Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was the most important American religious event of the past year. For Christians, its effects were quite positive, as viewers already committed to belief in Jesus were roused to renew their faith through the heartrending story of the Crucifixion.
For America’s Jewish community, the effects of the film can also be positive, if we draw the right retrospective lessons not from the movie itself but from the controversy that still surrounds it.
This time a year ago, more than a month before its release, “The Passion” was drawing tremendous hostility from Jewish leaders. Though Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national director Abraham Foxman has denied that his group predicted pogroms, in fact, the ADL harped on supposed parallels between Gibson’s movie and medieval Passion plays. The latter led to mass violence against Jews, so the obvious implication was that the former could also.
In an article in The New Republic — Jewish-owned and edited — a Jewish professor of religious studies, Paula Fredriksen, in all earnestness stated not as speculation but as a certainty that when the film appeared in countries like Poland, Spain, France and Russia, savagery would erupt: “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”
Of course none of this happened — despite the fact that, thanks to the widely publicized attacks spearheaded by the ADL, many more people saw Gibson’s “Passion” than would otherwise have done so.
What was expected to bring on this tsunami of Jew-hatred, not least from the same evangelical Christians who are among the State of Israel’s most ardent supporters?
As the Christian Bible tells the story and as Gibson does, the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time handed him over to the Romans for crucifixion. This happens to be approximately the version of history given in the Talmud and by the past millennium’s greatest Jewish sage, Maimonides. I say “approximately” because, in truth, Jewish tradition ascribes full responsibility for Jesus’ death to certain Jews of the time. If Gibson is an anti-Semite, so is Maimonides.
Apart from exonerating Gibson, the lessons to be drawn from the “Passion” imbroglio have to do with the tactics our community has come to favor in fighting supposed anti-Semitism. There is indeed anti-Semitism out there to be fought, almost exclusively in the Arab world. But sadly, our Jewish culture places tremendous emphasis on sniffing out hostility to us where it barely exists, namely among Christians, and spends a fortune doing so.
If you doubt the prestige and authority we assign to groups like the Anti-Defamation League and its West Coast equivalent, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, just ask yourself who, on moral questions, is the American Jewish voice that gets more attention, that is treated with more grave, earnest seriousness than any other?
It belongs not to a rabbi or any other spiritual exemplar but to the ADL’s Foxman.
Don’t blame him. This well-meaning man is just doing his job, which is to raise the approximately $40 million budget that Jews yearly pour into the ADL. Anti-defamation groups stay in business by motivating us to donate. That requires continually proving the urgent relevance of what they do.
There is an automatic, built-in institutional motivation to sound the alarm at the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, and to keep the alarm screaming in newspapers and TV as long and as loud as possible.
The non-Jewish media are complicit in this. But so are we. By elevating anti-Semitism over virtually any other community concern — like education or spirituality, for example — we do ourselves more harm than good.
The risk of alienating Christian allies is not the most serious issue. Religious Christians love the Jewish state for much the same reason that religious Jews do. Both see Israel as occupying a special place in God’s regard, and both see it as playing an important future role in the world’s history.
Christian affection for Israel, and for Jews, is not going to go away anytime soon.
I worry more about the function God assigned to the Jewish people 3,000 years ago at Mount Sinai. There, He called us to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and many passages in the Hebrew prophets make clear what this should mean. We are called to function as ministers to the world, which is meant to be our congregation, teaching other peoples about God.
It is a pity that, in the eyes of our congregation, the most serious moral message we have to impart has nothing to do with the Torah or with God. It’s about a generalized paranoia, an ingrained habit of issuing mistaken alarms about phantom anti-Semitism, and then to deny we ever made a mistake.
The time has come to acknowledge our mistake, even to apologize — not to Gibson, but to God. Jews have a job in the world, which He gave us. We’re not doing it now, but if we opted to reconsider where our community spends its money, how we assign our priorities, we could get down to business.
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post. The author’s new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” will be published in March.