|The Danger of “The Passion”
By Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
In response to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” Amcha – The Coalition for Jewish Concerns organized a series of protests. We demonstrated on opening night outside a movie theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan wearing mock death camp uniforms meant to evoke the imagery of the Holocaust.
Many have criticized this use of Holocaust imagery, including Abe Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Roman Kent, Chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. These critics miss the point of our protest. More importantly, however, they misunderstand why “The Passion” is such a dangerous film.
Many scholars have long contended that the Holocaust could only have occurred in a civilization with such a long history of anti-Semitism, such as medieval Europe. This anti-Semitism was for the most part Church-sponsored anti-Semitism. Indeed, as scholars like Raoul Hillberg have shown, much of the racist, anti-Jewish laws of Nazi Germany had their precedent in the anti-Jewish measures of the Catholic Church. According to Hillberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, for example:
o In 1935 the Nazis passed The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. A similar prohibition had been issued by the Catholic Church at the Synod of Elvira in 306.
o In 1939 the Nazis barred Jews from dining cars. This measure, too, can be traced to that same of Synod of Elvira, which specifies that Jews and Christians cannot dine together.
o In 1941 the Nazis mandated that Jews had to wear a yellow star on their clothing. The precedent was the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which legislated the marking of Jewish clothes with a badge.
The point here is not that the Nazis were good Christians, but that official Church theology for over 1,500 years had created a society which made the Holocaust possible. Only a society reared on images of Jews as God-killers could allow the Holocaust to happen. Only a society with a long history in describing and imagining the Jews as the Devil himself could allow genocide against the Jews to occur.
The passion plays, so popular in medieval Europe, have always played a significant role in inciting vicious anti-Semitism. As a doctoral student in medieval Jewish history, I remember being taught about the relationship between passion plays and the rise of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages – once Jesus was depicted in “real life” through these passion plays, hatred of the Jews grew even greater, as did the anti-Semitic brutality.
Even in the modern period, passion plays have been the inspiration for much anti-Semitism. A Holocaust survivor in my congregation tearfully told me how he was forced to watch passion plays as a young child in Poland. Following these plays he was severely beaten by local Christians.
To its credit, the Catholic Church has been wrestling with this dangerous outcome of its theology for over four decades. As many have noted, Vatican II was a very positive step in this direction. It reads, in part, “neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion.” Mel Gibson wants to turn back the clock to pre-Vatican II days. He wants to return to a theology that uses the imagery of the passion to inspire great enmity towards Jews.
A telling proof of Gibson’s intent is the image of Satan that keeps reappearing amongst the Jews in his film. The connection between this image and the last hours of Jesus’ life is not found in the gospels, but rather in later Christian theology. The film ends with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The implication is that the Jews got what was coming to them. It is the same theology that imagined the Jews as satanic, blood-drinking baby killers. It is the same theology that spawned the Holocaust.
With Gibson re-introducing the passion play into mainstream culture it is time to remind the world what is at stake. It is time to remind people of the dangers of this interpretation of the gospels. The danger is nothing less than an eventual return to a world that allowed the Holocaust to happen.
With the return of this evil theology to popular culture, Christian clergy have an enormous responsibility. They must denounce this film; denounce its theology as frighteningly dangerous; and denounce those who support anti-Semitism. Instead of busing thousands of people to see the Passion, Christian leaders should holding larger rallies denouncing the theology of this film.