Passion of Mel Is Mean, Gnarled, Next to the Sacred

This was the week when love, hate and stupidity all converged in a classic American train wreck.

Let’s start with love, since it’s so rare to get a glimpse of it. I got one glimpse of it on Tuesday night, Feb. 24, when I attended a gathering in memory of a Jew who had been captured and murdered by religious fanatics, and whose execution was turned into a controversial film many find too violent to watch. His name was Daniel Pearl.

The Tuesday-night gathering in memory of Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed in Pakistan two years ago by radical Islamists, took place at the 92nd Street Y.M.-W.H.A. You had to go through metal detectors to get in. I guess we’ve gotten to the place where we just take it for granted that Jewish institutions are potential targets these days. But inside, the speakers-Daniel Pearl’s father and a group of writers and thinkers-weren’t dwelling on that question; they were taking up the theme of Pearl’s last words on that snuff film made by his killers. The words that were the reason he was killed, certainly the reason the throat-slitting killing was recorded by video camera and incorporated into Jew-hating propaganda. The words were “I am Jewish.” The evening was an act of love; it was both mournful and inspiring, as well as a defiant affirmation of Jewish identity.

Before getting to the acts of hate I witnessed this week, I want to spend a little more time on love.

It’s so unusual, in a time when love is regularly mocked by reality-TV wedding shows, to get glimpses of genuine wedded love in unmediated reality. But all last week it was there-not on entertainment programming, but on the news. I’m talking about the joyful and loving looks on the faces of the gay couples getting married in San Francisco, New Mexico and New Paltz.

The TV news reports were all about the question of the legality or illegality of the marriage licenses, about the proposed amendment to the Constitution that would deny these people their right to make their commitment to love and responsibility official.

But it was the visuals: the calm, loving smiles of mutual devotion on the faces of the couples who had been denied this rite for so long, their radiant serenity. It said more than anything official, legislative or constitutional about the issue. It said something very human about this human-rights issue.

As someone whose own marriage lasted less than three years, I can’t claim to be an authority on the subject of marriage. But I just don’t understand those who would begrudge two people the right to solemnize their love. If you believe that marriage is civilizing, why deny it to those who want to be civilized by it?

And-I’ve said this before in my column-it seems to me that the people who oppose gay marriage because they fear it’s a threat to heterosexual marriage ought to devote themselves to making heterosexual marriage less fragile. It has to be extremely fragile if what strangers do in their own homes is such a threat. Or consider: Perhaps homosexual marriage will in fact make these fragile heterosexual marriages stronger , because it demonstrates to heterosexual couples how much strangers value what they already have.

Or perhaps those opposed should just take a little time and look at the news clips of those couples in San Francisco, New Mexico and NewÊPaltz, and the gift of love written on their faces.

But enough about love. Let’s talk about hatred. Not the incitement to hatred in The Passion of the Christ , although by this time any informed person, Christian or Jewish, who doesn’t see it there is engaging in what Gabriel Schoenfeld calls “anti-Semitism denial” (in his important new book The Return of Anti-Semitism ). Let’s not even talk about the way Mel Gibson distorted not just history but the Gospels themselves to intensify the vilification of Jews. As Columbia scholar James Shapiro demonstrates in Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play -his fascinating study of attempts to reform Hitler’s favorite Passion play-efforts can be made to tone down the anti-Semitic incitement in the Passion narrative. Mel Gibson tones them up , as many have observed.

Let’s instead talk about Mel’s father, Hutton Gibson, and the platform the film gave him for his Holocaust-denying views on George Stephanopoulos’ ABC Sunday-morning show, This Week , three days before The Passion opened. Some might disagree, but I think Mr. Stephanopoulos and ABC were performing an important public service in airing taped excerpts from the astonishing radio interview that Hutton Gibson gave to Steve Feuerstein. It was Christopher Noxon who deserves credit for having first exposed these views to scrutiny in The Times Magazine (March 9, 2003), but the Feuerstein excerpts (read a partial transcript at http://www.speakyourpiece.net/gibson.pdf) give us a newly triumphant Hutton Gibson, crowing over the poisonous views he’s succeeded in getting attention for through his son.

But what was fascinating about the new interview was that it suggested the father, Hutton, was involved with his son in strategizing over the reception of the movie. He speaks of the film at times as if he were part of the team. He brags about the way the team gamed the Pope by flying to Rome and showing him the film. Mel said, according to his father, “What is [the Pope] going to say, is he going to condemn it, because when it comes out he’ll show what a big ass he is?” Nice-very respectful, no? But we soon learn why the lack of respect: Hutton believes the Pope and the Vatican are all part of the vast Jewish conspiracy.

Which consists first of all in faking the Holocaust.

“It’s all-maybe not all fiction, but most of it is,” Hutton tells us. “They claimed that there were 6.2 million in Poland before the war and after the war there were 200,000, therefore he [Hitler] must have killed six million of them.”

Hutton sees through that : “They simply got up and left! They were all over the Bronx and Brooklyn and Sydney and Los Angeles.”

And why did they fake the Holocaust? In the Noxon interview, Hutton said the Jews did it to find an excuse to populate the state of Israel with the fictional Holocaust victims. Here he adds insult to injury by saying that Holocaust museums are a “gimmick to raise money.” I guess this makes sense in his worldview because he believes the Jews “have to go where there is money,” as he said in the new interview.

The Passion plays up the money angle. The film focuses on the haggling over the money paid to Judas by his fellow Jews to betray Jesus, giving us a lovingly hateful slow-motion shot of the purse of silver coins as it flies through the air from the stereotypically hook-nosed high priest to Judas. When Judas drops the purse, we see him crawling on his knees to pick up the fallen coins that are his pay-off for the sell-out. Ancient stereotype, anyone?

Similarly, he plays up the villainous Jews’ demands on a supposedly reluctant Pontius Pilate that Jesus be killed. Plays it up in a way that doesn’t just go beyond the Gospels but willfully distorts them to give us a deeply troubled Pilate, one who is not merely indifferent but, with his wife, resistant to the repeated demands of the bloodthirsty Jews. The Passion is as much a story of a father and a son as a story of the Father and the Son. It is Mel Gibson going about his father’s business.

That’s why Hutton Gibson’s views matter to an assessment of The Passion : his views on the “mostly fictional” Holocaust and how the Christians have been blamed for the fiction cooked up by the Jews, and how it was time to remind the world of just who the Jews were-fake victims, real murderers, the people who murdered God Himself.

So the Jews shouldn’t be complaining even about the mostly “fictional” victims of the Nazis, because the Jews were the perpetrators of a far greater crime, and faking the Holocaust was a way of distracting attention from it.

I’ve argued in the past that there was something particularly loathsome about Holocaust denial in that, in effect, it seeks to murder Hitler’s victims a second time-murders their memory. Just reading the new Hutton Gibson transcript is bad enough, but to hear the self-satisfied, self-congratulatory tone in which the words are uttered-as one did on This Week -is to realize that this isn’t something that cannot be pitied or excused as the product of a senile lunatic. They’re the words of someone in complete possession of his faculties-and all the more hateful for it.

In his speech to the Harvard community in September 2002, Harvard president Lawrence Summers warned about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in acts that were anti-Semitic “in their effect if not their intent.” It’s become a controversial distinction for some, but I think it applies here. You could argue that Mel Gibson is not intentionally anti-Semitic. It’s possible that he’s just too stupid to know the effect of what he’s done, too ignorant of the historical effect of Passion plays. But his father is intent personified-intent that seems to have been transmitted to a gullible son who wants to win his father’s love.

I don’t know: One of the things I’m most grateful to my late father for is that he was a completely unprejudiced man, racially and religiously. He lived to make people laugh, and he succeeded more often than not. When he came back from his wartime service, he wanted to make a better world and joined a veterans’ group dedicated to civil rights for all. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have had a father like that rather than someone like Hutton Gibson. I almost feel sorry for Mel Gibson. But it’s still no excuse. If my father had ever made racist remarks, I might still love him, but I like to hope that I would never cease challenging him about them. Mel Gibson has reacted a different way. An extreme, familial version of the Stockholm syndrome, I guess. Mel has boasted, “My father has never told me a lie.”

But it’s not just a Gibson family matter. Over the centuries, thousands of Jews have been murdered in pogroms that followed the anti-Jewish incitement of Passion play productions. It’s unlikely that anything like that will happen in America as a result of the film, but there are other areas of the world where it’s just as likely that something will. Its vicious incitement will be burned into the hearts of more people than have seen a Passion play in all of history up until now.

On Wednesday, the day Mel’s movie opened, a Colorado church unveiled a billboard that said, “Jews killed the Lord Jesus …. Settled!” On Thursday night, Bill O’Reilly asked-”respectfully,” he said-whether Mel Gibson was being singled out because “the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people.” (What about all the Christians who have objected to Mel’s film? Andrew Sullivan, for one, called its anti-Semitic incitement “unforgivable.”)

If the Jews in Hollywood really “controlled” everything, they would be making a movie about a Jew who was whipped and scourged by a mob who had been incited to murder by a Passion play. There’s plenty of precedent, and it might provide a useful corrective.

But I don’t foresee that happening. As the Pope either said or didn’t say: “It is as it was.” Until it gets worse.