Is Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, anti-Semitic? Even before the movie’s release, the implications of its ultra-violent depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus were being hotly debated. But the controversy obscures a far larger question. We are now witnessing a worldwide resurgence of anti-Semitism: Can the dangerous malady spread to the United States?
To a surprising extent the ancient hatred has already arrived on our doorstep. And the new anti-Semitism in this country is coming not primarily from the Right–and especially not from the Christian Right–but from other novel sources: American Muslims and segments of the American Left. Mel Gibson’s film is thus hardly the central issue; it is in some sense a diversion from the real problem at hand.
In Europe, as a recent EU study has confirmed, it is overwhelmingly Muslim immigrants who have been behind the dramatic wave of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions over the past several years. Here in the U.S., Muslims from the Middle East constitute the fastest growing subgroup, their numbers rising eightfold from 1970 to 2000 and projected by the end of this decade to double again. The overwhelming number of these immigrants wants nothing more than to enjoy American life in tranquility. But coming from countries where hatred of Jews suffuses the air waves and is taught in schools, many of them bring along ideas that are anything but tranquil.
In mosques and Islamic bookstores across the U.S., openly anti-Semitic pamphlets and cassettes are often on sale. Community newspapers, like the Arab Voice in Paterson, New Jersey, have reprinted excerpts from the notorious anti-Semitic tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Islamic day-schools use textbooks, some of them produced in Saudi Arabia, that explain how Jews “killed their own prophets and disobeyed Allah.” Others speak of a Muslim imperative to “start attacking Jews.”
Such incitement, and the broader culture of hatred toward Jews and Israel of which it is a part, has already led to violence. In addition to a large number of low-level acts–synagogues vandalized, Jews assaulted on the streets–we have seen a string of major attacks: gunfire on the Brooklyn Bridge directed against Hasidic Jews in 1994, killing one, and injuring three; gunfire directed against “Zionists” in the observation tower of the Empire State Building in 1997, killing one and injuring six; gunfire at the El Al ticket counter of the Los Angeles Airport in 2002, killing two.
U.S. law-enforcement authorities, like their European counterparts, have attempted to downplay such incidents, characterizing them as the work of deranged lone wolves. But there is a strong element of “rationality” in these attacks: rationality Middle-Eastern style. One of the earliest attacks on a Jewish target, the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990 by El Sayyid Nosair, was the work of the nascent al Qaeda organization. Nosair’s co-conspirator, Ramzi Yousef, went on to select the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center for the 1993 truck-bomb explosion that killed six and injured over a thousand. The reasoning behind his choice: the “majority of the people who work in the World Trade Center are Jews.”
Less lethal, but gathering a dangerous momentum, is the new anti-Semitism of the American Left, which comes in various guises. For one thing, the poison has entered the mainstream of the American body politic via the person of Al Sharpton. In 1991, in the immediate aftermath of New York’s Crown Heights riot, where a mob chanted “Kill the Jews” and placards screamed “Hitler didn’t do his job”–the riot culminated in the stabbing death of a Hasidic Jew, Yankel Rosenbaum–Sharpton made a speech declaiming against “Oppenheimer in South Africa [who] sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants here in Crown Heights.” Yet today, a man who has never apologized for such words, and who has proudly associated with the openly anti-Semitic black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, is a candidate for the U.S. presidency, treated by the Democratic party as a member in good standing, and even goes unchallenged when he has the temerity, in nationally televised debates, to lecture his fellow candidates on race relations.
In the intellectual world a similar process of normalizing anti-Semitism is under way. College campuses across the country have become the staging ground for an “anti-Zionist” campaign that regularly crosses the line separating legitimate criticism of Israel from thinly veiled judeophobia. On placards at campus demonstrations, one finds the Nazi swastika, the ultimate symbol of evil, equated with the Star of David, and one also can find posters showing cans labeled “Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites.” So bad have things become that no less a figure than Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, has warned against the rising anti-Semitism at his university and at others across the land.
Now being seeded into these dark clouds is Mel Gibson’s controversial film. Passion plays portraying the Jews committing the crime of deicide occupy a notorious position in the history of Christian anti-Semitism, igniting pogroms of unimaginable ferocity across centuries of the European past. But in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and especially since the Catholic Church altered its historic attitude toward the Jews with the convocation of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, this brand of anti-Semitism has been in sharp decline.
We are thus confronted with a deep irony. Will one of Mel Gibson’s achievements be to breathe fresh life into an anti-Semitic tradition that has been dying out? If so, this self-styled conservative and American patriot would be in effect joining forces with Islamic radicals and the most extreme elements of the European and American Left.
History is filled with unexpected twists and turns; and just as some of the most “progressive” elements of our society are actually agents of the reactionary past, so some of the most conservative elements may be turning into instruments of a dangerous radicalism.
–Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, is the author of The Return of Anti-Semitism, just published by Encounter.