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Posted in: Anti-Semitism, Culture Wars & Censorship, Arts, Film & Culture

Published on Apr 30, 2004 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Midstream

Great Artistry, Dangerous Prejudice


Last month, an anthology of still photographs taken on location during the filming of The Passion of the Christ debuts as the #2 bestselling book in America. Clearly, the film and it's subject continues to interest and fascinate many people. However, most American critics seriously underestimated the power of Gibson's film. It is a masterful work, both visually and religiously, which is why it's potential to do harm -- as well as good -- is so great. Gibson's film is also emblematic of the new anti-Semitism which relies heavily on doctored "historical" footage, hypnotic musical videos, staged photo opportunities, political cartoons, and full-length and multi-part films to promote Jew-hatred. However, in their rush to damn the film for it's graphic bloodiness, many critics were blind to the film's seductive beauty and theological integrity.

Gibson is a master propagandist and image-manipulator. His genius resides in this. Clearly, he wants Christians to better understand the nature of Jesus's sacrifice and to love both God and humanity ever more humbly. This is a laudable goal.

The opera great, Richard Wagner, is another, far more formidable genius. I happen to love Wagner's dazzling intellectuality and music. And yet, Wagner was both personally and artistically a pathological Jew-hater. His misshapen, diabolical, dwarf-sized Nebeilungen who lust for and hoard the source of the world's gold are really Jews. Wagner's human and godly heroes are decidedly not. As Tolstoy understood: Great art is not necessarily good, it may also be evil. He wrote: "What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness." Indeed, Gibson's Satan is marvelously seductive. Beyond gender, Satan observes, restlessly moves, and acts throughout the film but we only see Satan among the Jews. Satan is not shown as present among the Romans who carry out Jesus's torture and crucifixion.

As my friend, American playwright and opera librettist William M. Hoffman (The Ghosts of Versailles) writes: "As we don't deny that the great D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation fueled the revival of the then dying Ku Klux Klan (which led directly to the lynching of maybe a thousand blacks), and as we don't deny that the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl was a great artist and yet a direct contributor to the Nazi murder machine, and as we don't deny that Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible supported the legitimization of Stalin and his terrible crimes against humanity, we should not deny the powerful role of Wagner's oeuvre in the mass murder of Jews." Thus, it is no accident that Hitler, who was an ardent Wagner fan, chose Wagner's music to accompany his own personal/national Götterdämerrung when he committed suicide in his bunker.

In an age where people are addicted to television, films, and the internet, Gibson's film has this kind of potential.

Indeed, one of the things that is "new" about anti-Semitism today is it's global reach and it's use of visuals and the internet to indoctrinate billions of people. Jew-hating and Western-hating media display their wares 24/7 around the world. The technology of propaganda far surpasses Goebbel's fondest dreams.

The Passion is cinematographically gorgeous. Like Richard Wagner and Leni Reifenstal, the technique is sensational, commanding, consummately moving. This makes Gibson's view of the Jews more powerful, more dangerous, and more believable. I am not saying that Gibson is a genius but that his vision and technique work. The viewer is meant to feel both a sickened horror and a profound guilt about Jesus's extraordinary suffering -- but the viewer is also meant to blame the Jews for it. As many Christian theologians and scholars have noted, Gibson's vision is neither historic nor balanced. Without evidence, Gibson presents Pontius Pilate and Pilate's wife Claudia as sympathetic Jesus-lovers whose hands are forced by the Roman-occupied but ungovernable and rebellious Jews. (Scholars say that the Romans crucified 100,000 Jews; how reluctant could they have been? )

Gibson depicts the Jews as remarkably sadistic and bloodthirsty. The Cohen Ha'Gadol (High Priest) and his fellow priests demand that Jesus be executed; grimly, they watch the scourging, stiff-neckedly, they still demand Jesus's death. With their black-and-white prayer shawls, Gibson's Jews look remarkably like religious male Jews do today. Did Gibson want to leave nothing to chance, did he want to ensure that the lynchmob knows exactly whom to hate, whom to kill? Ironically, Gibson's ancient Jewish mobs strongly resemble present day Palestinian Muslim lynching mobs who burn Israeli and American flags, dance and hand out candies when a suicide bomber succeeds in killing civilians, and who savagely lynched two Israeli reservists in Ramallah.

Perhaps I am most afraid of how the film will be used in the Islamic world where Jew-hatred has reached surreal and toxic levels. Despite the fact that Muslims today are the ones who are, in reality, slaughtering Christians in their churches -- this film might provide yet more negative fodder for pre-existing Islamic views about Jews. (I have learned that The Passion recently opened to rave reviews in Syria- and Iran-occupied Beirut, Lebanon.) Hateful propaganda against the Jews is daily fare in every Arab and Muslim country on earth. Jews are depicted as lice, bugs, rats, and shown as slaughtering children for ritual purpose. Israelis and Jews are also shown slaughtering non-Jewish children for ritual purpose and committing fake massacres.

Psychologically, once people see something with their own eyes they tend to believe that it really happened. People are similarly influenced by fiction, myth, fairy-tales. Like dreams, films have exceptional psychological power over people. The word, the idea, the image, all quickly lead to deeds, especially if the hate speech and propaganda is not effectively countered. If enough good people do nothing; if essentially good people are persuaded that the elimination of the Jews or of the Jewish state will lead to the end of suffering for all humanity, beginning with the Palestinians -- then the apocalypse is here. If enough governments allow the mobs to attack Jews or the Jewish state in the hope that such scapegoating will spare them and their people from the jihadist mob; if enough good people are silent in the face of such propaganda--eventually, such complicity will further empower the murderous Islamo-fascist terrorists.

"Eventually" is now upon us.

Thus, a genocidal war against the Jews has been raging in Israel for the last three and a half years during which time Israel has endured the equivalent of 9/11 and 3/11 every other week. Incredibly, as Jewish civilians were being bombed on their buses and in their beds, the entire world (the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, most international human rights groups, western intellectuals, journalists, social justice activists), kept howling for Jewish blood and romanticized the fascist, Islamic terrorists. Israel has not been seen as the victim but, incredibly, falsely, as the "Nazi," and Apartheid aggressor. Arafat and bin Laden have been hailed as freedom-fighters against unjust American and Israeli power, not only in the Islamic world but also in Christian Europe -- the new Eurabia.

Why do I say a genocidal war has commenced against the Jews? To date, about 950 unarmed Israeli civilians have been murdered by terrorists. The Israeli civilian death count is the demographic equivalent of 44,000 Americans. In addition, 6,200 Israelis were wounded by terrorists, often seriously, and for life. Demographically, this is the equivalent of 280,100 Americans wounded on our own soil.

I had initially refused to see the film. I abhor horror movies, I dislike graphic, prolonged violence both in life and on the screen. I did not relish the opportunity of being forced into helplessness and voyeurism for two hours while a human being -- and a Jewish one at that -- is tortured to death. I looked away when the torture of Jesus went on for too long.

Gibson focuses mainly, and obsessively, on Jesus's earthly suffering. However, Jesus's act of suffering is a religious gift without which there would be no eternal life and no redemption from sins, both original and collective. This, surely, is more -- or no less -- important than the depiction of murder by public torture. However, some very honorable Christians have told me that the film helped them to see, up close, how much suffering Jesus was willing to undergo in human form for love of humanity. I believe them. Whether a clearer understanding of this will help Christians to resist their own human potential for evil remains to be seen.

But, it is almost beside the point to assign blame to the High Priest, the Jewish mob, Pontius Pilate, the grinning idiotic Roman sadist-soldiers. To do so is to subtract from the meaning of the sacrifice. According to Christians, Jesus's sacrifice was divinely pre-ordained. No earthly power could have prevented it. This is the price of Christian redemption, and it is one that Jesus chose to pay voluntarily.

Understand: I am in no way challenging Gibson's right to make the film or to hold to his cruel and perhaps even un-Christian pre-Vatican II ideas. It is unfortunate that The Passion has appeared just when a truly historic alliance between Christians and Jews is fully underway. For example, the largest number of tourists to Israel during this latest Intifada have been Christians who not only await a Second Coming but who, like James Carroll, believe that, post-Holocaust, it essential for Christians to support Israel and the Jewish people.

Perhaps the film will deepen this understanding among many Christians. However, I worry about the film's propaganda potential in terms of Christian children and teenagers who may be powerfully moved by it and who subconsciously may be blaming the Jews for Jesus's death far into the twenty first century.

May Western Civilization and the civilians of planet earth have the courage and the will to combat the totalitarian and barbarian onslaught against us. May we endure and prevail.


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