Passion Against Anti-Semitism
by Kim Petersen
March 22, 2004

Send this page to a friend! (click here)



The latest Hollywood blockbuster by Mel Gibson, The Passion of Christ, has aroused such passionate sentiment against it that I forced myself to do something that I am loathe to do. Two inflammatory pieces in progressive Canadian media -- “Mel’s anti-Semitic Passion” by Jessica Squires in the Socialist Worker and “A Passion for Hatred That Mocks Christ’s Message” by Robert Scheer in Canadian Dimension -- prompted me to fork out my money to fatten Gibson’s already fat wallet to find out for myself whether the film is anti-Semitic, as its detractors allege. 

Anti-Semitism has become a loaded term, a vicious and easy fallback for anyone audacious enough to critique Jewish history or policy. To be sure, all forms of racism should be addressed but within certain bounds of decency. Ad hominem, attacking the source of an argument rather than the premises underlying it is intellectually devoid and dishonest. Negatively labeling someone is passing a judgment upon that person. Jesus warned about this when he spoke, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”


Scheer nonetheless derides the movie as a “blood libel against the Jewish people that should have every prominent Christian minister and priest speaking out in opposition. All they have to do is look to the pope’s apology for the Catholic Church’s sins against Jews.” The Pope’s apology, however, was for the church’s failure to denounce the Jewish holocaust. It does not speak to events in the gospels.


Scheer persists, “It requires a deeply felt anti-Semitism on Gibson’s part to depict the community that nurtured Jesus as nothing more than a venal mob that forced an eminently reasonable and kind Roman overlord to crucify Jesus. Even the beastly lower-level Roman legionnaires who whip Jesus for most of the movie’s duration are engaged in this orgy of sadism not to please Caesar but rather to mollify the rabbis.”


The crucial question here is: does the film depict the scenes accurately according to the Bible? If so then Scheer’s labeling the film as anti-Semitic has profound implications. By extension, the Bible is also anti-Semitic then and so are those Christians who proclaim the Bible to be God’s word.


Squires proffers some arguments to buttress her theme of the movie’s anti-Semitism. But the points made are weak. Point one, is well taken. Jesus is tall, good-looking, and a Caucasian, as are most of the rest of the characters. Historical accuracy demands that Middle Eastern Semites should have portrayed Jesus and the other characters. That they were not Middle Eastern Semites is probably the best argument of anti-Semitism.


The second point is merely an iteration of the charge of anti-Semitism and this is hardly a compelling argument at all. In fact it is not an argument.


Point three, of whether or not the film was bad, has no relevance to charges of anti-Semitism. Gibson wanted to make a film and likeliest, motivated by capitalistic instinct, he wanted to make money doing it. In this aim, Gibson has been very successful. Money tends to be quite a gauge of the worth of a film. Stephen Spielberg’s films tend to be critical failures but he rakes the money in and has earned spotty critical acclaim that he can always point to. Gibson already has his critically acclaimed movies and nobody is perfect (except maybe Jesus).


Squires admits that initially “Gibson probably didn’t set out to make an anti-Semitic movie.” Whereupon Squires arrives at that supposition is unknown. It seems that Squires has some insight beyond the persona of Gibson.


She refers to the film’s “archaic, medieval vision of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus.” What else would one expect from a story dating back almost two millennia? She further charges the film with a “superficial treatment of its subject.” To buttress this charge Squires points to the “shallow caricature of almost every single character, and the inclusion of any number of gratuitous examples of supernatural occurrences, combined with the present-day political climate, means that his intentions are unfortunately immaterial.”


This is a dramatic reenactment being discussed. Gibson’s Passion piece is not a documentary. Neither a drama nor a documentary can hope to capture the true depths of a person let alone “every single character.” Some movies succeed better than others at this. The movie’s leitmotif though was not based upon capturing the depth of a range of characters/caricatures but to tell the story of one man’s pain-wracked final hours. To declare that a film is superficial and then criticize it for the “inclusion of any number of gratuitous examples” is a contradiction. Anyway, gratuitous scenes ipso facto define a typical Hollywood film. Furthermore, to diminish the importance of supernatural occurrences in the film would undermine the purported mission and godliness of Jesus. This is very material to the story of Christ and his message. Jesus admonished people for their lack of faith. Yet even though the people witnessed great miracles performed by Jesus, many among them remained doubters.


Perhaps realizing the fragility of her thesis Squires resorts again to unpersuasive regurgitation of an assertion: “The movie is indeed anti-Semitic.”


Squires notes that Gibson rebuts the allegations of anti-Semitism by insisting on the Biblical accuracy of the film and not on the historical accuracy. Squires complains, “If the film were a straightforward depiction of only the words of the bible, it would not only be a completely different movie; it would be much shorter.” The point of this claim is lost. Gibson is not claiming to have produced a verbatim screen representation of the gospels merely that it is faithful to the gospels.

Squires resents the characterization of Romans “like animals, getting off on gratuitously beating Jesus” and laments the absence of an “explanation” for the barbarity. Again this is a film. It is supposed to be Biblically-accurate entertainment (for some at least). To a certain extent Gibson has probably taken some artistic license with his portrayals. It seems rather incredulous to expect the assailants of Jesus to be depicted as cherubs reluctantly carrying out their beatings with a running commentary of why they are doing so.

Squires writes, “[Gibson] chose to depict the Jewish priests who appeal to Pilate to crucify Jesus as a bunch of conniving, sarcastic, ugly old men with bad teeth.” I agree; this is going too far. At the very least Gibson could have given the priests good teeth. Again, this is the Manichean world of Hollywood where evil is ugly and good is beautiful. This is simplistic nonsense but it does not make Gibson an anti-Semite. Almost every filmmaker could be accused of a prejudice for beauty.

It is Squires who describes the crowd of Jews as “bloodthirsty.” How else should a crowd demanding the crucifixion of another human being be described? Then Squires questions the emphasis placed on the “supposed” Jewish role (Biblically there is nothing “supposed” about this role and using this adjective is disingenuous) in Jesus’ crucifixion and not the Romans’ role. To do as Squires suggests would imply another contradiction: that Gibson should stray from a Biblically accurate version of Jesus’ crucifixion.


It is clear from the Bible that Pontius Pilate wished to wash his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion. According to the gospels, Pilate many times pressed for the release of Jesus finding him innocent and undeserving of death.


The Jews persisted and Pilate said to them, “You take him and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.”


Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jews (not meant to be taken in a monolithic sense as obviously many Jews were followers of Jesus) in response to their hostility toward Jesus.


It revealed both the depravity of some Jews as well as Pilate to accomplish God’s purpose as was foreordained. The process leading to and including the crucifixion of Jesus is bloody. Crucifixion, it is important to note, did not originate with the Romans. The Assyrians, Phoenicians, and Persians all did it to humiliate and punish slaves -- and not as a form of execution.


To indicate his disapproval of the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate had a sign written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek that read, “This is Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.”


Squires writes, “When the Gospel authors mentioned ‘the priests,’ they did not mean all the Jews. They meant the Temple elite that wanted to get rid of Jesus.” This should be self-evident from watching the movie. Jesus made his enemies but he also had his adherents. His adherents were Jews who after his death sought to spread his word to the gentiles.


Squires asserts, “Only three of the gospels even mention the flogging of Jesus, and none of them suggest he was scourged within an inch of his life.” A single mention in the gospels would seem sufficient. As to the severity of flogging, Squires reveals some lack of knowledge. One website attests to the severity of the flogging that Jesus would receive:


During a flogging, a victim was tied to a post, leaving his back entirely exposed. The Romans used a whip, called a flagrum or flagellum which consisted of small pieces of bone and metal attached to a number of leather strands. The number of strikes is not recorded in the gospels. The number of blows in Jewish law was set in Deuteronomy 25:3 at forty, but later reduced to 39 to prevent excessive blows by a counting error…  The victim often died from the beating. (39 hits were believed to bring the criminal to “one from death”.) Roman law did not put any limits on the number of blows given…  During the flogging, the skin was stripped from the back, exposing a bloody mass of muscle and bone... Extreme blood loss occurred from this beating, weakening the victim, perhaps to the point of being unconscious.


Squires states the obvious: “The priests do demand Jesus’ crucifixion; but it is the Romans who crucify him.” So it is depicted in the movie. But why does Squires not accuse Gibson of being anti-Roman. Why the double standard?


Gibson does take some artistic liberty with the Bible, as does the Bible take liberty with history. Yet none of this implies anti-Semitism, the crux of Scheer’s and Squires’ reviews.


In the end capitalism trumps Zionism; witness the current scandal swirling around Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his family. Shrill shrieks of anti-Semitism likeliest had more to do with whipping up fervent box-office sentiment to see the film. It’s called free promotion.


Anti-Semitism, nevertheless, must be severely rebutted when it raises its ugly head. But the knee-jerk labeling of others with this epithet denigrates the term itself and speaks unfavorably to the wielder. In our haste to fight the scourge of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, the pernicious racism practiced with barbarity by Zionists mustn’t be obfuscated. The obvious victims are the dispossessed Palestinians and there are no Hollywood blockbusters about this anti-Semitism.


Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kimpetersen@gyxi.dk.


Related Articles


* Sating the Monster by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
* Dances With Crucifixes by Leilla Matsui


Other Recent Articles by Kim Petersen


* Thwarting the Democratic Will of Haitians
* Sports As War
* Rubber Numbers and the Sanctity of Human Life
* Same Shit Different Asshole!
* Clear and Present Danger: The War President Contextualizes
* The Pits of Cherry Picking: Bush and Blair Must Resign
* Distinguishing Neocon Commentary from Drivel

* Relinquishing Sovereignty: People Power or the Police State
* Parecon: Toward an Equitable Economy
* The Great Auks, Wild Salmon, and Money

* Toxic Farmed Salmon
* Necessary Chinese Illusions: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics
* CBC Newspeak
* Looking Back on Year 2003
* Rhetorical Absurdities
* Dreaming of an Imperial Christmas
* Capitulation to Empire: Canadian Government’s Looming Support for Son of Star Wars

* One China
* Shifting the Blame: Now it’s Mr. Chirac’s Fault
* Challenging the Justification of Killing
* Merry Terror Christmas
* Preserving Colonialism
Imperial Teflon Terrorism

* Killing by Remote Control: The Bulldozing of Morality
Not Getting It: The Mind of Thomas Friedman

* Thermogeddon: Canada Thaws

* Scaremongering Against Muslims, The Importance of Reading, and Media Titillation

* Japan’s Dark Side
* Biometric Boondoggle

* Recalcitrance and Exasperation

* CBC and the Dearth of Political Issues

* Stretching Credulity

* Dispelling the Orwellian Spin: The Real Foreign Terrorists

* Salmon Propaganda

* The Broken Iron Rice Bowl

* China, Neoliberalism, and the WTO

* Challenging the   Assumption of Valour

* The Buck Stops Here or Does It?

* US and Them

* Superpower in Suspended Animation

* Scarcely a Peep in Mainland China

* Verifying the Evidence

* Pulp Fiction at the New York Times: Fawning at the Feet of Mammon

* Hoodwinked?

* Canadian Predation in Africa





FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com