Mel Gibson unlocked the secret of why Americans have never confronted anti-Semitism in the way that we did with the other great systems of hatred (racism, sexism, homophobia) when he told a national t.v. audience on February 16 that "the Jews' real complaint isn't with my film (The Passion) but with the Gospels." Few Christians today know the history of anti-Semitism and the way that the Passion stories were central to rekindling hatred of Jews from generation to generation. Many are embracing Gibson's movie and not understanding why Jews seem to be so threatened. Gibson knows that for many Americans it is simply unimaginable to question the Gospels.Those who wanted to purge hatred of Jews from the collective unconscious of Western societies after the defeat of Nazism in 1945 faced an impossible dilemma. The dominant religious tradition of the West was based on a set of four accounts of Jesus, each of which to some extent is riddled with anger at or even hatred of the Jews. The Gospels were written, many historians tell us, some fifty years after Jesus' death at a time when early Christians (most of whom considered themselves still Jewish) were engaged in a fierce competition with a newly emerging rabbinic Judaism to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Jews (some of whom were becoming Jewish Christians, retaining their Jewish practice but adding to it a belief in Jesus as messiah) and the minds of the disaffected masses of the Roman empire (some Christians already having given up on converting Jews and beginning to think that the real audience for their outreach should be the wider world of the Roman Empire).The Gospels sought to play down the antagonism that Jews of Jesus' time felt toward Rome, so they displaced the anger at his crucifixion instead onto those Jews who remembered Jesus as an inspiring and revolutionary teacher but not much more (not a messiah, not God). The result: an account that portrays Jews as willfully calling on the Romans to kill Jesus, rejecting the supposed compassion of the Romans, and thereby earning the hatred of humanity for the Jews' supposed collective responsibility for this act of deicide. Conversely, Jesus' Judaism, his viewing the world through the frame of his Jewish spiritual practice and Torah-based thinking, is played-down or at times completely obscured, so that the message of these professional "convert the non-Jews" thinkers would not be undermined by a covert message (still advocated by some of the Jewish Christians at the time of the writing of the Gospel) that to be a Christian one should also become a Jew.When Christianity gained state power in Rome in the 4th century of the common era, it quickly began to pass legislation restricting Jewish rights. And as Christianity conquered Europe in the ensuing centuries, spreading its story that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the Jews became the primary demeaned other of Europe for the next 1700 years. Jews came to fear Easter-because the retelling of the Crucifixion story often led to mob attacks on defenseless Jews who were blamed for having caused the suffering of Jesus.
In the aftermath of WWII, many principled Christians recognized that the Holocaust was possible in part because Hitler was able to draw upon the cultural legacy of hatred toward Jews nurtured by this kind of Christian teaching. The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations have sought to distance themselves from this long history of demeaning the Jews. But although anti-Semitism became unfashionable, only a few Christians were willing to take responsibility for the devastating impact of the hateful representations of Jews that suffused the Gospels and culminated in its historically doubtful account of the Roman imperialists, who ruled with an iron fist and crucified thousands of Jews, bowing to the will of a hateful Jewish mob determined to kill Jesus.Even when the Catholic Church officially banned teaching hatred of Jews, it never ordered its dioceses to teach about the role the church itself had played in creating and sustaining those negative stereotypes.Liberals and progressives in the late 20th century did an impressive job of confronting and educating the public about the literary, intellectual, and cultural sources of racism, sexism and homophobia. But they tended to shy away from anti-Semitism, both because of the mistaken assumption that it was no longer a real problem (after all, Jews were economically and politically flourishing in post-WWII America) and because such a confrontation would have forced a challenge to the dominant Western religion at the core of its most dramatic story: the crucifixion.Nevertheless, ever since the 1960s there have been thousands of sensitive Christians, who, to their credit, have created a Christian spiritual renewal movement which rejects the teaching of hatred in the Gospel by allegorizing the story and giving greater focus to the Resurrection than to the Crucifixion. Returning to Jesus' Jewish roots, and refocusing attention on the bulk of the Gospel, with its stories portraying a Jewish Jesus who builds on and elaborates the ancient Torah commandments to "love your neighbor as yourself" and "love the stranger," the Christian renewalists tended to see the two-thousand-year history of Christian anti-Semitism as a distortion of the deeper truth of the Gospel. Easter became a holiday to celebrate the rebirth of an ancient Jewish hope-that the forces of hatred and cruelty manifested in the Crucifixion could be overcome by a triumph of the forces of love, generosity and kindness whose Resurrection and ultimate victory were celebrated at Easter.