The Passion of Christ in the World Religions
The phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s The Passion, about the death of Jesus of Nazareth, has provoked a lively debate about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Historians are well aware that medieval passion plays (which shared the sado-masochistic themes of Gibson’s movie) often resulted in attacks on Jews. The concern of American Jewish leaders is therefore entirely valid.
Some of the problem goes back to the Gospel writers, who wrote many years after the fact and depict the Jewish leaders in a frankly implausible way because they had lost contact with Jewish customs. They have the Sanhedrin or Jewish religious council meeting about Jesus on the Sabbath, which just would not have happened. They have it meeting at night, which also would not have happened. Their account accords with nothing of the procedures and laws we know to have been followed at that time. The likelihood is that the Romans arrested and killed Jesus as a potential Zealot or religious radical whom they perceived as threatening, but that the later Christian community strove to have better relations with Rome just as Roman-Jewish relations got very bad. So the Gospel authors soft-pedaled Rome’s role and invented nocturnal Sabbath Sanhedrins that have gotten Jews beaten up ever since.
In a post-September 11 world, this controversy has taken on wider significance. Film critic Michael Medved argued that American Jewish leaders were wrong to attack the film as anti-Semitic because they risked alienating Christian allies (of rightwing Zionism, apparently), who were needed to fight the “Islamo-fascists” (his word, on the Deborah Norville show) attacking Jews in Israel.
Although Medved appears in this argument to be taking the more “assimilated” position, basically saying that the rightwing Christians should be allowed to broadcast their historically absurd and offensive images of first-century Jews in peace regardless of the consequences, in fact his is the more reactionary position on several levels.
First, he is saying that a minority that faces many attacks every year in the US and Europe should not speak out about cultural phenomena that might increase those attacks. The United States is a relatively tolerant society in world-historical terms, but the ADL alleges that 17 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, and there are every year too many incidents of vandalism of Jewish property and harassment of Jews. I suspect I differ with the ADL on what exactly anti-Semitism is (it isn’t criticism of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories), but I accept their number as a ballpark figure. And if that is the number, it is way too high. Bigotry is when you stereotype an entire group, and then blame individuals for imagined “group” traits. Individuals are unique, and you can’t tar a whole people with a single brush. And, it is by speaking out about the problem that any minority makes progress in the United States. Who would imagine telling African-Americans they should be quiet about films that depict them as villains harming something whites hold dear? No liberals that I know of.
Second, Medved is eager to perpetuate a dangerous political marriage of convenience between the rightwing settler movement in Israel and the American evangelicals. The rightwing Christians in the US don’t support the settlers against the Palestinians because they love Judaism. They want to set things up for the conversion of all Jews to Christianity and the return of Christ, i.e., for the end of the Jewish people. (Interestingly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is aware of this “Christian Zionism” and cites it as one motive for the US occupation of Iraq; it is not making Israel or the US any friends). The Likud may get votes and de facto campaign money from the rightwing Christians in the short term, but it is encouraging Christian anti-Semitism by disguising it as support for Israel. In fact, Israel’s best interests lie in a return to the 1967 borders and making peace with Arab and Muslim neighbors, not by a ruthless expansionism and continued colonial occupation that harms Israel’s image and debilitates Israeli democracy. (Yitzhak Rabin’s policies of Oslo and after, before an ultra-Orthodox Jewish assassin cut him down, would have pulled the rug out from under Zarqawi’s argument).
Third, it is hard to see the difference between the bigotry of anti-Semitism as an evil and the bigotry that Medved displays toward Islam. It is more offensive than I can say for him to use the word “Islamo-fascist.” Islam is a sacred term to 1.3 billion people in the world. It enshrines their highest ideals. To combine it with the word “fascist” in one phrase is a desecration and a form of hate speech. Are there Muslims who are fascists? Sure. But there is no Islamic fascism, since “Islam” has to do with the highest ideals of the religion. In the same way, there have been lots of Christian fascists, but to speak of Christo-Fascism is just offensive. It goes without saying that a phrase like Judeo-fascist is an unutterable abortion. (And this despite the fact that Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological ancestor of Likud and the Neocons, spoke explicitly of the desirability of Jewish fascism in the interwar period). Medved is even inaccurate, since the terrorist attack on civilians in Jerusalem to which he referred was the work of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a secular rather than an ostensibly Muslim group.
Interestingly, the Koran, the holy book of Islam, denies that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’s death (4:154-159). It appears that some Jews of the ancient Arabian city of Medinah were disappointed when they learned that the Prophet Muhammad had accepted Jesus as a prophet of God, and had put this decision down by observing that he wasn’t much of a prophet if the Jews had managed to kill him. The Koran replies to this boast (surely by some jerk in the Medinan Jewish quarter) by saying, “They did not kill him, and they did not crucify him, it only appeared to them so.” What exactly the Koran meant by this phrase has been debated ever since. As an academic, I do not read it as a denial of the crucifixion. The Koran talks of Jesus dying, and is not at all Gnostic in emphasis, at one point insisting that Jesus and Mary ate food (presumably against Gnostics who maintained that their bodies were purely spiritual). A lot of Muslims have adopted the rather absurd belief that Jesus was not crucified, but rather a body double took his place. (This is like something out of the fiction of Argentinean fabulist Jorge Luis Borges). Those Muslims who accepted Jesus’ death on the cross (and nothing else in the Koran denies it) interpret the verse as saying it was God’s will that Jesus be sacrificed, and so it was not the Jews’ doing. (Great Muslims like at-Tabari and Ibn Khaldun accepted the crucifixion). Any way you look at it, though, the Koran explicitly relieves Jews of any responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion and death. In this it displays a more admirable sentiment than some passages of the Gospels, and certainly than the bizarre far-rightwing Catholic cult in which Mel Gibson was raised, which appears to involve Holocaust denial, and which deeply influenced his sanguinary film.