Jews and Christians After Passion
By Yossi Klein Halevy
Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New
Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He is the author of
“Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (Little, Brown) and, most recently, ”At the
Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for G-d with Christians and
Muslims in the Holy Land." This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem
Post: and came at the time this edition of Bible Light On the News was in
the making. We first met Yossi and his wife in Jerusalem in 1982. He and
Elmer (my late husband) became instant friends. I value what he writes. His
article is honest and direct.
I had assumed – hoped – that the Jewish critics of The
Passion were exaggerating. The critics, after all, have a habit of assuming
the worst of Christianity, and of underestimating the positive changes in
Christian attitudes toward Jews. They turned the Pope’s beatification of
Edith Stein into a nefarious Catholic plot to “Christianize” the Holocaust,
and transformed a debate among historians over the role of Pius XII into a
campaign against the church headed by John Paul II, who has devoted himself
to Christian atonement for anti-Semitism.
But this time the critics weren’t exaggerating. Mel Gibson
has produced a medieval passion play, reviving the whiff of deicide at the
most vulnerable Jewish moment since the 1940s. In the film, hysterical
Jewish mobs repeatedly call for Jesus’s blood as Pontius Pilate agonizes
over his fate.
Worse, the film undermines one of the seminal
accomplishments of the Christian-Jewish dialogue: restoring the Jewishness
of Jesus. While the elders of the Sanhedrin look like hassidim from
Brooklyn, Jesus looks like a Renaissance Italian.
It’s hardly surprising that Gibson is a “traditionalist”
Catholic contemptuous of Vatican II. His film, after all, undermines a key
historical achievement of Vatican II: beginning the process of the Church’s
reconciliation with its Jewish roots.
I’m currently visiting Colorado Springs, which many call the
evangelical capital of America. The powerful evangelical group Focus on the
Family is headquartered here; on a Sunday morning, as many as 10,000 people
fill its main church. One local bumper sticker reads, “In case of the
Rapture, this car will be driverless.” (The counter-sticker goes: “In case
of Rapture, can I have your car?”) This is as good a place as any to
contemplate the effects of The Passion.
On a weeknight, the theater I attended was nearly full.
People emerged from the screening in what seemed like
stunned silence. Clearly, many had just experienced a profound religious
encounter. Yet I felt alone and vulnerable in that crowd, no longer trusting
its benign instincts.
Still, those same Christians are almost certainly passionate
supporters of Israel.
Earlier that day I’d spoken about the Middle East to cadets
at the Air Force Academy, here in Colorado Springs. Many of the cadets are
devout Christians. When I arrived, the guard at the gate was talking to a
young woman about the Rapture. Not surprisingly, my audience was deeply
sympathetic to Israel. As I spoke about Israel’s dilemmas and the necessity
of the security fence, there were vigorous nods around the room. “You’re not
alone,” one cadet said to me afterwards. And that’s precisely how an Israeli
feels among religious American conservatives: embraced, appreciated,
Are we, then, supposed to ignore the irony that, in our war
with genocidal Islamism, our strongest allies are now promoting a film that
resurrects the charge of deicide?
A few days ago, a leading conservative Jewish critic
appeared on an evangelical TV show to express his outrage at Jewish
criticism of the film. It was an appalling display of obsequiousness:
Instead of explaining why Jews feel threatened by The Passion, he denounced
its Jewish critics for supposedly trying to dictate to Christians what to
Yet those Jewish leaders who have led the public campaign
against The Passion have also behaved shabbily. In fact, they bear no small
responsibility for turning the film into a media sensation. Instead of
quietly encouraging an internal Christian debate over the film, they have
created the worst possible outcome – a growing Christian defensiveness over
a perceived Jewish assault on their faith.
The crucial question, after all, is what Christians, not
Jews, think about The Passion. Where a Jew sees blood, kitsch, and menace, a
Christian sees sacrifice, suffering, and love.
I sat in on a discussion about The Passion among a group of
Colorado Springs college students, most of them Evangelicals and Catholics.
They’d just come from a screening, and were so overwhelmed by emotion that
it took them a while to be able to speak. When they finally did, they raised
crucial questions – about emphasizing the crucifixion and all but ignoring
the resurrection, about the historical veracity of the film, about the
religious uses of Jesus’s suffering. “And what about how the Jews were
portrayed?” a young man asked tentatively. “The Romans did most of the
beating,” one student replied. “There were some Jews in the film who tried
to defend Jesus,” another added.
Is there no room for Palestinians, or their state, in Arab
I don’t know how typical those young people are. I suspect
that most American Christians will react in similar ways. The two Christian
communities that are responding most deeply to The Passion – Catholics and
Evangelicals – are each in their way immunized by their own theologies
against anti-Semitism. Vatican II has uprooted the deicide charge from
normative Catholic thinking, at least in America. And evangelical support
for Israel is based largely on the verse in Genesis in which God promises to
bless those who bless the progeny of Abraham and curse those who harm them.
Still, The Passion can have a devastating effect abroad, for
example in Eastern Europe, where Vatican II still hasn’t taken deep root.
Clearly, those Colorado Springs students had very different
perceptions than Jews about the main issues raised by the film – which is,
after all, not about what Christians believe about the Jews as much as what
Christians believe about Christianity. And so the dilemma remains: How
strongly do we challenge and invalidate a faith experience for Christians
and impose a Jewish agenda on what should be an internal Christian debate
over the meaning of their faith?
The dilemma is compounded by mutual insecurity. For Jews, a
wildly popular film evoking deicide only strengthens our growing sense that
the bad days are returning.
For Christians, especially Catholics, who feel under assault
because of the Church’s sex scandal, the Jewish attack on a positive
artistic depiction of their faith intensifies their sense of cultural siege.
Emerging from The Passion, I wanted to weep – for the
inadequacy of the good against the passions of the malevolent, for all the
efforts at reconciliation between Christians and Jews that are so easily
obscured by a media event. It was, of course, too much to expect that
centuries of contempt would be erased by several decades of goodwill. But
how is it that those of us who work for Christian-Jewish rapprochement can’t
manage better damage control when the demons of the past resurface?