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Sent: Thursday, March 11, 2004 2:16 PM
NYTimes * frank rich: Mel Gibson Forgives Us for His Sins
The gospel according to Mel: If you criticize his film
and the Jew-baiting by which he promoted it, you are persecuting him
Mel Gibson Forgives Us for His Sins
The gospel according to Mel: If you criticize his film and the Jew-baiting
by which he promoted it, you are persecuting him – all the way to the
by Frank Rich
hank God — I think. Mel Gibson has granted me
absolution for my sins. As “The Passion of the Christ” approached the $100
million mark, the star appeared on “The Tonight Show,” where Jay Leno asked if
he would forgive me. “Absolutely,” he responded, adding that his dispute with me
was “not personal.” Then he waxed philosophical: “You try to perform an act of
love even for those who persecute you, and I think that’s the message of the
Thus we see the gospel according to Mel. If you criticize his film and the
Jew-baiting by which he promoted it, you are persecuting him — all the way to
the bank. If he says that he wants you killed, he wants your intestines “on a
stick” and he wants to kill your dog — such was his fatwa against me in
September — not only is there nothing personal about it but it’s an act of love.
And that is indeed the message of his film. “The Passion” is far more in love
with putting Jesus’ intestines on a stick than with dramatizing his godly
teachings, which are relegated to a few brief, cryptic flashbacks.
With its laborious build-up to its orgasmic spurtings of blood and other
bodily fluids, Mr. Gibson’s film is constructed like nothing so much as a porn
movie, replete with slo-mo climaxes and pounding music for the money shots. Of
all the “Passion” critics, no one has nailed its artistic vision more precisely
than Christopher Hitchens, who on “Hardball” called it a homoerotic “exercise in
lurid sadomasochism” for those who “like seeing handsome young men stripped and
flayed alive over a long period of time.”
If “The Passion” is a joy ride for sadomasochists, conveniently cloaked in
the plain-brown wrapping of religiosity, does that make it bad for the Jews? Not
necessarily. As a director, Mr. Gibson is no Leni Riefenstahl. His movie is just
too ponderous to spark a pogrom on its own — in America anyway. The one ugly
incident reported on Ash Wednesday, in which the Lovingway United Pentecostal
Church posted a marquee reading “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus,” occurred in
Denver, where the local archbishop, Charles Chaput, had thrown kindling on the
fire by promoting the movie for months. Whether “The Passion” will prove quite
as benign in Europe and the Arab world is a story yet to be told. It can’t be
coincidence that France, where Jacques Chirac has of late called for “zero
tolerance” of anti-Semitism, was the only country where the film lacked a
distributor until this week, when a Tunisian producer declared it was his “duty
as a Muslim who believes in Jesus” to remedy that terrible lapse.
But speaking as someone who has never experienced serious bigotry, I must
confess that, whatever happens abroad, the fracas over “The Passion” has made me
feel less secure as a Jew in America than ever before.
My quarrel is not with most of the millions of Christian believers who are
moved to tears by “The Passion.” They bring their own deep feelings to the
theater with them, and when Mr. Gibson pushes their buttons, however crudely,
they generously do his work for him, supplying from their hearts the authentic
spirituality that is missing in his jamboree of bloody beefcake. Jews, after
all, can overcompensate for mediocre filmmaking in exactly the same way; even
the schlockiest movies about the Holocaust (Robin Williams as “Jakob the Liar,”
anyone?) will move some audiences to tears by simply evoking the story’s bare
bones in Hollywood kitsch.
What concerns me much more are those with leadership positions in the secular
world — including those in the media — who have given Mr. Gibson, “The Passion”
and its most incendiary hucksters a free pass for behavior that is unambiguously
contrived to vilify Jews.
Start with the movie itself. There is no question that it rewrites history by
making Caiaphas and the other high priests the prime instigators of Jesus’ death
while softening Pontius Pilate, an infamous Roman thug, into a reluctant and
somewhat conscience-stricken executioner. “The more benign Pilate appears in the
movie, the more malignant the Jews are,” is how Elaine Pagels describes Mr.
Gibson’s modus operandi in The New Yorker this week. As if that weren’t enough,
the Jewish high priests are also depicted as grim sadists with bad noses and
teeth — Shylocks and Fagins from 19th-century stock. (The only Jew with a pretty
nose in this Judea is Jesus.) Yet in those early screenings that Mr. Gibson
famously threw for conservative politicos in Washington last summer and fall,
not a person in attendance, from Robert Novak to Peggy Noonan, seems to have
recognized these obvious stereotypes, let alone spoken up about them in their
profuse encomiums to the film.
Nor do some of these pundits seem to recognize Holocaust denial when it is
staring them in the face. In an interview in the current Reader’s Digest, Ms.
Noonan asks Mr. Gibson: “The Holocaust happened, right?” After saying that some
of his best friends “have numbers on their arms,” he responds: “Yes, of course.
Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of
millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps.” Yes,
mistakes happened, atrocities happened, war happened, some of the victims were
Jews. This is the classic language of contemporary Holocaust deniers, from David
Irving to Mr. Gibson’s own father, Hutton Gibson, a prominent anti-Semitic
author and activist. Their rhetorical strategy is to diminish Hitler’s
extermination of Jews by folding those deaths into the war’s overall casualty
figures, as if the Holocaust were an idle byproduct of battle instead of a Third
Reich master plan for genocide. Rather than challenge Mel Gibson on this, Ms.
Noonan merely reinforces his junk history. “So the point is that life is tragic
and it is full of fighting and violence, mischief and malice,” she replies.
No, that is not the point of the history of the Holocaust.
Of course, if a Jew points out such callousness, or reports on how Mr. Gibson
exploited a gravely ill Pope as a shill for his movie, he is not practicing
journalism or trying to clarify the historical record. He is instead “rabidly
anti-Christian,” as James Dobson of Focus on the Family is fond of describing
Jews who raise questions about Mr. Gibson. The message is clear: Jews who
criticize a poor, defenseless multimillionaire movie star and his film are
behaving much as Caiaphas and his cronies do in “The Passion” itself. There’s a
consistency of animus here.
There is also a mighty strange inversion of reality. America is 82 percent
Christian, and 60 percent of the population believes the Bible is historical
fact. (The Jewish population is 2 percent.) The president of the United States
has endorsed Jesus as his favorite philosopher, and Mr. Gibson’s movie had
almost as large an opening week as “The Lord of the Rings.” The star has won his
battle. He’s hotter than ever in Hollywood, a town whose first commandment is
that you never argue with a hit. (“If Hitler did a movie with these numbers,
we’d give him his next deal,” one Jewish mogul told me in a phone conversation
this week.) So by what stretch of the imagination is Mr. Gibson so aggrieved
that he can go on “The Tonight Show,” purport to be a victim and not be laughed
at by Mr. Leno or anyone else? For all his talk of “suffering” for his art, it’s
hard to see exactly how Mr. Gibson has suffered. His production company is even
licensing necklaces ($12.99 or $16.99, take your pick) that feature replicas of
the nails used in the film’s Crucifixion.
Of late, however, the star has racheted up the volume of his complaints,
floating insinuations out of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Speaking of
his critics to Diane Sawyer of ABC, Mr. Gibson said: “It’s only logical to
assume that conspiracies are everywhere, because that’s what people do. They
conspire. If you can’t get the message, get the man.” So who is in this dark,
fearful conspiracy? The only conspirator mentioned by name in that interview was
me. But Ms. Sawyer never identified me as Jewish, thereby sanitizing Mr.
Gibson’s rant of its truculent meaning. (She did show a picture of me, though,
perhaps assuming that my nose might give me away.)
Bill O’Reilly was not so circumspect when he returned to this same theme last
week, asking an editor from Variety why Mr. Gibson has taken so much heat for
his film. After beating around the burning bush for a while, Mr. O’Reilly said:
“I’m asking this question respectfully. Is it because that the major media in
Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people?” With
respect like this, Jews hardly need any disrespect. Besides, the idea that Jews
control the media is disproved by Mr. Gibson’s own media campaign. Just as he
kept most Jewish journalists out of early screenings of “The Passion,” so he
cherrypicks his interviewers now. No Jewish journalist on network television
(and there are some) has been permitted to question him thus far — a press
manipulation by Mr. Gibson’s flacks that is worthy of further investigation.
The vilification of Jews by Mr. Gibson, his film and some of his allies,
unchallenged by his media enablers, is not happening in a vacuum. We are in the
midst of an escalating election-year culture war in which those of “faith” are
demonizing so-called “secularists” (for which read any Jews critical of Mr.
Gibson and their fellow travelers, liberals). Politicians, we are learning, seem
increasingly eager to wrap themselves in “The Passion of the Christ” as a handy
signal to indicate they are opposed to all those “secularists” whose conspiracy
is undermining all that right-thinking Americans hold near and dear. Predictably
enough, both the president and Mrs. Bush have publicly indicated their desire to
see Mr. Gibson’s film. But when even Connecticut’s John Rowland, a
scandal-ridden governor facing impeachment, starts to rave about “The Passion”
in public (“Unbelievable!” “Breathtaking!”), as he did last weekend, it’s clear
that we’re witnessing the birth of a phenomenon. You come away from this whole
sorry story feeling that Jesus died in “The Passion of the Christ” so cynics,
whether seeking bucks or votes, could inherit the