The controversy over Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ and its potential for inciting anti-Semitism has dominated the news and concerned all quarters of the Jewish community. One may ask, however, why is this so? How could a movie incite violence? Mel Gibson's Braveheart, which portrayed the English in a most unfavourable light, did not evoke, I think, concern that it would breed anti-English sentiment presently. What was done hundreds of years ago by the English in no way is deemed to affect our perception of the English today. But this is not so with the portrayal of the Jews in The Passion.
We are concerned that a portrayal of Jews two thousand years ago will affect the viewer's perception of Jews today. Why? Finding the answer to this demands an investigation into the very nature of anti-Semitism.

One of the most basic questions of Jewish identity concerns whether we are a nation or a religion. What is often not recognized is that our understanding of anti-Semitism can also be affected by this same duality. There are forms of anti-Semitism that initiate from negative responses to the nationalistic or ethnic essence of a Jew. In classic Jewish thought, this form of anti-Semitism is perceived in the figure of Haman and is, as such, associated with Purim. In modern times, this form of anti-Semitism exhibited its most intense blackness with the Nazis. Anti-Semitism, however, may also arise from negative reactions to the faith of the Jews. Again, in classic Jewish thought, this form of anti-Semitism is connected to the holiday of Chanukah which ultimately marks a victory over the imposition of Hellenism by the Syrian-Greeks. This was also the essence of the persecution by the Church over the centuries. It was the Jew, the one who denied the faith of the Church, that was the focus of Christian anti-Semitism.

There are many who would contend today that the term anti-Semitism should only apply to hatred based upon the ethnicity of the Jew. The contention is that, while this argument should in no way be construed to justify violence or persecution, faith-based challenges against the Jew are somewhat understandable. Religions disagree. The presentation of Christian dogma, by definition, attacks the nature of the Jewish faith and, consequently, those who believe in this faith.

The question of whether Mel Gibson and The Passion are anti-Semitic revolves, to a great extent, around whether showing a historical conflict between Jewish and Christian belief is also anti-Semitic. All Mel Gibson is doing is presenting his faith -- a faith that portrays a certain group of nonbelievers, i.e. the Jews, in a most unfavourable light. The reason why we are concerned is that this group of nonbelievers, this faith that challenges the Christian faith, is still existent today and may suffer at the hands of an audience influenced by the severe imagery in the film. The Englishman of today need not feel the same concern, as he is separated from the Englishman of the 17th century by radical changes in political ideology and relationship with Scotland in the interim. The Jew today, by contrast, is connected to the Jew of Roman times by the same shared rejection of the Christian messiah.

Of course, it is understandable that Christians would be upset at those responsible for the death of their messiah. It is even understandable that they would be upset at those who continue to reject their messiah in the present day (given the importance they place on global acceptance of Jesus for bringing the messianic age). What is not excusable, however, is extolling hate, malice and violence as a means of furthering their eschatology. When a Christian crosses this line, he is no longer a participant in a dialogue on religious difference, but a full-blown anti-Semite.

Unfortunately, clarity and precision have been missing in the media's stumblings though this issue. The result is not only the failure to clearly articulate the problem but also an inability to discover a solution. It is true that the "ethnic" anti-Semite, who is currently the greater problem, may use this film to stoke the fire. It is not by coincidence that many white supremacist groups tie their racism to an (albeit contorted) form of Christianity. This is similar to the Ku Klux Klan's burning of crosses; the hijacking of religious concepts and imagery is often done to justify racism and hatred. In this light, there may be some concern from the after-effects of The Passion. The greater problem, though, is the need to deal with the reality that there is friction between the faiths, a friction that is often ignored.

Mel Gibson is simply expounding his faith. His faith views those who reject it as harmful to the Christian agenda -- including and specifically the Jews. How do we respond?

This rejection has contributed towards the ascent of liberal forms of religions. It is not surprising that Gibson's
arch-conservative form of Roman Catholicism is itself under attack precisely because of its Mediaevalist reading of the Gospels, and its harsh censure of other faiths. Yet, is attack and counter-attack between faiths the answer?

Clearly, this movie demands that we confront the nature of religion -- that is, the inexorable fact that religions have mutually-exclusive beliefs. But expressing concerns about anti-Semitism in a generic way serves only to further muddle the core problem. It is far better to bring the roots of faith-based anti-Semitism out into the open, and freely explore them -- rather than blur them in the obscurantist language of political correctness. Only by demystifying the conflict of creeds will the public learn to accept the irresolvability of differences in faith. And only with this acceptance might these differences come to be seen as a normal part of peaceful human interaction.

But another ingredient is necessary to achieve this end: humility. Merely tolerating the "erroneous" beliefs of another can only go so far towards a genuinely peaceful coexistence. Ultimately, we all choose our religious beliefs using our own intelligence, intuition, and other imperfect and subjective human capacities. Whether we buy our religion "off-the-shelf" or custom-build it on our own, what cause do we have to be certain we've got it right?

Since the creation of the Church, religious belief has become something that one is expected to be certain of. It is assumed that you are certain, if you are a "believer". But it wasn't always this way, nor does it have to be today. Practicing one's faith with humility, in full recognition that honest religion is a search for truth rather than an embodiment of absolute knowledge, is necessary to make possible a respectful dialogue with those of different faiths. Only thus can mutually-exclusive belief systems truly co-exist in peace.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht