'The Passion' and the Neocons
split and defensive over whether the United States has to cooperate
more with the United Nations and the Europeans and whether Syria
or Iran should be "next" in the war on terrorism, the neoconservative
movement is now beset by a new source of tension within its ranks
Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ.
ticket sales for the Australian-born superstar's cinematic interpretation
of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life surpassed the 200-million-dollar-mark
less than two weeks after its Ash Wednesday release, the debate
over whether the movie is anti-Semitic in its intent or effect has
unexpectedly split the neocons who, in pursuit of their strong support
for Israel's security, have made common cause with the Christian
Right for some 25 years.
Passion, which could become the biggest grossing movie of 2004
and surely the biggest ever with subtitles the actors speak
in Aramaic and Latin appears to have pushed some very influential
neoconservatives over the edge.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer this weekend
denounced the movie as a "blood libel" against the Jews that challenges
the Catholic Church's official doctrine that the Jews should not
be held responsible for the crucifixion and constitutes a "singular
act of interreligious aggression."
openly rejects the Vatican II teaching and, using every possible
technique of cinematic exaggeration, gives us the pre-Vatican II
story of the villainous Jews," Krauthammer wrote, detailing the
ways the film effectively depicts the Jews, particularly their high
priest Caiaphas, as "Satan's own people."
the reviews of liberal critics, Krauthammer added that Gibson's
depiction of Pontius Pilate as a reluctant and even compassionate
executioner defied both the Gospels themselves and everything that
historians have learned about the man.
Wieseltier, a neoconservative critic at The New Republic,
found The Passion to be "without any doubt an anti-Semitic
movie. What is so shocking about Gibson's Jews is how unreconstructed
they are in their stereotypical appearances and actions. These are
not merely anti-Semitic images; these are classically anti-Semitic
and Krauthammer's attacks came in response not only to the movie's
release, but also to several articles by their fellow neocons who
previewed the movie and praised it as a major artistic achievement
neither intended nor likely to provoke anti-Semitism.
its current issue, American Enterprise, the monthly publication
of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), for
example, published two reviews hailing the movie. One is by the
nationally syndicated culture critic Michael Medved, who admitted
that The Passion was "a difficult film for any religiously
committed Jew to watch" (Medved is an Orthodox Jew), but that
it "pointedly avoids inflammatory stereotypes."
high priest and his followers most certainly come across as vicious,
self-important, and bloodthirsty, but they seem motivated by pomposity,
arrogance and insecurity rather than religious corruption or ethnic
curse," according to Medved, who attacked Jewish organizations,
such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), for denouncing the movie
before its release. His article was titled "Crucifying Mel
even more effusive review was published in Rupert Murdoch's Weekly
Standard. "It is the most powerful movie I have ever seen,"
enthused Michael Novak, a longtime Catholic neocon based at AEI.
agreed that The Passion "will not be easy for Jews to
watch," but insisted that Gibson's depiction was fully consistent
with Vatican II teachings and "on the whole softens the Jewish
elements of the gospels' story and places the onus (for his crucifixion)
on the Romans" an observation that has been widely disputed
by other reviewers. The movie "is not divisive or dangerous
for Jews," Novak asserted.
the debate over whether a film is or is not anti-Semitic may appear
relatively trivial, the fact that it is taking place within the
neoconservative movement is not trivial at all.
his 1995 hagiography, The
Neoconservative Vision, Gerson wrote that neoconservatives
Jewish and gentile moved to the right largely out
of anger over the perceived failure of liberals to adequately defend
Israel and other domestic "Jewish" priorities after the
1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
a result, they often depicted their enemies mostly liberals and
leftists as "anti-Semitic," or, in the case of other Jews,
United Nations was anti-Semitic, the Third World was anti-Semitic,
the Communists were anti-Semitic, affirmative action was anti-Jewish
if not anti-Semitic, the New Left was anti-Jew and probably anti-Semitic,
and vast sectors of the left might as well be anti-Semitic, having
decided that Jews were no longer victims and sided with the terrorist
enemies of Israel," Gerson, a neocon himself, wrote.
neocons have often ignored or excused the anti-Semitism of their
right-wing allies, including leaders of the Christian Right, such
as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whose staunch support for Israel
(based on a particular interpretation of the Bible) generally trumped
their anti-Semitic theology and prejudices.
Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, once wrote about
the fundamentalists' belief that Jews who did not convert were damned,
"It is their theology, but it is our Israel."
many neoconservatives probably would have ignored The Passion
had it been directed exclusively to the small, traditionalist,
pre-Vatican II Catholic constituency of the kind that Gibson and
his far more outspoken father hail from, the fact that he marketed
it aggressively to Christian fundamentalists through their churches
and Christian Right leaders like Robertson with whom the
neocons have aligned themselves threatens to raise new questions
about their political judgment, particularly among US Jews, most
of whom have remained liberal.
distinctly negative turn that neoconservative reviews of The
Passion have taken since its release suggest that a process
of rethinking may already be underway within its ranks.
a remarkable review published in Sunday's Washington Post,
Gertude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol's wife and an influential neocon
in her own right, declined to accuse Gibson explicitly of anti-Semitism
but proposed a "thought-experiment" to put his movie in perspective.
would we feel if a Hollywood producer (a Hollywood so notoriously
populated by Jews) made a film, in the same 'over the edge' spirit
vaunted by Gibson, dramatizing another historical event the
auto-da-fe in Spain in February 1481, for example, in which six
men and six women conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity) were
tortured and burned alive at the stake, while richly robed prelates
triumphally presided over the scene? Such a film, taking its cue
from Gibson, might utilize all the devices of violence, sadism and
malignity that he has deployed so skillfully," she said.
possibility, she suggested, was a film about the First Crusade and
its spectacularly bloody slaughter of the Muslim residents of Jerusalem,
as produced and directed by a Muslim.
of us, in recent times, have come to respect, even welcome, religious
enthusiasm to welcome it in the public square as well as in church,"
she went on. "But not if it were to take this form, exploiting
violence, ferocity and sadism in the cause of religion."
other neocons, including Medved, still insist that Jews should not
attack the movie as anti-Semitic because it risks alienating Christian
fans who are needed to confront more dangerous enemies.
sentiment and recent anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, according to
Mark Steyn, the North American columnist for Britain's Telegraph
Group in an article in Monday's Washington Times, "should
remind Jews of the current sources of 'the world's oldest hatred,
not just the Islamic world, where talk of killing them all is part
of the wallpaper, but the radical secularists of modern-day Europe.
If Jewish groups think Mel Gibson's movie and evangelical Christians
are the problem, they're picking fights they don't need."
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service