independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Passions running high but Mel is not anti-Semitic

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ reaches Irish screens tomorrow provoking controversy that might well be on a scale to compare with the opening night of The Playboy of the Western World a century ago.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ reaches Irish screens tomorrow provoking controversy that might well be on a scale to compare with the opening night of The Playboy of the Western World a century ago.

However, whereas the J.M. Synge play was popular with the critics and unpopular with the public, the reverse holds true for the Mel Gibson movie.

It is hugely popular with ordinary people, hardly offending their sensibilities at all, but mightily annoying most critics who seem to have abandoned their normal habit of defending controversial movies in the name of artistic freedom.

It is odd that what offends the public is art, and what offends them is simply, well, offensive.

Some of this criticism is so virulent that it can only be labelled an exercise in bigotry, meaning we are being treated to the strange spectacle of secularist bigots condemning the film in the name of anti-bigotry.

But let's leave those critics to one side and focus on the chief motive behind many of the attacks on the movie, namely that it is anti-Semitic, a very grave charge in a post-Holocaust world and not one to be lightly dismissed. The Chief Rabbi of Ireland doesn't like the film and thinks that the Catholic Church should denounce it.

There are good and undeniable reasons why Jews should be nervous about dramatisations of the Passion. Historically, Passion plays were often used to stir up anti-Jewish feeling and could lead to anti-Jewish riots and pogroms. They were sometimes directly intended to incite hatred. Because of this historical legacy, as soon as word got out that Mel Gibson intended to direct a film about the last 12 hours of Christ's life, some Jewish groups, allied with some Bible scholars, moved to stymie it. They feared it would re-ignite barely latent anti-Semitism.

They have been proven wrong. To date, the movie has been seen by millions of people in the United States, pulling in over $220 million, which puts it on a par with the Lord of the Rings as a box-office draw. Enough people have by now viewed it to let us judge whether or not the film has had the feared effect, and we can answer in the negative.

The chief reason for this is that ordinary people are simply not seeing anti-Semitism in it. What they are witnessing instead is the religious authority of the day - the Sanhedrin - led by the High Priest Caiaphas, moving against a person they regard as a heretic and a blasphemer. The fact that the Sanhedrin is Jewish is incidental, and this is the essential point the critics are overlooking.

Religious authorities through history, and political authorities for that matter, have often moved with great brutality against heretics and dissidents.

Think of the Inquisition, or the Terror unleashed by the French Revolution. What movie audiences are also seeing is a Sanhedrin divided against itself. Several members object to the highly irregular and unjust manner in which Chiaphas is attempting to convict Jesus. An anti-Semitic movie would have featured no sympathetic Jewish characters. In fact, it contains many. As Jesus carries his cross to Calvary, there are probably more people weeping for him than condemning him.

Why have the predictions that The Passion would provoke anti-Semitism fallen so far short of the mark? The answer is that the movie's critics are badly out of touch with modern Christian opinion.

Only a handful of Christians in the West today harbour ill-will towards Jews. Among evangelical Christians the mood, if anything, tends to be bullishly pro-Jewish.

Several Jewish commentators - the movie critic Michael Medved, the columnist Melanie Philips and Rabbi Daniel Lapin - have said that the accusations of anti-Semitism directed at The Passion of the Christ could actually backfire. Because they are so misplaced, and ordinary people can plainly see this, they will actually drain the charge of anti-Semitism of much of its power.

If this happens, the result could be disastrous as it will become much harder to condemn genuine outbreaks of anti-Semitism.

Never take money from the State unless you are willing to live with the consequences. When Portmarnock Golf Club agreed to host the Irish Open, and the Government agreed to help fund the Open, it was inevitable that attention would focus on the club's men-only membership policy. And when the GAA agreed in principle to accept public money to help finance Croke Park it was inevitable that its bar on other sports using the stadium would also come under increased scrutiny.

Once you agree to accept money from the State, you compromise your independence. In particular, you become beholden to the new civil religion which is social egalitarianism, or political correctness to use the vernacular.

This new civil religion is enforced through the law and through various commissariats such as the Equality Authority. Ironically, it is producing a monolithic culture that will kill genuine diversity in the name of diversity.

The Bank of Ireland is financially backing a British company that is planning to become the first porn distributor to float on the London Stock Exchange.

Defending the move, the bank said: "We don't moralise." Really? So what's next, a decision to finance arms dealers, or human-cloning experiments, or germ-warfare labs? Presumably if anyone objects, we'll be told: "We don't moralise."

The porn industry is inherently exploitative of women and the bank's defence of its decision is a total cop-out. If we're fooled by it, more fool us.

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