Mel Gibson's movie has sharpened old divisions, created new ones, and endangered decades of effort to build good will.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ opened on February 25, Ash Wednesday. I planned to catch a noon showing that Friday and I was a nervous wreck. Even setting aside the question of anti-Semitism, reviewers had depicted a movie so horrific, with clawed whips sending chunks of bloodied flesh flying across the screen, that I was not sure I could endure the experience. (In the aftermath of childhood nightmares, I have assiduously avoided fictional horror and cinematic gore alike.) But one can hardly undertake to write about a film whose controversial nature rests in part on its violence and close one’s eyes when the going gets tough. And so I entered the theater in fear and trembling.
As the film unfolded, my reactions taught me something about one of the key issues in this entire affair—the critical role played by expectations and prior experience in molding a viewer’s response. The Passion is indeed saturated with anti-Jewish motifs; and yet my expectation of anti-Semitism had been set at so high a level that I could barely muster more than a trace of indignation. The violence is interminable, central, and utterly graphic; but my trepidation had been ratcheted up to a point where I emerged from the theater with a sense of relief. Essentially, a film drenched in blood, suffused with sublime sentiments of sacrifice and forgiveness, and replete with images of venomous Jews left me neither uplifted nor viscerally outraged. Though I am more than capable of leaving a movie in tears, I left this one curiously unmoved.
My reaction no doubt resulted in part from the need to steel myself against surrendering to an experience that might rob me of sleep for months to come. But there was more to it than that. Despite its powerful cinematic effects, this is a film whose capacity to move depends in large measure on the viewer’s ability to identify with Jesus of Nazareth for reasons that are not presented in the film itself. If you come with love and admiration for its hero, and all the more so if you come with faith in his divinity and his supreme self-sacrifice, every lash, every nail, every drop of blood will tear at your psyche. But for a viewer with neutral sentiments, or with little knowledge—or with the mixed emotions of a Jew acutely aware of the role of this story in unleashing persecution—the film provides little basis for empathy. Its unremitting violence remains just that.
Thus, I had great difficulty—and still do—in assimilating the assertion of some viewers that they had seen an Oscar-winning performance on the part of the film’s Jesus (played by Jim Caviezel). Because of the very nature of Mel Gibson’s faith, his Jesus must be a one-dimensional figure. After the first moments in the garden of Gethsemane, this is a man without inner conflict, without inner development, without complex, evolving relationships with others. Aside from a few flashbacks of the briefest duration, the task of the actor is to deliver melodramatic pronouncements and to writhe in agony. No one, however talented, could turn this into an Oscar-winning role. God is not a candidate for an Academy Award.
The disputes swirling around the movie are remarkably complex, conforming to conventional lines and at the same time cutting across them. With respect to the interfaith tensions spawned by this affair, Dennis Prager’s observation that Jews and Christians have been seeing different movies is the beginning and perhaps even the middle of wisdom. But the film has also exacerbated divisions among Christians themselves—and among Jews—as well as confrontations between secular and religious Americans, with the potential to create new alliances and damage old ones. These shifting fault lines reflect and emerge out of a constellation of deeply entrenched Jewish fears, a half-century of Jewish-Christian dialogue and rapprochement, Christian attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ambivalent alliance of Orthodox Jewry with the Christian Right, secularist and liberal Christian concerns about ascendant fundamentalism, traditionalist Christian resentments at widespread mockery of their beliefs and values, and more.
Thus, an entire essay could be devoted to the cultural politics of the Gibson affair, on exhibit in a vast multitude of opinion pieces in the news media, on television and radio, on the web, and in magazines occupying every point of the ideological spectrum. For purposes of manageability, but also because I believe this to be the most important issue of all, I mean to concentrate here on the aspect of the controversy touching directly on Christian-Jewish relations.
Gibson’s project entered public consciousness when, last year, a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars reviewed a preliminary version of the screenplay and expressed deep reservations. When their suggestions for massive changes were transmitted to Gibson, his representatives charged that the script had been obtained improperly. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which had encouraged the review, then backed away, failing to offer even a modicum of support to the authors, who came to be subjected to savage attacks.
The scholars had approached the screenplay from a perspective shared by only a handful of observers. They knew that the passion narrative had played a central role in fostering and unleashing anti-Jewish sentiments through the ages. They also knew that it had loomed large in the dramatically positive transformation of Jewish-Catholic relations ever since the declaration of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that, “even though Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion.” They knew that the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews had issued “guidelines” and “notes” about how to apply the Council’s declaration in liturgy, education, and preaching. Finally, they knew that in 1988 the USCCB’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs had issued “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.”
The scholars can hardly be blamed for having assumed—naively, as it turned out—that the Conference took its own published standards seriously. Among other things, these criteria affirm that dramatizations of the passion should present the diversity of Jewish communities in Jesus’ time; that Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious or bloodthirsty; that any “crowd scene” should reflect the fact that some in the crowd and among the Jewish leaders supported Jesus, and that the rest were manipulated by his opponents; that Jesus’ opponents should not be made to look sinister while he and his friends are depicted in lighter tones, thus isolating Jesus and the apostles from the Jews as a group; that “if one cannot show beyond reasonable doubt that the particular Gospel element selected or paraphrased will not be offensive or have the potential for negative influence on the audience . . . , that element should not, in good conscience, be used”; and that Pontius Pilate should be presented as the “ruthless tyrant” that we know he was.
That the screenplay of The Passion violated the Conference’s criteria in all these particulars was self-evident. But changing it to conform to the Conference’s official positions would have required Gibson to start over from scratch, and there was no way he would accede to such a request. Instead, he took the offensive. One Catholic figure who supported him issued the preposterous statement that the screenplay did conform to established guidelines. Another declared that everything in the film was historically accurate. Spokesmen for the producers indicated that the film was a faithful presentation of the Gospel accounts, so that any criticism of the screenplay was a criticism of the Gospels themselves. Sympathetic commentators, including several Orthodox Jews, dutifully repeated these assertions, although very few of them had read the screenplay or seen the film.
At this point in the controversy, I felt both sympathy and antipathy toward the arguments of Gibson’s defenders. For two decades, I had publicly expressed strong reservations about the tendency of Jews engaged in interfaith dialogue to tell Christians what to believe about their own religion.1 This same caveat had been issued in the 1960’s, in the midst of the excitement surrounding the Vatican Council, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the renowned Orthodox scholar, who was not only committed on principle to nonintervention but was also concerned about the dangers of reciprocal expectations. In general, it is because their own instincts enable them to empathize with the deep, unalterable convictions of fundamentalists that Orthodox Jews are particularly reluctant to propose revisions in the faith of others. By contrast, secularists, liberal Christians, and non-Orthodox religious Jews, even with the best of intentions, cannot quite grasp the full dimensions of an unwavering commitment to the literal truth of a sacred text.
Of course, the word “literal” is not subject to precise definition; but it is not without meaning, either. Thus, to argue (as some critics of The Passion have done) that Pontius Pilate could not have been successfully pressured by a Jewish mob is to argue that the Gospel accounts—all four of them—are incorrect. To argue that the Gospels contradict each other regarding the scourging of Jesus, with John placing it prior to the final decision to have him crucified and Matthew and Mark placing it later, is to misapprehend the approach of a fundamentalist, who will assert that he was scourged both before and after.
There is a fascinating irony in the understanding that many Orthodox Jews exhibit toward the sensibilities of the most traditional Christians. After all, the Orthodox retain deeper anti-Christian instincts than liberal Jews—avoiding interfaith prayer, shrinking from theological dialogue, affirming an ancient obligation to undergo martyrdom rather than embrace Christianity, and in many cases seeing Christian anti-Semitism as a metaphysical, unchangeable condition captured in the formula, “Esau hates Jacob.” And yet, several Orthodox Jews have gone so far as to ask me whether even hostile non-Scriptural material in The Passion may be justified in light of authoritative Catholic traditions. I doubt that this question would even enter the mind of the non-Orthodox.
Beyond empathy with believers who resist the questioning of Scriptural accuracy, many traditionalist Jews feel a commonality with traditionalist Christians on a range of other issues as well: abortion, sexuality in the public sphere, homosexuality, aid to denominational schools, protection of religious rights, and the claim of Jews to the land of Israel in its entirety. Lengthy tracts could be written to qualify the simplistic, homogenizing implications of this list, but it does help explain the fact that Gibson’s most enthusiastic Jewish defenders have come from the ranks of the Orthodox. This is not to say, however, that a majority of Orthodox Jews think that the film is a good idea. Quite the contrary: Gibson’s apologists among the Orthodox are far outnumbered by those typified, in extreme fashion, by a relative who told me that once this movie appeared he would be careful not to stand close to the edge of a subway platform. What the apologists and the fearful straphangers do have in common is a tendency to regard vigorous Jewish criticism of the film as incendiary and self-defeating.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. While I strongly believe that Jews should not instruct Christians about the proper parameters of Christian faith, I do not regard alleged faithfulness to the Gospel narratives as a valid defense of a decision to present those narratives without elaboration or nuance. In a newspaper piece that appeared well before the film’s release, I put the point as follows:
The pre-modern Catholic Church—and Gibson is after all an unreconstructed Catholic who pines for the good old days—actively discouraged any reading of Scripture by the laity. While few people today would endorse this approach, it reflects the healthy understanding that the text of Scripture cannot stand alone. It needs to be explicated—and not by the proverbial Devil so famous for quoting it. Gibson and his defenders imagine that the film’s adherence to the words of the Gospels with nothing added provides their most effective defense. In fact, along with the sadism and gore, it is precisely what justifies severe indictment.
In short, respect for the power and history of this story requires that it be placed in a framework that elucidates its message in light of the teachings of contemporary mainstream Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike.
In the months leading up to the film’s release, the war of words intensified, and with it, the anticipation. The most vocal Jewish attacks came from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), whose leader, Abraham Foxman, became the prime target of both Gibsonites and anti-anti-Gibsonites. In the wake of intense criticism and a more realistic assessment of potential consequences, the ADL moderated its rhetoric. But the damage could not be entirely undone.
This episode deserves a brief comment, if only because it continues to provoke debate. Although the decibel level of the ADL’s initial reaction was clearly a serious misjudgment, other factors need to be taken into consideration. First, the organization did try to act behind the scenes, but encountered a stone wall. Second, some of Gibson’s rhetoric, as well as his apparent doubts concerning the large-scale gassing of Jews by the Nazis in World War II, understandably raised Jewish hackles. Third, it was evident early on that his assertions about the absolute fidelity of the film to the Gospels were questionable. Finally, and despite what some of Foxman’s detractors implied, this movie would hardly have disappeared into the void had the ADL and others kept silent. Although its success would almost certainly have been more limited, Gibson’s name, the technical quality of the production, the mobilization of the evangelical and traditionalist Catholic communities, and the intrinsic significance of the story to countless multitudes would have guaranteed a very wide viewer-ship throughout the world and for many years to come.
In any event, when Ash Wednesday 2004 finally arrived, the film’s reception rapidly demonstrated the near irrelevance of the framework within which much of the earlier discussion had taken place. Did viewers base their reaction to The Passion on the degree of its deviation from the criteria established by the Bishops’ Conference? The very question is comical. While the earlier debate did alert film-goers to the specter of anti-Semitism, the vast majority reacted through the filter of their religious commitments. To the degree that the movie was evaluated against some other standard, that standard turned out to be—other movies.
Thus, the question raised was not whether Gibson’s depiction was “better” or “worse” than that of the Oberammergau passion play, or of the Gospels themselves, but whether it was more or less violent than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That film, which I have mercifully never seen, has become a main point of comparison in traditionalist Christian discourse about The Passion, to the extent that it was invoked by a twelve-year-old preacher interviewed on Fox News who, I hope, has also not seen it. In a similar vein, many fundamentalist Christians have pointedly wondered why secular commentators have fallen silent at best and been supportive at worst when it comes to gangsta rap and other abhorrent manifestations of popular culture while subjecting a film about Jesus to withering attack.
This argument, for all its force, is persuasive only as an ad-hominem riposte (and, as we shall see, it can be easily reversed). Nonetheless, it is of central importance in explaining the emotions unleashed by criticism of the film. Since I empathize with some of those emotions, let me try to formulate the key points as vigorously as I can.
Straightforward logic and elementary intuition inform us that books, films, songs, theater, and art can exercise a profound influence over readers, listeners, and viewers. And yet, out of ideological or financial motives, intelligent people have regularly delivered themselves of the most transparent absurdities regarding this matter. Producers of violent or pornographic films tell us that what happens on screen is not transmuted into actual behavior, an assertion that, while surely true for most viewers, is unquestionably false for a nontrivial minority. Distributors of gangsta rap assert with straight faces that the unspeakably vile lyrics of the songs they disseminate reflect a regrettable reality but surely do not exacerbate it. After all, they intone, no listener, whatever his age, would ever dream of actually carrying out any of the horrific acts that the songs explicitly encourage—and besides, it is not the responsibility of these pillars of society but rather the obligation of parents to monitor every piece of music to which their children are exposed.
The most vigorous critics of this debased ethos and its products have been traditionalist Christians. For their efforts, they have been pilloried for narrowness, intolerance, and worse. When, for example, a dung-splattered Mary appeared in an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, their objections were dismissed not just on First Amendment grounds but on the supposed principle that it is the task of a museum to exhibit “cutting-edge” art. Not surprisingly, unequivocal moral support for Christian concerns came predominantly from Orthodox Jewish organizations.
It was pent-up grievances of this kind that exploded in traditionalist Christian circles in the face of attacks on the film by secularist liberals—attacks that often extended to Christian conservatives themselves. Here, for example, was Stuart Klawans in the Nation:
However much you might play at seeing his work as just another movie, Gibson has gone outside the normal bounds of show business and into the territory of America’s religious absolutists: John Ashcroft anointing himself with oil, gay-hating lawmakers attempting to write Leviticus into the Constitution, antiabortionists shooting to kill, generals declaring holy war against the Muslim infidel. Our country has a great, great many such people who do not consider their convictions to be open to discussion. They maintain a significant hold on power; and since a lot of them have an antinomian streak, I doubt the rule of law would stand in their way, should we manage to loosen their grip. The ever-boyish and ingenuous Gibson, with his simple faith, has made The Passion of the Christ as a gift to such people.
To retain one’s equanimity in the face of such rhetoric is no easy task. Nonetheless, grievances do not provide a license to suspend one’s own moral code. It is decidedly true that people who routinely ignore the damage that popular culture can cause, who wrap themselves in the First Amendment to guard against the need to think seriously about the consequences of music and films, and who then speak of the dangers inherent in The Passion, may justly be denounced as hypocrites. But so can those who routinely rail against the dangers of popular culture and then turn a blind eye to this film’s brutality and its potential for harm.
To speak repeatedly about the psychological damage to children who are exposed to cinematic violence, and then take high-school classes to see The Passion, is problematic in the extreme; perhaps, indeed, a form of child abuse. (It should be unnecessary to add that peer pressure strips the option to stay home of any meaning.) In assessing the potential consequences of popular culture, traditionalist Christians do not ask if those attending a rap concert will seek out women to rape immediately upon leaving the theater. Similarly, the question of whether crowds will pour out of multiplexes to initiate immediate pogroms is hardly the proper criterion for evaluating the potential effect of The Passion on attitudes toward Jews. Those who understand the power of films to mold behavior, and who worry about their impact upon even a minority of susceptible viewers, should be the first to recognize the danger.
Finally, then, we turn to the message of the film itself. I do not believe The Passion was made with the purpose of arousing or increasing hostility to Jews, but it exudes indifference to this prospect. The litany of its anti-Jewish motifs, many of them not required by the Gospel accounts and sometimes even standing in tension with them, is lengthy and impressive. No filmmaker who actually cared about avoiding anti-Semitism could have produced anything resembling it.
To begin with, the high priest and his wicked associates wear costumes that evoke contemporary prayer shawls. They are bedecked with precious metals. Judas’s thirty pieces of silver are thrown to him in slow motion; they scatter on the floor, and he greedily picks them up. The Jewish boys who pursue Judas are transformed into little demons—the metaphoric progeny, as Andrew Sullivan has noted, of Satan himself (or herself), who flits menacingly among the Jewish crowds.
In describing Jesus’ arrest by Jews armed with swords and staves, the Gospels themselves simply assert that he was led away—in John, bound and led away—to the Jewish authorities. In The Passion, he is beaten vigorously and repeatedly during his forced march to the point where he falls off a cliff, is brought to a sudden halt by the chain around his neck, and must then clamber back up. It is not enough to remark that the Gospels tell us nothing of the sort. It strains credulity to believe that the Gospel writers could have known of such extreme mistreatment without allowing the slightest hint of it to enter their accounts.2
Once Jesus is delivered to the high priest and his associates, the Gospels do speak of his being buffeted, spat on, and slapped after or just before his condemnation. Here too, though, the depiction in the film is much stronger than that of the Gospels. Then, when he is handed over to Pilate, the sensitive Roman governor of the movie asks: “Do you always punish your prisoners before they are judged?” This question, which does not appear in the Gospels, is left unanswered, but its implications are unambiguous. If the Jews behave this way as a matter of course, they are routinely vicious; if not, they have singled Jesus out for special cruelty.
And so we come to Pilate. Before seeing the film, I had vigorously defended the right of believing Christians to affirm that Pilate was reluctant to execute Jesus but was successfully pressured by a Jewish crowd to override his own preference. I continue to adhere to that position in principle, but the film has impelled me to moderate it. The inner struggle ascribed to the morally conflicted governor goes beyond what the Gospels require, and its inconsistency with what we know about this man’s character from extra-biblical sources becomes a legitimate basis for criticism.
In the context of the film, Pilate’s (biblically unattested) complaints to his wife about the rotten outpost to which he has been assigned and the stinking rabble that he must deal with appear eminently reasonable. The viewer, then, is led to identify with a perspective that sees Judea and its undifferentiated population, taken as a whole, through the prism of this bloodthirsty crowd. Pilate’s moment of discomfort while viewing the lashing his men inflict on Jesus—a reaction also unrecorded in the Gospels—forms an acute contrast with the unmoved cruelty of the Jews. In still another scene, both unbiblical and implausible, Pilate attempts but fails to quiet the crowd, whereupon the high priest sarcastically asks—to appreciative laughter—if they have no respect for the Roman governor. Thus, the Jewish crowd does more than manipulate Pilate; it subjects him to open mockery.
Finally, in a controversial scene that is indeed in one of the Gospels, Pilate washes his hands of guilt, and the crowd apparently exclaims, “His blood be on us and on our children.” I say “apparently” because Gibson has, in a fit of philo-Semitism, removed the subtitle at this point, and, as he told Diane Sawyer, the Aramaic exclamation is partially obscured by other noise. (I heard the Aramaic “His blood be on us,” but could not make out the curse on the children; since Gibson has indicated that it is there, I am prepared to take his word for it.)3
There is, in any case, no realistic way to prevent the addition of the relevant subtitle in English, in Arabic, or in any other language, as the film makes its way through the world, through the years, and through a variety of electronic formats. This is a paradigmatic example of a passage that a Christian has every right to believe but no right to present in such a film without some dialogue expressing a disavowal of the sentiment by figures with whom the audience will identify. Yes, the crowd said it; but God, for one, did not agree with it. Jesus’ later, generic “Father, forgive them” does not begin to suffice.
At this point we must screw up our courage to examine the scourging and all the rest. For the last hour and fifteen minutes or so, this is a film depicting a man beaten to a bloody pulp and then nailed to a cross. In another controversial choice, Gibson here endorses John’s account of the scourging of Jesus on Pilate’s orders before the final cries of “Crucify him, crucify him.” I have already noted my defense of Gibson’s right to make such a choice, but once again the film impelled me to qualify my position. The relevant verses in John—in their entirety—read only as follows: “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, and said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and they smote him with their hands” (John 19:1-3). Out of this raw material, there emerge ten almost unrelieved minutes of unremitting whipping with implements of varying cruelty, leaving Jesus a welter of blood.
Since no one could have stood erect or perhaps even lived after such treatment, it is self-evident that the scene is untrue to the intent of the Gospel. What this means is that the subsequent scene, in which the Jews have one more opportunity to change their mind, takes on a dimension that even the admittedly harsh Gospel account does not convey. The crowd now beholds a man who has visibly been subjected to unspeakable torment. The rabbis of the Mishnah say that Jews are “merciful people descended from merciful people.” Not here. Not a fleeting scintilla of mercy. “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!”
So Pilate sends him off to be crucified. At this point, direct responsibility for the violence shifts entirely to the Romans. And here in large measure is the basis for my tentative assertion earlier that Gibson did not intend to foment hostility toward Jews as such. I am referring to the consistent bestiality of the Roman soldiers, plus a few small but significant positive indicators of another kind.
The sadism of the Romans underscores Gibson’s consuming desire to maximize the depiction of Jesus’ torment and to highlight the contrast between the evil forces of the film’s villains and the pure, self-sacrificing goodness of Jesus and his followers. When evil is embodied in Jews, they are depicted in the worst possible light; when it is embodied in Romans, they are.
For Gibson, who was raised in an anti-Semitic household, the images of avaricious, bloodthirsty, gold-bedecked Jewish monsters are no doubt standard means of symbolizing Jewish evil, and may be used with no concern whatsoever for their larger impact. Perhaps, just perhaps, he really does not understand what some of his clearly decent defenders also do not understand—that the depiction of Jewish monsters has a potential for evil consequences that the depiction of Roman monsters does not. It should not be necessary to make an argument for this assertion, but apparently it is.
We have been assured that, just as there is no reason to suppose the film will cause hatred for Italians, there is no reason to suppose it should cause hatred for Jews. The differences, however, are numerous and compelling. The Roman soldiers are not the leaders of their people; the high priest and his associates are. The depiction of the Romans does not reinforce a hostile stereotype that has persisted over centuries; the depiction of the Jews does. The Italians atoned for their sin by embracing Christianity; the Jews did not. There is no history of persecution directed against Italians as a consequence of this story; there is a history of persecution—a long and bloody one—against Jews. There is no longstanding theological argument for punishing Italians for their role in these events; there is a deeply influential one for punishing Jews. No non-Jewish Italian has ever been called “Christ killer” while suffering a beating at the hands of classmates or mobs; Jews—Italian and otherwise-have lived through this experience, and sometimes failed to live through it, on countless occasions from medieval times through the 20th century.
Even on a purely cinematic level, a profound difference obtains. The Romans in the movie are “innocently” sadistic. They simply enjoy smashing bones, scourging flesh, making blood flow. They cannot help it; it is their animal nature. The Jews, by contrast, are villainous out of conviction; theirs is a thoroughly conscious, thoroughly intentional, thoroughly satanic evil. There is a distinction, and Gibson cannot but make it palpable even if he does not consciously mean to.4
Why, then, am I still inclined to see the Roman monsters as an indication that Gibson’s assault on Jews in this film results not from intentional anti-Jewish malice but from a Manichaean vision reinforced by the anti-Semitic stereotypes that he imbibed with his father’s milk? What nudges me in this direction is the presence of a few touches that are inconsistent with systematic anti-Semitism.
The most striking of these is a single word spoken by a Roman soldier to Simon of Cyrene, the Jew forced to help Jesus carry the cross. Simon himself is depicted more sympathetically than the Gospels require; when he asks the Romans to show Jesus some mercy, a soldier dismisses him with the epithet, “Jew.” Here, then, the film underscores the Jewishness of a sympathetic character where the Gospels do not.
Another such touch appears in the very brief flashback to the Sermon on the Mount, where some of those present wear prayer shawls, thus reminding us of the Jewishness of Jesus’ followers. While these tiny flourishes do not even begin to neutralize the extended anti-Jewish motifs and images at the core of the film, they do not sit well with the assumption that it was made with the conscious purpose of fomenting hatred against Jews.
For me, an unexpected consequence of watching this movie was a new regard for the Gospel writers’ restraint. Gibson shows us the interminable beating of Jesus as he carries his cross to the crucifixion. We have already seen that John asserts in but a single unelaborated verse that Jesus was scourged before his final conviction. In Luke, there is no scourging at all. The only references to scourging after Pilate’s final decision appear in Matthew and Mark, and in each case the information is contained in the briefest of subordinate clauses: “and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:26); “and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). That is all.
Since the flogging implied here is no small matter, and might well have merited greater emphasis, it appears that the Gospel writers consciously marginalized this element of the story, that they did not want the sacrifice of Jesus to turn into a horror movie. In light of this, the very core of Gibson’s film—which reflects his conviction that, in order to appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice, one must wallow in his agony—runs counter to the intentions of the Gospels.
Pondering this point, I have come to understand why a Catholic priest who has been prominently involved in ecumenical activities both in the United States and in Rome told me before the film was released that its reported concentration on the flaying of Jesus was in his view blasphemous.
It is no surprise that the early reactions to showings of The Passion should have mirrored the positions held before it was released. Nonetheless, they have been instructive and occasionally troubling.
The scholars who criticized the early screenplay Christian and Jewish, reaffirmed their first assessment. Since the film was not changed in any fundamental way, this was inevitable. As for Catholics of a traditional bent, most embraced the film enthusiastically. Thus, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, described it in an open letter to the Jewish community as “magnificent beyond words.” Anyone who subscribes to the notion of collective guilt, Donohue wrote, or who believes that today’s Jews are responsible for the behavior of some Jews 2,000 years ago, is demented.
Since not many people are insane, Donohue’s remark was clearly intended to reassure, as well as to reinforce his denunciation of the film’s critics. Unfortunately, however, the Catholic teaching that all sinners are responsible for the crucifixion was once seen as perfectly consistent with the doctrine that the Jewish collective, and the Jewish collective alone, suffered specific, grave, and ongoing punishment for its role. Although it is a comfort to know that Donohue, a mainstream Catholic holding a responsible position, cannot even conceive of the rationality of this position, still, the “demented” view was held by major Church authorities through the ages and by masses of Catholics even in the United States through the mid-20th century, and its permanent demise can hardly be celebrated with confidence.
I was particularly interested in seeing the official review of the movie by the USCCB’s Office of Film and Broadcasting. It was no doubt to be expected that the movie’s great popularity among the laity would affect the positions of Catholic leaders, and so it did. While the review contains some mild criticisms, it is on the whole laudatory; more to the point, it contains not a single reference to the “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.”
Michael J. Cook, one of the Jewish scholars involved in the original evaluation of the screenplay, has seen this as no less vexing than the movie itself. “The solid bridge of trust Jews thought they had with the Catholic Church now lies exposed as merely a drawbridge, readily placed in raised position when it is most needed.” My own emotional reaction is identical to Cook’s; no measure of internal communal dynamics can justify this betrayal of decades of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. But if Donohue’s view is too rosy, Cook’s may be too despairing. In moments of crisis, ecumenical work can indeed be ignored in favor of larger concerns, but the quotidian activity of ecumenists effects slow, gradual, deep change. The most fervent partisans of this movie have couched their defense as a denial that it blames the Jews. Two generations ago, certainly three generations ago, Jewish responsibility was taken for granted.
And evangelical Christians? Despite the Catholic provenance of the movie, and despite its concentration on themes that Protestants have historically deemphasized, these denominations have embraced it with unbridled enthusiasm—to the point of construing criticism of “Mel’s” work as enmity toward them and their values. In fact, a de-facto alliance between fundamentalist Protestants and traditional Catholics has developed around the movie, with consequences that are difficult to foresee.
Because uncritical devotion to the film has become a virtual religious obligation for them, fundamentalist Christians regularly attest that it is entirely faithful to the biblical account. Interviewing Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the most outspoken and uncompromising Jewish apologist for Gibson, Rev. Pat Robertson asked, “What is the story here [regarding Abraham Foxman’s criticism]? This movie is anything but anti-Semitic. It is the four Gospels that Christians believe is inspired Scripture. There is nothing that is departing from this narrative.” To which the rabbi responded: “It is breathtakingly arrogant. What he is saying is that the only way to escape the wrath of Foxman is to repudiate your faith.”
Similarly, Patrick J. Buchanan, serving as guest host on the MSNBC program Scarborough Country, asked Rev. Franklin Graham whether it is not the case that the film “is extraordinarily faithful to the Gospels.” The reply: “Of course, Mel has a little bit of Hollywood artistry in the film. But it’s very accurate . . . it’s extremely close.” Buchanan then posed a similar question to James Kennedy, described as the most widely watched Presbyterian minister in the country: “Could Gibson have portrayed it any other way and remained faithful to the Gospels?” Kennedy replied: “[W]ith a few tiny little dramatic licenses that he added, no, he could not have, because that’s the way the story goes.”
Thus have the culture wars impelled biblical literalists to display so little concern for the Gospel accounts that major deviations and invented scenes, to say nothing of the larger vision transforming the narrative into a bloodbath, become “tiny little dramatic licenses.”
The nastiest vignette so far appeared a bit later in Buchanan’s program, when he interviewed Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in the presence of Revs. Graham and Kennedy. In an effort to trap the rabbi into declaring that Jesus was a charlatan, Buchanan began by asking, “Do you believe Christ rose from the dead?” The rabbi had to reply in the negative, but made a point of adding that he considered Jesus to have been a devout Jew. Buchanan proceeded to ask: “If he was a devout Jew, why did he, in effect, say that before Abraham was, I am, and in effect say, ‘I am the messiah’? And as a consequence of what he said, he not only laid down his life, but others laid down their lives. Now, if he was not the son of God, how can he be a good man if he sent men to their deaths on behalf of something that was not true?”
In other words, a Jew has no choice but to regard Jesus as less than a good man. This was a despicable attempt to foment religious enmity, and in Buchanan’s case it may even have been more than that: an effort to create discord between Jews and evangelical Christians in the hope of weakening the support that the evangelical community has extended to Israel. This, after all, has been a major stumbling block to Buchanan’s ability to achieve agreement with evangelicals across a broad range of issues.
Whether or not that was Buchanan’s intent—and I put nothing past him—this same issue is also at the heart of Jewish concerns about the dangers of criticizing The Passion. To be sure, some liberal Jews—liberal in both the political and religious sense—are deeply ambivalent about the alliance established with the evangelical community regarding Israel, and welcome the opportunity to disengage. But more conservative Jews regard evangelical support for Israel as a virtual lifeline, valuable in and of itself and especially crucial at a moment when that community forms a key constituency for a conservative Republican administration in Washington. Many Jews worry that the moderate, potential danger posed by The Passion has been allowed to outweigh the acute and present danger that currently confronts the Jewish people—and who is to say that they are wrong?
This brings us back to the thesis with which I began: the battles over this film have struck deep and dangerous chords. Reflecting and intensifying old antagonisms, they have pitted conservative Christians against liberal ones and religious fundamentalists against secularists. They have divided Jews along both familiar and unfamiliar lines, forcing them to confront the paradoxes of their current engagement with the Christian world: a world in which fundamentalists who work to convert them in order to prevent their otherwise likely (or certain) damnation extend desperately needed support to Israel, while many religious liberals, recognizing the ongoing value of Judaism and sensitive to manifestations of old-style Christian anti-Semitism, vehemently denounce almost any efforts by Israel, no matter how manifestly necessary, to defend its citizens against mass murder at the hands of terrorists.
In the face of the deep emotions stirred by this controversy, the challenge of maintaining a posture of measured criticism is especially daunting. In the Jewish case, total suppression of criticism would not only constitute a craven abandonment of self-respect; it would betray Christian friends who have devoted much of their lives to the welfare of the Jewish people. But neither can criticism be allowed, on either side, to descend into self-righteous condemnation of all who disagree.
If amity is to prevail, traditionalist Christians will have to force themselves to understand that reasonable people have grounds for genuine concern about this movie, that its critics do not necessarily hate them, and that some like them very much indeed. Jews for their part will have to force themselves to recognize that the fervent embrace of the film by traditionalist Christian audiences is not necessarily a sign of hostility or even indifference toward them, that it emerges out of positive religious emotions as well as understandable resentments flowing from the demonization of the religious Right by influential sectors of American public opinion. Jews must also force themselves to continue tending ecumenical vineyards even as the limitations of previous achievements have become painfully evident.
The reservoirs of good will that have been painstakingly accumulated in the last generation are being sorely tested. They cannot be allowed to run dry.
1 See my “Jewish-Christian Relations: A Jewish Perspective,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20 (1983), and my articles on Dominus Iesus, Dabru Emet, and “Confrontation,” posted on the website of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning (www.bc.edu/cjlearning).
2 “And they that had laid hold on Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest” (Matthew 26:57); “And they laid their hands on him, and took him. . . . And they led Jesus away to the high priest” (Mark 14:46, 53); “Then took they him, and led him, and brought him into the high priest’s house” (Luke 22:54); “Then the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus and bound him, and led him away” (John 18:12-13).
3 Considering the effort that went into preparing an Aramaic script and teaching it to the actors, the errors in pronunciation reflect a startling degree of sloppiness. To cite but one example in a very important word, the high priest pronounces the word “messiah,” more than once, in a grotesque conflation of Hebrew and Aramaic (meshiaha).
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Jews, Christians, and “The Passion”
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Cut bait while there's still line.
Nearly three months ago, Donald Trump reaffirmed his status as a maverick who’s liberated from the conventions that shackled past presidents by giving a North Korean despot something North Korean despots have sought for decades. Today, the planned bilateral summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has collapsed. In the intervening weeks, those conventions of which Trump is so disdainful demonstrated their value.
In retrospect, it is a marvel that the prospect of a summit between the American president and the scion of the Communist dynasty in Pyongyang was taken so seriously. Initially, it took Donald Trump a whopping 45 minutes to accept Kim’s overture. In that timeframe, surely complex matters such as American grand strategy, Kim’s domestic position, our complex and conflicting regional alliances, and achievable objectives got short shrift.
Expectations for the summit were unreasonably high almost from the outset. Those high hopes were made physically manifest in the form of 500 collector’s coins commemorating the presumably historic event. For a time, though, those expectations did not seem entirely fanciful.
North Korea’s openness to secret contacts with Trump administration officials, including the CIA director and vice president, were welcome changes of heart. When Trump tweeted about Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, North Korea did not correct him. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea even appeared to drop its opposition to military drills on the Peninsula and the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Mutual concessions seemed to mark the start of a new era. For a time, progress seemed possible. But that progress was only illusory.
This week, North Korea formally closed its nuclear test site. But North Korea’s test site collapsed in October of last year, taking as many as 200 trained professionals with it. Closing a defunct installation isn’t much of a concession. Nor, for that matter, is the surrender of American hostages. Indeed, the only reason to take hostages is to be able to give them up in a negotiation to generate concessions from your interlocutor without having surrendered anything of strategic value. The “peace treaty” that South Korea negotiated with North Korea is likely invalid because the U.S. and China—both parties to the 1953 cease-fire—were not part of the process. Recently, North Korea has rediscovered its opposition to military drills on the peninsula and its commitment to maintaining a nuclear arsenal, and communications between Washington and Pyongyang had broken down. The only thing the two parties agreed upon after ten weeks of preparatory work was on the summit itself. That is a recipe for disaster.
With no clarity on core objectives, the best that anyone could have hoped for from this summit was amicable ambiguity. But the more likely scenario was confusion, mutual hostility, and the closing off of lines of communication. It was a mark of maturity for the president to cut his losses before any irreplaceable American interests were sacrificed. That is, after all, how summits like these tend to end.
There are not many historical examples of bilateral summitry between two hostile powers, but the examples that we have to draw lessons from are not encouraging.
“I have never been so proud of my President as I have been in these sessions and particularly this afternoon,” Secretary of State George Schultz told reporters moments after Ronald Reagan’s summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, failed. Schultz put a positive spin on this summit’s failure, just as Reagan officials had the year earlier when a similar meeting at Geneva, Switzerland, did not produce anything other than an exchange of familiarities. But Reagan’s expectations for the summit were not met, and we are all better off as a result. As I wrote in April:
Had Reagan succeeded on his terms, the deal struck between the two powers in Iceland would have badly strained American relations with its nuclear-armed European allies and provided an economic lifeline to Moscow that might have postponed the Soviet Union’s implosion. In retrospect, the president’s willingness to walk away from the table set the stage for one of the most astonishing events of the 20th Century: the peaceful end of the Cold War and the fall of European communism.
The perils of a failed summit have proved all too real. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, stands as a warning to headstrong presidents seeking to leave their mark on the world. Kennedy studied closely the cataclysmic miscalculations made in Munich in 1939 and believed himself capable of avoiding the traps into which Neville Chamberlain had fallen, but he made his own unique mistakes. The young president allowed himself to be harangued by Khrushchev, which left the Soviet leader convinced of his weakness. “It was just a disaster,” said Assistant Secretary of State Paul Nitze. “I’m scared to death about what will happen next.” His trepidation was warranted. Within two months, Khrushchev ordered the walling in of East Berliners. One year after that, Soviet high command approved the deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba, touching off the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known.
The collapse of a fraught summit between the leader of the free world and the abhorrent head of one of the world’s most repulsive regimes does not signal the end of diplomacy. Indeed, it is a hopeful sign; a failed summit between the two countries’ principals might have closed off pathways to further negotiations. Negotiations between functionaries at lower governmental levels do not carry that risk.
Nor should Western diplomatic professionals worry that Trump has undermined Kim’s domestic position to the point that he will have to adopt a more confrontational posture and appease his regime’s hardline elements. A confrontational North Korea is the status quo ante; not optimal, but not an unknown quantity either. From Soviet generals to the Iranian mullahs, Westerners are frequently in thrall to the idea that a given interlocutor is surely preferable to uncompromising alternatives waiting in the wings. That is the appeaser’s construct. A deal that preserves the longevity of this criminal regime without a verifiable and long-term solution to the threat that a summit is designed to address is far worse than no summit at all.
Trump deserves credit both for being open to outside-the-box solutions to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and for recognizing when it was time to cut his losses on a bad idea. In the end, if maximum pressure on Pyongyang, Beijing, Moscow, and the rest of the rogues who support this disgraceful state convinces the Kim regime to make some hard choices about its survival, Trump may actually deserve that Nobel Prize.
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Podcast: The DPRK and the NFL.
The Trump-Kim meeting is off, and the question is this: If the announcement of thawing relations with North Korea helped Trump’s approval rating, will this hurt or harm it? And why won’t Trump trumpet the bipartisan legislative successes of the past few weeks? Give a listen.
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The great American novel.
Why won’t the child just listen? Why won’t she come to reason? Where did I do wrong with her?
Parents of difficult children have asked themselves such questions since time immemorial. For all of modern psychology’s advances, today’s parents are no more likely to have good answers than did their forebears a hundred or a thousand years ago. Indeed, modernity itself has compounded the ancient problem, by breaking taboos around honoring mother and father and spawning new reasons for children to rebel against parental order that would have been inconceivable under premodern conditions.
This tangle of themes is at the heart of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, perhaps the darkest and most acrid novel about parenting in all of American letters.
Roth, who died Tuesday at age 85, never had children. Yet he wrote perceptively and with great empathy for Seymour “the Swede” Levov, the novel’s protagonist, whose love for his daughter, Merry, knows no bounds and is utterly unrequited. Handsome, affable, responsible, and wealthy, the Swede does everything right by the standards of the midcentury American bourgeoisie. He manages a successful enterprise, procures a trophy wife, owns a tasteful estate in the Jersey suburbs, and fathers a girl who brings ruin to it all. There is a rage within Merry, which, as she grows older, explodes (quite literally) in political radicalism before she smothers her inner flames under Far-Eastern asceticism.
Why does Merry go wrong? What is the source of her rage? She isn’t as beautiful as her mother, Dawn, for starters. Dawn is vapid and cold, and she holds Merry as a judgment against her husband; their marriage is loveless. Then there is Merry’s severe stuttering, which speech therapy fails to alleviate for many years. The Swede’s love doesn’t suffice to overcome these natural disadvantages. Nor can the father’s love keep away the ferment and collective rage roiling America in the late 1960s: race riots, assassinations, all manner of sexual and cultural degradation. Merry is disordered because disorder is in the American air she breathes.
So it is that, five years after Merry commits a Weather Underground-style terrorist attack in the name of stopping the American war machine in Vietnam, the Swede finds Merry living in an almost animal-like state on the streets of Newark. Merry is now a fanatical Jainist, filthy and wafer-thin. Having committed bloody acts of terror, she has now adopted the opposite extreme–total pacifism, veganism–perhaps as a form of expiation. The father-daughter exchange that follows makes for excruciating reading for anyone who has ever loved a child:
“You’re not my daughter. You’re not Merry.”
“If you wish to believe that I am not, that may be just as well. It may be for the best.”
“Why don’t you ask me about your mother, Meredith? Should I ask you? Where was your mother born? What is her maiden name? What is her father’s name?
“I don’t want to talk about my mother.”
“Because you know nothing about her. Or about me. Or about the person you pretend to be. . . . Tell me why you’re pretending to be my daughter!”
“If I answer the questions, you will suffer even more. I don’t know how much suffering you want.”
Though set in the turbulent 1960s, American Pastoral has a striking contemporaneity. We, too, are living through an age of intense intergenerational conflict. Today’s aging Boomers are as mystified by the zeal for abstract justice and romantic politics among the young as Roth’s Swede is by Merry’s Marxist and Jainist turns. True, Millennials aren’t, for the most part, setting off bombs at post offices and police stations.
But they mob their professors, ruthlessly discipline and punish their peers online, and take up all manner of secular substitute religions, from mindfulness to “clean eating” to identity politics. They are hungry for order and solidarity and transcendence. Their parents, who only know how to fight battles of cultural and sexual liberation, are no more capable of nourishing that hunger than the feckless, well-intentioned, all-too-sensible Swede.
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Both sides of the issue.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is “appalled.”
Crowned the “free world’s best hope” in 2017 by Rolling Stone, Trudeau has, since then, cut his foreign policy chops: heavy on gender equality, feminism, environmentalism and relatively light on security and geopolitics. He fancies soft-lens moments when he can tear up on cue, fun parades, dress-up extravaganzas and breezy feel-good stuff, all of which is reflected in his photo-posturing and official statements. His election slogan, when running against PM Harper in the 2015 federal election, was to promote “sunny ways.”
This naïve cheer has yet to resonate in the Middle East and, in particular along the Israel-Gaza border. Since withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel has watched the Dante-esque destruction of what was a robust economy. Under Hamas rule, the Strip has become a theocratic terrorist state. Significant sums of foreign cash donated to develop and support civilian infrastructure are diverted to build terror tunnels, pay terrorist salaries, and produce of all manner of weapons. Incitement to violence against Jews and Israelis is fierce, endemic, and unrestrained. And every so often, a full-blown war breaks out.
Perhaps unaware of the long, complex, tragic backstory, Trudeau blasted Israel in a statement issued on May 16: “Canada deplores and is gravely concerned by the violence in the Gaza Strip that has led to a tragic loss of life and injured countless people.”
He pulls no punches, focusing on one individual who was injured in both legs by Israeli sniper fire at the border: “We are appalled that Dr. Tarek Loubani, a Canadian citizen, is among the wounded–along with so many unarmed people, including civilians, members of the media, first responders, and children.” For a leader who crows about his strong, principle-based support for Israel this is quite the invective. What seems to have stoked his previously dormant ire is the fact that Dr. Loubani was injured by Israeli fire on Monday, May 14, which was a very busy day: the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the state of Israel; the official ceremony opening the American Embassy in Jerusalem; and “Naqba” or “Disaster” Day, commemorated each year by Palestinians.
Each Friday since March, Hamas has staged a “March of Return” at multiple locations along the border fence. Billed as a “peaceful protest,” crowds tend to swell to the tens of thousands following midday prayers, during which Imams fire up the men to annihilate the Zionist occupiers and restore Palestinian and Arab honor.
Hamas recruits protest participants onto buses waiting outside mosques, throwing in financial incentives for attending, hoping to draw women and children as “extras” in this macabre, serial event. Many of the men show up with knives, Molotov cocktails, wire cutters, and other weapons and incendiary devices. A recent innovation is fire kites, which are launched and intended to burn Israeli farmers’ fields, and do. Pyres of car tires are lit, creating a dense, black, toxic screen to provide cover for physical border breaches and confuse Israeli snipers.
These “peaceful” protesters boast openly about their violent intentions, parroting Hamas leaders who, aside from one or two brief cameos well back from the fence, tuck away in their fortified bunkers under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and other safe havens in the Strip.
Hamas leaders have exhorted these “peaceful” protesters to tear down the border fence and then proceed to remove various bodily organs from Israelis they kill and eat them. They tell Gazans, and anyone paying attention, of their intention to foment chaos at the border. Ideally, the smoke and confusion would facilitate a goal they commend openly: the capture of one or more Israeli soldiers, and, if things go particularly well, perhaps a murderous romp in one of the many civilian villages within a few hundred meters of the border.
For those martyred in this jihad to murder Jews and destroy Israel, Hamas assures, there is an exalted place in Paradise.
Now, all this bluster may sound and seem “peaceful” to PM Trudeau, but it is quite the opposite. There have been multiple fence breaches by terrorists armed with more and less crude weapons. It isn’t necessary to have a tank to kill. Knives, meat cleavers and grenades do the trick, as Israelis know well. This is Hamas, for goodness sake. Read their Charter. Follow their “media.” It’s all there. Zero ambiguity. And they mean it.
Why, Trudeau must be asking, does the IDF not resort to less extreme measures? Live ammunition, he has surely been briefed, is a last resort. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Water cannons. Even leaflets, social media announcements and radio broadcasts warning people to stay well back from the border—all have been ineffective. And, for that, there is one reason: Hamas. Trudeau’s rage would more appropriately be directed at Hamas incitement, disregard for civilians and commitment to a hateful, murderous ideology.
And what about the “blockade” of Gaza, attributed solely to Israel? Reality check: Egypt enforces a much stricter blockade on the Strip, allowing almost nothing through. Israel, on the other hand, permits passage of truckloads of goods daily: medical supplies, food, even “dual use” materials like cement, gasoline and tires, which are more often than not taken for civilians and allocated to terrorist infrastructure.
Twice in recent weeks, “peaceful” protestors have torched the border checkpoint in Israel for the transfer of goods. It is destroyed.
The Gaza-Israel border is very hostile. Hamas has, in the last decade or so, dug 32 terror tunnels—complete with AC and internet wiring—with the sole intention of burrowing into Israel to launch murderous terror attacks. Jihad. This is not a nuanced struggle.
On this–all of this–Trudeau is silent.
Which brings us back to Dr. Loubani, the Canadian physician who has had at least one previous brush with misfortune in the region. During the protracted street violence in Egypt in 2013, following the coup in which General Sisi ousted Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, Dr. Loubani was in Cairo with a film professor from Toronto, who was also a strident anti-Israel activist. En route to Gaza to volunteer in a hospital, the travelers took a travel pause in Cairo. One afternoon, as they tell it, they happened, coincidentally, upon a large, violent demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and jailed, among them the two Canadians.
Friends and family of the Canadian duo launched a vigorous public relations campaign to draw attention to their plight and pressure the Canadian government to advocate with Egypt for their release. They went out for a walk, their advocates said, and were enjoying ice cream cones. Before they knew it, were surrounded by mayhem. Once there, they felt compelled to administer first aid to injured protesters.
As they languished in prison, however, the initial version gave way to a more complex story. It seems that Loubani and his friend had sophisticated camera and recording equipment with them. Not necessarily eyebrow-raising for a film professor. More unusual, however, would be that they thought to grab the pro gear when heading out for a jet-lagged stroll to get ice cream. (And then there’s the small matter of military dictatorships tending to be sensitive about having violent rallies photographed.)
However, the really interesting part is what Loubani arranged to have his father share with the media while he was still in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison: that they were also in possession of drones. Why? To ferry medical supplies to and from hospitals in Gaza, of course. That drone twist certainly piques one’s interest. There is only one use for drones in the Gaza Strip, and it is neither peaceful nor in any way related to humanitarian or hospital work.
On Monday, May 14, Naqba Day to Palestinians, Dr. Loubani says that he was standing near the border among a cluster of orange-vested medics during a lull in the chaos. He was wearing green scrubs from the Ontario hospital where he works. After being injured by Israeli sniper fire in both legs, Loubani asserted that he was likely targeted by Israeli snipers. (The IDF advises that it is investigating the incident but has no specific information at the moment.)
In light of this backdrop, Trudeau continued to blast Israel: “Reported use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable. It is imperative we establish the facts of what is happening in Gaza. Canada calls for an immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground—including any incitement violence and the excessive use of force.”
What we do know is that 50 of the 62 individuals killed that day at the border clash by Israeli sniper were Hamas operatives. We also know that Hamas regularly uses UNRWA schools, hospitals, and clearly marked ambulances to ferry fighters and weapons around the Strip. This is supported by documentary evidence collected over the years. Trudeau’s fury would be more appropriately directed at Hamas for its unconscionable leadership, encouraging extreme terrorist violence, and ongoing incitement against Jews and Israel. Hamas is, after all, listed as a terror organization in Canada and elsewhere for good reason.
The backlash to Trudeau’s statement was strong and quick. He seems, perhaps unwittingly, to have stumbled onto a hornet’s nest and turned to two Jewish MPs to clean up his mess—Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather, representing electoral ridings in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, with large Jewish populations. They issued a peculiar statement. While not directly critical of the prime minister, they unequivocally condemned and held Hamas responsible for the deaths and injuries at border clashes.
It seems that Trudeau tapped two rookie Liberal MPs, of a total of 184 in his caucus, to be the fig leaves for what seems to be a rather bifurcated and confusing policy on Israel. Some observers speculate that Trudeau hopes to use this clumsy doublespeak to allow him to be “correct,” depending on where and how the chips fall. By dereliction, the prime minister has signaled that the Israel-Gaza issue is a “Jewish” one, as opposed to one of the most important geopolitical crises in the world. Hamas, like Hizballah, Syria, the Houthis, is yet another Iranian proxy. It is disturbing that two Jewish MPs, representing “Jewish” ridings, are the only ones in the Trudeau government speaking out in support of Israel.
On social media, Mr. Housefather, in particular, refers to Canada’s consistent pattern of supporting Israel in UN votes as clear evidence of the prime minister’s true support. Whereas UN votes are important, surely, so are Trudeau’s public comments explaining his support for Israel. He tends to express himself in a sweeping, imprecise manner, oft-repeating distaste for the obsessive bullying of Israel in international forums. All of which is laudable. And he likes to say things about what good friends Canada and Israel are, but that even good friends can, sometimes, disagree.
Indeed, and those are likely the lines he trotted out when he spoke on the telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu one day after his written thrashing of Israel following the Loubani incident. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the exchange, but Trudeau issued a short readout on the call, reporting that he had expressed “thanks for the consular assistance Israel is providing . . . reaffirmed Canada’s call for a neutral process to ascertain how the actions of all the parties concerned . . . contributed to the events of May 14, including the reported incitement by Hamas . . .” And that they “agreed on the importance of addressing the economic crisis in Gaza and jointly affirmed the close and abiding friendship between Canada and Israel.”
In other words, PM Trudeau did nothing to walk back his perfervid criticism of Israel other than to acknowledge, as a possibility, “reported incitement by Hamas.” As if there is any doubt. What Prime Minister Trudeau does not say, in this case, is far more important than what he does.
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When Washington works.
It’s understandable that cynicism has become the default approach for average Americans navigating the political environment. Interpreting events as the product of a raw power contest rather than a clash between competing principles is not only simpler but often correct. Occasionally, though, a purely cynical understanding of how politicians conduct themselves can lead observers astray. Sneering pessimism alone would not have led anyone to conclude that bipartisanship would be breaking out in Washington in an election year. But, to a degree, it is.
In March, two-thirds of the U.S. Senate voted to repeal aspects of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill passed in the wake of the mortgage market’s collapse and the ensuing economic downturn. That bipartisan sentiment did not abate when the bill reached the House yesterday, where 258 members—hardly a party-line vote—approved the regulatory rollback measure. Predictably, progressive politicians allege that the vote was the culmination of a treacherous scheme hatched in backrooms between nefarious politicians and mustache-twirling special interests.
“Big banks have spent millions of dollars trying to roll back the rules we put in place after we bailed them out ten years ago,” Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote. “Today, they got what they paid for.” Rep. Keith Ellison called the vote indicative of America’s “full-on lurching towards plutocracy.” For Rep. Yvette Clarke, the rollback of Dodd-Frank regulations will facilitate “discrimination against African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups.” For Bernie Sanders, to whom everything looks like a nail, this was another indication that it was time to “break up the largest financial institutions.”
It is hard to square these hyperbolic reactions with the effects of this soon-to-be law. The bill reduces the number of large banks subject to onerous regulations imposed on them in 2010 and unburdens smaller banks with less than $250 billion in assets from complying with Dodd-Frank regulations. Progressive regulators have lamented the move as one designed only to improve the lots of America’s richest financiers, but this is a political message divorced from reality.
Critics of Dodd-Frank always noted that the risk to the foundations of the economy were not banks with relatively small assets but major institutions like JP Morgan Chase or Bank of America, which have well over $1 trillion in assets. It was the smaller community banks with $50 billion in assets and less that make up the vast majority of American financial institutions and once accounted for most small business loans. The balance has recently shifted in favor of big banks, though, as the regulatory environment has made it harder for smaller institutions to compete. Those institutions are the most burdened by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s compliance costs, reporting requirements, and lending restrictions.
“Dodd-Frank costs the banking system a staggering 83 million man-hours and $39 billion in compliance costs over its lifetime,” historian and COMMENTARY contributor John Steele Gordon wrote recently. Ironically, the only institutions that could easily absorb the costs of regulations favored by progressives like Warren are the institutions that were once deemed “too big to fail.” As Gordon noted, the effect of Dodd-Frank was to direct more assets into fewer hands and make the financial institutions the reformers said were already too big bigger still.
This victory for common sense didn’t just happen overnight. The bipartisan consensus around the notion that Dodd-Frank was a well-intentioned debacle was forged over the span of years. Conservatives have been making their case against the stifling regulatory mechanisms in Dodd-Frank for nearly a decade. They campaigned on the issue and pursued incremental legislative strategies designed to address the problems they enumerated. What’s more, all of this occurred in the plain sight. Progressives who write the rollback of their achievement off as the flowering of some kind of conspiracy are doing their supporters no favors. That is paranoia, not politics.
It’s not just conservatives who are celebrating a hard-won victory today. Yesterday, the GOP-dominated House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill aimed at improving the conditions in prison by a staggering 360 to 59 votes. The bill directs the Bureau of Prisons to increase access to and incentives to engage in inmate programs like education and vocational training, which reduce recidivism rates. If passed, the bill would also prohibit shackling pregnant inmates, provision feminine hygiene products, and limit the distance prisoners can be incarcerated to a maximum of 500 miles from their residences. The bill may not survive in the Senate as it is, but not because it goes too far. Rather, it doesn’t go far enough. Senate Judiciary Chairman and Republican Chuck Grassley told reporters that prison reform could not survive as is unless it includes broader sentencing reform.
Given Donald Trump’s tough-on-crime persona during the campaign and his choice for attorney general, few might have predicted at the start of the president’s term that Republicans would be charging ahead with a prison reform bill with Trump’s consent. Prison reform organizations are suspicious of the measure because it is not a comprehensive solution to the matter of over-incarceration, and the bill’s carve-outs for certain prisoners including immigrants raise civil libertarian eyebrows. But the bipartisan consensus about the necessity of criminal justice reform is bearing fruit, and those seeds were planted years ago by libertarian and progressive reformers. That consensus is also the product of years of labor by activists who refused to make the perfect the enemy of the good and who never scoffed at politics as the naïve preoccupation of the unenlightened.
The liberal and conservative activists who wallow hopelessly in the perception that the political process is irreparably broken should rejoice. Bipartisanship is not dead. Compromise is not impossible. These phenomena aren’t simply willed into existence on a whim; they take years and hard work to make manifest. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.