The recent release of the Oscar nominations hopefully closes the door on one of the biggest controversies of last year — the conflict around “The Passion of the Christ.”
As much as critics blasted it — while others condemned it for inciting anti-Semitism — “The Passion” turned into the surprise blockbuster of the year. As such, its popularity was widely considered a slap in the face to the liberal media/culture establishment.
So while some feared that an Oscar for Gibson would revive the controversy, the unsurprising refusal of the same Hollywood elite that despised the film to honor it will cause the argument to be revisited anyway.
Let us waste no more ink debating the merits of this thoroughly bad film. But I am still interested in the way this story pushes buttons and illustrates the way some Jews look at the world.
Case in point is the way two people have hung on to the controversy and done their best to keep it alive.
They are the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abe Foxman, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a Seattle-based talk-radio host and the head of a small conservative group called Toward Tradition.
Foxman led the charge against the film and its seeming reaffirmation of the myth that placed the responsibility for the death of the Christian messiah on the Jews. He also took the lion’s share of blame from those who believed that Gibson used critics to hype a small film into a mega-hit.
Foxman’s still smarting from that charge.
He responded in a recent Jerusalem Post opinion piece that restated his reasons for protest and his fears that those who see it in the future will be exposed to “the film’s vile notions of Jews.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Lapin, a marginal figure among Jews but someone who enjoys some notoriety among evangelicals who flocked to see the movie. At the time that most other Jews were following Foxman’s lead, Lapin was part of Gibson’s cheering section.
But rather than merely gloat about Foxman’s discomfort, Lapin is attempting to use “The Passion” anniversary to refloat one of his own ideas. He doesn’t think the real cause for anti-Semitism lies in the age-old canards that Foxman and others have sought to debunk. For the South African-born rabbi, the cause of hatred for the Jews can be found in the behavior of, among others, actors Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.
What has this famous Jewish duo done?
The answer is that they made a movie that the right-wing rabbi considered far worse than Gibson’s. For Lapin, the Streisand-Hoffman appearance in the regrettable “Meet the Fockers” wasn’t merely an exercise in bad taste. For him, it was a defamation of American Jewry.
In the film — the sequel to the extremely popular “Meet the Parents” — Streisand and Hoffman portray the oversexed and eccentric Jewish parents of a character played by actor Ben Stiller, a dorky Jewish male nurse who’s marrying a gentile goddess. The conceit of the piece lies in a visit by the girl’s uptight parents to Miami, home of their Jewish hippie counterparts. Comic complications ensue, some of which deal with the stereotyped connections of the Jewish couple to Judaism.
But rather than dismiss this as cinematic nonsense, Lapin, in a piece widely distributed by his organization, considers it a prime example of how Jews are destroying American morals.
“You’d have to be a recent immigrant from Outer Mongolia not to know of the role that people with Jewish names play in the coarsening of our culture,” fulminates Lapin. “Almost every American knows this. It is just that most gentiles are too polite to mention it.”
Was Hitler right? Acknowledging that any ordinary reader would be shocked at such a statement, Lapin remains undaunted, and goes even further with a quote from Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Lapin observes “that evil megalomaniac roused his nation” not through use of the deicide myth, but by noting the Jewish influence in German cultural life.
“It does not excuse Hitler or his Nazi thugs for us to acknowledge that this maniacal, master propagandist focused on a reality that resonated with the educated, and cultured Germans of his day,” writes Lapin.
In other words, according to Lapin, avant-garde Jewish artists “linked Jews and deviant sexuality” in the German imagination, and so set the stage for the Shoah. He sees American Jews as similarly responsible for our country’s “cultural decline” — something that “angers more Americans than the crucifixion.”
Lapin is right that some Jews on the left have been all too quick to wrongly stigmatize Christian conservatives as anti-Semites when, in fact, many are ardent supporters of Israel.
He’s also right when he condemns the decline of public morality.
But who but an anti-Semite or a Jew who hates liberals more than he despises Jew-haters would place the blame for this solely on the Jews?
Blaming Jewish artists for prejudice against Jews, at a time when the engine for this hate is clearly coming from other sources such as the Muslim world, is as irresponsible as it is vile. And when Lapin claims that actors who spoof Jewish secularism are actually practicing anti-Semitism while at the same time rationalizing those who would single out “the Jews” as the destroyers of American decency, the rabbi has crossed the boundary from irresponsible commentary to fomenting hatred of his own people.
Out of all the loopy things that have been said and written about Gibson’s film, Lapin’s article qualifies as the low point of the discussion. In his zeal to condemn his foes, the talking rabbi has proven that self-hatred isn’t a virus that can be solely linked to the Jewish left.
Say what you will about Foxman’s dogged attempt to justify his role as Gibson’s unwitting foil in last year’s cultural follies. But Lapin represents an example of how “The Passion” helped motivate a cultural conservative to turn on his own people.
Viewed in that context, it turns out to be a far scarier movie than anyone may have dreamed.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.