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Anti-Christian Attitudes In The Holy Land

Are Anti-Christian Attitudes at the Heart of Condemnations of Gibson's Passion of the Christ and Conflict in the Holy Land?

By Genevieve Cora Fraser

As millions of people across the globe celebrate the Christian Easter and the Holy Week that follows many will mark observances with a trip to the box office to see Mel Gibson's much acclaimed and derided, The Passion of the Christ as well as to the church of their choice. But today the Church of the Nativity has an empty plaza and the Voice of America reports that Israel has sparked a dispute with the Vatican and other Christian institutions by refusing to renew the visas of some members of the clergy and church volunteers.

"The Vatican's representatives in the Holy Land say it is intolerable that nuns and priests have been detained after their visas expired. The Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land says at least 138 Catholic clergy have not had their visas renewed by the Israeli Government. Hundreds of others from other denominations say they are in the same position," according to Ross Dunn reporting for the VOA.

Israel has offered excuses claiming that many of them are Arabs, and are undergoing special security checks. "Israeli officials say that is the cause of the delays in processing their requests to extend their visas. But other members of the Christian clergy who are not Arabs have been similarly affected," according to Dunn. This begs the question, "Is Israel anti-Christian?"

Since the controversy over Gibson's film arose I have been keeping tabs on what has been said. I understand that some will dismiss the film due to the violent content of the narrative; others are dismissive of the claims of any religion and so dismiss the film. But as I continued to read article after article that spoke of anti-Semitism, I decided to see for myself. Because I too detest violence I went with a friend who had already seen the film and promised to warn me prior to the most horrific scenes involving the last 12 hours of the life of Christ. I was amazed to realize I was quite comfortable with the film, in fact deeply moved and felt a renewal to a faith I long since thought I had lost.

Later I tried the experiment on my 86 year old mother who also detests violence and will refuse to watch many programs on television due to their violent content. Though she closed her eyes briefly several times and squeezed my hand during the most emotional moments, she openly wept and held on until the very end. She even sat through the film credit, not wishing to leave the theater until every moment of the film was through. Later my mother thanked me for sharing one of the most remarkable movies ever made, in her opinion. Mother told me she was thankful, not only to Mel Gibson for making this powerful film, but because she had lived long enough to see it.

Recently Yasser Arafat watched the film at a private screening in what remains of his partially Israeli -demolished headquarters in Ramallah with Palestinian, Muslim and Christian leaders. According to the Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi, "The president did not feel the film was anti-Semitic." His adviser, Nabil Abu Rdainah claimed Arafat found the film "moving and historical." Abu-Rudeina added that "the Palestinians are still daily being exposed to the kind of pain Jesus was exposed to during his crucifixion."

A similar reaction was supported by Jerusalemites' editor Amineh Ishtay, who claimed she had never cried as much as she did while watching this movie "because I became part of the story and felt how he (Jesus Christ) was inhumanly punished at the same time that he was tortured."

While Ishay watched the film she felt herself identifying with the scenes. "It came to my mind the Palestinian suffering and the cruelty they are living everyday," she said. "The people who know what is happening in Palestine can understand what I'm talking about. The film talks about the human condition and suffering and how Jesus happened to be a Jew and at the same time how he was tortured by them. Some people consider the movie as anti-Semitism. Especially the Jews who are really upset and it will not be seen in Israel," Ishay stated. "The film reveals the Jews' crimes against Jesus and the kind of pain he was exposed during his crucifixion."

Perhaps The Passion of the Christ will reaffirm the attitudes Palestinians feel toward the Jewish community for allowing their unmitigated suffering since the Al Nakba of 1948, and especially now with the virtual incarceration and torture and murder of Palestinians as Israel denies them basics such as food and water. However, as much as Palestinians and those who care about the cause of Palestine might view the film as metaphorical, I suspect the average viewer will see nothing of the sort. The film has only two categories of people, Jews and Romans. There are good guy Romans and bad guy Romans and good guy Jews (such as Jesus and Mary and some members of the crowd) and bad guy Jews. Besides, the overriding message is of love and forgiveness and anyone who doesn't get that message must have fallen asleep and missed the point of the film.

But, the Jewish community continues to be in an uproar. I was most surprised by the remarks of Uri Avnery, the head of the Israeli peace movement, Gush Shalom. Though he had not viewed the film, Avnery published an open letter to President Arafat, in which he claimed Arafat's comments hurt the Palestinian cause. (Arafat's published comments only said it was moving and historical, nothing about Palestine.) Avnery then explained how the descriptions of the crucifixion in the four gospels may not be accurate, but worse that the content of the narrative had caused harm to thousands of Jews over the last two thousand years from "persecutions, pogroms and torture by the Spanish inquisition, large-scale expulsions, mass and individual murders, up to the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished. All these were, directly or indirectly, caused, or at least made possible, by this narrative," Avnery stated later acknowledging that Hitler was also influenced by pagan ritual. (As a rebuttal, Christians have also been killing one another for thousands of years, and the rest of the world has been at each others throats too.)

As a Christian I was stunned by Avnery's anti-Christian attitude. What I found particularly disturbing about his comments is the inference that the Christian narrative should be dropped altogether. In other words, let's drop Christianity as a world religion so as not to further upset the Jewish community. This particular man of peace completely misses the mark in terms of the true Christian experience which is in the transforming power of love.

According to Avnery, "The writers of the gospels were bursting with hatred of the Jews. That is not surprising, either. They were Jews themselves, as were Jesus and all the people around him. But they belonged to a dissident sect, which was considered by the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem as heretical. The Christian Jews were cruelly persecuted. As usual in such fratricidal struggles, this one, too, aroused burning hatred. This hatred found its expression in the description of the crucifixion."

In the past I have read articles about the Talmud, the religious training for Rabbis, observant and reformed Jews. I have always dismissed claims that the Talmud not only supports racism and hatred, but is the source of hatred directed towards non-Jews. But I now wonder about claims such as those made in "The Truth About the Talmud" by Michael A. Hoffman II and Alan R. Critchley. They claim that according to the Talmud, "Jesus was executed by a proper rabbinical court for idolatry, inciting other Jews to idolatry, and contempt of rabbinical authority. All classical Jewish sources which mention his execution are quite happy to take responsibility for it; in the talmudic account the Romans are not even mentioned."

John Anast recently stated in "The Talmud, Racism, Hatred and Anti-Christism" that American Christians need to reexamine their relationship with organized Jewry. Anast believes that any offensive racist Talmudic teachings should be removed from texts and that Yeshiva's which teach and promote hatred and racism be closed in the United States and removed from US soil. "Organized Jewry seems to feel that certain Islamic schools need to be addressed all over the world. It is therefore only fitting that Yeshiva's and its faculty and students in the United States be made to conform to the Christian doctrine of love and mutual respect," Anast stated.

If what Anast and others claim is true, as I now am beginning to suspect, then that may explain the intractable nature of the Palestinian - Israeli conflict. The fault being Israel's not Palestine's in coming forth with an acceptable solution based on justice. In a speech delivered in 1997, Yasir Arafat affirmed his commitment to a solution despite "all the difficulties, and the troubles we are facing, we will continue, we will continue, we will continue."

"Because it is the Terra Sancta, the Holy Land, it is not only for Palestinians, but for the Israelis, for all Jews, for all Christians, for all Muslims. This is the Terra Sancta, the Holy Land, Palestine," Arafat stated. Despite his faults, and they may be many, I believe in his heart Arafat has always been open to a peaceful solution. I wish the same might be said of Prime Minister Sharon.

But to begin renegotiation of any sort, a real dialogue must be established, one that is respectful of the rights of all parties. Mel, bless you, whether one loves or hates your movie, the dialogue has begun between Christians, Jews and Muslims. May it continue, exposing true feelings and attitudes, until a just compromise may be found for a peaceful solution.


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