Dear Concerned Citizen,
Mel Gibson says that he is not an anti-Semite. Even the friendliest observer of his actions must, however, conclude that he has anti-Semitic impulses (among other troubles). His denial of anti-Semitism can be taken in two ways. It might be that his contrition might be staged for public-relations purposes, and that he is a thoroughgoing anti-Semite. Or it might be that he recognizes that he has these impulses, that they are wrong, and that they must be resisted. The latter assumption is plausible as well as charitable.Gibson’s anti-Semitic outburst is being treated, in some quarters, as the definitive proof that his The Passion of the Christwas anti-Semitic. Critics have suggested that The Passion’s defenders should now eat their words, and even called it a “pogrom movie.”
The supporters of The Passion would indeed have cause for embarrassment if they had defended the movie along the following lines: “Mel Gibson doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body. The people who are expressing concern that the movie is anti-Semitic are inventing an issue out of nothing, probably because they are opposed to traditionalist Christianity.”
But thoughtful people who rejected the charge of anti-Semitism did not make such arguments. They acknowledged that there were reasons for concern. Gibson’s father was known to be an anti-Semite: a man who believes that Jews want to take over the world and who claims that the Holocaust is, for the “most” part, “fiction.” It cannot be simply assumed that a son shares all or even some of the nasty views of his father. It could be that filial piety moved Gibson not to repudiate views he knew to be wrong. But anyone familiar with his father’s sentiments, and his unwillingness to repudiate them, had to conclude that there was a strong possibility that Gibson is an anti-Semite. Gibson’s own comments about the Holocaust—acknowledging that it happened but seeming to downplay it as a wartime atrocity—increased those concerns.
And given the historical role of passion plays in fomenting anti-Semitism, it was reasonable for people to be concerned about Gibson’s movie.
The defense of the movie against charges of anti-Semitism was not based on the purity of Gibson’s heart; it was based on the movie’s content and on its effects. In the film, some Jewish leaders want Christ killed and some do not. Some are decent and some indecent, as is also true of the Romans. Some followers of Christ betray the Lord—chiefly the men, as in the Gospels. Some, chiefly the women but also John, stay by His side.
The attempts to ferret out instances of anti-Semitism in the movie were almost laughably weak. So, for example, Gibson is held to have depicted Pontius Pilate too sympathetically. It is true that the movie’s Pilate is doubtful and indecisive. But this criticism says more about the modern liberal celebration of doubt than it does about the movie. A man who knows or strongly suspects that he is doing wrong is surely more culpable, not less, than a man who is certain that he is doing right.
Other critics said that Gibson had “recycled classic anti-Semitic tropes”: a stock phrase, that, and one that became a trope of the reviews. What it means is that you or I, when seeing the movie, may not be able to detect any anti-Jewish sentiment in it; that none of us will find ourselves disliking Jews more when we leave than when we entered the theater; but that if we were well-versed in medieval history, we would see that some of its images were reminiscent of anti-Semitic propaganda from centuries ago. If we need the assistance of a scholar to see that the movie is anti-Semitic, how anti-Semitic can it really be?
Nobody who was neutrally disposed toward Jews reported hating them after seeing the movie. For all the talk, before its release, about how it would incite violence against Jews, the actual death toll from the movie was a nice round zero. The people who considered the movie anti-Semitic were all people who are themselves immune to the disease. Maureen Dowd did not profess to find herself hating Jews after watching the movie. It was always the man in the next seat over about whom we were supposed to worry: especially if that man were an evangelical in the hinterland.
Anti-Semitism was not the only charge made against the Passion. It was also said to take too many liberties with Scripture, to scant the story of Jesus’s ministry, and above all to be too violent. (David Denby, reviewing it for the New Yorker, called it “a sickening death trip.”) I do not find these criticisms compelling, and in some cases do not believe they were made in good faith. Reasonable people can certainly disagree, however, with some of Gibson’s dramatic and even theological choices.
What cannot really be defended is the assertion that the movie is anti-Semitic. While the case against Gibson the man has gotten stronger in recent days, the case against the movie hasn’t.