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September 2004

Volume XXIV, No. 3

Reflections of an observing Jew

During March and April, as a board member at Brooklyn College Hillel, I was involved with preparations for Holocaust memorial ceremonies and organized two campus forums on Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” When I began my efforts, I viewed them as disparate activities. Little did I realize that there would be important parallels between them beyond the sacredness that each holds for Jewish and Christian communities. In particular, Holocaust presentations may be committing errors similar to those found in Gibson’s presentation of “The Passion.”

The campus “Passion” forums reflected all of the views that surrounded the making and release of the movie. Criticisms were voiced by Jewish and liberal Catholic speakers concerning the relation of scenes in the movie to The Gospels, and how presentations deviated from Vatican II’s recommendations. While these points were valid, I was struck by their inability to understand a core fact: the vast majority of Christians seeing the film consider the portrayal of Jews irrelevant. Dwelling on the evidence that Gibson filled in the Gospel story by selecting the most uncomplimentary presentations of the Jewish public and its leadership does not get very far with Christian viewers. Indeed, they are upset that Jewish critics seem to be indifferent to the religious beliefs that dominate the movie.

Over the last two years, as part of a research projected related to the Holocaust, I have had extensive discussions with leaders of the Polish American community and academicians and journalists in Poland. Virtually all of these individuals believe that Poland’s behavior and attitudes toward Jews are totally misunderstood by the Jewish community which has little knowledge of the hardships experienced by the Poles during the Second World War, of the extent to which Poles are honored as righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, and the willingness of the Polish community to understand the shortcomings of its behavior during the Second World War.

My assessment of the attitudes of Christian viewers has been shaped by these experiences. We Jews should not read anything sinister into Christian disregard. We should realize that for Christians the portrayal of Jews is a very minor aspect of the movie. In addition, while the Romans were the direct instruments, all four Gospels indicate that Jewish support was at least partially responsible. Thus even when Christian viewers are forced to reflect on Gibson’s portrayals, they only see the issue as mere quibbling. Most importantly, I began to see important similarities with the treatment of Polish Catholics in Holocaust films.

If there is a contemporary issue that has as much significance to Jews as the death of Christ to Christians, it is the Holocaust; and no Holocaust event is revered as much as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A few years ago there was a television miniseries that documented this uprising. While its overwhelming focus was on the Jewish community and how it finally coalesced to rise up, Polish Catholics were presented in a most negative manner: the indifference of a drunken Pole who was paid to lead the Jewish resisters to safety through the sewer system, and the indifference of Church leaders who did not allow themselves to be distracted from their Easter Sunday celebrations. When Polish American community leaders protested these negative stereotypes and questioned their historical accuracy, the Jewish community was dismissive. Most Jewish viewers were focused on the anti-German struggles and the heroism of Jewish fighters. For Jewish viewers, these anti-Polish portrayals were minor aspects of the movie, just as for Christians Jewish portrayals in “The Passion” were of minor importance. In addition, these anti-Polish aspects were ignored because many Jews believe that Polish Catholics, while not primarily responsible for the destruction of the Polish Jewish community, were at best indifferent to German policies. Indeed, just as with “The Passion,” complicity with death is an undercurrent of contemporary discourse. The Jewish community has noted the variation in Jewish complicity in Jesus’ death found in the four Christian Gospels. Similarly, the Polish American community has noted that in the Jewish “gospels” of Holocaust survivors, there is much variation in Polish complicity in the death of Jews.

Just as the Jewish community criticized Gibson for selecting the Christian Gospel that presents Jews as being most complicit, the Polish Catholic community faults the vast majority of Holocaust movies, up until “The Pianist,” for choosing Holocaust survivor “gospels” that present Polish Catholics as being most complicit. Just as many rightfully fear that Gibson’s movie will perpetuate anti-Semitic views that will be harmful to the Jewish community, Polish Catholics rightfully fear that negative portrayals in Holocaust films will perpetuate views that are harmful to their community. Thus, while I might continue to whine about Gibson’s choices, Jews must also become more sensitive to how they present Polish Catholics in their “passion” plays. For me, this further strengthens my respect for the famous dictum of Hillel, Jesus of Nazareth’s contemporary: Do not do unto others as you would not want others to do unto you.

Robert Cherry, Brooklyn College, New York, NY

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