decrees, belonging to an intransigent Catholic group that insists in a mystical biblical reality. In the face of almost all modern biblical scholarship that affirms that the four different Gospel books----- Mathew, Mark , Luke and John----were written 40 to 80 years after Christís death and probably had a few redactions along the way, Gibson is quoted as saying that "Mark saw thisÖ." and "Luke witnessed thatÖÖ" Fundamentalist literalism to the core.
Does this make Gibson an anti Semite? The scale tips more steeply in that direction when we realize that his father was a holocaust denier, and Mel Gibson never has disavowed this position, or is any way estranged from his father. He has been quoted as saying "I donít want to lynch any Jews. I mean, itís not what Iím about. I love them. I pray for them". Meanwhile, he has created in powerful visual terms the "Gospel According to Mel Gibson" which omits all the beatific wisdom of Jesus that the whole world admires, and Jews feel very uneasy with what his supposed artistic license can lead to. And what his avowed Jewish "love" is all about. In the first three weeks since its release the film has already grossed a mammoth record breaking three hundred million dollars and is only now beginning to been viewed by the vast overseas markets. Jews remember well the success of another avowed distortion of Judaism, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This prime anti Semitic text played on the basic animus instilled by the Gospels and added the additional poison of the Jews being the Shylocks of the world , seeking world financial domination, and also being the evil Communists plotting to overthrow the capitalist system. Hitler used the Protocols as his basic anti-Semitic text , and it is still selling very well in Arab lands today, over a hundred years after its first fabrication.
But perhaps our dismay is part of the fiction of the "one God" concept. There is that theoretic unity of all humanity being brothers under the skin, of all being created in "Godís image". But why do we invariably look past one another so often and see different movies on the same screen? Undoubtedly because the human animal is still very far from the holiness of God and still very full of ego and self importance. And so Gibson must have the freedom to pursue his "artistic muse". But Jews certainly, in self defense, must yell Fire! when we sense our Jewish House may yet again be aflame from yet another anti-Semitic convulsion whether deliberately kindled by Gibson or be the by product of sincere, but misplaced religious fervor. Admittedly our premonitory alarm has helped the box office gross a great deal, and if his heart is really in the right place perhaps Gibson could show his good will with a small few million dollar charitable UJA gift. It probably comes right off the top and would never be missed!