The Varieties of Zealous Experience
by Michael Kigel

How likely is it that a passionately devout, if perhaps emotionally unstable, and certainly ignorant and parochial, in short, altogether zealous young Christian may run out of a matinee showing of Gibson’s movie and into the streets to take vengeance for the murder of his God? The ADL or anyone who fears such a scenario betrays a certain emotional instability of their own, albeit an instability which can be attributed to his being a child or grandchild of Auschwitz survivors. It is a mistaken, trauma-based understanding of the psychology of zealotry. By the same token, however, to simply jump to the opposite conclusion, that Gibson’s movie is therefore bound to have a minimal effect on the youth of America is a short-sighted insight into the psychological complexity and the possibilities of human zeal. The medieval model may simply be outdated. To be sure, we should not expect a renaissance of medieval zealotry. We should probably expect something else.

In fact, if we want to properly indulge our paranoia, we might begin by lamenting the fact that such a prospective anti-Jewish zeal cannot take the form of, say, the zeal of an Al-Qaeda religionist. If Osama bin Laden were to spend 25 million dollars producing a film based on the anti-Jewish teachings of the Koran, we would do well to be on our guard for some truly impassioned and bloody behaviour. But the Christianity practised in Mel Gibson’s America suffers from what one sorry television host was only able to characterize as a lack of courage. This, by the way, was the only time a truly politically incorrect word was uttered in American television, every other attempt having been a pleasantry meant to evoke laughter and the like, and therefore, however wrong the word was, it certainly points to the fundamental truth about America, the one truth that finally made TV viewers do the ostrich. In Islam today, even today, one still knows how to hold a knife. For better or for worse. But if an auto-de-fé were to take place in America today, it would have to be wrapped in cellophane like the meat at the supermarket.

Which is precisely what Gibson’s movie is: a packaged product. Jesus on the cross, the actual Jesus on the cross, was already a spectacle, a genre of Roman Theatre of Blood like the gladitorial shows in the Coliseum. The medieval Passion Plays were at one remove from this, but even then at least a member in the audience could still reach out and touch the actor playing Jesus who, of course, was not always just acting. But Gibson’s film is still at one more remove from reality. And this distance is critical. The basic safety and comfort of America, and of Jewish life in America, inheres in the fact that at heart, in its mythological essence, America is a movie. Our epoch is not simply industrial and global, it is cinematographic.

So what’s to be expected? Again, one must be careful to set limits to indulging paranoia. After all, there is a God. But if we want to shrewdly analyze the possibilities of zeal contained in a film like the Passion, we have to look, not for immediate and open terrorism, but for a delayed or subconscious anti-Jewish zeal that is as antiseptic and banal and as removed from flesh-and-blood daily life as a movie. The blessedness of America, this America of “God bless America,” rests on the success and neatness with which violent and passionate impulses have been stored in the basement. European civilization was never as successful at repression. Hence the effects of these passions, whose young ears receive the whispers of Gibson’s soft seductions, are bound to be invisible, latent, and, if violent, then violent in the most antiseptic way.

When Hannah Arendt documented the trial of Adolf Eichman, she was struck only by the banality of evil that a human could embody. When asked about murdered humans, Eichman explained the intricacies and difficulties of getting trains to run on time. But that was the banality of the Nazis. Cinematographic banality is bound to take another shape.

And, just to belabour the point one last time, there is nothing to be afraid of, ADL-style or otherwise. All of the above is nothing more than a brief exercise in psychological shrewdness. The fear of God, barukh Shemo, is the end of fear.

© 2004 NISHMA