Disseminating hatred

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Remember Bambi’s mother? Some 55 years later, I can still see images of fire raging through the forest, a young deer with spots raising his head and sniffing the air while standing against the ridgeline. It did not matter that this was “only” a Disney cartoon; the devastation filled the screen and my seven-year-old mind. Mothers could die, and Bambi’s mother was dead. It was those evil hunters. No one in my generation has ever forgotten that lesson, engraved onto our psyches by the power of film.

Imagine, then, if it was not a fantasy fawn, but the one who is the Son of God, the Christ himself, seen as being tortured on the screen. For a child watching the movie, there is no Vatican II, no thoughtful disclaimers and no editorial on Interfaith Relations in the church bulletin. There is only the image of the man that they are taught is their God whose body is being flayed, and the evil hunters are the Jews, the men in the funny costumes with hook noses and yellow teeth, who keep demanding “crucify him, crucify him,” despite the pleas of that nice Roman man who has pity on Jesus.

As a Jew watching Mel Gibson’s movie, I found it to be as anti-Semitic as any Passion Play in the last 2,000 years. Its effect, I fear, will be the same, namely to keep the stereotypical, visceral hatred of the Jews alive for the next generation. Children age 12 and younger are being taken to see this horribly brutal film as a part of church gatherings, and the effect will be incisive for these children beyond any feel good panel discussions about interfaith relations in the years to come. That child will have deeply internalized the image of the Christ, Son of God, dying in a torturous and unspeakable way because of the evil Jews. That image has been imprinted forever, and it will lurk there in the dark recesses of the mind, underneath all the discussions of the flexible interpretations of the Gospels and the historical veracity of the power of Rome. My fear is not that Mel Gibson has made a movie that will incite a pogrom or anti-Semitic riot in New York, Los Angeles or even Mobile, Alabama, my fear is that in subtle, uncharted ways the movie will give birth to the next generation of fundamentalist anti-Semites. Never underestimate the power of the Big Screen.

It is true that Jews and Christians are seeing different movies, when they enter “The Passion.” It is important for non-Christians to understand the pivotal role of the suffering of Jesus, and it is important for Christians to acknowledge, as did Vatican II 40 years ago, the fear evoked by the anti-Semitism that has been exacerbated by Passion Plays during the last 2000 years. Malibu is a community that has been defined by its openness and understanding. Mel Gibson has given all of us a great opportunity to talk.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy

Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue