By Michael Taube
The InterimAs I headed to a matinee performance of The Passion of the Christ, some thoughts rolled into my head. Would I enjoy the film? Would my staunch defence of this film be justified? Would I be the only Jew in the audience watching the film?
The answers to these questions were: yes, yes, and (I think) yes.
Upon originally hearing that The Passion was being called anti-Semitic in some quarters, I treated this news with skepticism. Some Jewish leaders believe they speak on behalf of the entire community; more often than not, they don’t.
Such is the case with The Passion. I can say with confidence that this film is violent, bloody, spiritual, thought-provoking and deeply moving. But one thing it is certainly not is anti-Semitic. To borrow a line from Ezra Levant in his Feb. 23 Calgary Sun column, “The Passion is no more ‘anti-Semitic’ than the Gospels upon which they are based.”
Let’s review three of the main accusations and pick them apart.
Accusation 1: Gibson portrays the Jews in an unfavourable light. This is true in some cases, most notably Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. A number of Jews call for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth (while sparing the murderer Barabbas), and are seen hitting and spitting at him in the temple. As well, Judas is confronted by two young Jewish boys who morph into bloodthirsty, satanic-like creatures before his eyes.
But there are examples in The Passion where Jews are seen in a favourable light. For example, there were portrayals of Jewish priests and observers who opposed the trial of Jesus. As well, Simon of Cyrene, a Jewish man picked out of the crowd to help Jesus carry the cross, was shown as a reluctant participant who quickly developed into a sympathetic and heroic character.
Meanwhile, it’s fair to say the Romans were also shown in an unfavourable light. While most critics used ink bottle after ink bottle to discuss the treatment of Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea, they ignored the fact that some brutal Roman guards beat Jesus to within an inch of his life.
Accusation 2: The Passion fans an old flame: that the Jews “killed” Christ. But this statement has never been true, never will be true, and Gibson’s film did not make it true.
Many Jewish and Christian scholars have noted in the past that while the Jews tried and condemned Jesus, the Romans executed him. Gibson’s film gives credence to this story.
If anything, the movie places blame for Jesus’s death squarely on the shoulders of all people. As Gibson said in an interview with ABC News correspondent Diane Sawyer when asked who killed Jesus, “The big answer is, we all did. I’ll be the first in the culpability stakes here.”
Accusation 3: Gibson misinterpreted the Gospels, which allowed anti-Semitic thoughts and language to creep in. While it’s a fair point that the Gospels are woven together in The Passion, Gibson’s decision can be blamed on artistic licence, or simply attributed to a matter of historical and religious interpretation.
If we can accept Hollywood films that misrepresent the life of a late U.S. president (Nixon), or include a heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (The Birth of a Nation), surely Gibson’s interpretation of the final hours of Jesus has a right to be examined on its own merit.
It’s also important to remember Gibson supports a traditional Catholicism (some would say heretic Catholicism) that rejects Vatican II. It was during Vatican II that Nostra Aetate, the 1965 document that repudiates anti-Semitism and rejects the notion that Jews are to blame for Jesus’s death, was released. This doesn’t mean that Gibson is an anti-Semite, but rather that his religious beliefs and biblical interpretations are noticeably different from most practising Catholics.
Fortunately, not all Jews believe The Passion is going to incite religious tensions and a new wave of anti-Semitism. That’s why film critic Michael Medved, producers Joel Silver and Dennis Devlin, columnist David Horowitz and Rabbi Daniel Lapin have defended the film, among others.
That’s also why Maia Morganstern, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, played the role of Mary in The Passion, and Ted Rusoff played Caiaphas. Critics should ask themselves, why would a Jewish actor or actress participate in a film that spewed hatred about his or her religion?
As I left the theatre, I encountered two women walking down the aisle. One woman said, “Well, it’s the truth,” and her friend concurred. I found this brief exchange profound, especially in light of Pontius Pilate’s struggle to decide what is the truth. Pilate wondered if a human being could be the Son of Man, the King of the Jews or the Messiah; it is a question Christians and Jews still discuss today.