Monday, September 15, 2003

There is a Time to Be Silent

Although I am intrigued because some of its dialogue is in Aramaic, I don’t expect to see Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus. That should disqualify me from reviewing it but not from commenting on the controversy that has erupted as Jewish groups have denounced it as dangerously anti-Semitic, something that should be condemned and perhaps even banned unless it is drastically revised to remove the charge of deicide and other calumnies against Jews arising from events that occurred 2,000 years ago.

There are good reasons why many in our community feel strongly about the film. They associate it, understandably, with the Passion Play and other milestones in the blood-soaked history of Christian persecution of Jews. Gibson’s retrograde brand of Christianity and the passion he brings to this project add to the fear that the movie will open wounds that have scarcely been closed.

I do not discount the harm that can result from the unholy union between Christianity and anti-Semitism. Gibson is not a friend and there is too much in his family’s story that is unsettling. But his theology and passion do not invest the movie with the importance that we are assigning to it, although there is a good prospect that the barrage of criticism will result in more attention being paid and more people going to see it. I fear that we are making too much of a fuss about something that is likely to be fleeting and that the collateral damage resulting from our heated protests may be by a considerable margin greater than the harm caused by the movie.

I fear that once more our fears are clouding our communal judgment, that instead of reflecting and assessing whether all of our sharp criticism is needed, we sound as if the enemy is at the gate. It may be that because Gibson is a movie star and therefore also a celebrity, we are making more of a fuss about this matter than we did about Nazis marching in Skokie and other anti-Semitic occurrences.

Because we are aroused by the memory of Christianity’s transgressions against Jews, we are unable to recognize that American soil is not hospitable to the kind of intolerance that we were subjected to in Europe. I expect to be reminded that Spanish Jews said much the same about their country and so did German Jews later on about theirs and we know what transpired. None of us can divine what may happen in generations that are not yet on the horizon of time, but I am confident that the U.S. today and as far ahead as we can foresee is not Spain or Germany and Mel Gibson is not a threat to Jewish security.

What is to be accomplished by our fervent protests, other than putting us in the vulnerable position of attempting to squelch freedom of expression and increasing the film’s likely audience? If the movie is revised to edit out what we deem objectionable, we will be exposed to the charge that we have used our clout to prevent Christians from viewing the original.

Protests are likely to come mostly from conservative Christians – evangelicals, fundamentalists and others who compose the coherent and powerful Christian right – who have been among the most vocal and effective supporters of Israel. This was evident a year and a half ago in the great Washington rally on behalf of Israel.

This relationship is, of course, as overt a case of strange bedfellows as one can locate in the intertwined domain of ideology and politics, given the hyper-liberalism and ultra-secularism of most American Jews. Some conservative Christians, including Catholics, have questioned whether they are getting enough in return for the aid and comfort they give to the Jewish State, especially since on such transcendent issues as church-state separation, gay rights and abortion, Jews are in the vanguard opposing what these religious folks fervently believe in.

It would be fanciful to expect American Jews to alter their views on public policy in order to accommodate conservative Christians as a quid pro quo for the latter’s identification with Israel. But why should we put on display additional hostility and run the risk of alienating those whom we now need?

Admittedly, Christian support of Israel is predicated on theological premises that have less to do with affection for Jews than with what I regard as esoteric calculations about Armageddon and eschatology, all of which is a foreign language for nearly all of us. Yet, conservative Christians have been friendly in ways that are truly remarkable, including humanitarian programs that assist Jews in the Former Soviet Union and subsidies for aliyah to Israel.

If Gibson’s film posed a clear and present danger to Jews, we would be obligated to protest without regard to what collateral harm this might cause to Christian-Jewish relations. The movie is, however, little more than a side-show that is being given temporary hype by the familiar injection of celebrityship and media attention. As Solomon has said, there is a time to cast stones and a time to cry out. He also said that there is a time to be silent and I believe that this is one such occasion.
Last week’s issue contained a letter from Rabbi Haskel Lookstein critically commenting on what I was quoted to have said in an article reporting on a study I conducted on the impact of the economic downturn on Jewish day schools. Rabbi Lookstein, a man who deserves respect for his leadership of Ramaz, claims that “most of the day schools that charge a high tuition also have a very large scholarship program.” As I have written to him, the truth is exactly the reverse and there is an inverse relationship between tuition costs and scholarship availability. Because of economic, social and psychological factors, the priciest schools are the most parsimonious when it comes to financial aid to needy families.