[Marxism] Juan Cole on The Passion

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 2 10:13:21 MST 2004


The Passion of Christ in the World Religions

The phenomenon of Mel Gibson's The Passion, about the death of Jesus of 
Nazareth, has provoked a lively debate about the dangers of 
anti-Semitism. Historians are well aware that medieval passion plays 
(which shared the sado-masochistic themes of Gibson's movie) often 
resulted in attacks on Jews. The concern of American Jewish leaders is 
therefore entirely valid.

Some of the problem goes back to the Gospel writers, who wrote many 
years after the fact and depict the Jewish leaders in a frankly 
implausible way because they had lost contact with Jewish customs. They 
have the Sanhedrin or Jewish religious council meeting about Jesus on 
the Sabbath, which just would not have happened. They have it meeting at 
night, which also would not have happened. Their account accords with 
nothing of the procedures and laws we know to have been followed at that 
time. The likelihood is that the Romans arrested and killed Jesus as a 
potential Zealot or religious radical whom they perceived as 
threatening, but that the later Christian community strove to have 
better relations with Rome just as Roman-Jewish relations got very bad. 
So the Gospel authors soft-pedaled Rome's role and invented nocturnal 
Sabbath Sanhedrins that have gotten Jews beaten up ever since.

In a post-September 11 world, this controversy has taken on wider 
significance. Film critic Michael Medved argued that American Jewish 
leaders were wrong to attack the film as anti-Semitic because they 
risked alienating Christian allies (of rightwing Zionism, apparently), 
who were needed to fight the "Islamo-fascists" (his word, on the Deborah 
Norville show) attacking Jews in Israel.

Although Medved appears in this argument to be taking the more 
"assimilated" position, basically saying that the rightwing Christians 
should be allowed to broadcast their historically absurd and offensive 
images of first-century Jews in peace regardless of the consequences, in 
fact his is the more reactionary position on several levels.

First, he is saying that a minority that faces many attacks every year 
in the US and Europe should not speak out about cultural phenomena that 
might increase those attacks. The United States is a relatively tolerant 
society in world-historical terms, but the ADL alleges that 17 percent 
of Americans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, and there are every year too 
many incidents of vandalism of Jewish property and harassment of Jews. I 
suspect I differ with the ADL on what exactly anti-Semitism is (it isn't 
criticism of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories), but I accept 
their number as a ballpark figure. And if that is the number, it is way 
too high. Bigotry is when you stereotype an entire group, and then blame 
individuals for imagined "group" traits. Individuals are unique, and you 
can't tar a whole people with a single brush. And, it is by speaking out 
about the problem that any minority makes progress in the United States. 
Who would imagine telling African-Americans they should be quiet about 
films that depict them as villains harming something whites hold dear? 
No liberals that I know of.

Second, Medved is eager to perpetuate a dangerous political marriage of 
convenience between the rightwing settler movement in Israel and the 
American evangelicals. The rightwing Christians in the US don't support 
the settlers against the Palestinians because they love Judaism. They 
want to set things up for the conversion of all Jews to Christianity and 
the return of Christ, i.e., for the end of the Jewish people. 
(Interestingly, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is aware of this "Christian 
Zionism" and cites it as one motive for the US occupation of Iraq; it is 
not making Israel or the US any friends). The Likud may get votes and de 
facto campaign money from the rightwing Christians in the short term, 
but it is encouraging Christian anti-Semitism by disguising it as 
support for Israel. In fact, Israel's best interests lie in a return to 
the 1967 borders and making peace with Arab and Muslim neighbors, not by 
a ruthless expansionism and continued colonial occupation that harms 
Israel's image and debilitates Israeli democracy. (Yitzhak Rabin's 
policies of Oslo and after, before an ultra-Orthodox Jewish assassin cut 
him down, would have pulled the rug out from under Zarqawi's argument).

Third, it is hard to see the difference between the bigotry of 
anti-Semitism as an evil and the bigotry that Medved displays toward 
Islam. It is more offensive than I can say for him to use the word 
"Islamo-fascist." Islam is a sacred term to 1.3 billion people in the 
world. It enshrines their highest ideals. To combine it with the word 
"fascist" in one phrase is a desecration and a form of hate speech. Are 
there Muslims who are fascists? Sure. But there is no Islamic fascism, 
since "Islam" has to do with the highest ideals of the religion. In the 
same way, there have been lots of Christian fascists, but to speak of 
Christo-Fascism is just offensive. It goes without saying that a phrase 
like Judeo-fascist is an unutterable abortion. (And this despite the 
fact that Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological ancestor of Likud and the 
Neocons, spoke explicitly of the desirability of Jewish fascism in the 
interwar period). Medved is even inaccurate, since the terrorist attack 
on civilians in Jerusalem to which he referred was the work of the Aqsa 
Martyrs Brigade, a secular rather than an ostensibly Muslim group.

Interestingly, the Koran, the holy book of Islam, denies that the Jews 
were responsible for Jesus's death (4:154-159). It appears that some 
Jews of the ancient Arabian city of Medinah were disappointed when they 
learned that the Prophet Muhammad had accepted Jesus as a prophet of 
God, and had put this decision down by observing that he wasn't much of 
a prophet if the Jews had managed to kill him. The Koran replies to this 
boast (surely by some jerk in the Medinan Jewish quarter) by saying, 
"They did not kill him, and they did not crucify him, it only appeared 
to them so." What exactly the Koran meant by this phrase has been 
debated ever since. As an academic, I do not read it as a denial of the 
crucifixion. The Koran talks of Jesus dying, and is not at all Gnostic 
in emphasis, at one point insisting that Jesus and Mary ate food 
(presumably against Gnostics who maintained that their bodies were 
purely spiritual). A lot of Muslims have adopted the rather absurd 
belief that Jesus was not crucified, but rather a body double took his 
place. (This is like something out of the fiction of Argentinean 
fabulist Jorge Luis Borges). Those Muslims who accepted Jesus' death on 
the cross (and nothing else in the Koran denies it) interpret the verse 
as saying it was God's will that Jesus be sacrificed, and so it was not 
the Jews' doing. (Great Muslims like at-Tabari and Ibn Khaldun accepted 
the crucifixion). Any way you look at it, though, the Koran explicitly 
relieves Jews of any responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion and death. In 
this it displays a more admirable sentiment than some passages of the 
Gospels, and certainly than the bizarre far-rightwing Catholic cult in 
which Mel Gibson was raised, which appears to involve Holocaust denial, 
and which deeply influenced his sanguinary film.

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